Thoughts on teaching instruments intuitively

Instruments like the ocarina, recorder, and ukulele are often touted as being 'easy to play'. This term can be interpreted in many ways and, taken literally, is riddled with problems. That being said, I think what people actually mean is more along the lines of 'intuitive' or 'approachable'.

When learning to perform a task, there is ultimately some set of knowledge that must be known in order to perform the task effectively. I feel that if an approach is intuitive, this knowledge is revealed as a series of small steps, never leaping so far at once to be overwhelming. The goal of intuitive teaching is thus to find a natural progression of steps, where each logically follows the one before.

To understand how this can be done effectively, it is helpful to draw some ideas from video game design. Games face the same problem, as when a new player comes to a game, they know nothing about its mechanics. How can the game teach this to the player without asking them to read a 500 page manual? While some do opt for textual or spoken tutorials, others take an intuitive approach.

An example of a game which does this is The Witness, a puzzle game with an ostensibly simple mechanic: to draw a line from a starting point to a finishing point. To ensure that the player understands the most basic mechanic, the game starts within a small room, with the following puzzle on the door. It is impossible to leave without drawing a line, starting from the circular 'knob' and linking it to the semicircular line end.

While this may sound simplistic, it goes a lot deeper than it looks. Many of the puzzles occur within a grid, with one or more start points and one or more exits. A line can be drawn along any path within this, and in the simplest cases any path is valid, although the line cannot cross. Additional symbols placed on this grid impose rules on the path the line must take, and the game communicates this without a single written or spoken word.

Instead of spelling out what the player must do, the mechanics of the symbols are taught using a series of increasingly difficult puzzles. These start off simple, with few possibilities and clear failure states. Within this framework, the player can experiment with the system, hypothesise about the rule, and eventually come to a conclusion. Do you see the rule below?

Some call this 'teaching without teaching'. However, it really isn't; it's teaching using a different medium of communication. It only works if the situation is highly curated. Thus, I think 'environmental teaching' makes the most sense, as the technique is fundamentally about teaching using a curated environment.

Intuitive instruments?

It is interesting to question whether it is possible to make an instrument naturally intuitive such that someone can learn to play it without ever needing a tutorial. Unfortunately, I believe that the answer is no, beyond a few special cases.

To see why, you need only look at a few instruments. The recorder and ocarina, for instance, teach some things well and others very poorly. Both instruments are visually approachable, as they only have a small number of finger holes and lack the complex key systems that are found in other instruments. However, beyond this surface level, both instruments have traps, unintuitive details which the player absolutely has to know to play competently:

Articulation is unintuitive. When approaching a wind instrument, if a player wishes to articulate (separate) two notes, the most intuitive thing to do is to 'puff' the notes, similarly to blowing out a candle. Unfortunately, this is poor technique, as doing so causes the pitch and volume of the note to ramp up, then roll off. A much better technique is to use the tongue to block and release the airflow. Learning how to do this usually requires tuition.

The instruments have unstable pitch, yet offer no guidance. Both instruments have unstable pitch, and there is no guarantee that using the correct fingering sounds the intended note. Learning to control this isn't impossible, but is most effectively done by playing with accompaniment, developing a sense of relative pitch. Without knowing this, there is little indication when a note is or isn't in tune. This can lead the player into embarrassing situations, such as being told that they are out of tune when playing in a group.

Playing musically requires more than knowing a fingering system. The initial simplicity of these instruments is also misleading, as it can create an impression that if one learns the fingerings, they will suddenly be able to play fantastically. This is unfortunately not the case; it is pretty easy to 'fake' playing music by visually showing someone the fingerings, but the result usually isn't that musical. There are many small details that make an interesting performance, which are analogous to speaking with an accent.

These traps arise simply because instruments are open ended. Instruments have little opinion about what you should be doing with them, and this limits the guidance that they are able to offer. While teaching intuitively as exemplified above does not require written or spoken language, it does require a very curated experience. It is also notable that what does or doesn't work depends on context and what accompaniment, if any, one is playing with.

That being said, some instruments are more intuitive than others. One way to do this is to modify sound already produced by the body. For example, the kazoo can be intuitive to people who already sing, as it is played by singing or humming while blowing; there is little in the way of additional technique required.

Other instruments that approach this goal include the xylophone and keyboard. Both of them require little technique to achieve a good sound. By limiting the learner to a fairly small fixed set of notes, there is a good chance that someone would be able to find the notes for a tune they know through 'messing around'.

In this case, however, there are still intuitive leaps that must be made to progress. For instance, when approaching keyboard, there is a good chance that someone will play using one finger technique. As someone progresses, the limitations of the approach quickly present themselves. However, the solution may or may not be apparent.

The problem is that playing with multiple fingers, and especially things like the thumb tuck, are not intuitive. Playing with multiple fingers feels extremely awkward the first few times it is attempted, and someone may not know to push through this.

Intuitive teaching?

Instead of attempting to make instruments themselves intuitive, I feel that a more worthwhile goal would be to develop means of teaching music and instrument technique intuitively.

As noted above, playing piano or keyboard can be intuitive at first, but can become unintuitive. A way of teaching this intuitively would be to begin with one finger technique, quickly allowing the student to play some music they know. As they get better and they are aware that technique is becoming a problem, playing using multiple fingers can be introduced. Teaching in this way means that the student is always aware of why they are doing what they are. This is essentially leading the learner into a trap, and making it obvious that it is a trap. From this point of view, it can be made apparent why the preferred technique is preferred.

A similar approach can be applied to intonation. The violin, for example, does this in several ways. The instrument has sympathetic resonances between the strings, and sounds notably different when some notes are played in tune. In addition to this, if a student can play along with a teacher, and the teacher is in tune, their errors will be apparent as the clashing sounds will 'beat'. If a learner is taught to identify this, these signals can be used to correct errors and gradually develop a sense of pitch. The same techniques can be used with wind instruments, but external accompaniment is required. In this same setting, I do not believe that using a chromatic tuner is a good idea, as this teaches the student to look instead of listen.

I believe that electronic instruments can make this task easier, both by providing built-in 'hints' as noted above and through the ability to enable or disable features. On a MIDI keyboard, for example, it is possible to disable pressure sensitivity at first. This allows a learner to focus on learning the fingerings and playing the right notes. Once they have a grasp on this, pressure sensitivity and volume dynamics may be introduced later. Electronic instruments also solve the fear of sounding bad, as they can be played on headphones.

A step above this would be to present some kind of 'game' that integrates a set of intuitive exercises and a virtual instrument. This could be done using a touch device like a phone or tablet, presenting an instrument like a keyboard, with limited keys at first and building up. This may be useful for teaching the basics of music and mechanical technique. However, it can't really teach musicality, as doing so requires the game to make judgements of the player. This is arguably impossible as music is subjective, thus 'good' and 'bad' are very hard to define. This issue is covered on the page 'Teaching music with video games'.


I believe that it is possible to teach music and instruments in a more intuitive way through environmental teaching. When executed well, environmental teaching can be highly subtle to the point of being almost invisible. This is a good thing, as it can appear to the learner that they discovered something for themself. But, like everything, it does have downsides. In particular, teaching in this way is open to interpretation

A common complaint leveraged against The Witness is that it is easy get stuck. But the potential negative costs with instruments are much greater than looking up a guide. As instruments are so open ended, blind alleys exist, mistakes which are not clearly mistakes. These can easily limit progress and take months or years to notice, especially in the absence of a teacher skilled with the instrument. That being said, I don't think that learning should always be trivial. Some amount of resistance isn't a problem as it results in a sense of joy when you later gain the skill or solve a hard problem.

It is interesting to note that real world realisations about a problem often come from similar situations to those artificially created by environmental teaching. The nature of the environment makes a certain possibility obvious. However, finding these situations is often arduous, and many things only become apparent when looked at in a very specific way, often requiring the observer to have pre-existing knowledge.

For example, someone who has experience with other instruments and wishes to create a clean attack may be able to figure out tonguing intuitively. On the other hand, a beginner would be unlikely to without tuition.

Problems with marketing the ocarina Teaching musical instruments with video games

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