Why To Teach Piano Using A 'Sound Before Sight' Approach

The Theory Behind Teaching Piano Using A ‘Sound Before Sight’ Approach

Whether it’s Pestalozzi, Mason, Suzuki or Gordon the idea of teaching aurally before getting students to read goes back hundreds of years.  Yet many teachers tend to teach music from the notation first and aurally second.  When it comes to a practical approach of teaching sound before sight it can feel a bit like the chicken vs. the egg dilemma.  Regardless of what side you listen to there is no clear resolution.  Or, is there?

The Main Theories

Even if you are a “go with the flow, I don’t plan” type teacher, you still have a personal, educational theory.  It may be a conscious theory or an unconscious theory, but you have one.  It may be based on how you were taught, your teaching experiences or reading up on the scintillating textbooks of educational theory (don’t worry, the word “scintillating” is facetious).

Since all teaching comes from theory, let’s take a look at some of the big names.  Technically, some of these are methods but for the purposes of this article, we are looking at the philosophy or theory behind the method.

Pestalozzian Theory of Education

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi is known as the “Father of Modern Education”.  And, his theory of education is from the late 1700s to early 1800s.

His theory of education highlights:

  • Everyone has the ability and right to learn.
  • Use a child-centered vs. teacher-centered approach.
  • Children need to be active in their learning with the ability to interact with objects and direct experiences to explore.
  • The educational triangle of student, teacher and parent working together.

There is much more to his theory and you can read more here.

Lowel Mason

Lowell Mason is considered the “Father of Music Education”.  This Bostonian not only started the first U.S. school that was fully focused on teaching music, but he also became superintendent of Boston’s public school music programs.  In 1838, he wrote “Manual of the Boston Academy of Music” which borrowed heavily from the Pestalozzian theory of education for their school curriculum guidelines. 

His highlights are:

  • Sound before sight or theory.
  • Guide students rather than lecturing.
  • Focus on one thing at a time.
  • Have a systematic approach.
  • Once a student has internalized a concept, then give them the theory.

You can read more about his theory here, but these concepts were introduced to me through “The Ways Children Learn Music” by Eric Bluestine.

The Suzuki Method

In the early 1900’s, Shinichi Suzuki realized that children learn their mother-tongue (or first language) aurally before they ever are expected to read or write.  He used this same approach to create the Suzuki system which is still in place today.

He felt that:

  • Every child can learn music through a “mother-tongue approach” with sound (listening) before sight (reading notes) as the main approach.
  • Parents should be involved in music education, just like they are involved in their child learning to speak in the mother tongue.
  • Listening to music repeatedly internalizes it so students can focus on creating music, not all the tiny details of reading every note/symbol.
  • A systematic approach allows students to learn music theory and technique through actual music.  This provides a holistic, more interactive approach to learning music.

You can read more about these highlights here.

Music Learning Theory

Edwin Gordon is considered the pioneer of this approach, though he is not the only researcher that was involved in its creation.  Gordon’s books on MLT (Music Learning Theory) began being published in the early 2000s.  While this theory is considered “new”, it is based on research and ideas from much earlier.

Music Learning Theory highlights include:

  • Sound before sight or writing.
  • Students should continually be given opportunities to audiate (thinking about music sounds) not just imitate (blindly repeating).
  • Tonal and rhythm patterns are explored in a variety of ways to build a toolbox of ideas.
  • Movement is a cornerstone activity that guides students to feel macro and micro beats.
  • Using a systematic approach to introducing concepts ensures students can continually build on what they already know so learning is not overwhelming or stressful.
  • Instead of staying in one meter, tonality or genre for long periods of time, students should hear different examples so they can hear the difference of ‘what is not’ and ‘what is’.

To find out more about this theory, you can visit GIML, but I would highly recommend reading Amy’s “MLT for Piano Teachers” articles at Piano Pantry and Joy’s description of what MLT is at Color In My Piano.  They are both trained in MLT and have a much deeper understanding of this theory than I do.

Other Theories

You will notice that I haven’t mentioned Orff, Kodály and others in this article.  This isn’t to say that they aren’t important in their own right.  Or, suggest that I don’t use aspects of their theories in my own studio.  But, this article could go on to infinity if I keep going.  Right?

What I am hoping you’ve noticed is that while each theory mentioned above is unique, they all have commonalities.

Sound Before Sight

Many teachers have added rote songs to their studios and maybe even used a no-beginner approach in their studios. Since adding both of these approaches to my studio, I’ve noticed that those beginners progress much faster than those I started on a ‘traditional’ approach.

But, on the whole, do we actually follow the advice of teaching sound before sight?  Are we really following the advice from the theories above?

Yes and no. 

I know in my own teaching that this is something I still struggle with at times.  Especially when life gets busy or I’m tired.  It’s oh-so-easy to fall into old patterns of explaining and having students imitate rather than the hard work of guiding my students through exploration.  As much as I know we ALL (students and me as the teacher) need to move around during lessons, it can be all too simple to plunk myself down and become the sage on the … bench.

What is this like for you?

Every theory listed has one thing in common.

Learning how to play an instrument should be experiential.  It should be about guiding (not teaching) so students become musicians in their own right.

Let’s look at our students.  How many students struggle when music is placed in front of them, but often can play at much higher levels than they can read?  We know sound before sight works.

But, words give meaning and provide a common vocabulary for us to talk about the music.  Online teaching showed the importance of students using measure numbers to explain where in the music they need guidance.

How Do We Put Sound Before Sight?

So, back to our chicken and egg dilemma relating to sound before sight.  Is it possible to answer which one should come first?  Yes.   Sound.  Is it possible to answer HOW one should come first?  Not as easily. 

How do we put sound before sight when so much of what we teach is based on written music, specific vocabulary and theory that (let’s face it) often is easier to draw out visually than rely solely on sound.  There is no one approach that will cover everything.  But, we can start small and build from there.

What questions do you have about using a ‘sound before sight’ approach to teaching piano?

Let me know in the comments below!

In my studio, one of the ways we have explored sound before sight is through chords.  They are the backbone of Western music and a jumping-off point to playing many of the Top 40 songs my students want to play.

I’ve created a systematic 10-week set of warm-ups that move from sound to sight while getting students up off the bench, singing, playing and exploring chords like they never have! To purchase your copy of these powerhouse warm-ups, click here.

“If You Can Sing Chords, You Can Play Chords”: Piano Warm-Ups

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