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Book Review: The Ways Children Learn Music by Eric Bluestine

by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

I've previously made mention of Music Learning Theory; a theory of how humans learn when we learn music.This has included a brief overview of Edwin Gordon's Learning Sequences in Music and Jump Right In Grade 4. Simply put, Music Learning Theory helps address the major riddle of student success: How do humans cognitively acquire music?

Now to the book! I first read Eric Bluestine's The Way Children Learn Music: An Introduction and Practical Guide to Music Learning Theory in college as part of an elementary music pedagogy course. At the time, Music Learning Theory was central to the music education department at Frost School of Music at the University of Miami and this book provided an excellent introduction. I've since returned to it on many occasions and have ended up re-reading it three or four times.   

The Way Children Learn Music is the book that I recommend to all teachers unfamiliar with Music Learning Theory. Bluestine introduces and explains the major elements of  Music Learning Theory and discusses them in a light, conversational tone, drawing on his experience teaching in the Philadelphia Public School System. 

The book, and Music Learning Theory in general, is focused on how students learn rather than how to teach. This is a struggle for some teachers at first, but ultimately this type of thinking allows you to unravel the difficulties students have when learning music.  

The first part of the book covers topics include Audiation, Whole-Part-Whole teaching, Music Aptitude testing, Sound-Before Sight - Before Theory, and Tonal and Rhythm syntax. Part two walks through informal instruction and formal instruction, including discussion and explanation of the different levels of Learning Sequence Activities, which are at the center of Music Learning Theory based instruction.  Part three lays out Bluestine's comprehensive musical objectives for the grades he teaches (grades 2-5) as well as the sequential goals students obtain in order to achieve the objectives.  

This book has many strengths, not the least of which is that it makes sense of an unwieldy and large ranging theory. Music Learning Theory is sometimes derided as being overly complicated and heavy on jargon, but music is one of our most mysterious and complex cognitive behaviors, so any theory addressing it will be have to be commensurately detailed. Reading Bluestine's book helps orient you in the world of Music Learning Theory and prepares you to delve into the more complicated and theoretical texts such as Learning Sequences in Music

When I first started teaching I'd often refer to this book when developing curriculum for general music classes and private percussion lessons. Re-reading sections of this book is like having a conversation with a fellow teacher about how they think their students learn best. With that in mind, I recommend reading this book for the first time with a book club of music teachers: Discussion will help make sense of some of the more abstract topics. 

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