A Beginner's Guide to Gordon’s Music Learning Theory
Dec 10

A Beginner's Guide to Gordon's Music Learning Theory: How to "Jump Right In" to Teaching Musical Understanding

MLT for Beginner's

Many music teachers hear of Music Learning Theory (or, “The Gordon Method” or "MLT") in their undergraduate or graduate music education classes, but more often than not, they are left confounded with how to teach that way. Gordon is just identified as a “name you should know.”

In this article, I will discuss some easy, step-by-step ways to get your feet wet, or, if you’ll forgive my maladroit pun, to “jump right in” to Music Learning Theory. 

THE HEART OF MLT

The 15 second elevator pitch of MLT might be something like this:

“We learn music in a very similar way that we learn language. In Music Learning Theory, we teach patterns - or, musical words - to students in a logical, sequential way that yields musical understanding.”

Whole-Part-Whole

At the heart of MLT is an educational paradigm called "Whole-Part-Whole." 

WHOLE

  • The whole of the task, or concept at hand, is presented. This allows learners to see the big picture, to understand the context.
  • Students are presented with songs that represent varied tonalities and meters. In the beginning, you will need major and minor tonalities and duple and triple meters. 

PART

  • The student is taught content, the parts of the whole, one by one, in a logical sequence through pattern teaching. 
  • For example, in each tonality, we are taught the resting tone, the names of the primary harmonic functions, and tonal patterns.
  • music
    In rhythm, we learn what defines each meter, to name the primary rhythmic functions, and rhythm patterns within said functions. 

WHOLE

  • The parts are then returned to the whole when we revisit songs in classroom activities. 
  • The parts and the whole both have new meaning because we understand them in context.

The majority of this article will focus on the Parts (Pattern Teaching), because that seems to be the area that leaves most beginning MLT teachers bereft of a game plan. 

I provide a paucity of ways to connect the parts to the whole, but that will be the subject of another article entirely. 

STEP 1: ISOLATE PATTERN TEACHING

In order to “do Gordon”, we need to make a distinction between Pattern Teaching and the rest of our curriculum.

Gordon calls the pattern teaching portion of the class “Learning Sequence Activities.”

All of the other parts of our curriculum are referred to as “Classroom Activities.” This includes songs, dances, playing instruments, games, movement, repertoire, and the like.

It’s important to make the distinction between Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities. [1]

Learning Sequence Activities

  • Pattern Teaching
  • The musicianship portion of your class
  • Follows a logical sequence

Classroom Activities

  • What would normally happen in a music class: songs, games, dances, activities, playing instruments, etc.
  • An opportunity to experience the patterns in real-life musical situations

STEP 2: FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH TONAL AND RHYTHM SOLFEGE

One of the tenets of Music Learning Theory is the use of tonal solfege and rhythm solfege. Using solfege provides an organizational framework for musical thought. 

There are many resources available. Here are some suggested starting points.

Rhythm Solfege

Practitioners of MLT favor a beat-function solfege system because its logical hierarchy of rhythmic layers organizes rhythm in the body and mind. 

Tonal Solfege

The movable "Do" system with a La-based minor provides an organization of our tonal system based upon resting tone. 

STEP 3: IDENTIFY A TAXONOMY OF PATTERNS

In order to effectively teach Learning Sequence Activities, we need to have patterns to teach.

I make the analogy to my students that every subject has “vocabulary words,” and music is no exception. In music, tonal patterns and rhythm patterns are our musical vocabulary words.

Gordon's Pattern Taxonomy

Gordon has researched and identified a thorough pattern taxonomy, and has organized them into Tonal and Rhythm Register Books for use in a general music classroom. He wrote an accompanying manual called Reference Handbook for Using Learning Sequence Activities.

While these materials are very thorough, they take a lot of know-how and persistence in order to get them off the ground.

In fact, most teachers aren’t ready to fully commit to these materials until they have completed a 2-week summer course with GIML faculty (which I do highly recommend!).

Other Pattern Taxonomies

To get started, you might consider using isolated pattern taxonomies from Jump Right In: Teacher’s Guide to Recorder, or this author’s free ebook, “How To Learn The Language of Music.”

Click the image to download the free ebook.

HTLTLOM-cover

PATTERN TAXONOMY ORGANIZATION (Pattern Sets)

Tonality/Meter

Function

Major

Tonic and Dominant (I/V)

Minor

Tonic and Dominant (i/V)

Duple

Macrobeats and Microbeats

Triple

Macrobeats and Microbeats

STEP 4: DEVOTE ROUGHLY 5 MINUTES EACH CLASS PERIOD TO PATTERN TEACHING

Each day, you should devote approximately 5 minutes to the teaching of musical patterns in the form of Learning Sequence Activities.

Heather Shouldice summarized pattern teaching to parents in an informance for parents of 1st graders:

“I like to think of [LSA’s] as sort of our musical vocabulary lesson. Those little patterns...are like little chunks of tonal meaning. Kind of like little musical words. So they develop their vocabulary of those little patterns that they then can apply to songs we learn, and understand them better.” [2]

Just like in language, students' pattern vocabulary continues to grow until they have developed an extensive vocabulary that they can use to improvise, compose, read and write. 

STEP 5: IDENTIFY WHICH PATTERN SET YOU WILL BE TEACHING

A pattern set will be categorized by Tonality or Meter (Context) and Function.  

For example, in this pattern set, the context is duple meter, and the functions are Macro/Microbeats. 

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 2.07.52 PM

In this pattern set, the context is Major Tonality, and the functions are Tonic and Dominant (I/V).

MAJOR

Major-Basic Harmonic Patterns_0001

STEP 6: DEFINE A "CAN DO" OBJECTIVE


A “Can Do Objective” [3] answers the question, “What should students be able to do with the pattern?”

For example:

  • Students will echo the teacher’s pattern with a neutral syllable
  • Students will echo the teacher’s pattern with solfege
  • Students will listen to the pattern, and identify its function (Duple, Macro/Micro)
  • Students will translate the pattern from a neutral syllable to solfege
  • Students will sing the first pitch of the pattern the teacher sings.
  • Students will read the pattern.
  • Students will improvise a different pattern in response. 
  • Once you are armed with those two pieces of information (1. a set of patterns, and 2. what students are going to do with the patterns), you are ready to deliver the patterns to students. 

    STEP 7: PREPARE STUDENTS FOR LSA'S

    As part of your 5 minutes, you will often need a “Pre-LSA.” [4] This could entail:

    • Explaining the musicianship concept you are teaching. For example, explaining to students that in Duple meter, you audiate the microbeats as “Du De, Du De.” Or, in Major tonality, the Resting Tone is “Do.” Or, the syllables of a Tonic or “I Chord” pattern in minor tonality are “La Do Mi.” 
    • Reviewing the above in a subsequent period.
    • Reminding students of previous relevant musicianship concepts
    • Clarifying or practicing any aspects of the Can-Do Objective

    Along with audiation, Music, like any other subject, has cognitive things (facts) that students “have to know.”

    Master MLT teacher Natasha Sigmund [5] “cues” the vocabulary to reinforce previously-taught musicianship concepts. She prompts her students with incomplete sentences. For example, “When I’m audiating Do as the resting tone, I’m in…” Then, she’ll snap her fingers, inciting the class to breathe and sing “Major Tonality.” If she only gets a smattering of responses, she’ll do it again until the entire class responds.

    In my classes, I often remind students that these musicianship concepts are the “bare minimum” a musical citizen needs to know about music.

    I’ll say, “In Math, you just need to know 2 + 2. In Language Arts, you need to know how to spell ‘cat.’ You know these things, don’t you? Well, in music, you just need to know that in Major tonality, the resting tone is ‘Do.’ You need to know the difference between Duple and Triple.”

    Gordon quipped to a graduate class, “I get these crazy questions (from students). They say, ‘How am I gonna remember this?’ How would I know?? Can you remember your name? How did you do it? You just keep doing it enough, and you’ll know it. It’ll happen. Trust me.” [6]

    STEP 8: DELIVER THE PATTERNS (Go MODE)

    When you are ready to deliver the patterns, decide on how much time you will spend. I have a student set a timer for 3 minutes, and then I go into “Go Mode.” [7]

    3 minutes of dedicated, focused pattern delivery is about all my middle school students can handle. It’s a very focused time.

    Two specific things you should keep in mind:

    1. Give students clear, verb-focused directions. In my GIML certification course, Temple University professor and GIML faculty member Dr. Alison Reynolds provided such prompts as: “Audiate the pattern I sing. Wait for the gesture. Take a breath. And be my echo.” [8]

    These very clear directions let students know exactly what their charge is, and have proved very effective in LSA instruction.

    2. Always establish tonality or meter before you begin teaching. This provides tonal or rhythm context for students before you begin so the patterns are not taught in isolation.

    For more specific information on delivering patterns, see the Teaching Tonal Patterns and Rhythm Patterns video.  

    STEP 9: DEFINE TEACHING GESTURES

    In order to effectively teach patterns, we need to have a set of gestures for our students to follow.

    In his Reference Handbook for Using Learning Sequence Activities [9], Gordon suggests that teachers use nonverbal gestures as much as possible during Learning Sequence Activities.

    You will need the following gestures:

    • One that tells students to audiate
    • One that inspires students to breathe
    • One that indicates that the whole class will respond
    • One that indicates that an individual will respond

    See my (well, Gordon's) teaching gestures in action:

    STEP 10: COORDINATE THE BREATH

    It is very important that before students echo you, they take a full “audiation breath.” 

    If someone asks us a ponderous question, we would think for a moment, take a breath, and recite our answer. Gordon claims that it’s during the breath that we summarize and generalize the information in our minds before we speak, and that the same is true with audiation (musical thinking).

    The Breath in Tonal Patterns vs. Rhythm Patterns

    When students breathe is different for tonal patterns and rhythm patterns.

    Tonal Patterns

    • There needs to be a brief pause between the teacher’s pattern, and the student response. A good starting place is one “beat.” 
    • The length can vary in order to keep students paying attention, and in turn, audiating. 

    Rhythm Patterns

    • Rhythm patterns are 4 macrobeats long. Students should breath on the 4th macrobeat of the pattern, regardless of meter.

    ​ 

    STEP 11: CLASS PATTERNS VS. INDIVIDUAL PATTERNS

    Class Patterns

    If you are just starting with Music Learning Theory and pattern teaching, I might suggest spending a month or so just with class patterns. I would alternate weekly between tonal patterns and rhythm patterns.  

    Benchmark questions for Self-reflection:

    • Have you acquired a pattern taxonomy?
    • Have you defined a Can-Do Objective?
    • Have you defined teaching gestures?
    • Have you established tonality or meter?
    • Can you deliver patterns to the whole class?
    • Are students breathing at the appropriate time?

    Individual Patterns

    Gordon believes firmly that students need to perform a pattern in solo in order to truly audiate. If we accept Gordon’s claim, then we need to give students the opportunity to perform in solo.

    Once you can successfully deliver patterns to the whole class, then try to ask individual students to perform (using a pre-defined gesture, of course).

    STEP 12: TEACHING MODE AND EVALUATION MODE

    Gordon suggests that the first time you ask a student to sing solo, you should quietly support the student’s efforts by singing or chanting with them. Gordon calls this Teaching Mode. This gives the student confidence, as well as gives you information about the success of the student.

    The second time, the student should perform the pattern without support. Gordon calls this Evaluation Mode. 

    Benchmark questions for self-refelction:

    • Are my gestures clear for class and individual patterns?
    • Am I getting students to breathe?
    • Are my tonal patterns separated?
    • Am I pausing before I ask to students to echo my tonal patterns?
    • Am I quietly singing with students in the Teaching Mode?
    • Am I assessing students in the Evaluation Mode?

    STEP 13: ORGANIZING YOUR LSA's

    Once you are comfortable with the basics outlined above, you are ready to organize your Learning Sequence Activities into a logical sequence, and then coordinate your LSAs with the rest of your curriculum.

    Register Books

    Gordon organized his LSAs into the Tonal and Rhythm Register books with an accompanying manual. They are available from GIA. However, these books assume you will be teaching to individual musical differences on the basis of the (audiational) difficulty levels of the patterns. 

    It’s my opinion that while this is the ideal way to teach, it is a difficult step to undertake when one is first beginning to teach within an MLT framework. 

    I do recommend eventually teaching this way, if possible. GIML offers Professional Development Level Courses each summer which will teach you exactly how to do this.

    However, I provide an alternate intermediary process below.  

    Game Plan

    Following in the footsteps of models like Understanding By Design [10], teachers should start with the end in mind by creating objectives. Where do you want your students to be, and how do you get them there? This is called Backwards Design. 

    Sample Objectives

    Rhythm Objectives

    • Students can echo rhythm patterns in duple meter with a neutral syllable.
    • Students can echo rhythm patterns in duple meter using rhythm solfege.  
    • music
      Students can echo rhythm patterns in triple meter with a neutral syllable.
    • music

      Students can echo rhythm patterns in triple meter using rhythm solfege.  

    Tonal Objectives

    • Students can echo tonic and dominant (I+V) patterns in major tonality using a neutral syllable.
    • music
      Students can echo tonic and dominant (i+V) patterns in minor tonality using a neutral syllable.
    • music
      Students can echo tonic and dominant (I+V) patterns in major tonality using solfege.
    • music
      Students can echo tonic and dominant (i+V) patterns in minor tonality using solfege.

    STEP 14: PUTTING YOUR LSA PROGRAM INTO ACTION

    There are many ways to implement LSAs, but this is the way I find that works the best for me.

    I combine a Pattern Set with a Can-Do Objective, and spend approximately 3-4 class periods on that objective. Then I move on to a new objective, logically following Gordon’s Skill Learning Sequence.

    I alternate between tonal objectives and rhythm objectives.

    If I only see students once a week, I do roughly one objective per month. If I see students three times per week, I can usually get through one objective in a week. However, due to the nature of my schedule, it rarely works out that objectives are so cleanly delineated as monthly or weekly.

    Example Sequence of Objectives

    Context

    Objective

    Rhythm

    Students can echo rhythm patterns with macro/microbeat function in duple meter with a neutral syllable. 

    Tonal

    Students can echo tonic and dominant (I+V) patterns in major tonality using a neutral syllable.

    Rhythm

    Students can echo rhythm patterns with macro/microbeat function in duple meter using rhythm solfege. 

    Tonal

    Students can echo tonic and dominant (I+V) patterns in major tonality using solfege.

    Rhythm

    Students can echo rhythm patterns in triple meter with macro/microbeat function with a neutral syllable.

    Tonal

    Students can echo tonic and dominant (i+V) patterns in minor tonality using a neutral syllable.

    Rhythm

    Students can echo rhythm patterns in triple meter with macro/microbeat function using rhythm solfege.

    Tonal

    Students can echo tonic and dominant (i+V) patterns in minor tonality using solfege.

    Which Patterns To Assess? How Many?

    This comes down to the individual discretion of the teacher.

    In his Register Books, Gordon organized the patterns by Section and Criterion, with students performing varying numbers of patterns based on the their scores on a valid musical aptitude test.

    Again, while that, in my opinion, is the ideal way to teach, it can be impractical for some teachers without the specific know-how to accomplish such a task.

    Teachers should choose 1-3 patterns from their taxonomy to use for individual assessment for each objective.  The number of patterns it will take to satisfy an objective will depend on many factors, but is left for the teacher to decide. 

    Remember: you are slowly building up students' musical vocabulary one objective at a time.  


    Let’s break down one rhythm objective and one tonal objective, and see how a teacher might assess without using the Register Books. 

    Example 1 - Rhythm

    Rhythm Objective: Students can echo rhythm patterns with macro/microbeat function in duple meter using rhythm solfege.

    Day 1

    • “Pre-LSA”: Students are taught the syllables for macrobeats and microbeats in Duple meter, and that when you audiate microbeats as “Du De” you are in Duple meter. Students are reminded of the gestures and when to breathe. 
    • Go-Mode: All students will be performing class patterns in duple meter using solfege. 

    Day 2

    • The teacher decides which pattern(s) to use to assess individual students for that particular objective. For example, a teacher might want to assess Patterns 1 and 2 from the Pattern Set.
    • “Pre-LSA”: Teacher reminds students of the musicianship concepts and vocabulary (duple meter, macrobeat, microbeat), and reminds students of gestures and breaths.
    • Go Mode: Teacher intersperses class patterns with individual assessment of Pattern 1 in the Teaching Mode.

    Days 3-4

    • “Pre-LSA”: Teacher reminds students of the musicianship concepts and vocabulary (duple meter, macrobeat, microbeat).
    • Go Mode: Teacher intersperses class patterns with individual assessment of Pattern 1 in the Evaluation Mode, and Pattern 2 in the Teaching and then Evaluation Modes. 

    Example 2 - Tonal

    Tonal Objective: Students can echo tonic and dominant (I+V) patterns in major tonality using solfege.

    Day 1

    • “Pre-LSA”: Students are taught the resting tone in major tonality, and the syllables for tonic and dominant patterns. Students are reminded of the gestures, and when to breathe.  
    • Go-Mode: All students will be performing familiar class patterns in the familiar order in major tonality.

    Day 2

    • The teacher decides which pattern(s) to use to assess individual students for that particular objective. For example, a teacher might want to assess the following two patterns to satisfy the above objective:
      • Pattern 5 (Tonic/I: do mi so)
      • Pattern 9 (Dominant/V: - so re ti)
    • “Pre-LSA”: Teacher reminds students of the musicianship concepts and vocabulary (major tonality, resting tone, tonic and dominant syllables), and reminds students of gestures and breaths.
    • Go Mode: Teacher intersperses familiar class patterns with individual assessment of Pattern 1 in the Teaching Mode.

    Days 3-4

    • “Pre-LSA”: Teacher reminds students of the musicianship concepts, vocabulary, gestures, and breaths.
    • Go Mode: Teacher intersperses class patterns with individual assessment of Pattern 1 in the Evaluation Mode, and Pattern 2 in the Teaching and then Evaluation Modes.

    The amount of time it takes to complete an objective will depend on your class size, your speed and efficiency in pattern delivery, your students’ behavior, the specifics of the performance task, and other extant factors. 

    STEP 15: CONNEcting LSA's To Classroom activities

    “Learning Sequence Activities have no value unless what has been taught to students...is used to perform literature better in [Classroom Activities] and Performance Activities. On the other hand, if there are no Learning Sequence Activities taking place...Classroom Activities ... have very limited value. The two are needed. One without the other isn’t [sufficient]. To have [students] perform literature and not understand it, that is to say, not audiate it, doesn’t make a great deal of sense. There is no foundation for future learning.”  

    -Edwin E. Gordon, Lectures accompanying the 1993 edition of Learning Sequences in Music. [11]  

    Remember, Learning Sequence Activities only account for approximately 5 minutes of your class period. The rest of the time, you will be engaging as you normally would in songs, dances, instruments, and everything else that would normally happen in your class.

    But the main benefit of LSAs, as the above quote suggests, is that students will attend to the remaining portion of their musical activities with clarity and understanding, provided you bridge the gap between the two.

    This can (and will!) be the subject of another article entirely, but here are some suggestions for possible ways to connect Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities:

    Guitar/Ukulele [12]

    • Students should know what tonality and meter they are playing in. This will help them make predictions about what chords they will use within each tonality.
    • Students should be taught the harmonic functions (I, IV, V) of the songs as well as the chord names (A, D, E, for example). This connects to their audiation, and provides the foundation for transposition at a later date.
    • Students can use 4 beat rhythm patterns as the basis for strumming patterns.
    • Students will create and improvise their own strumming patterns based upon the taxonomy of rhythm patterns they have in their audiation.

    Keyboard [13]

    • Many of the same ideas used with guitar can apply to keyboard.
    • Students learn I and V chords in various keys.
    • Students can use the same 4 beat rhythm patterns as comping patterns.
    • Students can learn the chord roots of I and V chords. Some students can learn a melody by ear while others accompany them with chords, chord roots, or both.

    Bucket Drumming

    • The class can be divided in half. One plays macrobeats, the other plays microbeats. They can switch.
    • The class can be further divided into 3 groups: macrobeats, microbeats, divisions.
    • You can play a game of “Same/Different” where you alternate between students echoing rhythm patterns, and then students playing a different rhythm pattern. Restrictions can be placed on students’ responses. 
    • Students can read rhythm patterns displayed on a smart board.

    END NOTES & REFERENCES

    End notes:

    [1] The terms Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities, as well as the majority of the terms in this article, were created by Dr. Edwin E. Gordon. For a thorough explanation of these terms, please read the MLT Bible, “Learning Sequences in Music,” published by GIA. 

    [2] Dr. Heather Shouldice, a member of GIML faculty and assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University, is an amazing teacher to watch. She has generously recorded a 1st grade “Informance” where she teaches Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities. https://youtu.be/Rz5SrUKwMoM

    [3] The term “Can-Do Objective” was adapted from WIDA’s “Can-Do Descriptors,” which indicate what English language learners should be able to do with language at varying levels. https://www.wida.us/standards/CAN_DOs/

    [4] I learned about the concept of “Pre-LSA,” as well as clarification on many topics related to Learning Sequence Activities, in my GIML certification at Temple University with Dr. Alison Reynolds and Dr. Suzanne Burton. Dr. Jill Reese is credited with contributing to the body of knowledge.

    [5] Natasha Sigmund is an active clinician, and is on GIML faculty. Her wonderful songs can be found here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Growing-Up-With-Music

    [6] There are many lectures by Dr. Gordon available at the Gordon Archives hosted by the University of South Carolina: http://library.sc.edu/p/Collections/Gordon

    [7] The idea for using a timer is again from Dr. Heather Shouldice.

    [8] The verb-focused directions are again credited to my GIML certification course. See [4].

    [9] Many of the specific teaching ideas are from this book. Its contents are an invaluable reference for MLT teachers.

    [10] “Understanding by Design is an educational planning approach...advocated by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their [1998 book] Understanding by Design.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Understanding_by_Design

    [11] With many editions of his “Learning Sequences in Music” book, Gordon has provided accompanying lectures where he breaks down the concepts more clearly. Many of these (1980, 1984, 1989, 1993, 1997) are available for free at the Gordon archives. See [6].

    [12] Many MLT teachers have applied Gordon’s ideas to the ukulele. Two of note are Fredonia's Dr. Jill Reese (https://www.youtube.com/user/DrJillReese) and Jennifer "Sing To Kids" Bailey (https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Sing-Strum-Ukulele-for-the-Elementary-Music-Classroom-1919919), both on GIML faculty. 

    [13] Marilyn Lowe has created a piano method in cooperation with Dr. Gordon called Music Moves for Piano. (https://www.musicmovesforpiano.com/) 

      

    References:

    Gordon, E. E. (1990). Rhythm Register Books One and Two. Jump Right In: The Music Curriculum. Chicago: GIA.

    Gordon, E. E. (1990). Tonal Register Books One and Two. Jump Right In: The Music Curriculum. Chicago: GIA.

    Gordon, E. E. (1993). Learning Sequences in Music, Lecture CDs. Chicago: GIA.

    Gordon, E. E. (2001). Reference Handbook for Using Learning Sequence Activities. Chicago: GIA.

    Gordon, E. E. (2012) Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory. Chicago: GIA.

    Mullen, A. (2017). How to Learn the Language of Music. Boston: The Improving Musician.

    Reynolds, A. & Burton, S.L. (2016). GIML Certification Course in Elementary General Level 1. Temple University. Philadelphia, PA.  

    pinit fg en rect red 28 - A Beginner’s Guide to Gordon’s Music Learning Theory: How To “Jump Right In” to Teaching Musical Understanding

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    About the Author

    Andy Mullen is a teacher, folk musician, multi-instrumentalist, recovering songwriter, and lifelong learner. He has taught all levels of students in a number of subjects, and is currently a middle school teacher and curriculum coach in Burlington, Massachusetts. Mr Mullen holds Masters degrees in Music Education and School Administration, as well as certification from the Gordon Institute of Music Learning (GIML) in Elementary General and Early Childhood Music. He is currently entertaining Doctoral scholarships.