I’m spending this week finishing up my new book on ‘music in learning‘. It’s an exploration of music as a language of learning, looking at how learning music changes us and how we can communicate with greater richness and depth through the use of music. I’ll be sharing parts of my writing as the week progresses. If you have any thoughts or stories to share about how learning music has changed you, or about how we use music in learning, please do get in touch.
I own four guitars, one banjo and a mandolin. The first was my Yamaha acoustic: i bought it for £120 as a student and remember the day well, because i had to eat mashed potato and beans for the rest of the week as i was broke. I bought it from the tiny guitar shop in the Victorian arcade near my house. Barely larger than my kitchen, it’s stacked floor to ceiling with instruments: old and loved, new and full of promise, strange and varied.
It was a spontaneous purchase: up until the age of twenty i’d never played in my life, but the previous weekend a visiting friend had taught me three chords and i was hungry for more. When i asked Don which guitar i should buy, he took a second hand Yamaha off the wall and handed it to me. I dutifully strummed my newly learnt ‘G – D – A’ chords and sheepishly handed it back. Don played heaven and the voices of angels. Don soared up and down the fretboard in a dizzying Flamenco, then handed it back to me and said ‘yes, this one is ok’.
Don can speak in the language of music: i can only listen.
Since that day, music has been part of my life, although it’s language still largely eludes me. I can play to the point where i hear the echoes, to the point where i feel tantalisingly close to understanding it, but, as yet, i’ve never been further. Every note, every chord is still a conscious effort. I think and act, but not seamlessly. When i write, the connection is between my brain and the words. My hands, the pen, my keyboard, are incidental. When i paint, i see the shapes and colours before i paint them. I can lose myself in it: the challenge is to bridge the space between what’s in my mind’s eye and the paper itself. I can speak that language.
With music it’s harder: i am not fluent, not even really aware of the individual songs the different instruments sing. I hear the sounds, but i can’t yet deconstruct it, let alone construct my own music.
I am fortunate to have many friends who are fluent: you see, music saved me. At a time when i was down, it was music and the community of musicians that i met who carried me forward, so i owe a special debt to both the people and the form.
But why music and learning? What’s the connection?
Well, at the heart of all learning i see stories: stories are how we communicate, how we share experience, establish commonality and build consensus. They are a link between our past and our present, the way we share learning between generations, from nursery rhymes to folk tales and grand operas. Stories are told in words, in songs, in pictures, in metaphor and analogy. And yet only some of these languages are used in learning, at least in an organisational context, in formal learning.
As children we are open to everything, but as we grow up, we learn to expect that music is social, informal. We listen in our cars, in our houses and at the gym, but we don’t tend to speak the language of music in our formal learning. We use photographs, lots of text and clever animations and interactions, but rarely song.
Why is that? We use video. We even use games, but barely ever songs. Are we afraid of them, afraid they can divide and alienate as well as unify? Are we simply less literate in this language, or afraid that many people don’t speak it at all? After all, music is used in films, in tv, in our social lives at every juncture, just not in learning.
This book is an exploration of the language of music, through interviews with musicians: after all, who better to tell the story!
I was interested in how people learn music and how the process of learning it changes them. If you learn the language of music, does it change how you learn other things too? I wanted to know if being musical made people communicate and learn in different ways. And i was lucky that so many people were willing to share their personal journeys, revealing a fascinating range of effects.
For some, music is technical, a subject they master, like maths or physics. For others, it’s a tool, a tool they use in teaching, a tool they use to create emotions and affect change in others. For some, it’s their life: this language is the one that carries them, the one they are fluent in, the one they love. Some musicians struggle with words but find the tunes easy, for others, the music is there but they struggle to translate the meaning into English.
Music changes us, surrounds us and takes us on a journey. This is a journey into music, a collaborative project to share some of the views, to learn together. It’s a story about song.