Monday, April 29, 2019

Why ‘learning by rote’ can be an insult

Somebody asked on Facebook the other day for suitable songs to ‘learn by rote’.

I imagine they meant songs to ‘learn by ear’ rather than by reading sheet music. I must admit, I was insulted. Here’s why.

I’ve come across the phrase ‘learn by rote’ often. It’s usually used as a replacement for ‘learn by ear’ (I.e. without using sheet music).

However, it can mean much more than that and be rather demeaning.

The most common understanding of the phrase ‘to learn by rote’ is “the memorisation of something based on repetition”.

I have no problem with that definition. It accurately describes learning a song either using sheet music or learning by ear. In fact, the French for ‘rehearsal’ is répétition.

Whatever method you use, you need to repeat the song many times before you really understand and remember it.

However, if you look up the dictionary definition of ‘learn by rote’ you will also come up with things like:
  • “to use repetition to memorise something, as opposed to acquiring a full or robust comprehension of it.”
  • “to learn something by memorising without giving any thought to what is being learned.”
Which seems to disparage the idea of ‘learning by ear’ if the two expressions are thought to be equivalent.

Rote learning’ is assumed to be a worse way of learning than alternatives like ‘meaningful learning’.

‘Meaningful learning’ is when something is fully understood by the learner. It enables the learner to relate what they’ve learnt to other things they already know. This type of learning is long-lasting and allows people to be fully engaged in the learning process.

When I teach songs by ear, I make sure that singers
  • are fully engaged with the learning process.
  • fully comprehend the song they are learning.
  • think about what they are learning so they can connect it with other songs they have learnt.
  • understand the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the song (even though I don’t use technical jargon).
  • fully retain the song and that it goes into long-term memory, by repeating the song at the point of forgetting.
It is possible for good choir or workshop leader to teach songs by ear in that way.

There are many ways of learning music. Learning by ear is just as valuable, rich and engaging as any other method. Please be careful when you use ‘learn by rote’ when you actually mean ‘learn by ear’. It can be insulting.

See also A little rant: don’t diss those who don’t read music

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Chris Rowbury




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