Universal Responses to Music – We Are All Pavlov’s Dog

In a study by Hauke Egermann, et al. (January 2015), it was found that humans seem to have a universal physiological response to sound – specifically music in this study. The tests were performed with forty Congolese Pygmies and forty Canadians. In all subjects, there were similar physiological response to musical examples, even when the music was very familiar to one group and not the other!

What makes this study so interesting is the fact that members of each group, when questioned about how the music made them feel, reported different emotional responses, despite having the same physiological response. “This crowd-789652_640suggests that subjective emotional ratings might have been more subject to cultural influences than physiological responses to the stimuli.”

The complexity of intellect and emotion attached to the physiological response to music is amazing. Like Pavlov’s dog we feel sadness when a certain music is played, not because, as was believed in the past, the music itself is sad. The physiological response has been paired with other information which is triggered when the music plays.

The ideas in this study, I believe, can be applied beyond music. For instance, everything we experience with any of our senses can produce a physiological response and attached to that is a body of emotional and intellectual information that defies mere explanation. How can understanding these responses help us to better facilitate learning, more easily solve our most important social issues, and better understand ourselves?

Why I Teach Guitar

About 26 years ago I was asked to take my first guitar student. I had been in and out of the guitar shop for six years leading to this. I struggled to teach myself guitar for 5 years and had one year of classical guitar training (I was a rocker at heart but they only offered classical at the university).4181823128_a8b4b9c806

The kid they wanted me to teach was considered to be difficult by the guitar teachers at the shop. They said he was tone deaf and had no rhythm. They thought that these traits were a permanent part of the kid, unchangeable, and not things that could ever improve. I didn’t know any better than them. I was a 19 year old who never taught anyone anything (at least not intentionally).

I worked with the kid for about a year, and gradually I noticed his rhythm and his ability to hear differences between notes improving. At the time, I didn’t realize the influence this would have in my life. I began to realize that anyone, with a desire to do something, could eventually do it. In retrospect, I think the other guitar teachers, by branding the kid with the traits mentioned above were actually working hard to cover their own shortcomings as teachers.

Since then, I’ve taught hundreds of kids and adults and I learn something new every day. Every guitarist plays and learns differently, is motivated by different music, and different parts of the music, and brings me new challenges. There is no right or wrong way to play beyond the basics that keep our wrists free of tendinitis or carpal tunnel and our bodies free of stress. Listen to what your teachers say because they most likely have your best interests in mind, but remember, anyone who tells you they know the only right way to play is a fool.

Finally, one of the things that I’ve grown to feel strongly about is the idea of student-centered teaching. Each guitarist who has come to me over the past 26 years has had his or her own vision of how the music should sound, what music is good, what aspects of the guitar are most important.

From shredders to folk guitarists to classical guitarists to straight ahead rockers, they all knew what music they wanted to play. Most of the time, this vision was radically different from my own, and if I had tried to force mine on any of them, their learning experiences would have suffered, and worse, they might have abandoned music altogether!  It’s easiest and far more motivating when you’re learning what you want to learn. We should use the music the students love as a bridge to the musical concepts they need us to teach and we should help them to find their own voices in the music so it becomes a greater affirmation of who they are!

Critical Pedagogy for Music Education

Critical Pedagogy is a way we can fix our world. Paulo Freire, in his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed lays down the framework for this educational philosophy designed to give oppressed people the tools to understand their oppression and take constructive action to end it. Though I believe critical pedagogy can be applied in any form of teaching and there is more work to be done in critical pedagogy, I have collected dozens of resources in a livebinder, specifically geared toward Critical Pedagogy for Music Education.

Below is embedded my video introduction to the livebinder (in which I go off script and “um” quite a bit) as well as the loose script I used to make it.

*–start script–*
This is an introduction to a livebinder I created to collect dozens of resources relating to Critical Pedagogy for music education. I’ve broken the livebinder into 5 categories, each represented by a tab at the top of the livebinder page.

The first, which I called “introduction” simply contains this introductory video. If you’re viewing this video on youtube, the link to the livebinder will freire be below in the video description.

The second category is called “what is critical pedagogy.” The main page that I link to under this tab is the wikipedia page, which give a good overview of what critical pedagogy is.

Critical pedagogy is an educational philosophy that was created by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, who’s book, Pedagogy of the oppressed, I placed under the first tab. Though the book, written in 1969, was available through the 70’s, it wasn’t until the 80s that this educational philosophy was expanded and really brought to the United States by Henry Giroux, whose work I also have links to in the binder.

Critical pedagogy is basically the critical reflection about the values that inform our teaching while we help students to be able to critically self-reflect on the knowledge and values they find in the classroom and to recognize connections between their problems and experiences and the social contexts in which they live. Giroux says, it’s [an] “educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action” (Giroux, 2010).

In America we still have a straight, white, middle class male hegemony. Our school systems were originally built on this as a tool to enculturate our population, and since our educational system was adopted in 1852, it’s served this purpose pretty well. I say adopted, not created, because it was based on the 18th century Prussian system, created by the king to provide “not only the skills needed in an early industrialized world (reading, writing and arithmetic), but also a strict education in ethics, duty, discipline and obedience” (Prussian Education System on Wikipedia). Kids who don’t fit the description of white middle class, many kids of color, kids that aren’t neurotypical, kids from different cultures, are often made to feel inferior and inadequate. Critical pedagogy should correct this problem.

Originally intended to be used to teach adults in Brazil to read, the ideas of critical pedagogy that Freire developed have since been used to teach oppressed people all over the world. The reason I think it’s important to multicultural education in the music classroom is because music has been a source of resistance for centuries! This brings me to my next tab in the binder which is called “Music as Resistance.”

In this tab I have placed a number of articles and videos describing how music like African American slave songs, south American protest songs, Irish songs, punk rock, and reggae have all been important in changing things in the world for the better. It’s also important to remember, especially with the modern genres, there are many sub-genres that develop, some dark and negative – it’s important to understand where the music is coming from. Much of this music will be valuable in your curriculum.

This brings me to the next tab, “Critical Pedagogy for Music Education.” In this tab I draw heavily on the work of Frank Abrahams who developed the ideas of Critical Pedagogy for Music Education. Abrahams draws on the work of critical theorist Jurgen Habermas, sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, and critical pedagogs bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Paulo Freire to develop his system that begins with four questions: Who am I? Who are my students? What might they become? and What might we become together. He challenges the traditional structure of the classroom which has a definite heirarchy, with the students right at the bottom. He instead seeks to validate the students by acknowledging and honoring what they already know, what they’ve learned outside the classroom, the richness of knowledge that they bring with them. Freire called the traditional teaching method “the banking method” in which the teachers are to deposit knowledge into the students who are seen as empty vesels. Abrahams then uses the knowledge of the students as the bridge to the curriculum we as music educators need to teach.

Finally, there’s a hidden benefit beyond bringing our students closer to real liberation. Abrahams found in his studies with sixth graders in critical pedigogy in music education that when they “were interviewed four months after they completed their music course. Results showed that they were able to discuss the concepts presented, remember the musical content, and had overall positive feelings about their experiences in the general music class. Furthermore, they were able to meet benchmarks for students in grades 5–8 as articulated in the National Standards for Arts Education” (Abrahams, 2009?).

By the end of 6th grade, through critical pedagogy these students had hit all the benchmarks they needed to hit by 8th grade!

My last tab is called “Other Resources.” It’s not specific to music or critical pedagogy, but it’s a collection of interesting supporting materials regarding education, social justice, ethnomusicology, and sociomusicology.

I fully endorse critical pedagogy for music education. The resources I’ve placed in my livebinder will take some time so examine, so I’ve placed the most immediately helpful pages first under each tab. Explore, enjoy, and thank you!

*–end script–*

The Prussian Education System

John Taylor Gatto, Against School, Originally published in Harper’s Magazine

Giroux, H. A. (2010). Lessons From Paulo Freire. Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 57, Issue 9

My Critical Pedagogy for Music Education Livebinder

Racism on the Radio

Yesterday morning, I was listening to a somewhat local classic rock station – something that I rarely do for many reasons. The number one reason is that morning radio is always terrible. It’s a black hole of sad, tasteless, humorless talk (though they think they’re funny…) mixed with music that is at least 15 or so years old and was on the top 40 charts (which doesn’t mean it’s good! I’ll get back to this one later.). I realized some things while suffering through this ordeal.
First of all, the DJs are total idiots. They relayed a news story about a man with “dark, pock-marked skin” who robbed the CVS pharmacy of prescription painkillers at gunpoint. A story about a broken man who, when caught, will spend time in jail paying for his crime instead of being healed of the affliction that would cause a person to commit the crime. The DJs, who are both white, proceeded to use the story to be funny… They failed. The two turned on their best caricature voices of black gangsters and with the remarkably unfunny radio play that followed they accomplished two things. First, they made me want to destroy my radio. Second, they perpetrated a negative stereotype that erroneously places black culture beneath white culture. Granted, they are so stupid, they could never understand that, and if you ever called them racist, I imagine they would argue that you were just overreacting, they’re complete idiots…
The fact remains that in our society, there is rampant oppression, and episodes like this only serve to strengthen it while downplaying its importance. I don’t believe, however, that it’s only people of color, people of different religions, women, or the LGBT community that are oppressed. Though that is just about everyone (!), I think it’s a little bigger than that, and without realizing it, the white men on the radio are also oppressed. Because they enjoy more benefits from the system of oppression itself, they allow themselves to be used as tools to carry out this oppression.
pedoppOur schools are part of the problem. The system we have in place right now perpetrates the same oppression and racism. We need a critical pedagogy to address the oppression directly, not just for those of us who are oppressed, but also for the perceived oppressor. As an oppressed class, the “oppressor” needs to be freed as well or the seeds of oppression won’t die.
To learn more about critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire is a great place to start. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a brilliant work which “attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate.”

Student-Centered Music Instruction – Part 2

Student-centered music instruction.

In a student-centered educational setting, the student’s needs are considered first. What the student wants to learn becomes important as the student is instrumental in selecting and organizing the content. The student also helps to determine how time is used and her voice is heard as much, if not more than the teacher’s. The arrangement of the room is designed with the student’s best interests in mind and the teacher maintains the conscious idea that the student’s education is the most important reason they are there at all.

In the teacher-centered model, all repertoire is selected by the teacher, which results in a lack of interest in the student and a possible inability to even recall the music. In the student-centered model, we take Dewey’s progressive education model (1938) a step forward. The content is not just what the student needs, but is cooperatively selecAncient Orchestrated by the student, with assistance from the teacher, from the music that the student loves. The teacher then places the music in a logical order with the help of the student to maximize the learning potential. The content can sometimes become dynamic as the student’s taste changes over time and the process can be repeated as many times as needed, developing a personalized system of instruction as Fred Keller proposed in 1968 (Driscoll, 2005). This is a greater time and resource commitment for the teacher, but in the end results in greater appreciation and realized potential in the student because the music is familiar and the schemata is already in place. This, coupled with a greater motivation to practice results in a greater ease of learning.

In the teacher-centered model, students are required to practice exercises without context with little success. In the student-centered model teachers are called upon to do what the past masters have done and dynamically draw these same exercises out of the student-selected content so the student can see the context and the practice becomes meaningful. As the student progresses, patterns emerge that have been seen before in different contexts. It is the teacher’s job to isolate these again and help the student to learn to see these patterns themselves. From a situated cognitive perspective allows for greater ease of transfer (Brown, Collins, Duguid, 1989). This kind of practice not only helps the student to more fully understand their music, but also increases their critical thinking skills.

In the teacher-centered system, the teacher often resorts to shame as a punishment, making the student feel bad for not practicing, even though, in many cases, it is actually the teacher’s fault. In the student-centered system, the teacher does not resort to shame. Instead, if a child does not practice, it is assumed that the child was motivated but there were circumstances that prevented her from doing so. If the circumstance that was responsible was actually a lack of motivation, it becomes the teacher’s job to find that which will inspire the student to practice again. In the end, if the child simply does not want to play music, or perhaps, wants to try a new instrument, there is no shame.

In the teacher-centered system, students sometimes lack a sense of progression. In the student-centered system, progression is celebrated and recognized regularly. It is the teacher’s job to help the student understand their accomplishments. In the absence of recognition of accomplishment, students may want to move too quickly through their selected repertoire as a way of feeling accomplished. The teacher needs to be vigilant in keeping the balance between the student’s need for growth and desire for advancement. If the student insists, perhaps a part of a new piece can be started while previous work is continued, but it is important that the student understands, appreciates, and is an integral part of the decision.

In the teacher-centered system, the student practices alone. In the student-centered system, communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) are always encouraged. The first level of this community is the family, who are invited into lessons and encouraged to learn the instrument with the student to act as their support at home. Usually, with younger students it’s a parent or older sibling, who is shown, by the student in the lesson, the music she is working on. At home, if the student encounters any difficulties, the family can put their knowledge together and overcome the difficulty together. The second level is the student’s friends. If the student’s friends play other instruments, study with other teachers, or do not study at all, the teacher can still help to bring them together as a community of practice, inviting them into lessons and helping them to learn the same music and play as an ensemble. This introduces another motivation as the student works to learn music with her friends. Performing music is the perfect social learning environment, and has proven to be an effective one. The final level is to invite all a teacher’s students into a large group lesson, allowing the students to get to know each other’s ability and learn from each other much like Vygotsky argued with his social development theory (1978). Students of different skill levels should be allowed to share and learn from each other, which, as a result, creates a richer pool of knowledge and experience to help the student grow.

In a teacher-centered system, the teacher’s ideas are more important than the students. In the student-centered system, the student’s conceptions are valued by the teacher as possible solutions. The teacher offers other interpretations as part of the student’s learning experience but it is the student’s choice to interpret a piece however she wants.

Further, to increase the student’s learning experience, the teacher adds elements of creativity and problem solving. Using the elements the student has learned, she is encouraged to create new music or modify existing music. This exercise helps to deepen the student’s understanding of the fundamentals of how music works. Students are also asked to struggle with learning music independently. During her time away from lesson she will figure melodies or chords by ear, to the best of her ability like the students in Schoenfeld’s classroom (Brown, Collins, Duguid, 1989) or in the spirit of Kapur’s idea of productive failure (2011). The teacher, during the next lesson session, will help her to find the right notes if there was any difficulty or misconception, which there often is in music, or will recognize her success and move her to a more difficult challenge. This is a talent that will prove invaluable to her in the future as she moves from teacher assisted learning to self learning. In a student-centered learning environment, I believe it is the teacher’s job to eventually render himself obsolete.


Within the student-centered learning, to facilitate the most potent learning environment, important elements of the system include the importance of progressive education (Dewey, 1938), the student’s autonomy, competency, and relatedness (Deci and Ryan, 2000), working in a community of practice (Wenger, 1998), social learning and the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), the importance of situated cognition and the movement from novice to expert (Brown, Colins, Duguid, 1998) and productive failure (Kapur, 2011). This should not be the end. A system that becomes static eventually dies. I think a student-centered learning system needs the flexibility to remain dynamic to truly remain in the best interest of the student.


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., Cocking, R.R., (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Washington, DC, National Academy Press

Brown, J.S., Collins, A., Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, Vol.18, No.1, (Jan – Feb) 32 – 42

Deci, E.L., Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. New York, NY, Plenium Press

Dewey, J (1938). Experience and Education. New York, NY, Kappa Delta Pi

Driscol, M.P., (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction, Third Edition, Florida State University, Pearson

Kapur, M. (2011). A Further Study of Productive Failure in Mathematical Problem Solving: Unpacking the Design Components, Instructional Science, Volume 39, Issue 4 , pp 561-579

Vygotsky, L.S., (March 7, 1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, 14th Edition, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, New York, NY, Cambridge University Press

Student-Centered Music Instruction – Part 1, The Problem Statement

The current state of private music education.Music Teacher

Within traditional western music instruction there are many opportunities for improvement. In a traditional western system, the student meets with the teacher once a week. The student plays the music – usually music chosen by the teacher – she has been working on in her practice sessions outside of the lesson period. The student works out trouble spots with the teacher and receives interpretational advice from the teacher, sometimes at the expense of the student’s ideas. Worse still is the shame the teacher makes the student feel if, due to a lack of interest in the teacher’s musical selections, she doesn’t practice. The student might learn new techniques or build on old techniques. Then she is set free for a week to suffer through her practice alone.

This is the system that most traditional western music teachers employ. Though many instructors have the best intentions, it only works well for very few students. It is a predominantly teacher-centered learning system.

Why teacher-centered music education fails.

Teacher-centered learning is any system in which the teacher’s will is the most important. The teacher selects the content, and engages in direct teaching in which the teacher speaks and the student listens. The teacher’s voice is heard more than all of the students’ voices combined. The setup of the learning space is determined by the teacher as is the use of class time. Even in the more “progressive” systems, like Suzuki, we see the same ideas take hold despite the pure progressive ideas at the foundation of the system. Even when fun and games are employed it is at the discretion of the teacher and is nothing more than a cheap trick to push the student to compliance. Perhaps, because the teacher-centered system is the one most of us have experienced, despite the fact that for more than a century people like John Dewey have spoken about the importance of progressive education (1938, 1897), it takes a powerful and conscious act of will to step beyond it.

Within a teacher-centered system, the teacher chooses content, either by selecting an existing method, selecting his favorite pieces, or a combination of the two. Though the selected music contains every element of technique the student should learn to be competent and the teacher usually walks the student through the piece in the lesson, this is a bad practice for two main reasons. First, the student is usually unfamiliar with the music and does not hold the proper schemata (Driscoll, 2005) to remember or fully process it. This makes practicing more challenging when the student returns home and has to practice alone. Second, there is usually a lack of interest in practicing because the student is not invested in the music (Deci and Ryan, 1985). This, combined with the lack of schemata creates a situation in which the student is often left with no concept of the music at all.

As well as the teacher-selected repertoire the student is also forced to practice exercises without context, which on the surface might appear to be a good idea. In theory, once a pattern is internalized, it can be applied anywhere. This practice, however flies in the face of situated cognition (Brown, Collins, Duguid). Not only does the lack of context effect the student’s ability to learn, but scales, arpeggios, and other finger exercises played in this way often become boring and seem like work to the student. The exercises themselves were originally parts of music that the expert deemed challenging which were isolated for focused practice. However, like the sentences in Bransford’s paragraph about washing clothes (1979) in which the context was completely removed, though they are easily understood, they loose their greater meaning and value when removed from context.

When the student returns to the teacher after a lifeless week of practice, the teacher then unleashes the worst tool of all – shame. Instead of looking at the positives and seeking to build from there the typical teacher whether conscious or not will use shame as punishment for not practicing, making the student feel bad about herself in the hope that she will practice next week to avoid the same treatment. And on those weeks she does practice, she receives positive reinforcement (Behaviorism), which rarely is enough in comparison to the practice regimen that has been prescribed. Though this cycle repeats, it does not have the desired effect very often. Rather, it creates in the student a dread of playing her instrument at all. And in the cases of students who have a real love of music, they will switch instruments until they find a teacher who is actually different, and cares about his student’s education. In the worst cases, the student gives up on music altogether with feelings of defeat and lowered self-worth.

This lack of learning leaves students with absolutely no sense of progression, no sense of accomplishment. Not aware that there is another course of action, the teacher blindly continues to follow the plan, sometimes making his students play the same piece for months at a time (and for an entire year in one case study I have encountered), despite the complete lack of enthusiasm on the part of the student, the time wasted, and the frustration of all parties.

The teacher easily looses sight of the child’s potential as the student’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978) is never fully understood or addressed in the learning context. Instead, the teacher only sees what has not been accomplished in the last piece and neglects the parts the student could easily accomplish, perhaps under different circumstances, but apparently cannot under the present circumstance.

Most students learn and practice alone, without social context (Vygotsky, 1978) or a community of practice (Wenger, 1998) to lean on for support. This isolation leaves the student to judge her accomplishments only in comparison to the teacher, which can be unfair. It also becomes a stale learning environment, lacking in any kind of diversity. Such an environment can also foster the absence of joy, connectedness, and sometimes even purpose.

Finally, if a student reaches a higher level, her playing is ready for the teacher’s interpretational advice. The teacher listens to the performance and offers concrete suggestions to “fix” her interpretation of the music. Students interpretations are mostly dismissed by the teacher for “right” answers. This can further crush the student’s confidence and hinder her ability to make choices for herself.

I know that not all teachers share this process, but having studied with dozens of teachers, I feel it’s more prevalent than it should be, and in view of the destructive nature of the process in which students are systematically made to resent music, I think there is serious need for a reassessment and restructuring of the traditional system of western music instruction.

Part 2, Student-Centered Music Education.

How We Learn: Communities of Practice

As a guitarist I’ve spent hundreds of hours learning alone. Most classical guitarists perform alone too. It might seem that being a part of a community of practice is unimportant in the guitarist’s learning process.

Not true.

For many guitarists there seems to be no community of practice. Musicians who study with a private instructor have a limited community composed of instructor and student. If they play in an ensemble, the community of practice is larger. Guitarists, more than most musicians, tend to spend most of their time as solitary learners.

No one ever learns in a vacuum. Though we seem solitary, we are surrounded by examples of good technique, online repositories of music, tips, tricks, and of course, the sound of our favorite players. But this is not enough.

There are plenty of amazing players out there who learned completely alone, but the learning that happens in groups is far more profound.

Communities of Practice, according to Etienne Wenger, are:

groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and (who) learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

The last piece of Wenger’s definition is crucial. Online, we see information from thousands of players who share our interests, but there is little or no interaction. When you get 5 guitarists in a room discussing their art, sharing their triumphs and challenges, and teaching each other new things, the learning process increases in ways that are amazing. And because there is regular interaction, the solitary practice has more meaning as the guitarist prepares for the next meeting.

It’s absolutely true that you can learn anything completely alone if you have the right information. Learning within a community of practice can take you to a higher level than you could ever achieve alone.