How To Completely Change Your Music Theory Lessons

By Andrew Ingkavet.

Did you ever ask a non-musician friend if they had ever taken music lessons?

Many times, I have heard responses like: “Yes, but I didn’t like it.” Or: “It was so hard.” “My teacher was mean.” “I just wanted to play a song and it was so boring.”

For hundreds of years, music teachers would force students to use complicated symbols before making a sound on their instrument.

Those who didn’t understand felt like a failure, or that they just weren’t cut out for this music thing. It’s tragic, and I hear it from the parents of my students all the time. They blame themselves: “I just didn’t get it. I wish I had stuck with it.”

In reality, it’s a problem called the ‘Curse of Knowledge’.

The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.

This term was coined in 1975 by economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber — but is incredibly valuable to any teacher.

These old-fashioned music teachers were blinded by their own knowledge. They could not see that what they considered to be 10 steps from beginner to playing a song, was really 1,000 steps.

It was a teacher-centric model. Figure out how to read my language and then I can show you how to make music.

“When we are given knowledge, it is impossible to imagine what it’s like to LACK that knowledge.” — Chip Heath from Made To Stick, Why Some Ideas Survive And Others Die.

Try to put yourself in your student’s shoes

What do they know already? How can you bridge the gap from not knowing to knowing?

Turn the pedagogy upside down from teacher-centric to student-centric.

In my curriculum, the Musicolor Method, we do just that.

We approach all learning from the point of view of a four-year-old. What does a four-year old know? They can count to ten. They can recognize the letters of the alphabet. They can identify the colors of the rainbow. They may be able to write their name.

But still, there are many abstract ideas when it comes to music. Just the letter names to identify the notes A, B, C, etc are an abstraction. How best to communicate this knowledge?

Being a parent made me a better teacher

When my son was a toddler, he experienced severe separation anxiety. It forced me to spend a whole two years sitting in his preschool classroom. And, at first, I was frustrated and angry. But as I spent time with the wonderful teachers and children, I began to notice how they managed the classroom, redirected their focus, and rewarded the behaviors they wanted and discouraged the behaviors they didn’t.

Concrete toys

One thing you’ll notice in every preschool classroom is the number of physical toys. The colorful building blocks, letter train, puzzles, shape sorters, etc. All of these physical and concrete toys were created to give toddlers a way to understand abstract concepts.

When I was a boy, my Dad taught me about the planets in the solar system in a similar way. We were sitting at our kitchen table. He grabbed a grapefruit and said, “This is the Sun.” And then he grabbed an apple. “This is the Earth. It’s actually much smaller than the sun, but imagine this being the Earth.” And then he picked up a plum. “This is the moon. The moon goes around the Earth while both go around the Sun.” He placed the Sun on the table and moved the plum around the apple while circling around the grapefruit.

It was visual and concrete and I understood what orbits were immediately.

Teaching music with physical tools

As my teaching practice grew to include more and more preschoolers, I began to introduce my own invented tools. The kids loved them. After all, I framed it as a “game.” Who doesn’t love a game?

Teaching the music alphabet

I made letter cards with the music alphabet from A to G. We shuffled them and they would organize them into a proper order on the floor. And then backwards! We would map each letter to the instrument. Later, we would try to think in skips instead of steps.

Teaching pitch

I began using the Curwen hand signs to physicalize the pitches of solfege. I created a poster showing the hand signs demonstrated by my students and then a deck of cards. The first time I show them these cards, we work on getting the hand signs and syllables in the proper order. Later, we use it as a composing tool. The kids love it!

I also use a printed staff on which we place magnets or even pennies to represent high, low or medium pitch.

Teaching rhythm

For rhythm, I use a stick notation to focus only on the rhythmic portion of music reading. The stick is the notes without the notehead. I adapted Michiko Yurko’s ideas from her book Music Mind Games to come up with a similar vocabulary of fun words to describe these rhythms.

In other methods, two eighth notes would be described and counted as “one- and” or “ti — ti” and other variations. In my studio, we call this “mango” — this is a much more concrete image and a delicious one too!

We also use finger signs to match with the symbols thereby creating another kinesthetic feeling or shape that is associated with it.

These stick notations can be easily drawn on a whiteboard or paper, but using a deck of cards, it’s even more fun.

Here’s a video of Govind and Ella working on learning stick notation.

One of the best teaching songs in the last 10 years came from the movie Pitch Perfect. It’s the old folk song “When I’m Gone” by the Carter family reinvented later with a cool rhythm trick using a plastic Solo cup. The actress Anna Kendrick actually learned it from YouTube and used it for her audition for the film.

As an exercise and game, we would try to figure out the proper stick notation for this intro played on a cup.

Here’s a video of my student’s performing this at our Holiday Music Salon.

In conclusion

By recognizing we have the “Curse of Knowledge”, we can adjust our lesson plans to our audience. Then, using physical tools, we can effectively transfer the knowledge at a deeper, richer level and “make sticky” the abstract concepts of music theory.

Physical resources

If you would like to purchase the materials I use, you can do so here.

Andrew Ingkavet is an educator, author, and entrepreneur. He is creator of the Musicolor Method, a student-centric music curriculum and lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, son and a cat named Felix.


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