Article of the Month

Learning Styles and the Music Educator

In the world of learning and learners, there are many styles and types of students and teachers. To teach effectively for each type, understanding styles of teaching and learning is very useful. In fact, teaching styles not only accommodate different learning types, but also guide teachers toward situations that best suit their strengths. I have come to appreciate the diversity and effectiveness of learning and teaching using The 4-Mat System developed by Bernice McCarthy.

McCarthy, an expert in the field of learning styles, developed her system as a model of four distinct learning styles. She originated her system as part of her doctoral research at Northwestern University. Numerous school systems and companies have adopted her work as they seek to reach their students and employees more effectively. McCarthy maintains that these learning styles are distinct from the auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities; she suggests that each of these four types of learners have their own priority for learning. She suggests there are both strengths and weaknesses associated with each style. Her work is available on the web at

McCarthy suggests that each type of student has a different priority for learning, and that each type is equally valid. Using learning theories based in psychology and left and right hemispheric brain research, McCarthy characterizes each type of learner according to their respective priorities:

•  Type 1 learners are interpersonal learners who value the concrete experience of learning and seek to connect their learning to their daily lives by answering why they are learning this material.
•  Type 2 learners are analytical learners who learn best by observing and reflecting on their lessons, as they value learning what the lesson teaches.
•  Type 3 learners are common sense learners who learn best by actively doing assignment as they learn, what they need to know.
•  Type 4 learners are dynamic learners who take the lesson materials and make it their own by asking, what if I do this my own way?

Students inherently have different styles of learning; for example, you may teach students who ask annoying questions such as, "Do I have to learn this?' or 'When will I ever need this?" These learners can be somewhat annoying, yet have a keen sense for what is important to them. McCarthy defines these learners as type 1, interpersonal learners.

Another type of student may love theory and written notation. They may be fascinated by analyzing chord structures and in knowing key signatures backwards and forwards. McCarthy characterizes this type of learner as type 2, analytic learners.

You may teach other students who love to practice and practice, eagerly using the skills they've just learned to master a particularly difficult etude or passage. This type of learner enjoys hands-on activities and step-by-step instructions. McCarthy defines these students as type 3, common sense learners.

Finally, you may teach students who constantly want to improvise and create on their own. They are the students that seem unencumbered by the notation process, love to invent new chords and melodies, and frequently “do their own thing.” McCarthy describes these students as type 4, dynamic learners.

In my weekly teaching, I have found these four different styles represented throughout my studio. The interpersonal learners will want to sit next to me and tell me their favorite activity. The analytical learners spend more time watching my examples and want to understand the notation completely. The common sense learners will respond best to specific directions in written or hands-on activities, while the dynamic learners will often make up their own variation on any given exercise.

Whether you have interpersonal, analytic, common sense, or dynamic learners in your studio, you need to be able to tailor your approach to include each student's strength. Instead of merely teaching the same way you were taught, you can alter your approach to address your students’ strengths. Most teachers teach in the style they were taught, not their own preferred learning style; this sets a dangerous precedent for our students who may or may not share the teacher’s preferred learning style. By being aware of your students’ learning styles, you can understand their learning processes and facilitate their learning more effectively.

Beyond your optimizing your students’ learning, you can gain access to your own strengths as a teacher by understanding McCarthy’s four learning and teaching styles. Each of the teaching styles is uniquely geared to its own role in music education. If you happen to be a type 1 teacher, you are probably monitoring students’ interest level and making sure they are enjoying participating in your class or ensemble. The type 2 teacher is most concerned with what the student is actually understanding on a cognitive level, frequently testing students’ knowledge and understanding. The type 3 teacher is interested in teaching skills and is most proud when students can demonstrate their progress and abilities. If you're a type 4 teacher, you encourage exploration and improvisation, letting the student create and discover new music under your guidance.

Using McCarthy’s model, you as the teacher can use your strengths in numerous roles to encourage and support each of your students on an individual basis. For example, type 1 teachers checks in with each student and explains why they are teaching this material. Type 2 teachers are best suited for teaching theory and are very attentive to the concepts being taught. Type 3 teachers are most comfortable in drilling and enforcing practicing as a rule. Finally, type 4 teachers are more permissive and encourage students to explore their own music, giving them the freedom to create and improvise.

As teachers, we have an important responsibility in respect every learning style in our classes and ensembles. Whenever, possible, we need to reach all students by using their preferred learning style. Some material is better suited to one teaching style than others; in McCarthy’s system, one concept such as rhythm is presented in each learning style to reach every student in their preferred style at least a quarter of the time. This method of teaching can be challenging for the teacher who needs to design lessons that cover each learning style with a series of activities, lectures, and experiences. The pedagogical rewards, however, are impressive.

Teachers can make a difference for their students by modifying their approach to even the most traditional topics. For example, just because a student is having difficulty understanding music theory, doesn't mean he or she isn't capable of succeeding or grasping the lesson. Also, the student who invents his or her own way of playing an etude may be just as musical as the student who waits and mimics the teacher's example. Perhaps, the success of each student depends not only on the quality of teaching, but the match of teaching and learning styles.

Music educators can address each type of learner by using a variety of teaching methods in our studios. While traditional school subjects favor the type 2 and 3 students and sometimes neglect the type 1 and 4 learners, music inherently lends itself to all four learning types: the interpersonal learner enjoys listening and describing music; the analytic learner appreciates understanding music theory and analyzing chorales; the common-sense learner relishes practicing and developing skills on an instrument or voice; and the dynamic learner enjoys creating and improvising new music on their own.

By distinguishing these four learning styles, teachers can move beyond the traditional modes of instruction to encompass each of the four learning styles. As a musical expression of their student's development, attention to each type of learner will produce measurable cognitive, kinesthetic, and auditory results. When we recognize students as interpersonal, analytical, common sense, and dynamic learners, we can bring a more comprehensive approach to our teaching and increased success to all of our students.

Daniel Johnson, Ph.D.

University of North Carolina at Wilmington




UNC Wilmington | 601 S. College Road, Wilmington NC 28403 | 910.962.3000 | About this Site | Copyright Notice | Feedback | Page maintained by:  S. Errante [ errantes AT uncw DOT edu ]