Children learn language by listening to people speaking it and then trying to repeat what they heard and making up their own sentences.

In classical music education the focus has been on repeating what you read in a book with sheet music. Actually, you first learn to speak a bit before you read. In classical music education you focus on repeating the exact things you see in the book with sheet music. Actually, you must learn to arrange or create your own music like the children who create their own sentences. A child doesn't wait until he goes to school and is taught grammar before creating his/her own sentences but this how it happens in classical music education.

Can anyone please explain why this is?

  • 14
    First there is not one single method of teaching music. There are different schools and every teacher can teach his own way and style. Then you can't compare everyday learning with learning in school. This happens moment by moment, studying is systematically. There are parallels of music education and learning a language. As a child learns to speak needs to develop the basic functions speaking, writing and reading. The same in music education. Learning to play an instrument can go different ways. It can be by discovering and improvising or systematically ( learning rules of grammar). Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 15:32
  • 5
    I dated a linguist once who specialized in language acquirement. The mental process by which children acquire their first language is, as far as we know, unique to language acquirement. It is not possible to teach a second language to a person who is older than about three years old in the same way children acquire their first language. Therefore, it’s even more impossible to teach anything else that same way. Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 16:06
  • I think all the answers are in the same direction: accidental learning versus systematical teaching. What we should keep in mind : Not everyone is learning music to become a composer or an orchestra musician. Most of us would like to enjoy music playing as a sense full hobby. Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 17:14
  • 1
    From my experience listening to music on Musescore.com, it's shockingly hard to write decent music without prior education. I suspect this is why children are not allowed the equivalent of "creating their own sentences" until they ask to do so.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 21:46
  • 5
    The Suzuki Method is based on that you learn to play similar to the way you learn to speak, so you play before you read. Many classical musicians started that way. But it requires a strong active participation from the parents and it is for children at pre school age. Children starting when they are in school age will want to be less dependent on their parents' active participation in the lessons, which means the students must be able to relate to the reference material themselves which again means ability to read music becomes a natural part of the learning process. Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 23:10

7 Answers 7


There are probably a few reasons for this. First of all I agree with your point that, like a language, it makes sense to play and make up your own sentences before learning the formalities of grammar and spelling. I see music as a language and feel that kids are better off exploring before formal training.

Although we learn out first language the way you describe once we get older many people do better with a formal list of words and rules for grammar. I think you learn a new language faster this way because you now understand how the patterns of one language work and there is significant overlap, especially if the languages have a common root like Latin, Old German, Sanskrit etc.

But music is different so the analogy I just made may fail. I think the learning method you are asking about is most common in the western classical musical tradition. In this context one's future is most likely in an orchestral setting where sight reading and following a conductor is what gets you ahead. So if you take lessons in violin, oboe, etc, from a classical instructor this may be the path you are set on as that is the path they are on, and so on.

I should also point out that perhaps you question is a red herring. It does in fact depend on what you are calling "classical". The tradition in flamenco guitar (some might say its true intended cultural expression) would probably be more like your initial language example. This is the case in many other forms of ethnic folk music. You learn to play the instrument (no easy task) by learning simple tunes from a teacher or by ear and expand on that in time with more complex songs and techniques. Classical Indian music involve learning melodic patterns, Ragas, and rhythmic patterns, Taals. There is some form of written expression for instructing musicians how to play these, but not like in western music. I think the development of large choirs and orchestras required a standardization of notation across all instruments and a common method for getting everyone ready to play together. There isn't much room in a symphony for individual improv like there is in folk music, flamenco, Indian raga, etc.

  • There's some evidence which actually suggests trying as an adult to learn a language similar to how a child learns a first language (working from images, building up from basic words, etc but not translating and not heavy grammar rules) is more effective for actual retained knowledge.
    – eques
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 13:21
  • As eques says, actually there's not much evidence learning grammar helps you learn to actually speak a language, at any age. The most effective way to learn is to read a lot, and go to bars and things and try to speak to people, while being ready to make mistakes and learn from them. Learning is doing when it comes to languages.
    – crobar
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 1:11
  • None of that works if you have dyslexia or apd.
    – user50691
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 1:32

You can't compare music education (especially not the teaching of playing an instrument) with learning/teaching a language - even if music may be compared with a language.

It would be more appropriate to compare learning an instrument with learning to read and writing. Some children learn to read or write just by playing and discovering but most people learn it systematically and some even not then.

And even if most children have had 9 years of singing and reading at school they leave school as adult musical illiterates. But children who have been trained systematically in music and play an instrument are able to read music. This needs a lot of practice and especially motivation.

There have always been good musicians and artists who have learnt an instrument by themselves and with no lessons of systematic education: just by imitation, invention and listening to others. But many of them wouldn't have become composers or writers.

What you're probably mean is that a child would be more motivated to learn an instrument when it could just copy someone other and had more freedom in learning and playing like e.g. football. This chance is given today with all these apps and youtube videos. They can be very helpful and benefit - especially for motivation.

If this is your concern I would give you support. I've been music teacher and working with children all my life. And I know how important it is to find the right balance between drill/practice and relax/joy. (I don't write fun and I say: motivation is all! Intrinsic motivation: This means the joy and satisfaction one receives when playing an instrument or listening to music and realizing individual progress (independent of external pressure or success and applause).

Actually, you must learn to arrange or create your own music like the children who create their own sentences.

What should a child create as it has not learnt the elements and basics of the language of music. If his parents are singing baby songs it might be to find out the tune on a keyboard or find out to play some triads. This will probably all. But now it will have to learn to reflect what it is playing and to understand the "grammar" of music and this happens most successful by systematic learning and training.

A child doesn't wait until he goes to school and are taught grammar before creating his/her own sentences but this how it happens in classical music education.

If your child has a music teacher at school who insists in systematically training you should be glad! But the will of learning must come from the side of the children. And this is increasing when they have the opportunity of joyful playing.


Although there is already a selected answer, I wanted to provide some additional historical information. I've recently been reading about 18th century music pedagogy (particularly Sanguinetti's The Art of Partimento, and Gjerdingen's Music in the Galant Style) and your question fits in really well with what I've been reading.

In particular, music theory in the 18th century was taught in a very practical, empirical style, via the practice of improvisational accompaniment to a thoroughbass. As you became proficient with accompanying, you would naturally pick up on various voice leading patterns that you would see repeated over and over again, much like how a child learns language through repetitive use and immersion. Eventually, you would move on to accompanying a partimento which was a step beyond simple figured bass accompaniment, in that it also entailed improvising melodies and using imitation, in order to make a proper piece of music (such as a sonata movement, or even a fugue).

This tradition was especially prominent in Naples, which at the time, was one of the primary centers for musical learning in the world. Here there were multiple "orphanages" sponsored by aristocrats that took in children and taught them various useful trades, one of which was music composition. Indeed, Gjerdingen stresses the point that 18th century music wasn't so much a matter of personal expression, as it was a craft to create a product for a patron. "The notion that a sad piece by the court composer was about the composer's sadness would have seemed just as strange as the idea that a tart sauce prepared by the court chef was about the chef's tartness."

Sanguinetti also describes the later responses of 19th century musicians who looked back upon this practice and asked a question much similar to yours:

whether the better system to introduce to a student the art of composition is that used formerly in Naples, i.e. to study the harmony practically through the accompaniment of a through bass (partimento); or rather, as often happens nowadays in imitation of the Germans, to study the harmony starting from theory.

At least one response, from the Resident Academician Ettore De-Champs "answered that a study of harmony, as well as of languages, that begins from the theoretical side is detrimental and cannot result in authentic command of the subject." (Snaguinetti's summary of De-Champs'). Another response from one Riccardo Gandolfi claims that theory had been taught alongside the practice, but that it had only been taught orally. Gandolfi also points out that partimenti were old fashioned, and did not adequately address 19th century harmonies:

[Partimenti] do not include what is required for the study of modern harmony. There one cannot find a great number of chords that are common now, such as those altered, in root position or in inversion; there never appear dissonances in the bass other than the third inversion of the seventh chord, and the ninth chords are never employed in all their inversions; as for modulations, only those to relative keys are employed.... Now I think that in the teaching of harmony practice cannot be severed from theory, the first being an application of the second.

Finally, Sanguinetti quotes part of an 1877 essay by one Michele Ruta, who seems to have thought the early masters were keeping something secret by not teaching theory:

Even if the study of harmony was taught through that of the partimento -- therefore without principles, and in a totally empirical way -- I nonetheless believe that the great masters who taught it did not ignore the true sources of harmony and the true principles from which their ingenuous, little rules sprang... I cannot understand, however, why they, who could well have regulated the teaching of harmonic science otherwise, chose to reduce it to a lengthy series of exercises with neither logic nor principles... Sometimes I suspect too that those masters of harmony would attribute such an importance to the figured bass, without explaining the principles, in order to be, for as long as possible, the only oracles able to interpret those enigmatic figures.

So the short (and overly simplified) answer to your question as to "why music is taught this way," seems to be a combination of:

  1. The decline of the aristocracy who could afford to sponsor the institutions that provided years of dedicated instruction that such a method required,
  2. The resulting need to be able to target teaching towards amateurs in a shorter time,
  3. The increased complexity of the music theory, which used more types of chords and modulations in increasingly freer ways,
  4. The rationalist, scientific, and progressive German mindset of the 19th century that favored theory over practice, and
  5. The entrenchment of said mindset becoming the pedagogical tradition in the years since.

Fortunately, we are now beginning to rediscover these older methods, and dust them off. Your description of children learning to create their own musical sentences reminded me very much of this video of the (then-child) prodigy Alma Deutcher performing a back-and-forth improvisation with her teacher Tobias Cramm. My understanding is that Alma's father is a linguist who had read Gjerdingen's book, so when his daughter showed a desire and aptitude to learn music, he looked for a teacher who could specifically teach her using a partimento-based approach -- which was difficult to find. More recently (and she's still only a teenager) she's become a composer who has written several operas, her own violin concerto and piano concerto, and several other works.


Language learning is innate* - everybody can do it & everybody learns the language to which they're first exposed without initial tuition.

Tuition comes years after first exposure & simple speech patterns.

By the time a child is 7, that initial language learning capability has diminished by factors. Learning a second language at 7 is possible, & still relatively easy compared to learning one at 18.

Music is taught somewhere between the 7 - 18 methods. Musical 'grammar' is not really taught until a basic grasp of "see the note, play the note" has been grasped.

Many people, conversely, are self-taught & come to the grammar later. This then needs to correspond more closely to the 18-year-old method, as a second language.

*If you want [much] more info on this read Noam Chomsky, or a much easier ride, Steven Pinker - The Language Instinct.

  • 1
    Unfortunately, not everyone can acquire a first language in the normal way. Infants who are impaired in any way related to hearing or speech may struggle their whole lives to learn a first language when their impairment prevented them from acquiring one in the usual way. But aside from those cases, yes language acquirement is a natural and mainly automatic process. Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 16:09
  • I thought I wouldn't unnecessarily complicate things. There are also people who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, though all that usually entails is them never doing more than a bit of painful [for everyone else] karaoke ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 16:20
  • Language is not innate. The ability to remember sound sequences and observe reactions to them probably is, but there are still flame wars among anthropologists and among animal biologists over the division between "call signals" and language. Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 13:40
  • Just claiming “it’s not innate cos people argue about it” is about as much use to the discussion as a chocolate fireguard.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 14:05

Classical music tradition has something of a separation between the activities of composition and performance, with the score as the 'interface' between the two functions.

Most of what you describe relates to learning to play. With traditional instruments and in the absence of computer/recording technology, it would be very hard to compose without some playing skills - and at the very least, without having a good enough understanding of the score to be able to write scores that other players understand. So it makes some sense for composition to be taught after a reasonable standard in performance has been attained.

You could imagine that people could just 'play to' each other in the absence of a score, in an improvisatory way - and of course that kind of tradition does exist, but is seen more as the folk music tradition, rather than the classical music tradition.


I submit that learning by reading is just one method that we learn to play music. I've known plenty of musicians in popular music that learned chord patterns and progressions and started playing music pretty much the same way they learned to talk, by hearing the sound and figuring out how to make the sound themselves. This method is not considered formal education, but neither is learning to talk. Learning to read is considered formal education, at least if the learning is conducted in a classroom led by a certified teacher, and it seems the same with learning to play music by learning to read music. It is considered to be a formal music education, but I disagree that it's the only way music is taught or learned.


So much depends on how you are raised and taught and whether you're asking about formal or informal learning. The question is selectively comparing informal, conversational language with formal, recital type music. But you need to compare apples to apples.

People may learn everyday language informally, but that won't work for anything sophisticated. Actors memorize and then perform a Shakespeare play from written material. Any sophisticated conversation will be based on lots of reading. A similar comparison can be made to music. Lots - seems like most - musicians "play by ear." But people don't play fugues or symphonies by ear, because that sophisticated music needs to be written.

As far as formal teaching and reading are concerned, I think there is more similarity between language and music education than your question implies.

Around age 2 you can start reading books with a kid. You point to letters and words on the page and get them aware of writing. Contrary to what your question implies children usually start reading language at any early stage. Certainly most kids will learn to read language before they would ever learn to read music notation.

Around age 5 a kid may start music education in school. It starts with rhythm, clapping and sing along stuff. Notation is introduced in the simplest form, learning note values. Later if an instrument is learned, it starts with simple staff reading like Hot Cross Buns. That notation level is similar to language learning starting with the ABCs and sight words.

If you look at the sequence of teaching both language and music, you will see both include some elementary written form at a very early stage.

I think it is fair to compare the amount of recitation and rote learning versus creative writing and improvisation is included in either language or music teaching. Typical music education could probably add more improvisation and simple composition. But prepare for lots of banality. How many K-12 essays are examples of really good writing? Don't expect better than that with creative music making in school.

Finally, I feel things boil down to one concern: literacy. Illiteracy is not a virtue. People learn a lot of language informally, but they also learn to read starting somewhere between 3-5 years old. If you learn music, but don't learn any reading system, that's a problem. I don't think it has to be staff notation, it could be tablature, provided you can read from it.

Why is music taught by reading sheet music?

"Classical" music works from written scores, because the music is sophisticated enough to require written notation. You're taught to read so you can read those scores.