Incorporation of Informal musical learning practices in the context of higher education

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Incorporation of Informal musical learning practices in the context of higher education

Music functions as a global phenomenon which is an integral element of the culture of individuals. Therefore, musical learning is not limited to its academic/formal settings (school, conservatory, university etc.), but also includes its different, informal forms, in everyday life. In today’s post-modern era, there is an increase in the amateur relationship that people adopt with music in its various guises – such as listening, performing and creating. In particular, today’s technological developments and media platforms greatly enhance the access that all participants can have to get involved with the musical practice. Equally, according to Aristotle’s philosophical view, musical amateurism refers to participation in the act of music, for some kind of functional purpose, such as spiritual cultivation, emotional regulation, social integration, and so on. (Kokkidou, 2018).

This article describes the musical experience by students – amateur musicians (non-music majors) – who participate in the “Music Club” of the European University of Cyprus, incorporating the approach of informal musical learning practices. Τhe research activity of Green (2002), where she studied the practices of how popular musicians learn to play, motivated me to adapt her approach in the context of the “Music Club”. Specifically, her research in 2002, and her teaching intervention through the “Musical Futures” program in 2008 – where she applied the seven stages of informal music learning in 21 secondary schools in Great Britain – showed that musical learning can be achieved in ways that do not require western (classical) musical development-training. Elements such as experimentation, improvisation, learning by ear through the aural approach appeared to be fundamental practices in these contexts, providing equal access to all participants. Similarly, the integration of informal music learning practices, in the “Music Club”, appeared to provide the ability of participation for non-music major students of different academic subjects, regardless of their prior musical training.

The challenge, and consequently the goal in such ensembles, is the equal and meaningful involvement of all participants, maximizing motivation for lifelong musical involvement and musical enjoyment. Although in this article the purpose is not to generalize the results, the description of the learning experiences that students had during the intervention has two targets. Firstly, it aims to the prompt of creating corresponding programs within and outside institutional frameworks by educational institutions, which offer equal access to all participants, while it is also targeted towards informing fellow music educators, with the aim of enriching their music lessons with the incorporation of informal music learning practices.


Key words: Music amateurism, Ιnformal music learning, Lifelong music engagement practices



Theoretical Framework

Music, as a social practice, functions as a universal phenomenon which is an integral element of peoples’ culture (Παπαζαχαρίου-Χριστοφόρου, 2021). According to Regelski (2014), the concept of musical praxis is not limited to the academic/formal study of music (school, conservatory, university, etc.), but also includes its different, informal forms in everyday life, such as amateur and recreational engagements that take place in a social context and provide meaning to the musical experience.

In recent years, the music education research community has approached with particular interest the study of the musical experience of individuals during their participation in informal musical learning contexts (Campbell, 1995× Finnegan, 1989× Jaffurs, 2004× Waldron, 2006) and the function of these experiences, as a means for lifelong musical involvement (Green, 2002× Papazahariou, 2008× Παπασταύρου, 2010). According to Folkestad (2006), the informal form of music learning takes place in a third environment – outside institutional structures – where the teacher is absent, while the way the learning process is carried out, involves learning by ear. It is noteworthy that in these learning situations, the agency/ownership of the learning process is held by the participants themselves, who have the privilege of making decisions about the “what” – content, the “how” – learning practices, but also the “why” –intentionality of musical action.

While in a formal setting, the role of the teacher is decisive regarding the objectives, the flow of activities and the content, in informal contexts, the students/participants are the ones who have the dominant role in the process, operate autonomously and are in control of their own learning (Green, 2008× Folkestad, 2006). The above statement is also confirmed by the research of Αργυρού (2023) who studied the learning experiences of a teenage student in different learning contexts (formal and informal). It was found that the student had more agency in activities outside the school context. The learning process was haphazard/chaotic (without a specific structure). Also, in those settings the subject had the opportunity to perform songs that represented his own musical preferences, and he mentioned this repertoire as “his own music”. Subsequently, the research participant had characterized the musical process of playing his favorite songs as “pleasure” and “satisfaction”. On the contrary, in activities carried out in institutional settings, in the presence of teachers, there were predetermined goals and structured activities with the teacher being the decision maker. Moreover, student characterized the repertoire in those settings as “foreign” to him, considering that this music was out of his musical taste, or in other words, out of his musical identity. Essentially, the literature (Green, 2008× Hargreaves & Marshall, 2003× Jaffurs, 2004× Papazahariou, 2008× Koops, 2006) suggests that the development of motivation to participate in the musical practice depends on the degree to which the participants themselves – as agents of their own knowledge – can have control over the learning process.

Green (2002), in her own research, studying the practices of musicians involved in popular music, highlighted that musical learning in informal settings does not require Western European musical training, but can be achieved through processes of learning by ear, imitation, and peer-teaching.

As stated by Green (2002), the principles of informal learning practices are:

  • the formation of friendly groups and cooperative learning among group members,
  • the choice of a favorite music piece (or song) by the participants, in which they are interested and enjoy,
  • the reproduction and performance of the piece of music (or song) by ear from a recording (aural approach) using musical instruments chosen by the participants,
  • holistic musical learning that does not follow a determined path,
  • the ability to integrate improvisation and composition along with listening and performing the piece (or song).

Similarly, in the research of Papazahariou (2008), where the musical experiences of a single student were studied in different learning contexts, it was found that, in the learning contexts related to his personal attempts in composition and arrangement of songs, as well as the informal exploration the student had in the drums with his friends, the strategies he adopted were based on audio transcript, learning by ear, process of trial and error, and interacting and making decisions with his friends (when he was learning drums). Additionally, Waldron (2006) in her ethnographic study included in her research sample a student who had no previous experiences with formal music learning practices. As the student mentioned, music for her was a holistic activity (combination of listening, performance, and composition), which was carried out through the aural approach and the observation of fingerings, interacting with older musicians (mentors), thus developing her musical vocabulary. Campbell (1995) studying the practices adopted by nine musicians of two teenage rock bands, found that their musical development in this context was based on the aural approach (learning by ear) through repeated recordings, but also on peer teaching. In the findings of Green’s (2002) research, which studied the musical learning practices followed by musicians of popular repertoire, it was found that through the practices of informal learning, the participants attribute value to their musical involvement, which is accompanied by the development of their passion for music alongside with the development of wider knowledge and understanding in all areas (listening, performing, creating).

There are several scholars concerning the study of informal musical learning practices in contexts outside of institutional structures (see Campbell, 1995× Finnegan, 1989× Jaffurs, 2004× Green, 2002× Davis, 2005). However, in recent years, it seems that the research community of music education has broadened its research lens, focusing also on the study of the integration of informal music learning practices in institutionalized contexts, such as schools, outside of curricula (Allsup, 2003× Abramo, 2011× MacDonald and Miell, 2000)
in schools, within curricular programs (Byrne and Sheridan, 2000× Green, 2006, 2008× Papazachariou-Christoforou, 2022× Tobias, 2010) in conservatories (Αργυρού, 2023× Mygdanis & Papazachariou-Christoforou, 2022) and Universities (Gullberg, 2002× Johansson, 2002× Karlsen, 2010)
The above scholars unanimously prove that the integration of informal music learning practices is an innovative, democratic, and student-centered approach, which can be integrated into a wide range of learning contexts and offer authentic musical learning experiences and access to musical practice for all participants.




The case of the Music Club at the European University of Cyprus


The “Music Club” consists of a group of undergraduate non-music major students at the European University of Cyprus. Specifically, when conducting the teaching intervention with the integration of informal practices, the “Music Club” consisted of undergraduate students of psychology, occupational therapy, speech therapy, medicine, dentistry, and computer science. Also, the participants in this ensemble bring a diversity and range of musical experience, musical background, and musical identities – with different musical interests/preferences and skills. In particular, the specific population of participants includes people who participated in musical instrument lessons, people who are already working in the field of music performance without having studied this subject, as well as people who have a special interest in music, but without having any previous experience with formal music teaching practices– such as reading conventional music notation. Equally, the incorporation of informal music learning practices has been shown to be a successful approach to get all these people who have such different musical identities equally involved and enjoy musical participation without limitations for anyone!


The teaching intervention

The teaching intervention was carried out in April 2023 at the European University of Cyprus, where a total of 10 students who were members of the music club participated. It is noteworthy that my own role in this context was that of facilitator and observer, and I intervened only in cases where I was asked by the students – following the principles of informal processes as highlighted by Green (2008). The aim was for the students to experience an authentic musical learning experience, like “real musicians”, having full agency of the learning process.

In the teaching intervention, the students were in a common room and were divided into groups, depending on the musical roles they undertook. Specifically, 3 groups were formed – melodic instruments, the rhythm section, and voices. The students were asked to reproduce by ear a rock music song, having at their disposal an audio file with the full orchestration of the song (practice which corresponds to the first of the seven stages of Green’s (2008) didactic intervention of the Musical Futures program).

In the first stage, it seemed that during the process of learning the song, there was a “chaos”, with the students experimenting in their groups, trying to render their musical parts, through repeated listening. It is worth mentioning that the students did not have any form of musical notation at their disposal. However, some of the participants found the lyrics of the song online and created their own notes, using alternative forms of musical notation such as tabs, chord symbols and words that would enhance the organization of the song’s structure (video 0:00-0:30).

The full control and ownership of the learning process that the participants had, prompted them to experiment with each other, through trial-and-error processes, exploring various musical elements that they could incorporate into the specific song. One such example was found in the experimentation done by the pianist and drummer of the musical ensemble, where they embellished the piece with their own rhythmic and melodic improvisation (video 0:30-0:45). Through this chaotic learning process and the freedom, they had, the participants experienced a state of absorption (flow) which led them to experiment (in the form of jamming) without being limited to the original form of the song they were learning. Essentially, it was found that this approach involves a holistic music learning process that includes improvisation, performance and listening simultaneously (video 0:45-0:55).

After the students’ first attempt to perform the song together, the students went through a reflection process. It appeared that some participants with more experience took on more leadership roles. In this process of peer teaching, it was also found that the students, although amateur musicians, were able to discuss mainly in non-musical terms but in their own, more alternative way, about the structural elements of the song. Specifically, a dialectical discussion by the students was observed as well as collective decision-making regarding the structure, articulation, instrumentation, dynamics, and texture of the song (video 0:55-2:13). In this context, the use of verbal and non-verbal behaviors during the ensemble’s attempts to perform the song was also found. It seemed that the “leader” of the singers took on a leading role as a conductor and guided her group to coordinate (video 2:13 – 2:35).

After each group learned the song individually, the participants proceeded to perform the song collectively. The process of trial and error, experimentation, and peer teaching between the participants, continued throughout the learning process, with the goal of achieving the best interpretation of the song (video 2:35-2.49).


Final thoughts and recommendations

The diversity of students’ musical backgrounds and the ability to actively involve all without exception individuals in musical practice through the integration of informal processes, raises the need to design and implement programs for individuals who do not follow academic musical training, but use the music in its different settings, in such a way that each musical experience is meaningful for them and also constitutes a motivation for lifelong musical involvement.

The success of informal music learning approach through a multitude of scholars at a global level, demonstrates that there is the possibility of applying this approach in institutional contexts, such as schools, conservatories, and universities, but also in learning communities as well as community groups, with the aim to promote lifelong musical learning. Such innovative approaches that draw on the musical backgrounds and musical identities of the participants seem to meet the needs of individuals, regardless of age, because they offer musical experiences that give them pleasure and enhance motivation for musical involvement. The creation of corresponding programs, with creative practices, promoting autonomy and cooperative learning, must be a priority in today’s music education, with the goal of access to all participants without restrictions for anyone.