Shaping Musical Behavior

This post is going to be about teaching people, rather than training animals. (However, it will involve some pretty cute animated animals!)

Many of the principles of good animal training apply equally as well to teaching humans. In fact, behavior analysts were designing positive reinforcement based teaching programs for people long before clicker training caught on in the animal training world. No matter the species, learning happens best when the teacher identifies an appropriate starting point, breaks each task into achievable steps, and rewards correct behavior, as well as approximations.

Music Learning Lab, a recently released iPad (and iPhone) app, uses learning science research to effectively teach basic skills necessary for reading and writing music, as well as music appreciation. Although the app is aimed at the younger crowd, I recently downloaded it and have had a lot of fun playing with it. The app includes a series of lessons that teach basic music concepts, several games to practice what you are learning, and a create area, where you can make your own songs and music.

From the description in the app store:

“We’ve applied state-of-the art learning science research in designing Music Learning Lab. We identified key skills that serve as a foundation for music learning, and designed the lessons in Music Learning Lab using methods that combine our love and knowledge of music with principles derived from basic learning sciences research. The result is that learners acquire an important set of music skills, and have a tremendous amount of fun doing it.”

Although a lot of creative people helped design the app, the final version was published by the smart folks at Generategy, including Paul Andronis, Joe Layng, Russell Layng, and Hirofumi Shimizu. You might be familiar with both Dr. Joe Layng and Dr. Paul Andronis. They’ve appeared on my blog in the past because they were the keynote speakers at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Now, these guys really understand behavior and understand the principles of effective teaching. The app is a great example of a well-designed shaping program. It does a beautiful job of starting with very simple games and exercise and gradually building until the learner is doing much more complicated tasks.

The app creators identified important skills the learner needed, decided the most appropriate order for teaching these skills, and figured out how to break these concepts into teachable units so that the learner can be successful throughout the program. For example, the app starts by teaching the learner to match pitches, then changes to identifying higher or lower pitches, and gradually progresses until the learner is identifying and creating sequences of notes to match either a series of played notes or a set of notes on a staff.

In the screen shot above (Lesson 10), the learner has to press on the play button to hear a series of three notes on the radio. Next, the learner has to place notes on the staff to compose this short tune. The learner can press the play button under the staff at any time to hear her creation. Once the learner thinks her answer matches the radio tune, she taps the animal to hear if she is correct.

Music is one skill that often seems to many people to be much more “art” than “science.” However, even very complex behaviors can usually be broken down into a series of teachable skills. Even if you are an adult and don’t have any kids, I really recommend downloading this app and giving it a try. I’ve been enjoying playing with it on my iPad. It’s really just a fun app, but, on top of that, I think anyone involved in training or teaching will be interested in seeing the progression of exercises and watching how the app goes about teaching skills from the simple to the complex.

Check out Music Learning Lab in the iTunes Store.

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