Learner-Led Approaches to Music Teaching

“Talent is a pursued interest. In other words, anything that you’re willing to practise, you can do.” – Bob Ross

Each of our students is unique. When it comes to music, some students live for it, some can take it or leave it. A tiny minority never listen to music for recreation. Bob Ross says that talent is a pursued interest. So the question is, how do we teach it in a way that interests and engages every student?

A traditional approach focuses on reading score, critical listening and revolves around Western art music. A more modern approach will include some of these elements, and focus on popular music, often with teacher-prescribed songs and materials.

But what about incorporating informal learning skills into the classroom? Trying to replicate that phenomenon of young bedroom musicians learning their favourite songs by ear, playing together with friends and thus engendering a virtuous cycle of musical development?

Musical Futures is an organisation that helps schools provide ‘learner-led’ opportunities to make music. Students choose their friend groups, a song they wish to learn, their instrumentation and get to work. In this model, the teacher provides modelling, on-the-fly tutoring and feedback rather than handing out worksheets or pointing at staves.

Hallam, Creech & McQueen (2017) conducted a three-year survey of 733 students and 28 Music teachers who had embraced and implemented the Musical Futures model. The results showed an overall improvement in student attainment:

Teachers reported that all students were more engaged when they chose their own pieces to learn:

“The independence that students were given and the opportunities that they had for working on projects of their own choosing were seen as important in supporting progress particularly for those who the teachers described as moderate and lower attaining students and boys.”

My own experience of curating musical material for a whole class has often led to a mixed reaction from my students. With younger years, this tends to manifest in a boy-girl divide, with some songs favoured more strongly by one group or the other. So I can see how a learner-led model would be universally beneficial in terms of engagement.

However, the study also identified at least one disadvantage:

“…some teachers expressed concern that Musical Futures was not meeting the needs of those pupils who they perceived had high level traditional musical skills.”

In these circumstances, the researchers suggest to assign the more talented students to a new instrument, or encourage them to take a leadership role within the friend group.

Lamont & Maton (2008) suggested an ‘elite code’ which contributed to low uptake of Music in later study (GCSE in the UK). This is an unsurprising effect of rigid traditional teaching, where weaker students believe they aren’t ‘musical’ from an early age, and this lack of confidence leads to poor performance throughout their curriculum experience.

I believe that, in the hands of a willing and able Music teacher,  a learner led approach will give these students confidence and enrich their musical and personal lives, as well as encouraging the further development of more gifted students. And what’s more, if students can choose music that’s important to them, making music is more likely to become a pursued interest, another string to their bow, a talent.



Bob Ross – The Joy Of Painting (TV Series)

Hallam, S., Creech, A., & McQueen, H. (2017). Can the adoption of informal approaches to learning music in school music lessons promote musical progression? British Journal of Music Education,34(2), 127-151. doi:10.1017/S0265051716000486

Lamont, A., & Maton, K. (2008). Choosing music: Exploratory studies into the low uptake of music GCSE. British Journal of Music Education, 25(3), 267-282. doi:10.1017/S0265051708008103


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