Homeschooling Music — Speaking Music as a First Language

Homeschooling Music

How traditional music lessons may hamper a child’s ability to “speak music” as a first language. Here are some alternatives.

K. Titchenell

While any computer can play notes, only a human can realize that numinous creative flow, that God-inspired energy. Children can so often do this in ways that their elders cannot. Just as children can learn a foreign language as a native while adults, reading texts and studying grammar, often fail to do so even after many years of study, children can learn also to speak music as a first language with ease. In both cases it is a grave mistake to wait until they can read or to force them to do so.

The delight of pushing the key and hearing the note has always enticed children to the keyboard. Time spent with parents and siblings playing “find the note” or “follow the leader” on the keyboard can be a wonderful learning experience and often reveals innate intuitive musical understanding in a toddler. If given the opportunity and a benign and nurturing musical environment using strategies such as those suggested below, this potential talent can unfold into a wonderful musical facility. A child can actually master music and delight in it while never sitting down to practice except when inspired to do so. Family music sessions can become the high point of the week’s homeschooling.

Unfortunately, all too often, in an earnest effort to do what’s best, parents unwittingly cause these childhood musical potentials to remain unrealized. On the advice of music teachers, children are funneled into lessons where their joy and creativity are sedated by baffling and discouraging scales and exercises and where they encounter perverse emphasis upon interpreting notes on a five-lined staff – as if the sounds in that young head were not good enough and the keys played had to be dictated by long-dead masters. Indeed, one tenet of old-school music pedagogy is that the student be prohibited from playing music without reading it from a score. Forbidding children from playing anything but what is read from the page is very like preventing an infant from talking until he/she can read! Musical and verbal ability can progress side-by-side, as soon the child can hear words or notes – but one must avoid pitfalls that can so easily destroy delight in making music altogether.

Far too many adults (I’m sure you know at least a few) associate music education with drudgery – onerous hours of mindless repetition mandated by directives and enforced with a practice schedule. Of these aspiring musicians, a large number eventually reject music altogether and refuse to revisit the subject (indeed had Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley heeded the disparagement of their music teachers, we might never have heard of them). Some conclude with ill-deserved confidence, that they are utterly lacking talent, thus making easier the decision to abandon music study. They are missing much, and the music world may be a poorer place without them. There are also a large number of “classically trained” musicians whose ability to play any music in front of them does not come close to compensating them for their inability to play anything that isn’t, who envy those who can instantly play songs they have heard and which come up in conversation.

Is learning to read music the best path to music competence?

The important question rarely asked is “Should I teach my child to read music?” Reading music was a very important skill in past centuries when no sound recording existed and every well-bred young lady was expected to provide music, singing and performing on the harpsichord or piano in pursuit of a husband. Realizing the notes on a page through the keyboard, voice or other instruments was the only way in which recorded music could be heard or enjoyed. (Of course wonderful oral traditions existed too, but a record is often lacking.) Does it not seem strange then that, in an age when technology that can render music, both from a page and from a recording, is universally accessible, that we continue to insist on restricting music lessons to a plodding, unimaginative and largely anachronistic process of reading notes? It may indeed be true that the aspiring classical concert performer is better off treading the established course to technical competence (it would certainly be demanded of one by the classical musical establishment) but is that sound justification for inflicting this regimen upon the other 99% of music students whose goals may involve more popular channels or even music for pure enjoyment?

Music consists of sound, and playing by sound is so natural for children. Is it wise to prohibit playing for sound in favor of the study of purely mechanical tasks? Would the conscientious parent really rather confine the child to doing what a computer chip can do instead of exercising his or her own God given creativity? It’s actually much more rewarding for a child to be able to play whatever music he or she has heard or invented than to be able to read fluently from the printed page. In general, younger children pick music up very quickly. By focusing upon the creative aspects of music and ignoring the complex and confusing but purely mechanical factors in music instruction (notation, scales, the multitude of keys and key signatures), a child can touch and feel the music directly, create it and delight in it.

What can be expected from an alternative homeschooling approach to music which encourages creativity?

Some students are introduced to music in a more organic and natural way and most of those with whom an auditory alternative approach has been used can play tunes they know but have never played before, by ear, sight unseen, within a few months. Within a year they can play and harmonize most common folk melodies or popular songs – but far more importantly, they can play the music in their own heads, can improvise never before heard music and render it fully. Later, more advanced study may perfectly well include writing and reading in standard music notation (though many in pop, rock, country etc. never resort to the musical staff nor feel a need to). After the real danger of turning the child away from music has been averted, anything is possible, including the study and performance of great works of the classical repertoire.

Fostering a child’s innate musical abilities

There follow some basic approaches to introducing children to music. Some of these require fundamental musical knowledge which can often be acquired from books and videos or it’s usually fairly easy to find a friend or fellow homeschooler to who can offer assistance when needed. But be careful not to let anyone tell you that there is only one right way to do it. Help your children find the learning style that works best for them.

Basic concepts:

To be avoided:

  1. Don’t refer to notes by their keyboard note names (C,D,E…). These are specific to one key. It’s better to use something universal that works in any key.
  2. Don’t write music down in any form initially – visual information is not best for young children and is often only second best for older students. Use sound recordings, MIDI, MP3. Get kids to hear it, feel it, imitate it and play it over and over again.
  3. Don’t restrict students to a piano. Electronic keyboards are cheap, portable, perfectly good for learning theory, may be used with earphones when silence is required and most of them can transpose your playing into any key.
  4. Don’t worry about getting a touch-sensitive keyboard. They’re nice, but unnecessary. Bach didn’t use one.
  5. Don’t worry about what’s right, usual, or what the composer intended. Find what sounds good to you and the kids.
  6. Don’t force kids to practice or to work on their own unless and until they prefer to do it on their own.
  7. Don’t discourage children from reading music if they evince interest in doing so. Give them whatever they’re ready for.
  8. Don’t require a specific amount of practice time. There is a difference between a goal to spend an hour and a goal to learn something. It’s easy enough to make an hour go by if that is what is demanded but it doesn’t necessarily accomplish much. Let kids set their own goals and meet them.
  9. Don’t discuss this with a piano teacher unless you are prepared for an argument.

Useful approaches:

1. Start early. Let kids touch the keys and hear the result as soon as they can touch the keyboard. You can hold or mount a stick across above the keyboard to keep a toddler from being able to strike the keys with too much force.

2. Get kids to listen a lot to simple music they would like to play!

3. Do yourself what you would like your kids to do.

4. Always have a keyboard or other instruments handy. Take one along on picnics, when camping or visiting friends. At less than $60, it’s reasonable to own several keyboards (see resources below).

5. At home, always have the keyboard out in a central place, inviting anyone to sit down and play (earphones may be advisable for when the baby’s sleeping).

6. Imitate what you hear and get children to copy you.

7. Show good finger positioning and play games with using all of the fingers with equal pressure and speed up and down the keyboard – slow, fast, galumphing.

8. Practice conducting (moving, waving, winking, tapping, whatever) the music you hear and get them to follow. Find the strong beats and the weak ones.

9. Get kids to know the scale and get a feel for scale degrees.

10. Refer to scale degrees as simply 1,2,3… (do, re, mi… works fine too if you prefer.) Later they will be able to apply this to any key.

11. Just choose one scale to begin with. All white notes (C major) is fine. Some people like all black notes (almost) using F# (G-flat) which is also fine.

12. Practice putting well-known tunes into numbers (Yankee Doodle: 1 1 2 3 1 3 2 5. The Barney theme (This Old Man): 5 3 5 5 3 5 6 5 4 3 2 3 4)

13. Teach the simple, easily played chords in the scale you have chosen, starting with the I,V and IV chords (tonic, dominant, subdominant, Roman numerals are commonly used for chords to avoid confusion), moving on to the II, III and VI chords, all in major and minor and seventh forms.

14. Show kids how chords appear in multiple inversions and how fingering convenience and sound and are often a trade off – with the former being more important for beginners.

15. Demonstrate different accompaniment figures, chord patterns, arpeggios, Alberti Bass. Jingle Bells is good for that.

16. Play listening games. Identify the notes, chords and chord progressions you hear. In a restaurant a child calls out “That’s a major VI chord going to a II, just like “Angels We Have Heard on High” right?

17. Show kids that the notes in the melody dictate what the chords will be and that it’s really not hard to choose the right one. If the difference can’t be heard, it doesn’t matter which one you use.

18. Show embellishing the melody with thirds or sixths as dictated by the harmony.

19. As needed, show kids the relative minor (A minor if you’re working in C) and how the minor often wants notes of the scale sharped in melody and harmony.

20. As needed, show kids the scales in keys closely related to your home key (in C, that would be G major, F, etc., and explain that in each of these, you just start your scale numbers, 1 2 3…, in a different place.)

21. After kids have acquired musical understanding and keyboard proficiency (and particularly after they have composed music they want to share), then it may be time to teach them to write music. With the musical understanding they have, they will probably find writing music very easy. It is often quite challenging for sight readers.

22. Occasionally a harmony or, more rarely, a melody may defy auditory analysis. Then it is permissible to cheat by finding and referring to the score. It’s usually quite easy to find a MIDI file online that can be imported into a music composition program, examined, and played slowly one voice at a time.

23. Advanced students may want to learn all of their skills in each key in the circle of fifths. Pick a simple and then a complex piece that can then be modulated around through all the keys.

24. As with any homeschooling subject, be an intellectual role model for your kids. Your studying and practicing makes study and practice something that kids will respect and naturally want to do.

How to start:

For those with limited musical backgrounds there are numerous books and videos to refer to or even electronic keyboards with dozens of tunes built in and keys that light up to indicate what to push. Harmony is often available with a single keystroke, but it’s still useful to know how to finger the chords. It’s nice if one can find someone to help with basic concepts, but beware of any who tell you that you’re doing it all wrong. Finding the way that inspires your children, the one they enjoy is always first priority.

Some alternative music methods exist but homeschoolers can simply invent their own.

The failings of traditional music pedagogy have been noted and supplanted in some quarters, notably by Shinichi Suzuki with his music methods and Scott Huston (The Piano Guy on PBS). Both of these strategies are generally condemned by traditional music teachers and disparaged as “playing by ear,” a phrase often laden with venomous disdain and contempt. The Suzuki method focuses on factors observed in native language acquisition and does attempt to teach the student to learn to “speak music” as a first language through listening. Huston’s approach also simply bypasses and simplifies traditional notation. There are many other alternative music methods and we have made a collection of these (, but the homeschooler can often come up with something individualized that will suit the learning style of the child or children. Use what the child is doing naturally, build on it, present more similar pieces. Help the child pick things out.

Old-style music notation may be unnecessarily and absurdly complex, but, despite preferable alternatives, it is likely to continue to baffle students for years to come.

It might be hard to believe, but a few minor changes to the way music is written would make reading it far easier. However, any attempt to simplify the process is met with heated resentment from musicians trained in the old ways. For example, the left hand of the piano score could be written to read just like reading the right hand – with identical correspondence between notes on the staff and keys on the keyboard thus reducing complexity by half. Similar changes in notation would make reading for many instruments identical, allowing, for example, any violinist to pick up a viola and read for it (by using the mezzo-soprano clef for viola music instead of the alto clef). Far more radical (and far simpler) forms of notation have been proposed but, in the face of opposition from old school pedants who would lose the advantages that laboriously acquired mastery over the standard arcane and difficult medium has granted them, these have no hope of achieving acceptance. Some have also been patented which also does nothing to promote acceptance. Much like alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard, a medium will not become generally available if only a few people can use it, and few people will learn to use it if it is not generally available. Pedants can rest assured that ill-conceived and largely incomprehensible standard musical notation will continue to baffle students for years to come.

Which approach to music is best for you?

The argument is often made that playing by ear at the beginning may hamper a student in his/her ability to become a proficient music sight reader at the keyboard. This may indeed be true, though there are certainly some who do both very effectively. There is also the argument that bad habits acquired in the absence of a diligent teacher can be very hard to correct. This may indeed be grounds for vigilance if concert performance is the goal, but this danger is clearly minor when compared with that of discouraging the student from pursuing music altogether.

The question that needs to be asked is: what is more important, the ability to render written music on a grand staff instantly into a polished performance or the ability to know what one is hearing, recognize melody and harmony being used, learn from it, play it, manipulate it, improvise upon it and enjoy it? The answer to this probably depends largely upon what the students would like to do with the music. It must be noted that a large percentage of popular musicians have not been taken through the classical sight-reading approach and may indeed have terribly bad habits (or at least unconventional techniques). One might even surmise that, had they been put through the traditional music mill, in many cases they would not have achieved the mastery and recognition that they have.

Music study and practice — making music together can be one of the central foundations of homeschooling.

Music can be a wonderful family activity. When kids can imitate and improvise, music sessions become a delightful variation on game night. Those children who listen to music frequently can often astound parents with their ability to recognize a piece by its first note (without being aware of it, many children possess perfect pitch.) Playing “Shakespeare quotes” can alternate with “name that band/nursery rhyme/symphony/musical/composer,” playing rounds together and writing music together. That is homeschooling at its best.