Written by Ethan Teel
If you’re an educator, you’re probably familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy. For those who are not, here’s a simple breakdown; Taxonomy is the science of classification of objects and concepts. Bloom’s Taxonomy is simply a set of three hierarchical models called domains that are used to classify educational learning objectives into varying levels of complexity. These domains are the Cognitive Domain (Knowledge), the Affective Domain (Attitude or Self), and the Psycho-Motor Domain (Skills). Each domain and the layers therein help guide students into higher-level thinking. It is our hope as educators and parents that when students experience higher-level thinking, it will create an attribute that is best described as, “second thought.” To understand the concept of the “second thought,” think about it like this: the first thought is simply knowledge provided; whereas the second thought is how the student interprets, sticks to, expresses, and reacts to said knowledge. The first thought is the information. The second thought is the thirst for that information. On top of the obvious benefits of having a well educated population; I find that as an artist myself, higher-level thinking leads to great inspiration in songwriting, teaching, and performing. This deep thinking even provides inspiration for blogs like this one! Thanks to devoting myself to the teaching of music, I have developed a personal theory that music is the most effective subject in most school curriculums for tackling all three domains of learning in Bloom’s Taxonomy.
You see, the Burnett Honors College in Orlando, Florida currently has a class entitled “Your Brain on Music.” It is headed by Two University of Central Florida professors: neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya, and world-renowned violinist Ayako Yonetani. Through studies conducted by this class, they have concluded how music impacts brain function and human behavior. These impacts include: reduced stress, pain, and symptoms of depression, as well as improving cognitive and motor skills, spatial-temporal learning, and even the brain’s ability to produce neurons.
The study suggests that listening to music is the only activity which activates all parts of the brain simultaneously! I would suggest that music is also the perfect subject for simultaneously activating each domain’s respective layers, often even at the same time.
Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that by simply listening and/or playing music one becomes a smarter person. I am suggesting that because listening/playing music can activate all parts of the brain at once; through music education, one navigates Bloom’s Taxonomy much faster. This hyperspeed navigation increases the likelihood of higher-level-thinking occurring earlier within the student, which will then aid them in other subjects they might be struggling with in school. Around 1990, physician and biologist Lewis Thomas studied the undergraduate majors of medical school applicants. He found that 66% of music major applicants were accepted into medical school. For comparison, only 44% of biochemistry majors were admitted.
Apart from increasing the speed at which children can learn, how else does music relate to Bloom’s Taxonomy? With this blog, we’ll go through all three domains of Bloom’s Taxonomy as well as each layer within each domain and show how the layers are tackled through formal music lessons. We’ll break down each level with examples of common occurrences one might encounter in a formal music lesson. Let us begin, shall we?
Cognitive Domain (Knowledge)
Layers: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating.
In the first level – remembering – students recall or recognize information, ideas, and principles in the approximate order in which they were learned. As a drum teacher, I see this level exemplified when a student remembers what the 4/4 time signature means (4 beats per measure).
The next level – understanding – is achieved when the student can state a problem functionally in their own words. I see this occur when a drum student can understand the 6/8 time signature, based on what they know about the 4/4 time signature.
The next level – applying – is pretty simple to understand in drumming terms. If a student can play or count the beat, they are applying.
The next level – analyzing – is where things get interesting, students at this level should be able to break-down information into component parts and determine how the parts relate to one another. Students can also identify motives or causes, make inferences, and find evidence to support generalizations. In drumming, the level of Analyzing in the Cognitive Domain is best exemplified when the student can interpret a new piece of sheet music based on what they’ve learned about music theory. If a musician plays by ear, then this level is exemplified when the student can listen to two very similar pieces of music, and breakdown how the two pieces compare and contrast with each other.
The last two levels are Evaluating and Creating. If the drum student can determine the right grooves/fills to use in a song based only on backing instrumentation they hear – they are Evaluating. If a student is able to create their own original drumming composition with grooves and fills written by their own volition, they are creating.
Using this Taxonomy as an outline, we watch how a student progresses from simply knowing to applying information. In regular coursework (math, science, english, etc) it may take time to navigate all levels within one domain. However, music is unique in that by the simple act of playing, the student is automatically at the 3rd layer of the cognitive domain – applying. All-in-all, learning how to play a musical instrument, as well as how to read musical notation, will increase one’s capacity to analyze both abstract & concrete concepts simultaneously. In other words, left-brain and right-brain are working together.
Since music activates all parts of the brain, it can help students quickly navigate through the domains regarding not just music, but other subjects as well. For example, the 4/4 time signature (the most common time signature in contemporary-popular music) can be expressed as 4 quarter (¼) note pulses that can be “felt” rhythmically in the music. These quarter notes can then be expanded into 8 eighth (or ⅛) notes and further expanded into 16 sixteenth (116) notes. There’s clearly a mathematical relationship. Eighth notes are twice as fast quarter notes and sixteenth notes are twice as fast as eighth notes. 2 ÷ ¼ = 8. When listening or playing music, we are literally doing math in our brains at supersonic rate, and most of the time we’re not even conscious of it. If music can help us comprehend multiplication and division before those mathematical concepts are even introduced in our elementary curriculum, it makes the process of applying these concepts much quicker for the student involved.
Affective Domain (Attitude or Self)
Layers: Receiving Phenomena, Responding to Phenomena, Valuing, Organization, and Internalizing Values
The first level – Receiving phenomenon – is best described as awareness, a willingness to listen, and selective attention. When we play or hear music, we’re already at this layer.
The second layer – responding to phenomenon – begins when we engage with the music we hear. Through dance, music education, or the performance of a musical instrument, we achieve this layer. Therefore, when music-education is introduced, the student has already navigated the first two layers of the Affective Domain.
The third layer – valuing – is where the student experiences great personal growth. Valuing is simply the worth a person attaches to a particular object, sensation, or behavior. In other words, we want to listen to/learn our favorite music. However, there’s more to this layer than simply knowing what music we like/dislike and why. Typically when introducing music education, it is more effective when the music we begin learning is something the student already enjoys. It comes as no surprise then that the type of music one enjoys often helps to explain their inner thoughts and feelings to others.
We use music to help develop an identity. We also know that art is a vass and polarizing spectrum. When art is introduced into a marketplace, the buyer is typically going to resonate with a piece that has a more intimate connection with them. This is why we have genres. Folks who appreciate the experimental melodic black metal of Deafheaven may not particularly enjoy the funky, psychedelic, and country-folk musings of Sturgil Simpson. However, a few music lovers (such as myself) can and do, and that’s the point. The appreciation for the diversity of musical taste is what’s most important.
Valuing in the Affective Domain is successfully navigated when we recognize what types of music we are drawn to, why we are drawn to it, and how others can be drawn to different types of music as well.
The last two layers are where things get really interesting: Organization and Internalizing Values. In the most simplest of terms, Organization is the construction of a moral compass. Internalizing Values is the application of that moral compass. A music student passes these last two layers when they begin composing/performing music for an audience. Regardless of whether or not it is a show or a recital scenario, when one writes/performs music to demonstrate an idea or inner thought, they have organized and internalized their values.
The Affective domain’s primary concern is emotional development, and there is no doubt that music can be emotionally impactful. While everyone responds differently to different types of music, the emotional connection is undoubtedly present. Music education can guide students through the affective domain by not only explaining why we respond to music on such an emotional level, but by also building confidence organically through the development of musical-skills. When a student realizes that they can develop a skill on their own, it gives them that self-belief and confidence boost that they require. As time goes by, they will become better, and become even more confident in their abilities. Music lessons can also help students understand the concept of respect and empathy. In a recital scenario, where musicians can examine each other’s skill, one realizes how much hard work each student had to go through to develop such skill; moreover when one has experienced this hard work first-hand. In a band scenario, students develop teamwork and begin to understand/respect the bonds of community, kindness, and the willingness to listen.
Much like how music can increase our skills in the cognitive domain (and thereby make us better equipped to analyze more difficult and more abstract concepts), Music can increase our skills in the emotional domain and thereby bring us closer to our feelings, as well as understanding the feelings and perceptions of those around us. When we connect with a piece of music, we’re feeling the thoughts being portrayed through the sound and sometimes lyrics of the composer/writer. When this happens, we might not know a single thing about the writer’s personal life, but we feel it. When music education is introduced, more students experience seeing a person for who they truly are and not how they look. This is the zenith of the Affective Domain! There is a good reason why the “Your Brain on Music” study showed reduced symptoms of depression.
The Psycho-Motor Domain
Layers: Perception, Set, Guided Response, Mechanism, Complex Overt Response, Adaptation, Origination.
The first layer – Perception – is best described as the ability to use sensory cues to guide motor activity. This ranges from sensory stimulation, through cue selection, to translation. This is found in drumming when a student recognizes that the more comfortable they are sitting behind the drum kit – the more efficient their playing style becomes. However, you can also see this subcategory in action with just simple recognition of non-verbal cues. If a student can recognize a head-nod as a cue to hit a cymbal at the right time, they’re passing the subcategory of perception.
The next layer – Set – is best described as a readiness to act. It includes mental, physical, and emotional sets. These three sets are dispositions that predetermine a person’s response to different situations (sometimes called mindsets). This subdivision of the psychomotor domain is closely related with the “responding to phenomena” subdivision in the affective domain. In other words, when a drum student knows what parts of a song they’re struggling to nail down, but show a desire to learn how to perform them correctly, they’re navigating Set in the psycho-motor domain.
The next layer – Guided Response – is basically the definition of a music lesson. Guided Response is simply the early stages of learning a complex skill that includes imitation and trial and error. The more the student practices, the better they get. Recall how this relates to the Affective Domain: the more a student practices, the better they get, therefore more self-confidence is developed.
The next layer – Mechanism – is what happens when the student starts becoming more proficient in their skills. Learned responses have become habitual and the movements can be performed with some confidence and proficiency. In the study conducted by “Your Brain on Music,” students discovered something amazing about the human brain’s Cerebellum: the part of the brain that coordinates movement and stores physical memory. In one case, a student found that a male Alzheimer’s patient that didn’t even recognize their own wife could still play the piano with proficiency. How is this possible? Kiminobu Sugaya suggest that since the patient learned piano while young, the act of playing the piano had become muscle memory. Those memories in the cerebellum never fade out. Talk about learning a lifelong skill!
The next layer – Complex Overt Response – is when a student recognizes by just the feel of an act what the result of said action will be. Basically, when a student knows their about to nail a drum fill or guitar riff, they sometimes will utter sounds of satisfaction completely unconscious of their actions. This also works the other way, when a student knows their about to screw up and they utter an expletive. This is normal. Proficiency in this level is indicated by a quick, accurate, and highly coordinated performance, requiring a minimum of energy (meaning through time, it takes less effort to perform the task). This category includes automatic performance. When a student practices a part of a piece of music enough to the point where their muscles know what to do before their brain does, they are passing Complex Overt Response.
Now, consider Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule mentioned in his book Outliers. He conducted a profile study of various “masters,” in their respective fields and found a commonality – each person had been practicing a specific task that can be accomplished with 20 hours of work a week for 10 years; 10,000 hours. He also found that these same masters had a shorter “refractory” period than other colleagues in their field; meaning that even when these masters had periods where they stepped away from their fields only to return many years later, the time it took for them to obtain the exact level of proficiency they were at before leaving was shorter compared to those who had less practice than them. In achieving the 10,000 hour rule, these masters had obtain a shortcut in achieving Complex Overt Response.
The last two layers, – Adaptation and Origination -, closely relate to Evaluating and Creating in the Cognitive Domain. In Adaptation, skills are well developed and the individual can modify movement patterns to fit special requirements. Remember, in the Cognitive domain, Evaluating is when the student could determine what type of groove works best with what type of backing instrumentation. Adaptation is the physical component of this concept. If a drum student drops a stick but is still able to keep the groove going through improvisation while fishing for a new drum stick, they are perfectly exemplifying adaptation. In Origination, the student is creating new movement patterns to fit a particular situation or specific problem. Learning outcomes emphasize creativity based upon highly developed skills. Basically, the student has become a full-fledged musician at this point, creating music to fit a particular mood or feeling they’re trying to communicate as well as finding new creative ways to express these ideas.
This domain in Bloom’s Taxonomy is what makes art (and particularly music) very interesting, in my opinion. In other subjects (mathematics, science, history) there isn’t necessarily a physical component that will evolve into a motor-skill later in life. Sure, we learn how to read, write, and understand basic mathematics in elementary; but past that, we typically don’t have to develop any further fine-motor-skills: write, sit, and that’s it. Whereas with the arts – regardless of whether we’re discussing film, dance, acting, painting, sculpting, or music – there’s a physical component involved which develops fine-motor-skills within the student. A painter will use fine brush-stroke-techniques much like how a drummer will use coordination to achieve a desired result. A cinematographer can find that with the right amount of flick-of-the-wrist, they can achieve a fantastic steady-zoom, which could make a shot more impactful. However, even with ideas fully visualized and realized in the cinematographers mind, they must first learn how to hold a camera steady before achieving anything else.
Music, in my opinion, is right behind dance as the most “physical” artform. Musicians, before they can write their own complex arrangements, must first develop the hand-eye coordination to play simple tunes in the beginning. Once that coordination develops to the point where they can improvise on the fly or create a new composition; they have navigated all the layers of the Psycho-Motor domain.
To conclude, I must reaffirm how strongly I believe music can be a gateway into higher-level thinking at such a young age. Bloom’s Taxonomy is still used to develop new teaching strategies. It also has served as the backbone of many teaching philosophies, in particular, those that lean towards skills rather than content (like music). Educators with this mindset view content as a vessel for teaching skills. However, I don’t believe the content should be mitigated to make way for the development of skills.
In fact, I see music as a way to enhance skills through the content being learned. When a student is learning a song they want to learn, the development of skills – as well as their navigation through both the cognitive and affective domains – increases exponentially. I tend to believe the Cognitive Domain and Affective Domain are heavily impacted in music lesson when the music being learned is music the student particularly enjoys. Once this navigation is completed, student’s can take concepts they’ve learned through music and begin to apply them in other subjects; and thanks to higher-level-thinking, the student will be able to perceive their other subjects in brand new ways. I don’t see any other subject working in this manner. I don’t see Mathematicians becoming great musicians, but I have seen great musicians become great Mathematicians. Perhaps Music is the great connector of Bloom’s Domains within the Taxonomy. All hail music, the great connector!