If you’re watching this video, then you are automatically a learner of music… and so am I! Even as a professional musician, I’m constantly learning new things about music, and taking multiple lessons from various teachers every single week.
Now, is learning music as simple as signing up for guitar class, showing up to class, doing your practice homework, and waiting for results to appear?
There’s so much to consider when it comes to choosing the right path to learning music. We’re going to discuss the various settings in which we can learn music - I want you to let me know in the comments which of the 3 music learning settings you fall into!
Institutional: You are learning music in an institution - music school, conservatory, university etc
Private: You are learning music from a private teacher - one on one lessons, small group lessons with a single teacher
Organic: You are learning music on your own - jamming with friends, listening and emulating, experimenting on your own
Is There an Ideal Learning Setting?
Now you might immediately think, it’s best to learn in an institution! What with an entire curriculum planned, an array of teachers to learn from, and a range of facilities to maximise your musical growth.
If that were true, how do we explain the vast numbers of excellent musicians who never attended music school?
Or to take it further, how is it that certain musical cultures have no such form of institutionalised learning, yet boast large numbers of masterful musicians? Such cultures include Andean flute music and Mongolian throat singing.
What this points at is that there are pros and cons to each learning setting. It also suggests that each musical style might be better suited to one particular learning setting.
When you enrol into a music school, conservatory, or university, you are placing yourself in a very structured and atomised learning environment. Atomistic learning, as opposed to holistic learning, means that the music is broken down into individual components and taught separately first, and later fitted together to create the musical whole.
Think of attending a class on the use of a specific chord, say the dominant 7th chord. Thereafter you would receive assignments to use this chord, perhaps compose a piece of music around it, and perform it with your classmates.
You would then repeat the process for the next topic, say melodic minor scales, or songwriting practices.
While this is great for a very progressive approach to learning, the disjointed manner in which topics are taught can sometimes be a hindrance to your comprehension of the musical whole. It takes extra effort to join the dots together!
Institutionalised learning is very prevalent in Western classical music, as well as other western popular styles such as jazz and pop music. For genres such as rock, you don’t find rock music institutions very often, and the many iconic rock artists never even stepped foot into a music university.
Perhaps the most prevalent and accessible form of learning is through a private teacher. Should you decide to learn directly from one teacher, you are essentially entrusting your musical growth into his or her hands - and therefore you need to be very selective in who you learn from.
Because even the best intentioned teacher will be limited by what he or she knows - you can’t teach something you don’t know, and nobody knows everything. Hence you will be picking up your teacher’s stylistic musical traits, preferences, repertory, and knowledge base.
And this could be a beautiful thing! If you love the music your teacher makes, you’re on a great path to learning the inside-outs of that music-making process. You shouldn’t aim to be a carbon copy of your teacher, but to learn their best practices and adapt them to your own personal style. While this is my personal favourite method of learning, and I’m learning many musics in this manner, it also has its risks.
Obviously, along with the great aspects of your teacher’s music making process, you’re also at risk of taking on his or her shortcomings - and even the greatest masters have shortcomings.
If you are in a private learning setting, you need to be keenly alert of this and decide if you want to blindly follow what your teacher tells you, or be willing to respectfully question your teacher with the intention of constructively improving the musical teaching and learning experience.
You may find yourself not inside any music school, and not learning from any private teacher - and that could be perfectly fine! There are many amazing self-taught musicians out there, and you could be one of them.
However, this organic learning setting is also the most self-initiated and risky. If you don’t have the intrinsic motivation to seek out knowledge for yourself, you can be sure that you won’t get very far as a self-taught musician.
It’s also the most genre specific - certain genres simply cannot be learnt effectively in this manner. Many classical music traditions, such as Western classical music and Indian classical music, require extremely nuanced and specific skillsets. To attempt to pick up these skills from simply watching and imitating would be very challenging, and it would be nearly impossible to become an established classical musician in this way.
On the other hand, genres such as rock, blues, and many folk music traditions can be learnt in an organic, self-taught manner. These musics were originally developed without teachers and institutions, and many still remain this way. This does not mean that the music is aesthetically inferior, but that the organic development of the style has made it more accessible to self-initiated learning.
So Which Learning Setting is the Best?
Well, it depends on many factors:
Are you an intrinsically motivated learner? If yes, you’d be able to learn on your own if you so desire!
What style of music do you want to learn? If it’s Western classical music, you’d most likely want to enrol in an institution, or at least study under a reliable private teacher.
Do you want to follow after a specific style within a particular musical tradition? For example, percussive fingerstyle guitar - then you’d best find a specific teacher who specialises in that style!
Remember, the main responsibility in your music learning journey is YOU, not your teacher!
Share in the comments which learning setting you are in, and which one would be the ideal for where you are right now in your learning journey!
And until next time, I’ll see you again. Goodbye!
By Neil Chan