Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

Over the years I’ve repeatedly encountered the suggestion that music should be taught in much the same way as we have tended to assume language is acquired.

Advocates of this theory point out that:

  • Firstly as babies we hear words;
  • Soon we start to mimic them;
  • In time, we learn to speak fluently;
  • Later (perhaps several years later), we are taught to read;
  • And then to write.

I’m not a linguistics expert, but I suspect that this linear sequence is somewhat over-simplistic. In any case, it is adapted by some to propose this music education equivalent:

Hear  →  Sing  →  Play  →  Read  →  Write

It has long seemed to me that finding any direct or useful equivalent between musical learning and theories of language acquisition is more difficult than some suggest. And like many experienced teachers, I have observed that those taught according to this notion don’t always develop into good music readers.

In this short article I will flirt with the complexities here by asking three important questions:

  1. How do music and language seem to behave differently?
  2. How does informal learning prepare us for formal tuition?
  3. Does learning always follow the same one-way sequence?

As with the initial proposition, direct answers to such questions are elusive; perhaps it is sufficient to simply acknowledge their existence. But let’s take a brief trip to this hinterland together…

How do music and language seem to behave differently?

It seems to me that the most obvious difference between musical learning and language assimilation is that words have concrete meanings, making up sentences which convey definite information, detailed description and coherent facts and ideas.

We can look words up in a dictionary. We show a child an object, give it a name, and the child develops associations between the word and the object. Sure, words can sometimes have more than one meaning, and be strung together in sentences that are ambiguous at best. But ultimately, words have concrete meaning.

The same manifestly cannot be said of music. In fact, the opposite seems to me to be closer to the truth. Musical notes, phrases and gestures typically have absolutely no definable meaning at all. They are combined to create artistic and performance experiences in which meaning and association are more abstract, ambiguous, and generally left for the listener to determine.

Only when combined with additional stimuli or forms of communication (for example stories, lyrics, pictures or film) does the intended “meaning” of music come to be less ambiguous.

Language and Music can both thus be vehicles for poetry, narrative, reflection and emotion, but they arrive from opposite ends of the spectrum, the former based on defined meaning, the latter relying at best on more abstract associations.

As Hans Christian Andersen so eloquently and famously put it:

“Where words fail, music speaks!”

With so significant a difference between how music and verbal language behave, can we safely speculate that they are learnt in the same way?

How does informal learning prepare us for formal tuition?

Language acquisition is of course a process which is initially developed informally within the domestic environment for years before formal schooling begins.

Subsequently, formal education (in most countries commencing around the age 5-6 years old) is associated with organised lessons, intentional learning, a structured curriculum, and measurable outcomes.

The introduction of reading and writing, when it happens, can have a profound impact on the continuing acquisition of language.

No longer is a child’s vocabulary limited to the words they hear, mimic or learn in their immediate environment. New words are discovered, assimilated and learnt directly from reading.

As literacy develops so the range, depth and complexity of ideas assimilated and expressed grows, opening up the opportunity to explore a world of knowledge and learning beyond one’s initial social sphere.

Given that the transition from informal language acquisition to formal schooling is an “event”, generally including some form of baseline assessment, at what stage is formal piano tuition appropriate, and what useful parallels can be drawn in terms of ascertaining a child’s readiness?

Recent research suggests that musical development begins prenatally, and there are certainly great ways to encourage musical learning from infancy, both informal and more structured, before formal tuition begins.

In offering formal piano tuition, one of our initial tasks is to assess prior learning, whether informal or more formal. We might need to consider, for example, whether a child wanting to start formal piano lessons has:

  • developed necessary motor skills, coordination, and physical growth
  • acquired sufficient language/communication ability
  • begun to develop literacy (e.g. knowing the alphabet)
  • started to develop basic numeracy (e.g. simple counting)
  • developed sufficient concentration for formal tuition
  • experienced live and/or recorded music
  • sung in the home, or any other contexts
  • explored rhythm (musical movement, clapping, drumming, etc)
  • shown curiosity and enthusiasm when encountering music.

I regularly steer parents with younger children toward less formal learning activities, rather than agreeing to start the child’s formal piano tuition before they are likely to be ready.

Does leaning always follow the same one-way sequence?

Linguistics experts continue to make exciting discoveries which take us far from the simplistic model which influenced the music educators of the mid-twentieth century.

For example, a 2012 study into the effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children came to the fascinating conclusion that:

Handwriting may facilitate reading acquisition in young children.”

If we apply this to music education, perhaps learning to write notation by hand can strengthen the learning of music reading and even note recognition, a point I unpacked in more detail in this article.

This rather upturns any notion of a simplistic one-way learning sequence, pointing instead to the benefits that can be derived from a more fluid, holistic approach.

The 2012 study particularly suggests language acquisition can be enhanced by kinaesthetic movement and shape creation.

The benefits of movement in music education have long been championed by practitioners of the Dalcroze method, but are easily forgotten if we stick too rigidly to a literacy model which sidesteps notions of physical movement and visual imagination.

The early stages of formal musical learning can thus be greatly enhanced by a multi-sensory approach which combines aural, visual and kinaesthetic elements and which likewise incorporates notation.


The idea of sequentially teaching children to hear, sing, play, read, then write offered a radical alternative to the somewhat dry, bookish approach that was sometimes found in mid-twentieth century instrumental teaching, in particular bringing attention back to the central importance of aural development and teaching music “Sound before Symbol”.

There can be no denying the powerful benefits and energy that the theory, and those who promoted it, brought to music education in the last century.

These days, however, we are perhaps more aware of the analogy’s drawbacks; as our understanding of language acquisition, musical development and holistic multi-sensory learning grows, we need a more nuanced, contemporary view.

There certainly seems little room here for dogma; nor for clinging to a view that the educators of yesteryear had all the right, or even the best answers.

It is incumbent on every generation of teachers to reflect on past practice, current research and emerging methodology, ensuring that we deliver music education which is appropriate to our own times, culture and understanding.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

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

9 thoughts on “Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?”

  1. Hi Andrew – not sure how familiar you are with the educational theories of Rudolph Steiner, but in schools that follow his philosophies, writing PRECEDES reading in the learning continuum.

    The theory goes like this: humans had to develop the ability to represent language BEFORE they had to develop the ability to read those representations. So, in Steiner and Waldorf schools, children learn to represent language prior to be encouraged to learn to read those representations…

    1. Thanks Elissa – fascinating stuff, and certainly seems to fit with latest scientific findings too. Many thanks for sharing that info! A

    2. Thank you Andrew for all your excellent articles! Commenting here, I would like to say that I have taught in a Steiner school teacher for many years and yes, I totally agree with Elissa Milne, that in a Steiner school, writing precedes reading. Writing in a Steiner school arises out of drawing letters, initially and essentially, from activities with straight lines, circles and curves. Familiarity and therefore visual recognition of essential shapes and forms develops. Next, the letters of the alphabet are gradually all built from these structures, following lots of work with the sounds they represent. I am currently creating a music literacy curriculum based upon a similar progression. It is essential for students to hear musical sounds before they have to learn our abstract system of symbols. A preparatory stage however, after graphic scores etc, of becoming familiar with the many varieties of lines and shapes within the coding of notation and a little bit of history of the system too and before associating the musical sound, the reading, the remembering, the audiating and simultaneously playing it back (too much multi tasking and we now know that overwhelms the brain) can be very effective in gradually building cognitive hierarchies upon which to base further knowledge.

  2. Thanks for the undoubtedly extremely important and relevant article!I think that in this connection it is good to get acquainted with the experiments and observations of Dr. Charles Limb using an MRI with respect to the process of improvisation and the performance of a musical text. He specifically proved the existence of a link between improvisation and spoken language as a means of communication with others and himself. At the same time, he stressed the lack of semantic influence of the spoken language, and at the same time a strong syntactic connection.
    In addition, it requires a broad look at the traditions of musical education in the African and Indian region, which go back thousands of years.

  3. Thank you for this most interesting article. Certainly much food for thought.

    In particular your point about words and concrete meaning is a fascinating one. The word “teddy” is merely a label alongside a means of identification. However what teddy does and how he behaves is an extension of the child’s imagination, often through play, and certainly as a way in which that child’s self develops. In that sense it is only the label itself which has a concrete meaning.

    With that in mind I very much agree with Nachum Pereferkovich about how we might best go about teaching this musical language. Improvisation lies at the heart of creativity, and creativity is at the centre of intrinsic motivation. It certainly seems that we have a long way to go before finding an ideal method, but we have at least started!

      1. Thank you, Andrew.

        It struck me that the All Cows Eat Grass method (if I can summarize it that way) is just so unhelpful, not to mention adding unnecessary complication to the process. Curiously enough that is exactly the way I learnt as a child. However I vividly remember also playing around, pretending to perform pieces I could not play and essentially learning to sight read by experimentation.

        So yes, a very interesting discuaaion to be had.

        1. My experience is similar – I was taught with mnemonics, but spent most of my practice time improvising/composing.
          A lot of adult “beginners” who come to me remember the mnemonics from their school days, and it’s interesting that they very quickly pick up reading using them, regardless of the new anti-mnemonics orthodoxy.
          With my own students who want to use them, I suggest ONLY using the space ones – FACE and All Cows… so as not to get in a tangle muddling different rhymes. Some seem to learn easily that way, but in general I prefer students to use landmark notes, intervals, etc.
          A discussion to enjoy over a pint one day perhaps?

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