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Musical Play in Adolescence:
Validating natural music learning processes in education
University of Washington
Sarah Moyer

A conductor-educator stands in front of 40 half awake teenagers, flailing her

arms wildly to inspire some kind of reaction. A handful of students watch her
eagerly, following along in their scores. Five or six students in the back row hide
their phones behind their black folders and move their mouths silently, impressed
by their own cleverness. Yet another group is overcome by giggles at a joke that no
one else seems privy to. In this classroom teeming with teenage angst, energy,
heartache, boredom, and curiosity, there lies a potential for creativity that is
currently untapped. What would happen if the students suddenly became the
conductors of their own learning? What if they held the baton and watched their
own creations come into fruition?

When left to their own devices, adolescents are capable of creating musical

learning opportunities for themselvesfrom experimenting with mouth percussion,

to singing and dancing along to their favorite tunes, to listening to the same song
over and over again in order to replicate a groovy guitar lick. While to some, this
kind of musical dabbling is seen as an elementary level of engagement (Gates
1991), there is evidence to support the claim that musical play is essential for
developing musical skills and sensitivities, and maintaining intrinsic motivation
throughout the lifespanespecially among adolescents.

Little professional attention is given to musical play in adolescence,

especially with regard to formal music education. Investigating the importance of

musical play for children, while considering adolescent development, reveals that


the inclusion of musical play within formal music education will enrich the musical
experience for adolescents and facilitate life-long music learning.
What is Musical Play?

The majority of the professional literature on musical play concerns the

development of the very young (Marsh & Young, 2006). Newborns and infants learn
through exploring the musical worlds around them. They imitate their beloved
adults, touch and taste musical objects of interest, and experiment through
movement and vocal play (Gruhn, 2002). As children grow older, musical play takes
the form of spontaneous improvisation and self- and peer-initiated musical games
(Marsh & Young, 2006). The creative process of musical play involves integrating,
transforming, and generating ideas using the musical material they encounter
throughout the day.

This holds true for adolescent musical play, which is spontaneous, self-

regulated, collaborative, and engaged in for enjoyment. Musical play is most closely
associated with informal learning in professional literature (Marsh & Young, 2006).
Students engage in analytical listening even as they are playful, choosing at leisure
to listen to favorite recordings, experimenting with and learning musical parts.
Participating in garage bands, dancing and singing along to a recording, and
improvising with friends fall within the realms of musical play.

The practice of Community Music (Higgins, 2012) offers a rich model for the

kind of collaborative, inclusive, safe, and self/group-guided music making involved

in musical play. Higgins and Campbell (2010) combine the practices and
philosophies of music educators, community musicians, and music therapists to

design group improvisation experiences, or events, in the classroom. These events

honor process over product, inviting students to be musically expressive in
whichever ways they choose. The teacher-facilitator guides the process by providing
necessary instruments and materials, space for movement, and an objective to the
game. Students then collaborate, experiment, and discover meaningful musical
concepts and build expressive skills through play.
Why play?

So why should this spontaneous and informal process be implemented into

secondary music education classes? Historically, informal learning has not held a
significant position in large ensembles of band, choir, and orchestra musicians,
which are the primary course offerings in secondary schools. The low profile or
complete absence of informal learning, and musical play, in secondary schools may
be due to the nature of the ensemble origins. Band, choir, and orchestra offerings in
secondary education are rooted in their professional, sacred/ceremonial, and
military functions, which did not tend to include musical play in the learning process
(Keene, 2009). It is important to reconsider the role of these ensembles in modern
society, and the purposes for having them as part of the public education setting.
History shows that the goal of educators has shifted over time to reflect modern
society and the needs of students, which implies that a shift in music education
practice may be welcome and needed as well.

While there is much to gain from ensemble participation, the traditional top-

down method of transmitting knowledge may not be ideal for modern youth to
maintain motivation to continue making and loving music throughout their lives.


Adolescence is a transformative period in which young people move toward life

independency (Kleibeuker, De Dreu, & Crone, 2013). Choice and agency (self and
relational) are huge proponents in reaching this independency. Not to say that
independence is a point one reaches on ones own. On the contrary, social identity
theory (Tajfel, 1979) proposes that a persons self concept is based heavily on their
membership within groups. This is why a safe and positive music ensemble
experience is essential for student growth.

Musical play in secondary ensembles offers young people the opportunity to

express their individuality and decision-making abilities through informal, self-

regulated music making. Enjoyment, too, becomes a crucial factor in students
decisions to continue participating in music. Intrinsic motivation is more easily
sustained when the impetus for learning comes from the student rather than from
an authority figure.
Making Time for Play

Music educators are busy people: Class time is short, repertoire is

demanding, and students are unpredictable as they navigate the many social and
personal dealings of their lives. Playing can seem like a superfluous use of time. But
perhaps the embodied, multimodal, and self-motivated assets of play will help
students engage more in class, connect to the repertoire, and find meaning in music
as an expression of their life experiences.
Within ensembles

Improvisation and choice are two facets of musical play that can and should

be included in secondary ensembles. Improvisation has a rich history within

Western art music as well as in countless other music traditions in western culture
and around the world: jazz, Javanese gamelan, secular Arab music, Cantonese opera,
Hindustani instrumental music, rap, and countless other musical cultures include
elements of improvisation in musical practice (Nettl & Russell, 1998). Providing
students with opportunities to make decisions about repertoire, instrument
selection, and musical expression will help them on the road to becoming
independent musicians.

Similar to definitions of musical play as earlier discussed, improvisation can

be defined as the process of transforming and generating ideas, cognitively or

intuitively, using the musical material and vocabulary common to a specific style or
genre (Nettl & Russell, 1998). Frequent exposure, attentive listening, and
experimenting within a given style can lead to mastery. Improvisation thus serves as
a wonderful summative project or assessment for units on specific musical styles.
Including opportunities for students to improvise throughout the year, both
individually and collaboratively, will build musicianship, listening skills, and
familiarity with their instruments.

Empowering up to eighty students within a classroom with choice seems a

daunting task. A practical and beneficial solution is to assign small group or

individual projects where students regulate their learning, choose their own
repertoire, and collaborate with one another. Green (2008) conducted a project
involving a classroom pedagogy based on informal learning processes. The students
in the study, aged thirteen and fourteen, identified having benefitted from the
project, primarily because they were given the autonomy to direct their own


learning practices. Choosing their instruments and repertoire was closely associated
with enjoyment by many participants. While enjoyment may not be the primary goal
of education,

If learners enjoy learning, it follows that they will be more highly motivated

themselves; and if they apply themselves, they will be likely, at least in the

long run, to learn more. (Green, 2008 p. 93)

Alternative course offerings
Musical play is common practice for many popular musicians. In Greens
(2008) informal music project, she chronicles behaviors exhibited by youth who
were at the early stages of their development in the making of popular music. The
participants were assigned the project of creating a pop group and learning a
popular song (not an original composition); she observed them listening repeatedly
to the reference recording without the use of notation. She also found that rather
than slowing sections down to learn each part accurately at a relaxed tempo,
students would play along with the recording at speed, grabbing perhaps just one
or two notes the first times through, and gradually adding more complexity.
Campbell (1995) had found similar evidence for the importance of analytical
listening in her case study of two Seattle-based youth rock bands.
Introducing courses that allow students to learn through their own self-
initiated processes, as in a rock band, pop group, or songwriting class, will include
those students who do not fit in to the formal music ensemble scene. Other course
offerings that could potentially have students engaged in collaborative, play-based
music making are guitar, music technology, mariachi, or African drumming.

Connecting to Standards

The new 2014 national music standards emphasize conceptual

understanding in areas that reflect the actual processes in which musicians engage
( Students learn through a variety of
methods and modalities. Some students understand music processes through
envisioning shapes and colors; some learn best through listening and imitating; and
some find their learning niche in movement. With all these processes and individual
proclivities, it seems the most effective way for students to learn is for them to
discover their own natural processes. Discovering a process for oneself is likely to
be more effective than being told how to do something. This philosophy of learning
parallels the recent shift in pedagogy that focuses on student-centered learning,
where a teacher fills the role of facilitator rather than instructor (Meeks, 2014).
Musical play and informal learning can function as an effective way for students to
create, perform, and respond to music by connecting their musical processes and
identities to the musical world around them.

Within music education and the broader community, there seems to be an

overarching fear that music may lose its place in education. In an attempt to validate
music in education, articles have been produced acclaiming the many benefits of
music on a students growing mind, from the well-known adage music makes you
smarter to the specificity of what an unborn child should listen to (Mozart effect).

In an endless advocacy fight, music educators must not forget the students.

To paraphrase American president John F. Kennedy, we might think not what can


music do for young people, but rather, how can young people engage in music in a
way that is life-giving and transformative. We can pursue critical questions: What is
the role of educator in facilitating this kind of open and playful environment? Are
the students engaged? Are they learning the actual processes with which musicians
within and outside of their own cultures engage? Will their experiences in the
classroom equip them for becoming lifelong music lovers and learners? Musical play
is one of many ways to empower students to make musical choices, create of their
own volition, and develop a deep enjoyment of the music making process.

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