Songwriting Learning Styles
Learn Faster, Remember Better and Improve Your Songwriting Process
Bonus: write songs that resonate with everyone in your audience
Ever wonder why:
- Other people can learn in ways that don’t work for you?
- Some people can’t figure out what you’re explaining when it makes perfect sense to you?
- Maps work for some people and verbal directions for others
- Some have to figure it out for themselves when the directions are easy to read?
Which of these statement are true for you?
- You can look at lyrics all day but it doesn’t help you memorize them?
- Find TAB or written music a waste of time to figure out until you hear it?
- Doesn’t matter how many times it’s explained to you, you don’t get it until you try doing it yourself?
- You get nothing from podcasts, you prefer video?
- Diagrams and pictures are useless until someone explains it to you?
- Can’t learn sitting still, but it’s okay if you can move around?
- No matter how many times it’s explained to you, it didn’t mean a thing until you saw a diagram or a picture?
- You don’t remember it unless you hear it?
- You get nothing from watching YouTube videos, but it makes sense when you figure it out or do it?
- You don’t remember things well until you see them?
- You have to see the lyrics or music to play it and have trouble learning songs by ear?
- Get distracted in chaotic noisy environments and can’t focus on anything?
These are all a result of learning styles, how your brain is wired to learn new skills and process information to remember it.
Why Should I Care?
When you understand how your brain is wired to learn, you can choose the best methods to master musical skills, memorize songs and find new ways to support your songwriting.
As a bonus, these concepts can help you write lyrics that resonate with everyone in your audience.
What’s a Learning Style
A learning style is a way to understand and remember new information. It’s not a choice, it’s how your brain works. There are a few different theories and variations but essentially, we use three main styles (or modalities) to absorb information as we learn:
Visual – learn by seeing, especially pictures, video and diagrams
Aural – learn by listening, hearing things explained
Kinesthetic – learn by moving your body
What’s a Preferred Learning Style
In 1979, Walter Burke Barbe, Raymond Swassing and Michael Milone published “Teaching Through Modality Strengths: Concepts and Practices” which proposed the educational theory that everyone has one way that they learn best, either visually, aurally or kinesthetically. That is, you learn best by either seeing it, or hearing it or doing it with your body.
People Understand Information in Different Ways
- Other people can learn in ways that don’t work for you because you have different strengths in different learning styles.
- Some people can’t figure out what you’re explaining when it makes perfect sense to you because they would rather see it or do it than figure out your verbal explanation
- Maps work for some people and verbal directions for others, because some prefer seeing a map and visualizing it while others need aural directions
- Some have to figure it out for themselves when the directions are easy to read, because they need to experience it physically to understand it instead of figuring out verbal or written instructions.
Review the original questions
The learning style each represents is marked after it:
- You can look at lyrics all day but it doesn’t help you memorize them? (Auditory or Kinesthetic, not Visual)
- Find TAB or written music a waste of time to figure out until you hear it? (Auditory)
- Doesn’t matter how many times it’s explained to you, you don’t get it until you try doing it yourself? (Kinesthetic)
- You get nothing from podcasts, you prefer video? (Visual not Auditory)
- Diagrams and pictures are useless until someone explains it to you (verbally)? (Auditory)
- Can’t learn sitting still, but it’s okay if you can move around? (Kinesthetic)
- No matter how many times it’s explained to you, it didn’t mean a thing until you saw a diagram or a picture? (Visual, not Auditory)
- You don’t remember it unless you hear it? (Auditory)
- You get nothing from watching YouTube videos, but it makes sense when you figure it out or do it? (Kinesthetic)
- You don’t remember things well until you see them? (Visual)
- You have to see the lyrics or TAB or music notation to play it and have trouble learning songs by ear? (Visual not Auditory)
- Get distracted in chaotic noisy environments and can’t focus on anything? (Auditory)
Educational Theories are often difficult to prove scientifically because the data is usually subjective. Researchers observe and measure behaviour because they can’t directly observe what happens in the brain. Many educational theories are difficult to prove conclusively. Ideas that appear to make sense often get traction in popular culture and people start believing in them without hard data to back it up.
(Neuroscientists CAT scans and other devices to observe activity patterns in the human brain. Many brain functions use combinations of different sections of the brain simultaneously, so scientific understanding of what each part of the brain really does is still pretty vague.)
Why Using Your Preferred Learning Style Really Doesn’t Work
In my experience, as teacher, musician and music teacher, the problem with this theory is how it’s usually applied in practice, not the actual idea. It’s an oversimplification of the complicated process of learning. Although, I believe that everyone has different abilities in each modality and has one that’s stronger (the concept behind the theory appears solid)… but to learn effectively you need to combine several modalities instead of just one!
Some researchers have redefined the term as a learning preference… how you like to learn.
I use the term preferred learning style or dominant learning style with the understanding that everyone uses all learning modalities and has different strengths in each.
Using All Three Learning Styles Is What Really Works
Let’s use an example most musicians can relate to… learning scales. Love them or hate them, you’ve had some experience with them. You can:
- Use visuals, reading them from a page of music or tab.
- Learn what they sound like and use your ears to guide you.
- Learn how they feel on your favourite instrument…
To truly integrate scales or any other musical concept, you need to use all three modalities! You really know it when you can visualize a keyboard or fret board, hear it and feel it in your muscles.
Why Your Preferred Learning Style is Still Relevant
Knowing your dominant learning style allows you to use it as a central modality to support the others. Start with your strength and use other modalities to support your learning. For example, if you are a strong aural learner, use visual and kinesthetic strategies to support you aural strengths.
When I first started piano lessons, and later with clarinet and saxophone lessons, I was taught to read music instead of listening. In fact, I was subconsciously taught not to trust my ears. Years later I realized that I am strongest with aural, visual and then kinesthetic learning, in that order. So when I learn new songs, I should put more effort into listening first and using visuals and music notation afterwards, which is the opposite of what I was trained.
What’s Your Preferred Learning Style
Figuring out your preferred learning style can be confusing because you have strengths in all three. Often you have one that is relatively stronger than the other two. In different situations, you depend on different modalities.
For example, I always thought of myself as a visual learner because when I play saxophone I always found it easier to learn music by reading than by listening to it. I’m stronger at reading music than learning by ear because I spent more time practicing reading music.
There are many online questionnaires that can help you figure out your best learning style. They vary in quality and relevance. Most are written for school students or school teachers, so many questions they may not apply to you. Don’t expect definitive answers, use them as a guide to start thinking about how you learn.
I tried these online learning style questionnaires…
This is the most detailed one I used, http://www2.amk.fi/mater/kauppa_ja_talous/demand_forecasting/vak.php
This one is old school, you have to print it, fill it out and score it yourself, but the questions will help you understand the distinctions better than most questionnaires, http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/styles/vak.html
This one is interesting (but I’m not sure how “educational” it is as it was created by a company, Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), which is owned by another that appears to loan money, including student loans and commercial loans), http://www.educationplanner.org/students/self-assessments/learning-styles-quiz.shtml
Written for college students, https://www.how-to-study.com/learning-style-assessment/
Figuring Out Your Dominant Learning Style
Think about how you learn the best with a specific example, like:
- Learning a new song or a riff on your instrument,
- Learning to sing a song or phrase
- Memorizing the lyrics of a song
Do you learn more easily when you?
- See a diagram or picture
- Hear someone talk about it
- Actually do it
When you are songwriting, what sort of inspiration is strongest for you?
- Pictures or visual images
- You hear sounds first
- What it feels like in your hands or voice
What is strongest when you’re learning to play a song from memory?
- Mental images or remembering what the notation or tab looked like
- The sounds that are coming next
- What it feels like in your muscles / muscle memory
The visual, aural and kinesthetic metaphors that you use in conversation are also clues.
Are there patterns in your usual turns of phrase?
Visual, using sight metaphors: good to see you, see you later, I see what you mean.
Aural, using sound metaphors: good talking with you, talk to you later, I hear you.
Kinesthetic, using sensation metaphors: get a feel for it, get a grip, I know what you mean.
Some researchers include emotional phrases in kinesthetic metaphors. I think about the emotional component as separate from learning modalities and discuss this below in Emotional Learning (below).
Applying Learning Styles to Improve Your Learning
With a little creative thinking, you can find ways to use different modalities in your learning for:
Skills – mental (songwriting concepts) or physical (vocal / instrumental technique)
Music – learning lyrics or playing new songs
Concepts – music theory or the ideas in this article
Information – facts
Visual: watch videos, use and create diagrams, flow charts, graphs
Aural: listen to podcasts, audio lectures, audio books, listen to videos without watching them,
Kinesthetic: move around, instead of sitting, try standing, walking or exercising
Combining Two Modalities
Here are a few ideas for combining…
Visual and Aural: think out loud while looking at visual representations or diagrams
Visual and Kinesthetic: trace diagrams with your finger, watch video programs / information while working out
Aural and Kinesthetic: listen to audiobooks and podcasts information while working out, performing chores or driving
Note: Don’t let yourself be distracted when driving… however, I’ve noticed when listening to a podcast a second time, I remember details about where I was driving when I first heard it.
Learning is applying your new knowledge, not just memorizing facts. You need to experiment and try things out, talk about it, write about it… use the new ideas and practice them. To truly learn and understand something you need to:
- Put it into a context and make connections with what you already know… how does it relate to other things you know and to the world.
- Notice patterns and relationships
- Create with it….
What’s the Context?
To assimilate new ideas or facts, you need to connect them to things you already know so you understand how something new related to something known.
Example: a minor chord is a major chord with the third lowered a semitone, major and minor chords are connected
Learn patterns and the relationships between them. Patterns also reduce information to bite sized pieces and concepts. Chunking, or reducing large amounts of information into smaller “chunks” is one form of finding patterns. In North America, phone numbers are chunked into 3 digit area code, 3 digit exchange and 4 final digits… 10 is grouped into 3 + 3 + 4 to make it easier to remember.
Example: learn the pattern of intervals for major scale, then you can apply it to any root…
Example: story… humans are hardwired for stories… if you want a group of rowdy children to settle down, tell them a story. Strong stories have patterns, such as a beginning, middle and end. Children’s stories and nursery rhymes stick in our memories because of the strong rhythmic and repetitive patterns. The patterns in the story and the emotional drama of the story keep us interested in the plot and help us remember it.
There is an emotional dimension to memory and learning. You have to care about what you’re learning, but strong emotions make stronger memories. Traumatic experiences are so vivid because you create them when you are under stress. A positive emotional connection to a new skill or new information will help your remember it.
Example: when you are learning lyrics to a song, identify underlying emotion and tap into it just like you would tap into an emotion to write about it. If it’s a new song you’ve just written, mentally connect the lyrics with the emotions you used to write the song… actually feel the emotions as you work to memorize your lyrics. If you’re memorizing playing patterns or chord progressions, emotionally connect with the associated lyrics.
For a different angle on emotions and songwriting, read How to Finish Your Songs about the emotional stages of songwriting, the different emotional states you move through as you start, work on and complete a song (or any large project or learning process)
Making It Real
To make it stick in your memory you can express it with different modalities, that are similar to the ways we absorb it:
Visual – draw pictures or diagrams
Auditory – verbalize and talk about it
Kinesthetic – do it with your body
Actively process new ideas, do something with them. If you passively let them sit in your head… you’ll forget them. Process new ideas by using them. The three most common ways to integrate new skills or information:
- Talk about it (social learning), have a conversation, explain it or teach it
- Write about it… use your own words to explain it in written form
- Most importantly, practice it and create with it. When you discover a new songwriting technique… use it!
Example: you learn a new playing technique: practice it on your instrument, write, down the steps in point form, then explain or teach it to someone.
Example: read an article, like… 25 Five Minute Songwriting Exercises: pick an interesting exercise, put the exercise into your songwriting notebook in your own words, practice it every day for a week, talk to other songwriters about it (don’t forget to tell them where you found it 🙂
Put It in Writing
Different researchers classify reading and writing as:
- Visual because you see text
- Auditory because you say the words in your head as you read
- Both visual and auditory
- Others classify reading and writing as a distinct fourth modality…
I think of it as separate from learning styles. Reading uses both visual and aural modalities… it’s a way to convey information, but not a “sense” used to absorb or process information. Use you own best judgement here… I’m a professional teacher and a songwriter, not an educational researcher.
Example Learning Lyrics – just listening might not be enough
- Sketch a picture or doodle of the lyrics, or while listening
- You might need to say or sing it to keep it in your head
- Write out the lyrics by hand several times
- Move… instead of sitting still, listen while walking outside or move your arms and body while singing. Practice your stage moves in rehearsal, the associations will help you remember (and you can work out your best moves in advance!)
Combining these modalities, either at the same time when its practical, or trying various methods at different times, will help you solidify the song in your memory.
Writing out the lyrics to a song is part of the method in The Fastest Way to Memorize a Song.
Example, Learning Rhythms
- Sketch it with a diagram or doodle, write the rhythm in music notation
- Say/Sing it
- Tap it… in different ways: hand on a table, hand on your leg, tap it with your foot
- Write it in music notation
Use Multiple Modalities While You’re Writing Songs
Use your imagination to tap into visual, aural and kinesthetic senses while you write. Imagine emotional situations and feelings similar to what you’re writing about to help your audience create more intense internal imagery while they listen to your songs.
Here are a few ideas to push you out of your box:
- Don’t think in a straight line… try a mind map, outline your ideas with the lyric hook or title in the center and put related ideas around it, instead of writing down a page from the top to the bottom
- Draw doodles, diagrams, pictures, ideas or scenes from your songs (at your talent level) instead of only using words, while you are brainstorming ideas.
- Imagine sounds without using your favourite instrument
- Practice hearing songs you know in your imagination
- Listen for what you about to write or play before you play it
- Move around, don’t force yourself to sit while writing
- Take breaks and move or change your position in your work space
- Write in a different work space
- Go for a walk and work on sections of your song
I had used the go for a walk technique intermittently, but it’s a favourite method of Ian Sherwood. He discusses it, among other topics, in this interview.
Reference Visual, Aural and Kinesthetic Imagery and Metaphors in Your Song Lyrics
Include imagery that accesses many different senses as you write lyrics so your songs resonate with everyone in your audience, regardless of their preferred learning style. Most songwriters “paint a picture” with visual imagery but images evoking sound, smell, taste are less common. Include aural imagery and metaphors and refer to kinesthetic senses of physical touch and internal sensations like hunger or pain, and external sensations like flying, falling and moving through space.
Reference multiple modalities, like visual, aural and kinesthetic sensation to create a multilayered impression, just as it creates more effective learning. Apply the concept of different learning styles to your songwriting and your songs resonate with more people.
There are Three Learning styles (modalities)…
- Auditory, hear it and
- Kinesthetic, do it with your body
Combine all 3 for maximum impact on learning and remembering
Use your dominant or preferred learning style with the support of the other two
Deeper Learning, put new information, ideas and skills into
- Context with what you already know
- Patterns, figure out the relationships and break into chunks
- Creative Action!
Emotional Learning, use emotions to create stronger memories and add another dimension to your learning.
Use multiple modalities while writing your songs…
Use mental visual and aural images / imagination, sensations and tap into your emotions while you write.
Use several modalities and include emotion to help you learn and memorize songs.
Making it real by creating with what you learn
- Write it
- Talk it
- Teach it
- Practice it!
Reference all three modalities (and add emotion) with imagery and metaphor in your lyrics, to make sure everyone in your audience accesses all three modalities as they experience your songs.