Can music be taught in a linear way? 

I recently had a student that attended a business seminar. In this seminar, the attendants learned about a model that was developed to convey ideas in a very logical and linear manner to get your point across in a very concise manner and to avoid confusion. 

The model is called: the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto and it´s a model in which information flows in a pyramid shape from top to bottom, starting with one topic and a big overview and then splitting up into more topics and subtopics as information flows down. All ideas that belong to a certain topic are always grouped under that topic. 

Now the question is: Can music be taught this way? Well, not really, but such a model can be useful in some instances. 

To be fair one has to emphasise that the model was NOT developed to teach such a complex topic as music, but was created for everyday business documents, to-the-point memos, clear reports, successful proposals and dynamic presentations – according to Barbara Minto´s description. 

I will first list the disadvantages of tackling music this way and then I will tell you for what such a model can be useful. 

Disadvantage 1: Starting with a big picture overview of music creates massive overwhelm for a beginner 

First of all, starting to sketch out music as a big picture overview would really need a huge wall to accommodate all the topics that music consists of and keep in mind that we even if we got it done, we are really only dealing with one musical system here (the western, for example). The disadvantage of such an overview lies in the amount of overwhelm that would be created for someone who just wants to play a few songs on guitar. It´s a massive overkill, because a guy who wants to strum a few songs around the campfire only needs to know a very limited amount of knowledge that is necessary to get the job done. If that person sees the huge overview of musical topics, there is high chance he might get overwhelmed, discouraged and thinks that he needs to learn a lot of what he sees to be able to play music. 

Disadvantage Nr. 2: A linear model might create the illusion of linearity

Music is NOT a linear flow of information and when you start out, many things can seem quite chaotic. Human brains don´t deal well with chaos and so I totally understand the wish to create a linear approach to learning music. 

But think about life – is life linear? Only in the sense that we get born, live and die but not in the way we learn and not in the way challenges occur in our lives. It´s never about learning one thing, be done with it and then proceed to the next thing. Learning often occurs simultaneously on many levels. We learn about this topic, then about another one and then go back to the first topic, because we have gained a deeper understanding. We learn, review, integrate, alter, etc. That means that the flow of information is not linear in many cases, it´s geometric. We attack one topic from different sides and work on many topics at the same time and information flows in multiple directions. A linear approach is missing interrelatedness, application and integration, because you 

can´t always go top down in music. 

Disadvantage Nr.3: It might convey the idea that music is about more information

Music is not about getting or having more concise information – it´s all about how you use information. A master can know a very limited amount and yet be able to use what he knows in many different musical contexts and manipulate the emotions of the listener in any way he wants. So it´s not about how much you know, it´s about using it to make people feel things. If you know everything there is to know about music, but you can´t play an instrument and make people feel emotion – what´s the use? You are an academic that can impress people at a cocktail party, but you are not a musician. 

Disadvantage Nr. 4: It might convey the idea that each topic is one thing that can be tackled and then moved on. 

When we create topics on the pyramid, such as chords or scales we might get the idea that these are things like bullet points on a to-do list when they are really not – each topic is a whole lifetime of study that is intertwined with other areas. Topics in music are generally huuuge. 

Disadvantage Nr.5: Logical is not always practical

In music teaching, practicality is the biggest factor for me as a teacher. 

As a student you should always be asking yourself: If I master this technique, area or theoretical understanding – can I write more and better music with it? Can I use it directly in my playing or is it just a theoretical exercise that has no actual use for me right now? 

Example: We might learn the theoretical fundamentals of our musical system by learning the C Major scale and then learn about intervals, scale construction and how chords are derived from a scale BUT we might only learn to play that scale a bit later and learn the minor pentatonic scale instead. Why? The answer is simple – practical reasons.

The major goal for you is to have fun and play something quick that sounds great right? Playing the major scale sounds a bit like playing a child´s tune and that might be fun if you are child, but if you are an adult who wants to learn rock music you want to learn stuff that sounds cool and exciting from the beginning. Your best choice here is to learn the minor pentatonic scale and some cool blues licks that give you an immediate sense of victory and accomplishment when you sound a bit like ACDC. 

Disadvantage Nr.6: Encourages Shiny Object Syndrome

If you are curious by nature and you see a detailed outline of something you are working on – is it more likely that you will research a few of the other topics that you can see in the outline or is it more likely that you will focus and work on things that you are already working on? 

I´d say there is a very high chance that you might get sidetracked and research stuff that is not relevant to your development right now – this is called “Shiny Object Syndrome” and it´s your teachers job to help you stay away from shiny objects. 

People often get this wrong – they think a teacher is there to convey information. Yes, that´s one part of it, but a teacher should also help to protect you from unnecessary information and prevent you from getting sidetracked. So, when your teacher does not answer a certain question – it might come out of the understanding that the answer to that question is:

  1. Not relevant for you at all at this point
  2. Not usable for you in any practical sense
  3. Lead you down an even deeper rabbit hole with a hundred more questions for which you don´t have the foundational understanding at this point. 

I prefer how my teacher teaches me – on a “need to know” basis. 

What can a linear model be used for in music teaching?

It can be helpful to organise and outline ONE topic/area that you are already familiar with. In this case, you know all the moving parts, you know how they relate to each other and you use the model to structure your knowledge. If you use it for that, it´s a really great and helpful tool!

About the author: Derk Stiepelmann works as a guitar teacher at Songwriter´s Shed in Dortmund, Germany. If you are passionate about guitar and want to learn how to play, you can find him at www.gitarrenunterricht-dortmund.com