Vernacular vs Abstract Music

What works … and why

In the 12 years I've been teaching privately in Wiltshire I've observed a wide variation in children’s responses to pieces and genres of music. It has intrigued me to decode my pupils tastes and provide them with repertoire that accelerates their musical skills and interests. Given my former life in music production and programming, including as a BBCr3 producer, this is essentially applying my knowledge of audience-building to a younger age group.

All teachers do this in their own way I'm sure, but feeling I've cracked the enigma of offering a repertoire of attractive but challenging music to get adolescent pianists over the ‘teen stall’ period, I have been analysing what the difference is between music which today’s average child will respond to and what s/he won't.  

I've come to the conclusion that the answer is contained in a distinction between what we might call vernacular and abstract music.

It would be too simplistic to say that that reflects the cultural gulf between popular and classical music. The key to rapid early progress lies in giving children music which feels familiar – and that is, in itself, a definition of vernacular music. Thus the question that we're considering ultimately revolves around identifying vernacular music.

While this varies with educational and cultural background, most children of comparable age share a broadly similar emotional identification. Those old enough will remember that 1970s film That'll be the day was advertised with line: “show me a kid that doesn’t want to be a rock star and I'll show you a liar.” In teaching several hundred children I've never seen one who gives the lie to that statement.

Even if they don’t want to play rock-style piano, they all yearn to be stars. Indeed, I believe that that impulse to ‘stardom’ is one of the best drivers to personal excellence. Judiciously nurtured, it can be harnessed to richer goals. I have a litmus test: whatever pupils learn must work for them (at some level) in the playground. By this I mean that for teenagers to prioritise time for music what they're learning must connect with their ‘real’ emotional world. This doesn’t mean just playing current chart music, but it does mean that they need to learn to play with the kind of conviction that earns them respec’ in their peer group.

I believe this matters more than anything else in terms of creating the right conditions for a lifelong love of music to emerge, since it gives pupils permission to explore music relevant to their indigenous cultural world.

 Yet, I've come to realise it isn't necessarily the actual tunes themselves that children recognise, what they seem to respond innately to is a number of more elusive factors: principal among which is the character and quality of ‘melodic arc’ within a familiar vernacular. In other words a tune with a clear and attractive shape may be instantly cognised by a child, even where s/he does not literally re-cognise it.

For example nursery rhyme tunes and carols make ideal teaching material for beginners because not only do they have a simple melodic arc, they are also composed of harmonic intervals (allied to a lyric which itself aids rhythmic awareness). This gives such tunes an archetypal memorability, whether you can get pupils to sing or not. Kids respond instinctively to these simple melodies, partly perhaps because their own experiential world is still close to the oral or semiliterate mindset from which such music arose. In their own humble way, these tunes are what the neurologist Oliver Sacks calls ‘earworms’ [in Musicophilia].

The essence of vernacular music is social ownership of its idiom, which gives everyone permission to experiment with alternative musical ideas and phraseology, because it is not an exclusive language which is the private property of a composer – or worse, a publisher. In this context I also find that some pieces of music composed by previous learners works in the same way because it seems directly to address the same skillset, particularly those in the early stages of differentiating hands and fingers. Beginners approach piano learning throu ‘finger logic’ as much as throu melody, and thus they are delighted when they sense in their precessors’ compositions a finger logic that matches their own idiosyncratic response to getting their fingers to obey their brains.

The same ‘vernacular’ principles apply for tweenagers, for whom the folk-like arc of composers such as Grieg –albeit harmonically classical– Gershwin, Einaudi, Lennon&McCartney, Andersson&Ulvaeus (Abba) address the more developed skillset with similar accuracy.

There is a psychological conflict between authorship and collective ownership which goes to the heart of the distinction between the abstract and the vernacular. In order to achieve authorship an art composer strives for uniqueness /originality whereas a popular composer strives for recognisability and identification. Thus it is that certain popular classical works (eg, Für Elise, Pachelbel’s Canon, Bach 1st prelude of the 48) are drawn into the vernacular orbit by their very popularity. And great bridges they make. I would argue that there is a further factor that has led to the popularity of such pieces, and that is their closeness to verse form, which is the natural vehicle for oral memory.

Talking of verseform leads me naturally to the Blues. When I say, as I often do, that learning the Blues is part of the birthright of every contemporary musician I mean two things: it gives children access to, and a sense of identity with the music of black origin (MOBO) that forms the soundtrack of everyday life; and that the balance of rhetoric and repetition in the Blues form makes it an ideal teaching medium since ‘licks’, once learnt, can be recycled in many of contexts.  

The 12-bar Blues represents an archetype which has spread into the consciousness of most nations. Acquiring an adequate skillset for convincing Blues performance is a much shorter journey than that demanded by classical music, since the lack of complexity within vernacular idioms mean that audiences expectations of technical excellence are correspondingly lower. Moreover both the verse nature of Blues and its non-modulating character appeal strongly to those whose consciousness and skillset are in the early stages of evolution.

To those who might protest that such an approach does not prepare children for the higher reaches of piano, I would respond that when teaching children to read, what matters is to use material that is relevant to their emotional world so as to engage them in the process of reading. The same applies to music. It is the vernacular that seems alive and relevant for them: once they have achieved the necessary skill-base, which they’ll do far more quickly when self-motivated, then you’ve created a win-win situation, and can try extending their comfort zone with abstract music.

In the process of knitting together a child’s gesturality and hir rhythmic awareness both of you know when you’ve achieved it, in the same way that you know someone has learnt to swim. And in all cases this leads to the big YESSS! They haven’t mastered the finer points, but they have made the inner connection throu which such mastery as they later achieve will eventually flow.

I believe this is, in every sense of the words, character building, and once the young musician’s rhythmic-ego-awareness is centred there is no limit to the musical styles they can address. But there’s an even bigger prize. I have long observed a connection between a good sense of rhythm and a good ego-awareness, by which I mean confident self-possession (which I see as lying at the heart of what education should offer, giving young people a clear contextual framework for relating any specialism to their broader ‘knowledge horizon’).

When I taught at the Junior Royal College of Music, I was struck by the number of highly academic boys with great dexterity but a poor sense of rhythm. And often in these intellectual exam-passing young men I would notice a lack of self-confidence.

Approaching the issue from the opposite end of the telescope, as I now do, I feel that for a young player the beat is ‘the plot’. Non-musicians often don’t notice wrong notes or inaesthetic performance, but they notice at once if a player loses the beat – because the beat is the ‘plot’, everything else is attractive packaging. Because one of the primary criteria of vernacular music is recognsibility, the underlying relationship of ‘Dr Beat’ to the feeling-world of any particular groove is crucial because it is the foundation stone not just of syncopation, but of a heart-relationship with music. Getting this relationship right at an early stage creates a firm foundation for the kinds of rhythmic wizardry demanded by contemporary art composers.

Everyone needs role models, and the examples that count for young people are those drawn from their immediate experience. Anyone who has given Einaudi to early teens will know what I'm talking about. He makes a terrific bridgehead to more adventurous music of the classical era, because his music fulfils the criterion of working for pupils in the playground. One pupil who enjoyed playing Einaudi went on to play Adams’ China Gates, tho it took him almost a year to master it. Many educated musicians sneer at Einaudi – but that is to miss the point. It sounds cool because it’s like what today’s youngsters listen to on their iPods. And Einaudi’s ‘vernacular’ diatonicism sounds great without being complicated to play.

This meets the adolescent’s need to validate their self-worth in a world where the pervasive threat of ‘failure’ bedevils the educational climate. I find that to be able to master music like Einaudi, which has so many contemporary resonances, contributes a stabilising factor and gives them a source of inner joy.

This leads to my personal conviction that music exams are best avoided for the young. Teenagers in particular require a rumpus room, a space in their lives where they can truly express themselves without judgment. They need to experience and come to terms with their own musical energies, not simply to accept those imposed on them by diktat.

Among the 200+ videos of my pupils at, the Einaudi performances are consistently the most viewed – the most popular having attracted 17,000 viewings over 2 years, three times more than any other composer. This is not so much an indication of merit as of demand. And anticipating demand is what makes any supplier successful. As professionals we simply supply a service of piano learning, and so it behoves us to anticipate our little customers’ tastes.

Far from dismissing the great musical literature of the past, I wish to prepare pianists for it: but as a teacher, and as a concert promoter, I have ample experience of what trained musicians may see as the limitations of public taste. Misjudge it and you see a lot of empty seats: make the correct call in programming and you have an audience whom you can take with you on a journey beyond their comfort zone. My intention in analysing practices which I have found to accelerate musical development is to put forward a philosophical argument for a more liberal approach to the aesthetics of piano teaching.

Michael Maxwell Steer’s ideas are embodied in ColourMuse, the coloured-note beginner method published online at

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