As a piano teacher, one of my favorite parts of teaching is to observe each student and see how their own unique strengths and gifts come into play at the piano. I especially like to take note of which learning modalities suit each student the best and to help them discover ways to use them to their advantage.
I’m sure many of us naturally identify as being either visual or auditory learners. Kinesthetic or tactile learning are other modalities that you might relate to.
Once we understand our own preferences for learning, it’s easy box ourselves into the style that feels most comfortable.
However, it’s so important to learn to tap into a variety of learning modalities, especially at the piano where there are so many sights, sounds and layers of information to take in.
Let’s explore what each learning modality looks like at the piano, then find ways that we can challenge ourselves or our students to explore new ways of learning.
Learning the piano is a highly visual activity. There are actually a couple of different visual components to learning the piano.
It’s obvious that learning music from a written page is very visual, but there is a lot to observe visually on the piano keyboard as well.
Here are some things to note about visual learners at the piano:
- They are drawn to their sheet music
- They become strong sight readers
- They quickly notice patterns within music notation
- They easily recognize visual patterns on the piano keys
- They like to keep their sheet music organized and easily accessible
It’s possible that traditional piano lessons have favored visual learners for years. For a long time, there has been a heavy emphasis on learning the piano through reading. Most piano methods are clearly designed and created with visual learners in mind.
While visual learners often do well at the piano, they often miss some important elements of learning music.
For example, the obvious visual cues that they are observing can easily stay very external. Sometimes visual learners have trouble internalizing the music, or taking the music from the page into their body. This means they might lack continuity as they read the music, or that they simply aren’t feeling the pulse or expressive qualities of the music.
A lot of visual learners become very reliant on their sheet music. They may not trust their musical intuition or they might be scared to follow their ear as they play.
Auditory learners often come to the piano with an entirely different perspective than visual learners.
Auditory learners often have a good internal understanding of music to begin with, but they don’t necessarily know what to do with it once they are at the piano.
Often times, auditory learners will spend a lot of time tinkering around at the piano and can figure out how to play melodies by ear and can even harmonize those melodies, just by intuitively finding notes that sound good together. Usually at this point, they may or may not understand which notes or chords they are playing and they usually don’t have the vocabulary to communicate much about what they played. A lot of time their technique is lacking because they just kind of figured things out on their own. Despite all that they don’t know, they do know that they can replicate the sound of a song that they can hear in their mind.
This usually completely baffles the strong visual learners. To visual learners who had to read and interpret a page in order to create music, it can seem magical that someone could just go to the piano and create nice sounds without much guidance.
Here are some qualities of auditory learners at the piano:
- They hear music in their mind and make it their goal to create that same music on the piano, no matter how complex it is.
- They can often play some songs or riffs on the piano, even before they take lessons.
- They absorb a lot of details of what a teacher demonstrates on the piano and will often ask the teacher to demonstrate something several times so they can make their observations.
- There is often a disconnect between the written page and auditory learners.
- They organize their music in their mind, but don’t always have the words or symbols to explain how it works.
Auditory learners often get frustrated in the early stages of learning piano. Often times, they have already figured out how to play some interesting tunes on the piano, then a teacher will stick a super easy book in front of them. The music from the book often sounds very immature or childish compared to the music they have already figured out.
Auditory learners may or may not see the value of going through all of those preliminary learning steps in most piano methods. It can be really hard to find a balance of learning to start at the beginning, but also finding the right challenges to help auditory learners create satisfying music.
Officially, kinesthetic and tactile learning are 2 different modalities, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll combine them into one category to focus on the touch or physical aspect of learning the piano.
Kinesthetic learners often learn through large movements, while tactile learners enjoy working with finer motor skills using their hands. You can see how both of these modalities are very relevant at the piano.
I’ve notice that a lot of piano teachers are often so focused on the visual and auditory layers of piano lessons that these modalities often get ignored.
Here are ways that kinesthetic and tactile learners can excel in piano lessons:
- They find it helpful to dance or move to the meter of their music. For example, dancing a waltz helps them feel 3/4 time.
- They shape and feel of the piano keys under their hands is very memorable to them.
- They enjoying playing games and doing activities that reinforce concepts they learned at the piano.
- They quickly learn the physical aspect of their music. They easily remember how to play by memory through repetition and “muscle memory”.
Most students will give their teachers verbal cues to indicate that they are a visual or auditory learner. For example, visual learners might ask the teacher to point where they are on a page. Or, auditory learners will ask to hear a demonstration.
Kinesthetic and tactile learners usually don’t vocalize their preference for movement. They won’t tell you that it would be helpful for them to clap a rhythm or get up from the piano bench and move to the music to help them learn it better.
You can see how these learners might be perceived as fidgety or distracted when they’re stuck on a piano bench.
One thing that I’ve observed as a teacher is that nearly every students benefits from physical movement away from the piano in order to learn piano concepts.
Cognitive learning isn’t technically a learning modality, but I wanted to make sure to include the cognitive aspect of learning the piano because it’s just one more way to round out how students are learning at the piano.
Thinking about our music as we play it is crucial to learning and playing it well. But, many students seem to prefer to skip over the thinking part of learning music. Learning music theory is often perceived as boring or confusing so a lot of students resist learning the facts that are holding all of their music together.
Learners in each of the modalities above experience music theory differently. Let’s use the example of learning to play different chords on the piano.
Visual learners can usually visualize the shape of a chord on the page and translate it to the piano. They may even use a bit of photographic memory and picture what the written chord looks like as they play it. They see patterns between the black and white keys and remember how those shapes and colors relate to the chord they are playing.
Auditory learners, on the other hand, are less in tune with the visual patterns represented by chords but they usually have a strong sense of how chords move and progress through music. They can usually figure out how to move quickly between chords and even if they don’t cognitively understand the function of a chord, they have an innate sense of how some chords work together.
Kinesthetic and tactile learners will feel the shape of the chord under their hand. The movement that their hand makes as it moves from chord to chord is memorable. Playing and moving between chords feels easy for these types of learners because it is a physical motion.
In all three examples, you can see how playing chords can feel easy and logical to different types of learners, but none of them necessarily understand what chord they are playing, how it is built or how it functions within their music.
Without these key pieces of information about chords, pianists can often find themselves stuck. Some music might feel too challenging because it the notes feel very random. It can be hard to see, hear or feel how certain notes work together as a chord.
Even more commonly, it becomes hard to remember music when you have no awareness about the structure of the music.
Most teachers have seen students nail a performance but fumble over the final chord of their piece. It’s frustrating to watch and almost always happens because the student has little or no awareness of the tonal center of their music. If they were cognitively present to the key of their music, a single tonic note or the tonic chord in any inversion could be a easy, satisfying ending, even if it’s not the “right” ending. But without this knowledge, a student can be completely stuck without knowing how to end their piece.
Taking a cognitive approach to learning music involves these things, and more:
- Knowing the meter of your piece
- Knowing the key signature of your piece
- Knowing the scale that matches the key signature of your piece
- Understanding scale degrees and the role each tone plays within the scale
- Knowing how to build major, minor and seventh chords
- Understanding chord progressions and how chords move to create music
- Understanding chord inversions and how to identify them
- Understanding the role of tonic and dominant within music
- Understanding the form of your piece
Of course, this just scratches the surface of the many things to know about music that we are learning.
Combining All Modalities With Cognitive Skills
We’ve already mentioned that it’s easy to get stuck in your learning modality box. For some reason, there seems to be some unnecessary competition between learning modalities.
It’s like visual learners think auditory learners are cheating by not reading the notes, or auditory learners feel like they have a superior musical gift.
This type of thinking about learning modalities is completely off base. There is truly not one right or wrong way to learn music. And of course, there is a lot to learn from each modality.
Really, the best way to learn music is to combine sight, sound and touch with thinking.
One of my favorite goals to work towards with students is to have “hearing eyes” and “seeing ears”. This means we learn to visualize what we are hearing to imagine what it would look like on a score. And, as we look at our sheet music, we can imagine what it would sound like.
We should be equally in touch with the kinesthetic side of playing music. And of course, having a cognitive understanding of what notes are played and how they function in the music is a crucial piece of the puzzle.
You can see how tapping into all four sides equally can set you or your students up for success by helping to avoid mental blocks, memory lapses and unbalanced perspectives to your music.