Learning music the way we learn language

George Little 2013
By George Little
When I was still in high school and starting to teach guitar lessons, I was contacted by a mother of a three-year-old boy. She had seen my flier at the grocery store and her son, as she explained, absolutely loved the guitar. They had bought him a miniature electric guitar and she was interested in lessons. I thought, “Why not?” and we made an appointment to meet.

Immediately, it was clear I had no idea what I was doing. This enthusiastic young child barely knew his letters. Forget about assigning finger numbers to the left hand, or asking him to memorize a chord using a chart. Communicating in my accustomed information-dense approach was clearly not going to work. He couldn’t hold his guitar straight, so my attempts at correcting even the most basic guitar position were an utter failure. After thirty minutes of trying different approaches, I reported to his mother that I did not think it would work out. They should think about lessons when they were a bit older. Maybe seven or eight. Maybe older than that.

In graduate school I discovered Suzuki, a teaching philosophy that fell right in line with a number of ideas I had been considering since reading Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain.  He breaks down exactly how the brain receives, processes, and creates music. One idea struck out at me: The brain processes music like a language; it processes in the same regions of the brain as language; it even discerns inflection, character, and rhythm in much the same way it does with language.

It turns out, Shinichi Suzuki had made a similar observation about 75 years earlier. Although not nearly as scientific, he observed that if we taught music like a language, we could achieve more consistent results and typically to a higher degree than with a traditional approach alone.

One component to making learning music parallel language, in this “mother tongue” method, was starting young.  To make this work, many elements come together. For example, using miniaturized instruments that are still of decent quality is important. Appropriate size and quality facilitate making a great sound and not hinder it. Also, with young children we motivate students by making the experience fun. Lessons are paired with group classes where kids interact and play musical games with their peers using the very skills they are developing in the private lesson.

A parent must attend private lessons and follow up (a.k.a. practice) at home with instructions given by the teacher. The parent’s role is crucial, largely because a very young student cannot be relied upon to accurately retain the details of the lesson. If you have ever asked your three-year-old what they did at school, you know what I mean.  The parent or “home teacher” ensures success in the process. Without parental involvement and support, only a small percent of very young students succeed at music lessons.

The environment we create for a toddler’s first efforts at speaking is one of approval and encouragement. We almost never try to fix a two-year old who pronounces “penny” as “penniny,” or who doesn’t enunciate b’s from d’s. We model for the child and move on. This positive-feedback-based approach taps into a child’s inborn desire to imitate and seek approval and affection. Certainly we cannot hand a child a cello and simply cheer him/her on, expecting great success. We need to provide instruction, depersonalize mistakes, and emphasize successes using specific positive praise; include external motivators such as games and rewards. Creating a positive, nurturing and enthusiastic environment is perhaps the most significant element to developing the child’s love of learning and playing.

Learn more about South Shore Conservatory’s Suzuki Instruction at https://sscmusic.org/suzuki/ or find South Shore Conservatory on Facebook.

Guitarist George Little is the Suzuki Department Chair at South Shore Conservatory.


  1. Gerald Jones · November 28, 2018

    great article George….we should have you talk about this at a parent’s meeting….very well done…especially for new parents or prospective parents




  2. Ramon · December 1, 2018

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something which helped
    me. Cheers!


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