AMI Blog


When I was 16, I saved enough pocket money to buy myself a guitar. I was part of a church youth club and all the cool people played guitar. The way I learned to play it was a classic study in what Lucy Green (a rock star of music education research) called an informal approach to learning music. An ‘informal’ approach has taken off in schools and curricula around the world – just check out Musical Futures to get a sense of what it’s about. But back to me at 16. Essentially, I knew nothing about the guitar, how it was tuned, the notes on the fret board, or the logic of chords. I learned by asking friends to show me chord shapes, which I memorised, (living through the burning fingers), then I wrote the songs I wanted to sing by hand in a notebook, with the chords written above the words where they changed. I must have got these from friends in this pre-internet era. If someone tried to explain the logic behind the chords to me, I don’t remember this. It could be that I have just forgotten this detail because the ‘theory’ seemed too time consuming to learn at the time. I wanted results! I understood that chords went together in groups – that if a song was in C, it also had F and G, perhaps A and E minor. But I didn’t understand what made up a C chord, or how chord relationships worked. If I needed to change the key of a song, I would stick to the chords I knew and use a Capo. With no knowledge of the fretboard, I had no understanding of why a minor chord was minor, or what changed in a suspended 4th chord. I slowly mastered a range of basic chords that was wide enough for me to sing the songs I loved – the church ones from the Youth Group, and the 1970s folk that was popular at the time – Simon and Garfunkle, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Joan Baez.  I was a confident singer, so that supported my fledgeling guitar chops as I slowly built up my coordination. I couldn’t have been that bad as I got jobs singing and accompanying myself in restaurants and bars when I was a student studying for a BA. But there were certainly limits on what was possible with my hands-on understanding of guitar and musical structure.

The second part of this story is that after doing a BA in French, I started a BMus (long story). But I started that BMus, like many South African students today, without having done any formal music education, and on the strength of my singing. It was 1982 and I threw myself into catching up. This was where I finally put the puzzle pieces together to make sense of my guitar playing.

The point of the life story is that, knowing how to do something does not necessarily give you insight into the conceptual or theoretical principles that make that same thing work. All those hours I spent playing and performing, and getting passably ‘good’, did not give me the keys to understanding chords and harmony. I was never able to figure out harmony by myself. It was trial and error. I really struggled to solve problems when I came up against them. Was I particularly thick? Thankfully, research suggests that it wasn’t just me.

A good question to ask is – does it matter? If I managed to perform well enough to be paid by someone, and I got a lot of satisfaction out of it, what’s the problem? Surely music is about playing?

The problem is the ‘dead ends’ that we are sure to hit somewhere along the way if we don’t understand the principles behind how music works. These may be more or less limiting, and different for each individual, depending on their insights and their goals. But being able to play, and, at the same time, having a conceptual understanding of the musical materials we are using allows us to transfer our knowledge from one context to another. Understanding basic harmony means that instead of learning one song, and then another, by rote, I can take the principles of one song and apply them to learning another song.

Marimbas are a fantastic tool for learning basic music concepts, in particular, simple harmony. The notes are nice and big, and they usually have letter names on them. The bass instruments often play the chords’ roots, but using other notes in the chord and some passing notes makes it far more interesting. You can help your players by getting them to thing about why this is so. Marimba music is easy because it relies on patterns – pointing out the principles behind those patterns and finding ways for your students to really get control over them will deepen their educational experience. Yes, tunes can be learned by rote – its a great way to get people started. But if you run a programme where you have students for an extended time, giving them some conceptual tools to support their playing is such a value add. It can be done while playing the instruments – no separate lessons with staff paper required. Often this is a matter of the teacher speaking about the music and including information about scale, chords and harmony. Explaining on the fly. Designing little tasks to translate the practical experience into conceptual understanding. Developing this kind of understanding will allow your students to apply that knowledge to their musical interests beyond the marimba room. It puts power into their own hands. Music education is about life changing stuff. If we’re careful to include both the performing part as well as providing access to conceptual frameworks, we’re talking about music education that is truly emancipating.

Photo credit: Everett Bartels, Unsplash