A Holistic Approach to Learning Music


The Rainbow Songs approach to teaching and learning comes from the belief that there is interconnectedness between music, movement and language that support each other through the learning process. I’ve often conceptualized the relationship of three elements as the three points of a triangle. The triangle, with its inherent support and structural integrity, is an apt metaphor for this method as it can support learning in the same way triangles support structures from the pyramids to modern day buildings. Let’s briefly define the three points on the triangle:


  • Music – The structured organization of sound made up of melody, rhythm, and harmony.
  • Movement – All types of purposeful motion from small hand gestures to jumping and leaping including: actions, signs, dancing, crawling, running etc.
  • Language – The organization of and use of words through speech: Lyrics, poems, names, verbs, nouns etc.

These three systems define the points of the triangle. In between each pair of points there are sides that are created. Each one of these sides is a combination of the points:

The three sides of the triangle become:

The side between movement and music gives us dance.
The side between music and language gives us song.
The side between language and movement gives us sign language.

The things all sides and corners have in common are inside the triangle:
Time: Language, music and dance all happen through time.
Rhythm: Language, music and dance all move through time following some sort of rhythm and organization.
Structure: Language is structured by metre of poetry, grammar, conventions and metre of song. Dance and Music are structured by their own forms.

How this works in practice:

I often use the example of “The Eensy Weensy Spider” in my classes to demonstrate this connection between music, movement and language. I do the hand actions for the song without singing the song and then ask the group what song I am performing. Without hearing a word from me the group immediately knows what the song is. How do they know this? The physical actions for each part of the song trigger the memory of the text, melody and rhythm of the song. Children’s songs are such incredible tools for learning language. First, songs are poetry. Learning these lyrics enriches the language skills of those who learn them. These poems are set to melody and rhythm which supports the learning of the text. The contours of the melody remind the singer what words are next. There have been circumstances, I have plowed into a song not certain what the words of the song might be yet confident that the songs structure and melody will remind me of how it goes. It always does. Adding actions or movement to the songs adds another level of reinforcement. The actions are usually the first element of the song that is performed by children. Long before they vocalize the song the children will follow along with the actions. This can also work in reverse. Please listen to the song below and see if your mind does not think of actions that would go with the song: {nmap}normal|200|50|/mp3/17-The-Wheels-on-the-bus.mp3|3|The Egg|a||0|2|0|0{/nmap}
Why is learning with this holistic approach important?

In many traditional cultures learning in this manner is the natural way that music is taught, learned, and performed. For example, in many African cultures there are instrumental parts, dances, and songs (that of course have text) that all are performed together. It is common for all the participants to be able to do all the different parts of the whole art form. The drummers know the dance as well as the text and melody for the songs and the dancers are also able to play the drum parts or sing the songs.

For some time now many teachers in formal music training situations have lost sight of this interconnectedness. This comes mostly from developments in European classical music. In Europe classical art forms such as Ballet and the Symphony orchestra developed practices that focus on very specialized skills. For the musician this can mean cutting off his or her kinesthetic connection to the music. I remember being forbidden to tap my foot to the beat in band class and not understanding why it was wrong. Truth is that it was not wrong.
We need to get back closer to learning music as a whole art form. The child (or adult for that matter) needs to be able to experience music in all its elements.

Why is teaching with this method so effective?

Simply put the more ways you can represent an idea the clearer it will become to the student.

Teaching music, movement and language at the same time reinforces each part of learning. Actions/movements convey meaning and reinforce the text. The pattern of melody supported by rhythm helps the memory of lyrics. The goal of this method is to create adaptable learners, people who can sing, dance, speak, read, think and live equally well.

Most importantly, this provides a musical whole body experience which is a more profound representation of the music. You understand the music with your mind, emotions, voice and body.

Learning Styles

Different people have different learning abilities and strengths. The different approaches to learning are called learning styles. There are three basic types:

Visual learners:These people like to see what the teacher is doing and learn well from diagrams, symbols and text. In our system this type of learning is supported by the interpretation of actions and signs that go with music.
Auditory learners: These people learn from hearing the teacher and through discussion and listening. This is the most important method for learning music as it is at its most basic level an auditory experience.
Kinesthetic learners: These people learn from tactile experience and doing things actively. This type of learning is supported in our approach by the performing of actions, signs, dance, clapping, stomping, signing etc.

The goal of the holistic approach to learning music is to support all these learning styles at the same time with the hope that the student will become a better all round learner.

Over many years of teaching guitar to beginners I would always start with the same first lesson. I taught this lesson over and over to each new student. However, teaching it was never the same to any two people. Some people needed to see it played, some needed to see the music notation (few people naturally learn with this method), some needed me to put their fingers in the right places for them several times before they could do it themselves and some needed me to explain in words what to do. I needed to be able to teach for all the different learners, for the first premise of good teaching is to know your students and their strengths and weaknesses. By the time they have reached their teen years, most people have already become dominant in one type of learning. Exposure to more holistic education can hopefully produce people with more rounded learning abilities. I have often come across adults who can not yet sing. The main reason that a person might not be able to sing is not an inherent flaw in them (they always say “I’m tone deaf”) rather it is that they have not had enough experience learning as an auditory learner. I have worked with these people and successfully taught them how to sing but the process can be a bit of a struggle since they already have established learning styles and learning by listening is something very new to them. However, starting from just trying to match one note singing and to hear that one note is higher than another begins the process of being able to sing.

At Rainbow Songs we teach children as well as their families to make music together. The classes we run have adults and young children singing, playing and dancing together. It would not be surprising to most that I see huge improvements in singing, fine and gross body movements and language skills by the children taking part in the programs, however what might be a surprise to many is the improvement in the adults as well. We encourage all the adults to sing without worrying about what they think of their singing. I have seen many adults who when they first come can not sing in tune and through listening and doing learn to sing as adults. This has been an unexpected satisfaction for me as a teacher.

This fact, that all people can learn to make music, is a fundamental truth that bonds the holistic method together. We can all get pleasure, become more human, and improve our mind and health through the simple act of making music.