Computers should get a more prominent role in formal music education

Beloved followers,

As a part of our thesis, we wrote a short paper in which we make a statement and revisit some topics that we discussed earlier on this blog. It can be found here:
Computers should get a more prominent role in formal music education

There will be no more regular updates on this blog, but who knows, maybe there will be a surprise post one day 🙂

Thank you for having followed us on this journey!

Niklas and Lichen

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Interview with Peter Breugelmans — Part 3

Feeling of rhythm is an essential part of music learning, no matter which instrument the student picks up. But there is a phenomenon indicating that some people say they don’t have a feeling for rhythm, while others seems to have the feeling naturally.  The question is: can anyone learn?

According to Peter, the answer is YES! Because the rhythm is inherent in human beings: we all have a heartbeat and the heartbeat is a repeating pattern. Those “rhythmless” people could learn to have rhythm feeling. Well, everything you learn, not only in music learning, you need to analyse what the problem is and divide it into small steps. It sounds a lot like the procedure in engineering projects, right? We cannot program everything at once. We will implement it from small parts and test them, then we build it up further. The same goes for music teaching. And it will give more challenging work to the teacher: how to approach each student.

Actually Peter believes that in general, more people could learn more things when they would be given the time and also approached in a way that they will learn it, if there is no time limit. I can’t agree more personally. I would like to do a bunch of things if I HAVE TIME and a good teacher of course. I would learn how to play decent piano, paint… 😛

We have a lot more to say, not only about this interview but also other discussions/events in our blog. For now however, this will be our last blog post probably. Thanks for all your support and we do enjoy the discussion time. SO…. See you at the USO concert! 😀 If you want to discuss more about music, feel free to leave a comment or contact us privately!

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Influence of starting age for learning an instrument

I’ve heard that in order to reach absolute top level musical instrument skills, you need to start early, but I wondered if that is true and how early this starting age should be. The paper “Is early music education necessary in order to reach a professional level?“ by Fieke Werner attempts to provide an answer to my questions (by performing a literature study on a collection of studies on the subject).

She came to the following conclusions with regard to starting age:

  • most classical expert musicians started before the age of nine
  • on average the excellent students started earlier than the good students did
  • there have been no reports of children starting ‘too early’

This corresponds with other studies that I found that suggest that there is a certain developmental window when children appear to be especially efficient at learning certain skills.

Of course there are other things to take into account too. Since a young starting age appears to be important to achieve “ultimate excellence” there can be a lot of parental pressure. This raises an ethical question. If the child thinks the lessons are boring, or would rather do something else than practice their instrument, how far can the parents go in pushing the child to continue? I’ve heard about situations where the child is thankful for the lessons later, but that cannot always be the case, can it? Also, apart from starting age there are a lot of other factors that determine musical skill (in the paper for example they also focus on the importance of one-to-one teaching).

Since I discovered my interest for creating music relatively late (and therefore will apparently never be a master musician), I have no personal experience with this. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. Anyway, I want to know your stories and opinions!

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Interview with Peter Breugelmans — Part 2

Starting is always easy but continuing is always a hard task for learning an instrument. So how to keep students motivated even when they don’t see their own progress anymore? This is a very necessary task for music teachers. We discussed this question with Peter.

Peter’s answer for this question is: Difficult. It is very difficult to keep the students always motivated. But it is not impossible. Of course it will require enough patience, both of the teacher and the student. Besides, in Peter’s opinion, teachers should also find pieces on all levels that can be motivating (individual, student dependent). And some rewarding pieces on some easy levels, not only the dull exercises. They are possible and useful when you teach the students, especially the children. 

It is important to let the student see the result immediately. There are several ways. One is for the students to perform in front of an audience (other students or their family members). This is a good way for some people but not all of the students (even if they’re good enough already). Music is not only performance; it can and should be something you do for your own development. Even if you’re performing for an audience, in some way you have to do it for yourself: audience can then listen to something you’re doing in your own concentration. For children, it is always a good way. It is good for them to show their progress to their parents and let parents be proud of their kids. But after a certain age, the kids will start to ask themselves ”Am I good enough?”etc. then some of them won’t feel good anymore on the stage because of the doubts or nervousness…

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Interview with Peter Breugelmans – Part 1

A few weeks ago we conducted an interview with Peter Breugelmans, Lichen’s organ teacher. Peter is a proficient organ and harpsichord player and teacher, distinguished in multiple contests. In the next posts here we want to talk about some of the most interesting moments of the discussion. (The interview was recorded and Peter gave us permission to talk about it on this blog, but he preferred that the recording was not put online. This should not be a problem for discussing the content.)

In the interview we revisited some questions that were addressed earlier in this blog. One of those questions was: Can computers ever take over the role of human music teachers? Or does this require things that a computer can never do?

Peter initially would say no, but adds that we can’t predict the future. Twenty-five years ago we probably weren’t able to guess today’s technological progress either.

The big problem here is the interactivity; a computer would need extreme details and a lot of possibilities to choose from to make judgments based on what the student is doing. For example if he makes a mistake it needs to be corrected. You need to find the source of the problem and based on that a solution, which is often very specific and also different depending on the context and the student: different individuals will need a different approach. There are so many subtleties that have to be taken into account and we agreed that a computer can’t do this for now.

One of these things is the emotion or feeling of music, but Peter had some interesting things to say about this: A feeling is something subjective and personal. A computer can’t know what you feel, but if you think about it, even for humans it’s difficult: a piece can “feel good” to 2 people, but you still can’t say they feel the same when they hear it. Therefore I think it’s also not necessary for a computer to do so.

Apparently Mr. Breugelmans agrees with this because he continues with explaining that there are characteristics that give music a certain emotion, some details you can change, and those details are measurable. They can be described in an objective manner (e.g. playing certain note longer, stronger… to get a different effect).

This means that in music there is the feeling, but there are also the underlying, measurable things that provoke that feeling. According to Peter (and I fully agree with this) that’s the thing to discover about music. If you can manipulate those things then you can really play with the power of music.

In the reactions to a related post we made last semester the general idea seemed to be that a computer can be helpful, but not a full substitute for a teacher. With the previous discussion in mind (if it’s possible to objectively describe all the elements of a musical piece), I wonder if you still think the same. Let us know!

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Early formal music education in China

Formal music instruction begins very early in China. Sometimes it even begins from kindergartens. Music becomes part of daily activities. Singing, moving, dancing, clapping… even playing some classroom instruments. But most of the time, this is just to let the kids get into the environment of music. I still remember that when I was in the kindergarten, we had different activities every night in week days. We danced, sang and actually could start learning one instrument: either violin or cello. All the activities except the instrument lesson, we were taught by teachers who were not music specialists (those who had learnt methods of teaching music).

classroom instruments

According to Bennett Reimer in his paper: Music Education in China: An Overview and Some Issues, kinds of culturally supported behaviour patterns in China tend to enhance certain aspects of group learning, not only in music but also in other school subjects or activities. Chinese kindergarten children seem to be more docile than American  children. This phenomenon happens because the parents of the kids appreciate the kids when they “behave”, “get along”, “not cause any trouble” and “be good”. Also this guiding rule causes some of the kids practice their instruments a lot since they will get appreciation from their parents. This influence from parents in China is quite different from parents in US. Also, music teachers in China focus more on skill and technique training which is not good for the kids to develop their creativity. Nowadays, Chinese music education is struggling with the issue of balance between the traditional approach, emphasising song-singing and related notational and sight-singing skills and the recognised need to broaden the experiences children have of music — to use skills as means rather than ends. How to improve the music teaching methodology in a more creative way and encourage musical independence rather than suppressing it… All these questions should be answered before the revolution of Chinese music education in early age of students.

Personally I always feel lack of creativity in music. I could play good music because I’ve trained for years on my skills, but I can’t really improvise when I play cello. I always have to play depending on scores I have. But this is not the case for other cellists in our orchestra. They can improvise depending on melody (adding chords…). I wish that I had had more freedom during my early music education to play things other than what I ”should” play.

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The relationship between programming and music

On one of our previous posts we received a comment from Lu Hongyang that briefly stated that “Playing instruments is a kind of skill, like programming skills for electronics engineering students”, mentioning that they have something in common: introduction comes from teachers, but practice is up to the students. This made me wonder if there is more to this comparison between programming and playing an instrument. Do musicians make good programmers? Are programmers more likely to be musicians than non-programmers?


Although I couldn’t find a lot of evidence for it, it seems to make sense: for example, abstract thinking is involved in both situations. The topic is discussed in this Rail Spikes interview: Music and programming: interviews with Chad Fowler and Dave Thomas. In the interview they discuss the thoughts of two people who are both programmers and musicians.

I’m not sure, but I think it might be something to do with the discovery of patterns. Both music and code consist of nested sets of variations and repetitions. There’s a rhythm to executing code, in the same way there’s a rhythm to music. It is never exact, but it’s there.

– Dave Thomas, programmer and musician.

I agree that both music and programming have a dynamic structure that is based on the combinations of small elements into a greater whole.

We can find lots of other ways that the two are similar, related to practicing, getting better, mentality etc. However, this doesn’t provide real evidence, and I see differences too: an individual’s programming style can be very personal, but the goal is to get a result that works; it’s about getting to a certain goal, where the path to reach that goal is the freedom of the programmer, whereas for music I feel like there isn’t directly a goal in the first place, since it’s more about the emotions evoked and those are less absolute and more the result of the interpretations of the individual listeners.

Most websites where I looked for information didn’t include direct evidence for programmers being good musicians or the other way around. I found lots of anecdotes and speculations, but often they were followed by something along the lines of “further research is needed”. Nevertheless, I think the comparison of musicians and programmers contains interesting analogies.

What are your thoughts on this?

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