How Vernacular Musicians Acquire Their Skills

Those of us who built our musical skills through formal education may look at “garage band” musicians with some bewilderment. Maybe even with a little disdain (disguised jealousy in my case!). How is that these guitarists, electric bassists, and drummers are able to learn their instruments, all without the assistance of music teachers? We have to be somewhat impressed that they can figure out so much, seemingly on their own. But if they’ve done it without instruction from a musical expert, doesn’t that call into question the quality of their skills?

Ten years ago music educator and research Lucy Green published her book How Popular Musicians Learn. She shed light on the learning processes of “vernacular musicians,” as I like to call them, who acquire their musicianship outside of a school/lesson setting. Lucy followed up that landmark volume with another book and research studies further exploring the topic. Lately, many within the music education profession, myself included, have been paying greater attention to vernacular musicians. One thing we have found is that these people do not devote any less time and energy to their musical pursuits than those in more formal settings. Research refutes the notion that popular music skills are arrived at by osmosis (through just goofing around with music), whereas good “classical” musicianship comes through discipline. More likely, the real difference is whether the time and effort invested is perceived as pleasant or unpleasant. Most vernacular musicians describe their music activities as voluntary, enjoyable, and what they love to do. They seem to be tapping into more intrinsic motivation than many formally trained students, whose music experiences can be dominated by solitary technique-intensive practice of music assigned to them by teachers.

The interesting thing is that everyone starts off as a vernacular musician. Enculturation refers to learning that occurs through immersion in one’s culture and social environment. It’s how all young children begin learning music, as they’re exposed to music making around them and naturally engage themselves in playful exploration of musical sound. But upon reaching schooling age, some people become invested in formal music instruction, and their music making activities take on that value system. Much of their time is spent in teacher-led lessons and rehearsals, and in isolated practice sessions. Young vernacular musicians, however, continue on a more exploratory path. Below are some of the most important characteristics of vernacular music learning:

  • Informal group learning with peers – A more experienced peer may lead informal sessions, sharing previously unfamiliar chords, progressions, or licks. In less directed peer situations, learning is accomplished as musicians engage in group efforts to reproduce popular songs, create new compositions or arrangements, and otherwise jam for pure enjoyment. (Check out this clip from the movie School of Rock, specifically at the 1:40 mark where Jack Black and a student disagree on whether to call their class activities “goofin’ off” or “creating musical fusion.” 🙂 )
  • Chosen musical material – Practicing is done within a real music context, meaning it emphasizes songs, tunes, or licks that they want to learn, as opposed to scales, long-tones, and exercises that they’ve been assigned. Interestingly though, many vernacular musicians eventually choose to practice scales, arpeggios, and the like as they “discover” the benefits, often through suggestions published in musician magazines.
  • Listening-copying process – They often “just listen” to soak up a groove, or try to play along with recordings for fun. But they also thrive on the challenge of listening carefully and working up imitative performances of difficult passages.

Obviously the ear is a critical component of vernacular musicianship. It is the means by which they build up a huge repertoire of songs, quickly memorize heard music, embellish basic music material, and improvise. In contrast to formally trained music students who rely greatly on notation in their practicing, vernacular musicians naturally develop formidable aural skills as they practice.

This line of thinking should in no way discredit the value of a great music teacher of the effectiveness of individual practice. The research literature is replete with evidence that formal education works, and that deliberate practice is an leads to improved skills. But surely there is something music education can learn from the activities of vernacular musicians. I suspect that far fewer “garage musicians” pack away their guitars into permanent storage after their teen years, like so many high school band members do upon graduation. “Indeed,” Lucy Green writes, “those societies and communities with the most highly developed formal music education systems often appear to contain the least active music-making populations.”


9 responses to “How Vernacular Musicians Acquire Their Skills

  1. Very well put. However, your post and Lucy Green’s wonderful research both still highlight an awkward divide. Consider how many vernacular musicians might feel reading this… There’s a danger of seeming patronizing, intelligence-insulting, or perhaps just naive to be saying things like: people keep playing music longer when they enjoy what they’re playing. To the many formally-trained musicians who have given up or been frustrated, these insights may be meaningful. I suspect, on the other hand, that vernacular musicians might feel awkward about the whole framework for this discussion.

    An analogy: Imagine reading in a newsletter from a specific religious group that they’ve found reason to believe that people from other religious perspectives are, in fact, ethical and even may have some qualities worth learning from! Regardless of the truth in those ideas, the framework betrays an absurd ethnocentrism.

    The argument shouldn’t be about acknowledging cross-cultural ethics or about acknowledging the skill of vernacular musicians. I don’t think there’s room for giving any respect to a suggestion that vernacular musicians are inferior. The conversation needs to start by assuming that everyone fully understands that all cultures have more or less skilled musicians. Then we can proceed right into the more useful discussions about what benefits are offered by different approaches and how we can learn by appreciating lessons from all cultural perspectives. In other words, it is a shame to preface discussion of vernacular learning styles with anything that even implies that respecting such learning may be revolutionary or controversial. To whatever extent it actually is controversial, that is a shame and should not be tolerated.

    I do want to thank you for your work! I’m just hoping to push you even further.


  2. A clarifying comment:
    The real issue is one of enculturation, as you say. The issue with vernacular musicians is that success usually requires a supportive surrounding culture which provides similar things as formal instruction. In an African village where everyone sings and dances regularly, it is easy to successfully learn in a vernacular fashion. And formal instruction may also take place. In fact, there’s no clear line between vernacular and formal, it’s more of a continuum. The need for the most formal instruction comes when the surrounding culture isn’t supportive enough. One reason formally-trained students don’t always continue later is because they don’t have a cultural outlet to easily fit into. It’s not a matter of the learning style, it is a matter of the cultural context generally. It’s more about participatory versus presentational music…

    Well, obviously whole books and conferences can be about this… I acknowledge the complexity of the issues. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Keep up your work, I look forward to reading more!

  3. Aaron,

    Thanks for your great comments. I admit, when I write something like this (and probably most of the things I write), I envision my readers as those who came up through formal music instruction. Perhaps I’m projecting too much of myself in that way. What I mean is…although I agree that the discussion shouldn’t have to begin by acknowledging the merits of “the other side,” I’m just not convinced that we’re there yet. Lucy Green’s book was revolutionary to my outlook. It encouraged me to begin reconciling my popular music listening loves with my formal music performance training. And now in my current position at UNL, when our senior music education majors participate in a “rock band experience” class, I hear them expressing the same eye-opening (mind-opening?) thoughts throughout the process.

    Still I’m taking your words to heart. I don’t want to be perceived as affirming vernacular musicianship from a position of superiority as a formally trained musician/educator. Thanks again for raising some more important issues along these lines.


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  5. Thanks, Bob. To be clear: you don’t come across as suggesting a superiority whatsoever. But it is very much like the religious analogy I used. Just framing it as you do is so utterly revealing of the systematic bias that you are arguing against.

    I went through the classical system enough to see how it is, but I’m coming at it from a few steps beyond where you’re at: I’m frustrated about the more broad-minded academics now embracing not only Western classical, but also Western jazz, and Western pop music. I don’t like the Western privilege in any of those. I’m concerned about how the Rock School movement has its own biased canon and assumptions which privilege certain cultures and histories and ideas about the nature of music…

  6. Interesting. For me, the main distinctions of vernacular musicians versus formally trained ones is that the vernies don’t assume that they will be locked in a room by themselves the whole time they are learning. (Some of them are and achieve amazing things that way — witness EVH who spent most of his youth alone in his bedroom picking out Clapton solos.)

    Second … well, many vernies DO have formal training. But when their teacher might have told them that there were right notes and wrong notes and that they had to disappear behind the music and they were supposed to forget their own creative voices and channel the dead spirit of the composer … they just didn’t listen. In fact, they left.

    A lot of the difference between vernacular musicians and formally trained ones is simply that the vernies don’t assume they will spend their entire lives playing covers of other people’s music and trying to send someone else’s message. “What did Beethoven mean by this?” is less likely to engage them creatively than, “What do I mean to say here?”

    I’m less fascinated by the idea of being accused of “Western privilege” because I used EVH as an example, though. I’m not moved by any demands that I must feel obligated to push music that I am culturally unconnected to instead of the vernacular that I grew up with. There are many non-Westerners out there who don’t need a white American woman to speak for them or be their mouthpiece. Meanwhile, for me, I will speak my native musical language, and that is stadium rock. It’s what I know, it’s what I love, it’s what moves me as much as classical and opera. And I will continue to love it even if it marks me as politically undesirable or if I should apologize for daring to like music made by 20th century Westerners by championing something that will function better as obscurist political arm candy.

  7. @fireandair:

    Great comments! As W.A. Mathieu suggests in The Listening Book: one should only spend a quarter of one’s time on “other people’s music.”

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to imply any problem with musicians focusing on their own cultural music (which is the inherent idea of vernacular music). I am just concerned about institutional privilege of Western music and of ethnocentric perspectives. Iff you teach people about stadium rock, great; just don’t claim that the forms and functions there are all that there is in music. For example, music educators too often teach pitch as though the 12-note tempered system is all that exists. I’m just asking is that whatever cultural perspectives are taught, they are clearly identified as such.

    My concerns are partly because my own vernacular music is multi-style global synthesis. I grew up exposed to an extremely wide range of music. Anything that boxes up music into particular styles or traditions or that privileges one style or another simply fails to represent my vernacular experience. And I think more and more students today are like me. They don’t have some non-Western music or Western classical or stadium rock as their “native music,” they just have “music” in all its complex and intertwining variants. That’s the vernacular music of the 21st century.

  8. fireandair – Thanks for commenting. I hear what you’re saying about the obligation to honor the intentions of the composer. Obviously that’s a limitation that some musicians just can’t take, though other seem to take comfort in those confines. Your comment prompted me to find your blog. Between your comments here and what I read at your blog, it’s obvious you draw from a breadth of musical experiences. I hope you’ll continue to visit my blog and offer your insights.

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