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I teach in Oregon City and online videochat. I work with all ages and levels and a variety of styles. I specialize in creative exploration, the psychology of music, and conscious music practices. Visit the lessons page to learn more.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Comparison of Different Media for Music Education

When I first realized that most of the content I learned in my schooling and private lessons was available in books at the library, it made me question the value of the lessons and classes. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn't have actually read all the books on my own at that younger age... But I wasn't presented with the opportunity so I didn't know it was available. Of course, in the days before the internet, there simply wasn't quite as much information readily available and even finding the right books at the library was harder before computerized catalogs. Of course, books aren't as meaningful until after one has had real-world experience to relate the ideas to.

A teacher's job is to get students to learn and be thoughtful, and, ideally, that is done as efficiently as possible. The most efficient learning for beginners is full multi-sensory immersion: playing music with others in a real-world context. Then students are able to relate these experiences to more removed media like recordings and abstract symbols such as music notation. Of course, efficient also implies practical; so the value of experiencing different media must be weighed against accessibility and cost. Teachers should make students aware of the opportunities of different media as soon as students are ready for them.

Though not all students may follow through, I intend to do everything I can to enable and encourage independent study. Unfortunately, while information is now more readily available than ever, the options are overwhelming (see this compelling video: Barry Schwartz On The Paradox of Choice). So my job is both to directly teach particular ideas as well as to be a guide to the learning process in general.

This post is about evaluating different media. I am sure that information scientists (i.e. librarians et al) and pedagogy scholars have done extensive work studying this subject (please let me know if you have specific recommendations about research I should check out), but here I would like to share my personal thoughts specific to the study of music through different media including private lessons, classes, books, videos, software, and more.

Different media offer different benefits. Therefore, the best learning is multimedia using the all the forms for their different values.

Pros and cons of learning music through different media:

Live Private Instruction
Possibly the best medium with a great teacher

Pros: human, multi-sensory, responsive, set time and place helps reduce outside distraction, teachers can utilize other media as well; personalized: content and pacing is largely controllable and set to match the student

Cons: limited to particular teacher's ability and values, scheduling and economic challenges, lesson time may not always match peak focus time for either student or teacher, most lessons are only weekly (or even less frequent) so most study time is independent, on its own lacks the broader social context of ensemble music

Private lessons are arguably the very best way to learn music. The ultimate student engagement tends to occur with direct interaction with an attentive teacher, and all other media are more passive. Private lessons can cater to the specific interests, abilities, and learning styles of each student. Beware, however, that the value of lessons can be extremely variable based on the differences among teachers.

I might not have become a musician were it not for my private teachers who encouraged me and taught me the basics (though maybe I would be as happy or successful in another field... I'm just saying that personal attention from teachers is extremely valuable, and that is true in any field). On the other hand, I had questions and interests that my teachers were not always able to address. I later found that much of the content that I learned in lessons was readily available in other forms. I've even found that some of the ideas I was taught are actually incorrect or very biased.

As a teacher myself, I have spent much of my own learning time with other media instead of private lessons — mostly looking for the best ideas for my students. I have found other media to be much more economical, but I still feel something may be missing without the direct personal interaction of an instructor. Perhaps a teacher is necessary to get students engaged initially before they can eventually be more independent. Also, teachers help students develop perspective and knowledge to think critically about the ideas they then encounter elsewhere.

Because of the brief time of short weekly lessons, substantial progress requires study outside of lessons through use of other media (generally that recommended by the teacher, but not exclusively). 

Group / Class Instruction
Great for certain stages or subjects if appropriate class is offered

Pros: same pros as private instruction except not personalized; extra benefits include: connection to peers, both cooperative and competitive motivations and learning contexts

Cons: like private lessons, quality is dependent on the teacher; classmates may be distracting, content may not match interest or level, only some control over pacing

In the rare case that the learning styles, goals, and levels of all students in a class are well-matched, class instruction can be very successful. Music presents unique challenges because it is harder than other subjects to have students working independently in the same room. There are many things, such as ensemble music and coordination, that are best learned in a class. There are other things a class teacher will never be able to address which are best learned in private lessons. Classes can be the best choice for many, but inherently require compromise to coordinate all the students.

Internet Lessons and Online Classes
Not as good, but still interactive and may be practical

Pros: may be more time-flexible and economic than in-person, offer many of the same benefits of working with a teacher privately or in a class

Cons: only auditory and visual — less multisensory, less direct and human than live instruction, requires staring at computer screen

While internet-based teaching may make sense for some, my understanding is that there is a greater tendency for drop-out. Online learning simply isn't as directly engaging. For students motivated enough and where online is more practical for various reasons, it may make sense. There are even ways to coordinate online music ensembles, though this is certainly nothing like a live group experience.

Friends and Other Casual Social Learning
Great, should be utilized, but alone may be inadequate

Pros: free or inexpensive, social and fun, otherwise many of the same benefits as private lessons

Cons: often more limited than professional instruction, may learn incorrect ideas, far more variable quality, may have inconsistent timing, inconsistent content

If one is lucky enough to have a friend who is a great teacher full of knowledge, patience, and time to teach, then great! In most cases, friends and acquaintances will not compare well with experienced teachers. But it is great to utilize such connections nonetheless, perhaps in addition to private lessons.

Often, there is too much mediocre bulk to wade through when selecting, but the right book is a wonderful learning tool — if students already have enough real-world experience to relate the concepts.

Pros: clear, organized, portable, scalable precision (see below), reader controlled, inexpensive (may be free if you use the public library), may be modified by writing in them (if not from the library)

Cons: only visual and conceptual, requires self-motivation, no feedback

Books are a tried and true medium. A well-written book (an important qualifier!) has an accessible layout and carefully organized content. Readers may skip around, skim and speed-read, review, and otherwise go at their own appropriate pace. I greatly appreciate skimming through a book to get an idea of its content and being able to stop and read a section if I choose. Books offer pacing that is directly controlled by the reader's own mind.

Music notation in particular has the ability to specify certain things and not others. A book can indicate a series of notes without specifying expressive nuances. When a teacher or recording performs the same notes, there are always nuances that may be useful or may be distracting (teachers may use books, of course, when appropriate). Students learning music from books alone will be very limited because music is inherently aural rather than visual; but when students get a general sense of music from lessons, experience, or recordings, then books can be used very effectively. The best music-related books have accompanying or associated audio (and sometimes video) content.

Audio Recordings
Debatable for being the only instructional content, but ideal for just listening and for supplementing teachers, books, and other media.

Pros: dynamic, expressive, may be very high quality, somewhat controllable (especially using appropriate software), can be very flexible and portable in digital formats

Cons: necessarily contains set nuances, format is linear, only aural, no feedback

Audio recordings are particularly valuable in music study, of course. However, they are very passive, offering no feedback or reaction to students. Though software can be used to alter playback speed, visualize a recording, and more. Still, audio recordings do not offer the control of a book. It is far easier for students to become distracted from audio than from a multi-sensory medium like video or a live teacher. On the other hand, this also means that audio may be studied less consciously; recordings can play in the background while students attend to other things.

I find audio recordings of music much more valuable than audio recordings of an instructor talking. Music can be enjoyable and valuable listening regardless of direct lessons. Listening to an instructor requires attention, and it is too easy to get distracted from the disembodied voice droning on. Also, while a book allows skimming, it is harder to skip around in an instructional audio recording and have any sense of what it is.

Video Recordings
Can be great, but not a substitute for a teacher, not as controllable as a book

Pros: multi-sensory (though not as much as live instruction), reasonably inexpensive, somewhat human (depending on content),

Cons: staring at screen, limited control, no feedback, fatiguing.

Some things can be heard in audio, read in a book, and even taught in a group class yet still not quite connect for a student; yet video recordings may work. A video may be made to carefully present a precise idea both visually and aurally. It may be paused, and even sped up or slowed down. Video may be the most practical, affordable, or perhaps the only way to get somewhat more human, engaging instruction from experts in many areas.

Unfortunately, video has many downsides. I find videos more frustrating than books for learning particular skills. A rare video that is just right for my level may be great, but I need to watch the video to find out. It is hard to know in advanced if a video is rambling and pointless or overwhelming and unclear. With a book, it is easier to skim and get a sense of it. Like audio, video may be more effective for music performances than for instruction. On the other hand, it is harder than with audio to passively take in a video while focusing on other things. Video instruction is a gamble because time (and maybe money) must be spent before really knowing whether it will be of value. And unlike a live teacher, it makes no adjustment to the viewer and provides no feedback. In my view, the video medium is in some regards the best and in others the worst. I've learned some valuable things from video, but it is far from my preferred way to learn specific skills. Documentary films, on the other hand, can be great when done well...

Computer Software
Vast possibilities, should be utilized when appropriate

Pros: multimedia, open-ended, tons of possibilities, lots of control, some feedback, very creative options

Cons: more time staring at the computer

I have used software for creative purposes such as music recording and composing. For those types of tasks, software is probably the best tool. I have not used or reviewed much of the software used for direct music instruction. Some of it seems quite amazing. There appears, however, a tendency of instructional software to favor the most cliché popular or classical music — even more so than other instructional media. One common instructional music software type is that for ear-training. I have mixed feelings about these. They are largely tedious, removed from real music context, and biased toward certain music theories.

Overall, it is hard to generalize about computer software. It can use the best of other media, even including interaction with live teachers... Reading a book or interacting with other people in person will always be different than staring at a screen, but computers may become more and more preferred in many contexts.

Internet: web sites, forums, etc.
Wonderful, but best with some guidance, can be overwhelming, never quite the same as a book or anything like a live teacher

Pros: multimedia, extremely vast, can include feedback, searchable

Cons: overwhelming, undirected, biased toward whatever is popular

Learning via the internet is a gamble. One may find just the right thing, may become misguided, may waste time, or (most likely) some mix of these. Aside from the physical experience of books and live people, the internet contains all the media mentioned above and more. My experience is that the internet is simply too overwhelming to allow for comfortable focus. It lacks the sense of concreteness and closure that a good book has. I still use the internet all the time. It is the best reference search tool, of course. The challenge is to find the best paths through it all and to try to ignore the distractions.

The internet-specific medium of discussion forums warrants unique mention. There are forums for students of all sorts to share their thoughts and questions. These can absorb people and take a lot of time, but they can also be rich and rewarding. It is far easier to engage in an online forum than to organize a local meeting of people with some particular narrow interest. For those who can resist getting overly focused on tangential online chat, forums offer a free way to get something somewhat like the human feedback of in-person casual learning from friends.

Update 5/24/11:
Wiki-type internet content in particular:
Wikipedia, the most significant but just one of many wiki-type sites, is certainly an excellent go-to site. While many other sites have redundant material, the wiki format is inherently succinct and consolidated because writers all add to the same page instead of duplicating each others' work. The best content can be mixed with the best writing style because everyone contributes and the reader can see just the latest result.

This here blog, for example, may be valuable (I hope), but is personal and limited to one person's perspective. I try not to redundantly reproduce information readily available elsewhere, but it is hard to know everything about what is out there. I also often wish I could just improve some lousy writing in otherwise good books in order to feel more comfortable recommending them to students. The wiki model is the best tool for consolidation of information and quality presentation, so I encourage everyone to use, appreciate, and contribute to free public wiki's like Wikipedia.


All of the above discussion assumes the use of media created by others. Obviously, there are great learning opportunities in creating media. Students can learn a great deal through teaching others, writing a book, making audio and video recordings, programming software (whether new or contributing improvements to existing free and open-source software), or making a website, or editing Wikipedia. In all cases, student creators will benefit from understanding the pros and cons of each medium, and this understanding will also help them be critical students when using media otherwise.

This post last updated: 5/28/11


  1. So far, I think I've been through every single one of those media you have mentioned, save computer software. I agree that a multimedia approach would be best, but how would one implement all of it? especially if one is teaching a group in a non-musical institute, e.g. school band. Any comments on systemisation?

  2. @wkzh:

    There's certainly a difference between ideal and practical. My feeling is that teachers and students ought to be aware of ideals even while working in practical reality.

    I would focus on having different media available and making students aware of it. Those select students who may make time for it will then have the option. In a school band, I would focus on what is best about that format while making sure students know what they are missing if they don't seek out other media.

    In my experience as a private teacher, actively introducing students to the options is significant, even if I can't practically utilize them all in the course of lessons. That's one reason I wrote this post.

    In the end, just being aware of the benefits and faults of (e.g.) the book format, allows me to be a more critical reader even if I never find the time or opportunity to experience all the other media.

  3. Aaron,

    Quite an impressive and very thorough survey of the media available for music teaching!

    You do a good job of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. This is critical because the media that works for some students will not work for others. And ultimately, I'd say the quality of an instructional approach can't be determined without knowing what the objective is. For instance, if the main goal is improvement in performance skill on a single instrument (and to do so as quickly as possible), then it's almost impossible to compete with live private instruction (assuming it's with a good teacher of course). But if the goal is more related to the social identity "human connection" aspects of music making--which I would contend are no more or less valid than instrumental skill development--then some sort of group setting is a must.

    Music learning can enable individuals to be personally creative and expressive. But it can also serve to bond people together in a way that is unique to group music making. Since my bias is for musical breadth, I think the ideal is for music students to receive instruction through several (all?) of these media you cover above!