17 comments on “Is there any connection between music practice and language practice?

  1. Hi, Jeremy
    Thank you for this post.
    I think the anti-drilling movement we’ve witnessed over the past – what – 20 years (?) is part of a broader context involving:
    a. The fierce criticism the language learning as skill learning model came under. Keith Johnson, for example, came under a lot of fire for his “language as skill” books, which were either bashed by a few prominent Chomsky-ans or got far less attention than they deserved.
    b. The Headway advent in 1987 and the standard it set for 90% of its successors, even now: Grammar syllabus at the core + grammar “discovery” questions + gap filling as the standard model for controlled practice. Up until the mid 80s, drilling still had its (admittedly diminished) place in mainstream ELT – remember the oral exercises at the end of each Strategies unit? A whole page! Then Headway came along and gap-fill (and gap-fill like exercises) became the new orthodoxy.
    c. A more laissez-faire, let-natural-acquistional-processes-take-care-of-themselves mindset, which seemed to crystallize at the same ratio as words such as “learner centered” soared to popularity and lost much of their intended meaning.
    And then, after all this time, people like you, Scrivener, Underhill, Dellar and, on a somewhat different tack, even Dogme proponents are starting to call for more teacher intervention. I salute you for that.
    d. A downplaying of the importance of m e m o r y in language learning.

    I would love for drilling to make a comeback, but, at the same time, I’m afraid that it might come back for the wrong reasons (i.e., speed up rule acquisition) and in the wrong manner (i.e., drilling before clarification of meaning / parrot style drilling / drilling during 70% of the lesson).

    But you know what, maybe comeback is the wrong word. A while ago I attended a very lively and well-presented session on drilling, with one major flaw (which I never got round to discussing with the presenter, unfortunately): I don’t think the (very young) audience had a clue as to what drilling was. They might have been familiar with repetition, but, other than that, drilling seemed to be a novel concept. This seems even more plausible if we bear in mind that these teachers are unlikely to have been drilled as learners.

    So maybe we ought to find a new, (sexier?) name, which is not as value-laden as drilling. Surely ELT can come up with a new piece of jargon? And, once we’ve done that, let’s set clearer boundaries, clearer dos and don’ts for this as-yet unnamed, set of techniques.

    a. Use drilling for functional language and ready-made sentences mostly. Don’t ask students to recite the verb to be.
    b. Make sure students know what they’re saying, at all times.
    c. Make sure your lesson includes a wide variety of activity types, not only controlled practice.
    d. Make sure some of your drilling bears at least s o m e resemblance to real life communication (interaction, choice, feedback etc).

    Maybe coaching NEW teacher and hoping they will eventually form a critical mass might be an easier way to pull this off?

    Thank you, again, for this post, Jeremy. Greetings from Brazil.

    • Hello Luiz Otávio, thanks for coming along.

      There is so much that I agree with you about in your comments. There is a danger that ‘laiisez-faire’ is some kind of a default model of teaching for some teachers though, perversely after three session on what they call ‘Demand High’ teaching from Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill (though I think they have chosen an inappropriate name for what they are trying to say – but that’s another matter!), I am less convinced than I was that teachers ‘going through the motions’ are doing such a bad thing. One thing that Adrian Underhill did was to ask us to analyse exactly what students do when they complete a task, and show us what learning actually takes place. And that applies to a very teacher-thought-out activity as it may well do from something lifted directly from a course book.


      A new name, a new technique? Yes I think so. Something like ‘concentrated practice’, or perhaps ‘challenging practice’ or ‘challenging repetition’ – something, at least, that is small and beautiful and demands brain power as well as ‘muscle memory’. Yes, that sounds promising!

      Something to think about, perhaps.


      Where does that leave our thinking about fluency activities? What are THEY for? And what kind of metaphor for practice does improvising jazz give us?



      • Thank you, Jeremy. Food for thought for the entire week! Will get back to you if I feel I have something relevant to say, ok?

  2. Practicing language in class should be like how I used to practice in jazz bands in college. When you were in school, you practiced (i.e., performed) tunes with a group of other musicians whereby the music educator would “teach on demand”. The teacher talk time was quite short in comparison to the amount of time we were actually playing (making) music. The jazz tune consisted of arrangements that were learned (melody, chord changes, etc.), and times when each musician would improvise a solo. Improvisation was not limited to soloing either. Chord, rhythm, and melody changes were also inherent in the jazz performance, which relied on each musician really having to listen to each other – to play off of each other as it were. Individual practice occurred outside of class and was always directed towards some form of performance (the goal), whether the performance was in school or in a public place. You never went an entire semester practicing a tune and not have it performed in front of a public audience. And students always knew at the beginning of the semester when they would be performing publicly and where. Over time, musicians (while in college) would form their own groups and seek paying jobs outside of school.

    Although there are some similarities, practicing for concert band (tunes with little improvisation) is less like learning a language because there is less room for personal interpretation (i.e., improvisation, stylistic changes, etc.) and less motivation for most musicians (not all) when it comes to translating what one learns in class to some relevant musical experience outside of class. For example, orchestral jobs are more difficult to find than a job playing in a small jazz trio at your local bar.

    Students should practice language in schools much like my jazz musical group metaphor above. The type of music matters, metaphorically speaking. 🙂

    • Hello Benjamin,

      thank you so much for coming along and talking about jazz. When I did my talk about music practice I ended up asking some questions, and one of them was whether what classical musicians had to say about practice (as in the video of Chrissie above) was equally relevant for improvisational music. Your comments here have a lot to say about that, and make jazz sound more like a language learning metaphor than, say, concert band or orchestra – because the path is clearly set and there are less opportunities for creativity and deviation (in terms of the actual notes played)


      What do you have to do to be good enough to improvise? What kind of individual practice is the practice you mention? All good jazz musicians spend time learning, repeating, concentrating on runs and riffs and scales, don’t they? I mean away from the group improvisations etc. Or rather, can you be a good improvisor if you haven’t spent hours practising and repeating at some level? If the answer is (as I suspect) not you can’t, then that repetitive, short concentrated practice is apart of the improvising journey, and isn’t that a bit like learning a language?

      I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts about that…


  3. Pingback: Visualising Ideas - A Tiny Comment on “Connection Between Practicing Music and Language”

  4. Hey Jeremy,

    Food for thought as Luiz Otavio said… I took it all in and am thinking of your questions in my teaching setting. At once, practice – in an ELT setting – seems to be the answer. And I believe it is. For most students, for some abilities, for some repetitive errors… In any case, here are the answers to your questions:

    1. Both. In short burst when the teacher notices a recurrent problem or is trying to get a grammar structure, pronunciation bit across. In long communicative flows when you’re focusing on a task or vocabulary, enforcing something – grammar, chunk of language, etc – or just to get over the students’ embarrassment regarding talking and making mistakes while talking. Feel it. Hear the students – even the ones who aren’t speaking.

    2. Homework? It depends on what is the expect result / outcome / purpose for it. Again, both have their purposes and objectives. It reminds me of an article I read tonight ( http://blog.tutorhub.com/2013/01/04/new-study-finds-homework-doesnt-improve-grades/) about homework. The point is it has to be meaningful, “pointful” – as opposed to pointless.

    3. As for concentration, I’m still a B%}TCH… Concentration is ON the language and what we are doing. Otherwise learning is compromised.

    4. Correction? Uh… You got me there… Still struggling to find my own answers. I have been much more forward and direct about my oral correction – am definitely not a fan of recasting anymore (check out my presentation at Iatefl – cheap marketing I know…. ). I like Wong & Waring, thou…

    5. I like repetition for pronunciation, intonation, intelligibility reasons… I do it. Not sure a new name would make any difference or whether I can explain what it looks like. “Repeat after me” maybe??? 😉

    Great post, Jeremy!

    • Hello Cecilia,

      it has taken me far too long to reply to your comments. Thank you so much for them. And I hope you get a good crowd at your presentation for the IATEFL 2013 conference.

      Of the many interesting points in your posting the one I enjoyed most was the bit about homework (and that article is very well worth reading). I wonder if, like music, short and often is better than long and pointless. So little bits of homework task, maybe online etc DO work?


  5. What a thought-provoking post, thank you.
    I think it may be useful to distinguish between musical performance and music practice, as neurological studies seem to show that these two activities use different areas of the brain. As both a musician and language teacher this makes sense, as the notes acquisition stage in (classical) music is pretty much muscle drilling to get the notes sorted technically. I do this in short intensive bursts with an instrument, but then also actively ‘rehearse’ away from the instrument which combines easily with walking around, travelling etc.
    Performance, on the other hand, is when all the communication skills and emotional responses come to the fore with no thought to the techniques involved. Flippantly, I’d suggest this is why many language learners report great success after a few drinks, or when they’re emotionally involved!
    Might also be worth considering that musicians are highly motivated to master their instruments and ELT students with similar levels of drive and motivation do tend, in my experience, to become very successful language learners regardless of the methods used to teach them.

    • Hello Erica,

      thank you so much for your very interesting comments, which I am replying to far too late!

      I entirely agree about the difference between practice and performance. But what I especially like about what you say is how musicians practise ‘in their heads’, away from the instrument. That’s a good language rehearsal skill too, I suspect. It reminds me of a conductor who told us the other evening that the best thing he gets youth orchestras to do when they are rehearsing a piece is just to sit in a room and listen to a recording of it so they get an idea of how everything fits together. There’s something there I think…


  6. Hello Jeremy, thanks for a great post. Being a musician myself, I’ve often wondered whether practicing an instrument has anything in common with practicing a language. My conclusions are: yes, but… What they have in common is that practice in both fields is clearly never a matter of quantity of time you spend on the task. The other thing that they have in common is the aim. I don’t know anyone who was ever capable of acquiring/mastering a skill without conscious effort and practice. Where they differ, however, is that playing an instrument is a mechanical skill (governed by emotions, alright), whereas speaking a language isn’t, really. You talk about focus, and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve learned over the years that for as long as my focus is right, the rest doens’t really matter. For example, If I reach for my guitar because I just want to do some ‘noodling’ around, then it helps if I just tell myself that. If it is because I want to do some more ‘seriou’ woodshedding, than I need to be clear that, too. The latter is not necessarily superior. A concept I like and have thoroughly embraced is ‘deliberate’ practice. Deliberate practice is Ericsson’s big idea. It is the “practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.” “When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well–or even at all.” It demands high concentration, and much reflection and feedback analysis. And it is important to “identify the aspects of your performance that will need to be improved at your next level of skill”.

    • Hi Chaz,

      I really should have replied before. I am so sorry!

      Thank you so much for your comments about ‘deliberate practice’, and yes, there is a usefulness about and enjoyment in noodling around. It’s fun, otherworldy and escapist. And very different from that focused practice, of course, where we try and get a few notes right, analysing why we are having trouble etc.

      What I am not quite clear about is whether noodling makes us better musicians. The studies seems to suggest no. I’m not so sure.

      And I’m becoming interested in the idea that it’s not muscle memory that matters, but procedural memory. Hmm.


      • Hi Jeremy,
        I think it’s a good thing for me to just pick up my guitar and noodle. But noodle with a sense of purpose. It probably won’t make me a better musician, But what matters is that I prepare myself to do some noodling with the mind of noodling,

  7. Music and language are not the same thing at all.
    There are no native speakers of music. It is not a universal human ability. Language is. A language is acquired without effort by every person with normal cognitive function and sufficient input.
    It is pretty to compare the two, but rather labored, and I doubt it has any real value for unlocking the best practices to help the brain acquire.

      • Hi Terry,

        thanks for coming along, and sorry for my lateness in replying. Me culpa!

        You may be right that the contrast is laboured, but I would want to make a clarification about what you say. Yes, languages are acquired, but those are mostly first language, or at least languages acquired in childhood. As Steven Pinker says, ‘acquisition is almost guaranteed up to the age of about 7, is steadily compromised from then until puberty, ands is rare thereafter’.

        I don’t see much connection between language acquisition of that type and music practice. I am more interested in language learning for adolescents/post adolescent, and there I do see connections. Not pretty ones, but there are things to be said about the kind of focus and and deliberate practice that both language learners and musicians do. There’s the issue of memory too: muscle or procedural? There’s the difference between practice and performance. etc etc.

        I am impressed that you tick the teacher/linguist/musician boxes. We have something in common then!


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