Constructivist practice in music teaching

Music education will be most engaging and meaningful when the teaching strategies support students’ agency in their own learning (Brennan, 2013). Agency, in this sense, refers to students’ ability to define and pursue their learning goals, so that they can play a part in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal. While learner agency is often viewed as being incompatible with a structured learning environment, Brennan argues that structure and agency need not be in opposition. Ideally, we can create structures that support learner agency. Constructivist practice is designed to do just that.

Constructivist pedagogy operates by the following axiomatic assumptions:

  • Learning by doing is better than learning by being told.
  • Learning is not something done to you, but rather something done by you.
  • You do not get ideas; you make ideas. You are not a container that gets filled with knowledge and new ideas by the world around you; rather, you actively construct knowledge and ideas out of the materials at hand, building on top of your existing mental structures and models.
  • The most effective learning experiences grow out of the active construction of all types of things, particularly things that are personally or socially meaningful, that you develop through interactions with others, and that support thinking about your own thinking.
  • Learning takes place through four main activities: designing, personalizing, sharing and reflecting.

Music and flow

Before asking what types of music we should teach and how we should teach them, it is worth asking a deeper question: why teach music at all? People enjoy music, but there are plenty of other activities we enjoy that are not taught in school. What makes music so special that it is worth spending finite educational resources on? Dillon (2007) argues that the primary purpose of music is to create deeply gratifying flow
states, for both performers and listeners. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) lists the elements of flow:

  • Immediate feedback contributing to a balance between skill and challenge
  • Merged action and awareness, completely occupying students’ attention
  • Deep, sustained concentration
  • Control of the situation, and the freedom to generate possibilities
  • Loss of self-consciousness

If an activity’s challenge level is beyond than your ability, you experience anxiety. If your ability at the activity far exceeds the challenge, the result is boredom. Flow happens when challenge and ability are well-balanced, as seen in this diagram adapted from Csikszentmihalyi.


Dillon (2007) sees more at stake for music educators than just providing people pleasure. He proposes that flow is a matter of public health, calling it “a powerful weapon against depression.” Music-induced flow unifies the individual with the social. It draws out troubled, antisocial and developmentally disabled young people, and helps them integrate into the group. It gives voice to those who might find it difficult to express themselves otherwise. And flow is physiologically beneficial as well, though the precise workings of its support of physical well-being are not well understood.

Csikszentmihalyi (1990) observes that people with a self-motivated “autotelic” personality type have a predisposition to flow, an ability to seek and construct their own challenges. While some of us may be lucky enough to have been born autotelic, it is also a trait that can be learned, and taught. Autotelic people are better equipped for positive thinking and resilience. Studying music may help develop these qualities.

Flow experiences encourage autotelicism, a state that self-reinforces through pleasure. If you learn the ability to take satisfaction from self-challenge in a musical context, it is a tool you can carry with you into any other context. The challenge, then, is to create music learning experiences that encourage autotelicism. Dillon (2007) lists effective psychological motivators for music students:

  • The image of successful achievement through playing
  • Encouragement from one’s immediate cultural setting
  • Internal and personal satisfaction
  • Social relations and the reciprocal response of family and community
  • Sharing in the teacher’s love of music
  • Social meaning

Music has both analytic and intuitive aspects. The analytical components of music include technique, accuracy and clarity. The intuitive component includes music’s expressive, aesthetic content. To induce flow, the sides have to be balanced, with a productive tension between the analytical (repetitive practice, studying theory) and the intuitive (playful experimentation and improvisation).

If we take a flow-centric view of music education, we are freed from the pressure of having to decide which kinds of music should be taught. The specific means by which the music creates flow is less important than the fact that it does it at all. Whatever the kind of music being played, and whatever instruments are being used to play it, if it induces flow, then it is a worthwhile pursuit. There are many roads up the proverbial mountain, and the right road for a given student will depend heavily on their inner life and their social context. The best strategy to serve all students is to offer a wide variety of musical experience.

There is social and aesthetic value in the experience of being part of an orchestra playing classical repertoire, of the sense of belonging that comes from subsuming one’s ego into a complex machine under the conductor’s control. There is a different kind of social and aesthetic value in being in a rock trio and having to figure out all of the music by ear, making musical decisions by consensus. And there is yet another in the experience of sequencing a hip-hop track in software. Dillon proposes that the correct approach is to choose “all of the above.”

How popular musicians learn

Music educators use the term “popular music” to encompass such sundry styles as pop per se, rock, jazz, country, R&B, hip-hop, dance, and a great many other distinct styles that have widely varying degrees of actual popularity. I will use the term “popular” to refer to Afrocentric western dance music and hip-hop, though much of my argument applies to any of the styles referenced above.

Most practitioners of popular electronic dance music learned their craft informally outside of schools. Given the global reach of electronic dance musicians, their informal learning practices must be fairly effective. If we wish to introduce popular music into the classroom, we would do well to examine those practices.

Popular musicians are substantially self-taught, using ad-hoc methods cobbled together from peers, books, videos and simple trial and error. A great deal of this learning happens at the mid-level of musical morphemes—riffs, phrases, chord cycles, beat patterns and samples. Popular musicians may only approach the phoneme level of pitch and rhythm values late in their education, if ever. Typical pop music practice involves the study of specific songs that are meaningful to the student, rather than abstract chord/scale theory and technical exercises. In the absence of formal method books and courses, popular musicians must piece together information from recordings, books, online resources, word of mouth and whatever other sources are at hand. Learning may occur in a “student-teacher” setting, but it is just as likely to take place among peer networks, or alone.

Green (2002) proposes integrating the following informal, pop-oriented pedagogical practices into formal music education for young students:

  • Allowing learners to choose the music.
  • Learning by listening to and copying recordings.
  • Learning in friendship groups with minimal adult guidance.
  • Learning in personal, often haphazard ways.
  • Integrating listening, playing, singing, improvising and composing.

Ideally, music class should be a genuine community of learning that speaks to students’ musical selves. We are all too familiar with students expressing social solidarity by resisting their teachers. It would be wonderful if social solidarity motivated students to participate instead.

Learner agency and motivation

Constructivist learning is closely linked to the idea of intrinsic motivation, also known by its more common name, enthusiasm. Papert (1976) sees a good example of constructivism in action in the Brazilian escola de samba. The literal translation is “samba school,” though that term might be a misleading one, as Papert explains: “It would be more likely to describe itself as a ‘club,’ for although it is a school in the sense that people do learn there, it is not a school in that learning is no more the primary reason for participation in the Samba School then it is for membership in a baseball team or for playing any game.” Papert (1993) continues:

The samba school, although not ‘exportable’ to an alien culture, represents a set of attributes a learning environment should and could have. Learning is not separate from reality. The samba school has a purpose, and learning is integrated in the school for this purpose. Novice is not separated from expert and the experts are also learning.

Teachers need not be expert in the subject matter at hand in order to teach it using constructivist methodology. Learning alongside students is an excellent teaching method, provided that teachers exercise openness, curiosity, and vulnerability as learners.

It is a constructivist axiom that music students work best when they feel like they are making something of value. But it is a challenge to assess such creative practice in a school context. Constructivist practice is easily undermined by the pressure to “teach to the test.” A teacher in Brennan’s (2013) study puts the conflict succinctly: “How do you put a rubric on creativity?” Traditional testing methods are precisely the ones that frustrate intrinsic motivation.

Participatory music vs presentational music

Music teachers face two conflicting goals. On the one hand, they must maximize both the number of participants and those participants’ level of engagement. On the one hand; teachers must also maximize the sound quality and individual virtuosity of student performers. The two goals are mutually contradictory; one prioritizes inclusion regardless of skill level; the other prioritizes exclusion of all but the most adept performers. Very different pedagogical strategies apply, depending on whether the goal is inclusion or quality. Music in schools is traditionally presentational—prepared by musicians for others to listen to. Informal music, like that practiced on the playground, is mostly participatory—not intended for listening except by the participants. The conflict between inclusion and quality is alleviated if music teachers work with participatory rather then presentational music.

Playground music has certain characteristics that make it suitable for keeping a large group of children of various skill levels together: internal repetition, short musical forms, predictability, and a level of rhythmic stability. Repetition of the rhythmic groove and predictable musical forms are essential to getting and staying in sync with others. Social synchrony is a crucial underpinning of feelings of social comfort, belonging, and identity. In participatory performance, “these aspects of being human come to the fore” (Harwood & Marsh, 2012).

Popular dance music is closer to playground music than the more “serious” music usually taught in schools. When we ask children to learn repertoire that is unfamiliar to them while simultaneously asking them to learn it in a way that is unfamiliar and unpracticed, we place our learners and ourselves at a double disadvantage. Having students work with familiar music in a participatory format might go a long way toward stemming the epidemic rates of abandonment of music study.

Communities of practice

The reproduction and evolution of knowledge happens most effectively within communities of practice (Hoadley 2012), structured groups that give learners a sense of membership, or at least aspiration to membership. The group should include expert practitioners to whom learners have access. And the community should create space for legitimate participation by the least expert, most peripheral members. Hoadley contrasts communities of practice against the traditional organizational scheme at work in schools, with students segmented into grades, levels or tracks. The community of practice is predicated on situated theories of knowledge. In these theories, “knowledge is a property enacted by groups of people over time in shared practices, rather than the idea that knowledge is a cognitive residue in the head of an individual learner.”

Members of a community of practice need not be in close physical proximity, as long as they can communicate. The internet supports communities of practice by linking experts with learners, supporting platforms for storing and disseminating resources and tools, and enabling discussion. Communities of practice can and do coalesce around music production software. The software’s affordances, presets and included sounds constitute a repository of resources and implicit instruction on the use of those resources. Documentation, user groups, online forums and informal peer-to-peer learning round out the community. In the best case scenario, the software and its surrounding community connects novice users to expert practitioners and real-world music.

The zone of proximal development and legitimate peripheral participation

A central tenet of constructivist pedagogy is that learning is most effective when it takes place within the “zone of proximal development” (Wiggins 2001). We understand new concepts and experiences in relation to our understanding of existing concepts and prior experience. To learn, we create meaning by making connections to understandings that we already hold. If we have no frame of reference from which to draw, new information and experience may be meaningless to us. We perform best within the zone of proximal development under guidance or in collaboration with more advanced peers, rather than operating on our own.

Schools generally draw a clear separation between observing or reading about an activity and actively engaging with it, with the former preceding the latter. However, the constructivists hold that the best learning occurs where there are opportunities for active participation from the outset. Consider the way that children learn playground games. There is no formal training; children simply hang on the edge of the circle and follow along until they feel confident enough to jump in and stumble through the activity. There is no clear separation between observer and participant; simply standing in the circle implies membership. Samba schools work along similar principles. Beginner drummers begin playing on day one, tapping out simple clave patterns. As they advance, drummers work their way up to more complex foreground drumming. Both the clave and the lead parts are valuable and intrinsic components of the music. Learning in these settings is coextensive with the social experience. Peripheral participation is a robust scaffolding that students can release as they no longer need it.

The Drum Loop not an intrinsically social experience; like most iOS apps, it presumes a single user. However, it is designed to offer the software equivalent of legitimate peripheral participation. Rather than being presented with a blank slate, beginners begin working with real drum patterns immediately. The quantized rhythmic grid makes it impossible to produce results that are completely unmusical. Since the included drum patterns are drawn from actual practice, they foster a sense of a community of advanced practitioners that the user can learn from. Since users progress through the Drum Loop’s exercises at their own pace and in the order of their choosing, they are free to operate within their personal zone of proximal development. The goal is to create a learning experience so supportive and dynamically calibrated that it should hardly feel like “learning” at all.

Fighting option paralysis

Computers and synthesizers give musicians unprecedented control over the most minute parameters of audio. Nowhere is more detailed control possible than in audio programming environments like SuperCollider, Max/MSP and ChucK. These tools offer the skilled musician/programmer virtually unlimited sonic freedom. However, that freedom does not always result in richer creative output. The most sophisticated audio production tools can just as easily stifle creativity under the weight of option paralysis. For this reason, music made with the most advanced tools seldom makes it past the experimentation stage into fully-realized works, and performances too often take the form of technical demos.

Simple, limited interfaces have two major virtues. First, a small feature set can be learned quickly. Second, the most obvious uses will quickly become tiresome, forcing the user to push the tool’s limits. Magnusson (2010) speaks approvingly of interfaces that “proscribe complexity in favor of a clear, explicit space of gestural trajectories and musical scope.” If presented with a finite feature set, users are more likely to move quickly past the knob-twiddling stage into a search for musical expressiveness.

The virtues of tinkering

When we hear the word “tinkering,” we typically think of aimless fiddling. Resnick and Rosenbaum (2013) would instead have us consider tinkering to be a valuable pedagogical method. They define tinkering as working without a clear goal or purpose, or without making noticeable progress. While classroom activities are usually highly planned and predictable, tinkering is a playful, exploratory, iterative style of engaging with a problem or project. Resnick and Rosenbaum advocate tinkering in the specific context of teaching of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). While the popular image of these disciplines is one of meticulously structured planning, real-world STEM work is considerably more ad-hoc in practice. Expert practitioners in STEM disciplines typically employ much more tinkering in their work than is common in STEM classroom activities. The same is true for music.

How should we design pedagogical materials for tinkerability? Resnick and Rosenbaum list three qualities that such materials should offer: immediate feedback, fluid experimentation, and open exploration. These three descriptors also apply to ideal constructivist music teaching materials. The Drum Loop is designed for maximal tinkerability. All digital music production environments offer immediate feedback; the consequences of user actions can be heard instantaneously. The Drum Loop encourages a spirit of experimentation by giving users preprogrammed rhythms and inviting them to find out what happens if they add or remove drum hits, speed or slow the tempo, play it back on different drum kits, and so on. While the Drum Loop’s expressive possibilities are limited by design, ideally users will graduate to more sophisticated and open-ended production environments.

10 thoughts on “Constructivist practice in music teaching

  1. This excellent post is particular relevant for me as I lead a community-based samba group on Salt Spring Island, Canada, where I live. As others have mention, effective instruction incorporates both direct-instruction (DI) and a discovery (constructivist) approach. One of the main issues with traditional instruction, as you pointed out, is the often long delay between observation (e.g., listening to a lecture) and participation. Direct Instruction is predicated on a a more rapid model, lead, and test–a call and response–approach, which is quite prevalent in non-formal music instruction. In my case, I might first demonstrate (model) a rhythm, or a part of it, if it is complex, then play it with the other members (lead), and then have them play on their own while I observe (test). Learning a rhythm is often a succession of “call and response”, as we piece the ensemble together. There is not a whole lot of room for people to be “creative” at first as the various rhythms we play have fairly specific parts. Only once, after they are proficient at their designated part, does it make sense to encourage experimentation through a more constructivist approach.

  2. I loved reading this – thanks so much for writing it, it’s very worthwhile as a fellow researcher to independently come across gems that align so strongly with my own beliefs and practices!

  3. Ethan, are you still taking comments on this post? It’s very interesting, thank you. I’m interested to know what your thoughts are on constructivism in the classrooms working towards externally assessed qualifications (like GCSEs in the UK)? Do you think constructivist music classes can be assessed externally by pre-determined assessment criteria set out in the published syllabus?

    • I am indeed taking comments on this post. I do think you can assess constructivist classes according to whatever set of standards you need to be following, it just takes a little creativity. When I teach music technology classes, I set project constraints to make sure that students engage all the concepts I’m supposed to be teaching them. They have complete musical freedom, but they have to do a song using only MIDI and software instruments, or using found songs, or whatever. If I had to cover particular music theory concepts, I would do something similar: “You need to make a track that uses this progression,” but again, with total freedom outside of that constraint.

  4. Of the five axioms of constructivist pedagogy you list above, doesn’t only the third truly entail constructivism? The other four are consistent with a realist pedagogy of discovery, it seems to me.

    I used to teach German at a university, and I think that part of what my students did was to construct a representation of the language in their minds. But that was only part of what they did. They were, if successful, also adjusting their representation of it to more closely approximate the language as spoken by others. They were discovering the language already spoken by millions of people, and it enabled them to communicate with these millions.

    Discovery (whether student-initiated or by instruction) and representation construction complement each other. There is a real world out there.

    • Music isn’t language. There’s a right and a wrong way to speak German. There is no right or wrong way to make creative music. Internal discovery is all there is. Your comment applies to learning something like classical tonal theory and voice-leading, which is more like the rules of grammar.

  5. Good post, thank you for the information and citations. While I don’t agree with everything constructivist theory seems to offer, it may be one side of the coin, or cube, that leads to optimal education in all kinds of music settings. Your post seemed to focus more on informal music settings, which there is a lot to be said for. It would be nice to know how constructivist theory effects classroom music teachers.

    • The constructivist approach is to make the music classroom less formal. The goal is to have students working on creative projects with the teacher there to facilitate, not for students to sit passively while the teacher lectures, or to follow the band director’s instructions without question.

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