“Sound before symbol”: lessons from history

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

Musicians and teachers often debate the relative merits of aural-based learning versus a notation-driven approach. Seeing the topic wheeled out for discussion again recently, I was reminded of this brilliant quote by the legendary concert pianist Andor Földes, taken from his book “Keys to the Keyboard” written back in 1950 :

“There is no such thing as a proper age for a child to start playing the piano. I avoid saying ‘to start his musical education’ because I believe that an education in music should start very early, perhaps years before the child ever actually learns how to read notes, or can find his way among the black and white keys.”

Földes’ basic point, made some four decades before George Odam’s seminal book The Sounding Symbol re-popularised the phrase “sound before symbol”, is that music is essentially an aural language, and that playing and reading must build on that foundation.

“Sound Before Symbol”

The first important thing to emphasise about teaching “sound before symbol” is that the aim is not to reduce the use of notation, but to musically empower it. So how does this work?

In a nutshell “sound before symbol” encourages teachers to ensure that when introducing notation, as with any other aural/written language, the student can “hear in their head” the music they see on the page, in just the same way as you can understand the words of this article without necessarily saying them aloud. Music notation is thus not introduced as abstract symbols or physical instructions, but as a visual representation of perceived musical sound.

This is in contrast to the rather dry method of teaching pupils to approach music intellectually by decoding the notation first, only discovering how it sounds once they have sight-read and “tried it out”.

Trying to play musically using the notation as your only guide is rather like trying to speak a language that you have learnt to read, but without any understanding of the correct pronunciation.

As well as learning basic musical language, the pianist must be introduced to expressive elements such as tone production, phrasing, balance, rubato, rhythmic flow, voicing, emphasis, and so on. None of these are fully indicated in the score, so all players need to develop their sensitivity to aural transmission rather than relying simply on written instructions. The player must, in short, be able to “hear” the sound they are aiming for, and it is never developmentally too early to start working towards this goal.

The basic concept of “sound before symbol” is a simple one, and goes back a long way. It is mentioned in G.F. Kuebler’s “Anleitung zum Gesang-Unterrichte in Schulen” (Stuttgart, 1826), subsequently translated into English by Lowell Mason and published as “The Manual of the Boston Academy of Music” in 1834.

Mason explained:

“Before attempting to give children regular instruction in the elements of music, they must be taught to sing easy tunes by rote, or by imitation.”

Neither Kuebler nor Lowell claimed this concept was novel; they were simply passing on an established approach to music teaching. And while George Odam and others may have approached “sound before symbol” on the basis of contemporary research rather than historical precedent, the reality is that the core principals of aural transmission were the basis of music education from the earliest of times.

Learning Music Musically

Music is sound, not writing on a page. The symbols used to represent it are just that – symbols. A musical approach to teaching will (and always has) started with the sound itself.

Let’s look at historical examples which demonstrate this principal in practice.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was playing the keyboard by the age of three, and improvising and composing by the age of five. At the age of six however, he still depended on his father Leopold to notate his pieces for him. One of the foremost musicians of his generation, Leopold was able to offer his son the best musical education, so it is instructive to note that he encouraged him to develop his musical ability, while only teaching reading and writing at an appropriate stage in that onward development.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) similarly came from a musical family, and was taught to play informally at home until the age of seven. At that point he started formal piano lessons, and at the age of ten he finally started to be taught music theory. He followed a classic progression from exploring sound and playing informally to taking formal lessons and learning to read, and finally learning structured academic knowledge.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) – by all accounts a superb sight-reader – became a celebrity teacher who assumed his advanced students could read the notation fluently. His high level teaching centred around aural transmission through his demonstration of the essence of music in a way that the notation can only hint at. This provided a model that influenced many subsequent teachers, underlining how aural transmission of musical ideas is of crucial importance even for the most advanced players.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945), according to recollections written by his mother Paula, started to show musical aptitude at the age of 18 months. By the age of 3 he was drumming in time to her playing, and by 4 he was already playing the piano by ear. Formal tuition, once again, came later. Based on this foundation of aural learning – “sound before symbol” – young Béla had made extraordinary progress by the age of 11, as we read in Kenneth Chalmers’ excellent biography:

“Back in Nagyszöllös Bartók appeared in public for the first time at a charity concert on 1 May 1892; he played the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata and then, as the local paper reported, ‘the young genius presented a piece of his own composition, ‘The Course of the Danube’, which also won much applause’.”

This aural approach was continued by many of the great teachers who followed, including Bartók himself, who taught with little recourse to the spoken word and primarily through musical communication and impartation.

Recalling his lessons with Bartók, concert pianist György Sándor wrote:

“Bartók was a man of few words, so that we communicated chiefly by musical means. I would normally begin my lesson by playing him something. Bartók virtually never commented on my playing or made any attempt to analyse it. Instead he would always respond with a polite and restrained ‘Good, good, Mr. Sándor”, whereupon he would sit down at the piano himself and play me his own, completely different interpretation.”

We could pick out almost any of the great composers or legendary performers and trace similar developmental trends – listening to music, singing and playing by ear from an early age, before going on to formal learning and music reading later on. And just as “sound before symbol” was their foundation in childhood, so too for the student virtuosi the emphasis was on continued learning by aural transmission rather than simply through theoretical analysis and exposition.

Why, then, was this way of teaching diluted? How did piano teaching come to be more book-driven, and why was it that informed educationalists have, repeatedly, had to implore music teachers to get back to the basics and teach “sound before symbol”?

The Shift in Emphasis

There were no doubt many factors that pulled teachers towards a more notation-driven approach as the 19th century progressed. By the middle of the century, the pianoforte was a standard household item, and new sheet music books were often a publishing sensation. As this craze for music in the home grew, where were the experienced teachers to meet the demand for a sound music education?

Education was in general becoming increasingly professionalised and monitored, with better access to free public schooling more widely available. Music education was swept along by this tide; the great Conservatoires were founded, professional qualifications were created, and formal “graded exam” assessments were a fast growing business by the end of the century.

These cultural and economic factors contributed to a shift in educational priorities, not least because:

  1. The issue of supply unable to keep up with demand left many players learning with teachers who had not adequately trained, and who did not prioritise “sound before symbol”.
  2. Objective formal assessment of performance needed to be judged in terms of its accurate realisation of a score, fostering a more notation-led focus from the start, and
  3. Examination boards realised that giving music theory a pivotal role in their assessment schemes would be lucrative and comparatively easy to assess.

Sounding a note of caution, Mrs. J. Spencer Curwen wrote in her “Teacher’s Guide to Mrs. Curwen’s Pianoforte Method” (1913 edition) this reminder of the importance of introducing “sound before symbol” :

“One of the fundamental mistakes in pianoforte teaching has been that only one sense was appealed to, and that the wrong one. Music reaches heart and brain through the ear, yet we have usually tried to teach it through the eye. It was always “look” and never “listen”. Children were introduced to notation before they had consciously observed any of the musical phenomena which the notation symbolises. They should learn those facts of pitch and time through listening, comparing, judging, naming, and then use notation as a means of expression.”

“A pupil so taught is not a slave to notation but its master.”

Throughout the early 20th century, a new generation of educationalists were hard at work developing improved music education and promoting best practice. These included Carl Orff, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, Shinichi Suzuki and Zoltán Kodály, each making a seminal contribution to our understanding, and in all cases upholding and expanding on the well established tradition of teaching “sound before symbol”.

Sadly, in spite of these brilliant initiatives, changing priorities in education left many unable to support early years music projects, and by the end of the century schools music teaching had significantly declined in many parts of the world.

At the same time, instrumental music further struggled under the weight of expectations generated by notation-based exam assessments, the increasing literalism of commercial recordings, and a desire not to offend competition juries.

Many indeed became “slaves to the notation”, and music lovers began to look back with nostalgia to a so-called “golden age” before this had become so – an age of aural transmission, creativity, spontaneity, musical personality and gorgeous sound.

As the iconic concert pianist Maria João Pires noted in an interview for International Piano, 23, Jan 2014 :

“I think our mission is to transmit what has been transmitted to us. Because there have been cuts in that transmission – marketing and that kind of stuff – so they have received less from the older generation, less information which is not possible to give unless it is personal. This competitive world, this marketing world has destroyed a lot of that transmission.”

How Popular Musicians Learn

Before wrapping up this survey it is important to note that “sound before symbol” is not simply the most effective and natural way that classical musicians have been taught over the centuries – it is also the basic way that folk, popular and jazz music have been taught and passed from one generation of musicians to the next.

As Dr. Lucy Green of the London University Institute of Education writes in her highly influential book “How Popular Musicians Learn” (London, 2002):

“Although notation in one form or another plays a role in learning for many popular musicians in the early stages, it is always heavily mixed in with aural practices, and used as a supplement rather than a major learning resource.” (p.38)

“The result of an overload on notation and theory divorced from listening and practical application is the likelihood that learners will end up knowing how to name notes on the stave or on an instrument, or knowing the names of musical procedures or elements, but not knowing what to do with them independently of any written or verbal instructions. At worst, pupils will learn very little that is meaningful or useful to them, or they will learn nothing at all.” (p.206)

In 2014 the ABRSM conducted a major survey into musical learning in the UK, published as “Making Music 2014“. Among their findings was the revelation that for the first time since they started their regular research the Electronic Keyboard has overtaken the Piano as the most played instrument by children in the UK. The top ten most popular instruments include Drum Kit and Electric Guitar (both now more popular than the violin), as well as the Bass Guitar.

We should surely ask why these instruments have become so popular. Of course youth culture, peer pressure, image and so forth have exerted a real influence here, but could it also be that teachers of those instruments tend to be more flexible in their approach, more willing to go “off the page”, leading to more effective and lasting learning?

Could it simply be that young people are learning to play music in a language that they have already internalised, “sound before symbol”?

In his book “Teaching Music Musically”, Professor Keith Swanwick quotes M. Ross’s comments from the British Journal of Music Education (1995) :

“Many teenagers elect to teach themselves to play a musical instrument – the drums perhaps, or the guitar. What do they do? They usually know already the kind of sound they are interested in. They insist on the right equipment. They listen to their mentors and try to emulate them, running into problems of sound production and control, but figuring their own way through them, comparing notes with fellow practitioners, following the example of preferred models.”


When George Odam wrote “The Sounding Symbol”, too many teachers were ignoring the traditions of classical music education rooted in aural transmission, instead relying increasingly on a pedagogy that was dry, dull, and bookish. It falls to us to heed these lessons from our shared history as musicians and educators, and build on our heritage.

Specific methods and systems developed by particular pioneers in education may of course have had a special resonance within their own musical and education culture and time, but the broader principal of “sound before symbol” is universal, and has always been the foundation of effective musical learning.

Here in the UK and elsewhere there are encouraging signs of a renewed commitment to providing wider opportunities for musical learning in schools, and a growing number of training opportunities so that instrumental teachers can develop their understanding of the importance of teaching “sound before symbol”. Combined with the growth of interest in popular music education, and the many exciting opportunities offered by the internet, we can certainly face the future with confidence and enthusiasm.

Going “off the page” is not as scary as some teachers might think. Demonstration – “modelling the sound” –  should surely be one of the most prominent and significant features of all instrumental teaching, and at every level of ability.

If we commit to an approach that is fundamentally based in aural transmission and musicality, while equally still insisting on the importance of fluent notation reading, then we will indeed preserve and build upon the great traditions of classical music education.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.