Composite Synthesis: Reading Music With Comprehension

Composite Synthesis: Reading Music With Comprehension

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Theory

Composite Synthesis (abbreviated CS) is the highest level in Discrimination learning. There are two sub-levels: Composite Synthesis-Reading (CS-r) and Composite Synthesis-Writing (CS-w). It subsumes all of the previous levels of learning. At this level, students can 1) read a series of patterns and 2) bring contextual meaning (tonality or meter) to the notation. In the same way that Partial Synthesis synthesized Aural/Oral and Verbal Association, Composite Synthesis synthesizes Symbolic Association with Partial Synthesis. Partial Synthesis only partially synthesizes because there is no notation. Whereas Symbolic Association is only reading, Composite Synthesis is reading with comprehension.

Composite Synthesis, like Partial Synthesis, always implies a fair amount of inference learning. At any time in Composite Synthesis, we could be attending to either of its two primary sub-skills (reading a series of patterns; recognizing context), or to both. This level has varying degrees of difficulty depending on the amount of scaffolding you provide your students, which in the beginning experiences of this level, could be significant.

Learning Sequence Activities at the Composite Synthesis level look similar to Symbolic Association, except that in Composite Synthesis, students are reading a series of patterns and, as stated above, are bringing contextual meaning. Students could also write a series of patterns from dictation, provided the patterns are familiar. In Composite Synthesis Classroom Activities, students attend to the same types of activities as Symbolic Association, but with more patterns. For example, students could read the rhythm of an entire song using syllables. Students could read several patterns and then play them on an instrument.

Composite Synthesis in Action

In the spirit of beginning with the whole (of Whole Part Whole), here are a few videos which show the skill level being taught in the classroom, in workshops, and in my online courses.

In this video, I show how I first introduce Composite Synthesis very simply. 

This video from my Rhythm Reading 101 course demonstrates Composite Synthesis in action. 

Dr. Cindy Taggart, GIML faculty member, discusses Composite Synthesis.

Rhythm Composite Synthesis

To drive home the concept of reading with comprehension, we must, like at Partial Synthesis, provide students the opportunity to visually compare contexts (in this case, meters), and, in addition to being able to read the notation, students should be able to recognize if the notation is in duple or triple. In the beginning stages, with only macrobeats and microbeats (and only two time signatures) Composite Synthesis is not terribly complex.

I usually begin by saying: “Old man Mullen isn’t going to be around forever, and you might be in a situation where you’re asked to read a piece of music. When you look at the music, the first thing you’re going to need to do is figure out what meter it’s in. Most of the time, it will probably be in duple or triple. Let’s look at some longer musical sentences, and determine if they are in duple or triple.

“When I’m trying to determine if music is in duple or triple, I have a number of clues that can help me. I can look at the time signature and see if I can recognize it as a duple time signature or a triple time signature. But to be sure, I need to look at the notation and ask myself if I’m seeing ‘DU DE’ or ‘DU DA DI’ as the microbeat."

I proceed to show students the following examples of notation using this slideshow. (Shameless plug: I recommend using my Teacher Slideshows from The Literate Musician for this purpose.)

“Look at number one.”

“In this example, I’m seeing a time signature of 2/4, and the microbeats are ‘DU DE.’ Therefore, the music is in duple meter. Let’s read this together.” Read the passage with students together.

“Look at number two.”

“In this example, I’m seeing a time signature of 6/8, and the microbeats are ‘DU DA DI.’ Therefore, the music is in triple meter. Let’s read this together.” Read the passage with students together.

Just as Partial Synthesis was an important step for showing students how to aurally discriminate between contexts, Composite Synthesis is similarly important for showing students how to notationally discriminate between contexts.

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Individual Assessment

After the aforementioned introduction, proceed with individual assessment. Display a pattern on the board. You can vacillate between asking students questions and asking them to read. Some questions you might ask:

• “Is this passage in duple or triple?”
• “Margaret, do you agree?”
•“How do you know it’s in triple?” (Best answer: “Because I’m audiating DU DA DI as the microbeats.”)

Ideally, throughout the course of this instruction, I would aim to have each student read one passage in duple and one passage in triple. However, due to time constraints, I usually only have students read one passage. If you do not have time for individual assessment at this time, you can do this lesson only as a Classroom Activity, and delay individual Composite Synthesis assessment until after you have taught more time signatures and rhythmic functions.


Just as the Symbolic Association level of learning had reading and writing sub-levels, so does Composite Synthesis. You can engage in the same writing activities attended to at the Symbolic Association level, but just use longer patterns (four measures of 2/4, as opposed to two measures). However, I have found that at the Composite Synthesis level, dictation proves to be a more effective writing activity, as it allows for more ownership of context, which is key at this skill level. Try the following activity.

1. Give students a worksheet. I have provided an example below which can be found in the Digital Resources of my book, MLT Any Music Teacher Can Du...De

2. Explain the instructions. “I will chant a musical sentence to you using only macrobeats and microbeats in duple or triple meter. If you hear duple meter, because you’re audiating DU DE as the microbeats, draw the time signature 2/4 in the box, and then write the rhythm patterns you hear. If you hear triple meter, because you’re audiating DU DA DI as the microbeats, draw the time signature 6/8 in the box, and then write the rhythm patterns you hear. Be sure to only put one rhythm cell in each measure.”

3. “Let’s do a practice example together.” Chant the example pattern three times. “I was audiating DU DE as the microbeats, so the passage was in duple meter. Therefore, I would write the time signature 2/4 in the box, and then write the rhythm cells I heard.”

Here are five musical examples you might use:

More on Rhythm Composite Synthesis

At the beginning stages, Composite Synthesis isn't all that challenging, and I have found that students really enjoy the challenge. However, this skill level becomes much more challenging as you advance through more complicated rhythmic materials. 

For example, an important part of rhythmic instruction is using more time signatures besides 2/4 and 6/8. Reading in enrhythmic duple time signatures (4/4 and Cut Time) and triple time signatures (3/4 and 3/8) will present additional challenges for students. 

In addition, an important part of Composite Synthesis from a rhythmic perspective is the combining of rhythmic functions. I generally teach new rhythmic functions (elongations, division/elongations, ties, rests, upbeats) by themselves at the Symbolic Association level surrounded by only macrobeats and microbeats. Then, at the Composite Synthesis level, I combine the new rhythmic function with the previously taught rhythmic functions. I feel like this adds a bit more clarity to the skill level to help distinguish it from Symbolic Association. 

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Tonal Composite Synthesis

As stated in my article on Symbolic Association, the lines between the three primary notational skill levels (Symbolic Association, Composite Synthesis, and Generalization-Symbolic) are not so easily drawn. From a tonal perspective, I see the most ambiguity between Symbolic Association and Composite Synthesis. I believe this mostly has to do with the number of patterns we are asking students to read. 

In his initial units on Symbolic Association in the Tonal Register Books, Gordon chooses to use two patterns (tonic and subdominant) instead of one. That presents immediate challenges. In his initial units on Composite Synthesis, he uses four patterns. What about three? 

That confusion aside, the basic textbook procedures of tonal Composite Synthesis, a la Gordon in his Reference Handbook for Learning Sequence Activities, are as follows:

1. Display a series of (familiar!) patterns to students, like the image below. 

2. Establish tonality with tonal syllables (in this case, "So la so fa mi re ti do"). Sing each of the patterns for the students while they look at the notation. 

3. Then, Gordon suggests using a technique called "dialogue" patterns, in which the teacher sings a series of tonal patterns to "cleanse the tonal pallet," if you will. It has been suggested in a number of GIML PDLCs that since the teacher is singing the patterns by him or herself, that they should ideally be called "monologue" patterns. 

4. Then, the teacher calls on an individual student to read the patterns, cueing them with an audiation breath between each pattern. 

5. Gordon also advises that the teacher then asks the student to name the tonality, which, really, is half of the importance of this skill level. However, it should be noted that the teacher already established tonality, so it's unclear if this step is truly necessary. 

6. The teacher proceeds with more monologue patterns, and then asks another student to read the pattern set.  

My Thoughts on Tonal Composite Synthesis

I must say that the above tonal procedures, in total, always seemed a bit clumsy to me, and I have settled on my own procedures.

One thing I change is that I do not read the patterns for the students first because the patterns are - or should be - already familiar to students from the Symbolic Association level. I feel like it's a bit of a redundancy. Instead, we spend the first day reading through multiple series of familiar patterns as a class in a communal teaching mode.

Then, when it comes to assessment time, I ask students to read a series of patterns by themself, assess them, and then move on to another student with a different series of familiar patterns in unfamiliar order. If students struggle, I will sing it with them to scaffold the instruction, if necessary.

I feel like this gives me a better sense of what a student can do. Following Gordon's model, by the fourth or fifth student, everybody has heard the patterns already a number of times, and, at a certain point, it doesn't really become reading. By using different patterns, you get a more accurate snapshot of a student's reading abilities at the Composite Synthesis level. 

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Bailey, J. & Reese, J. (2018). GIML Certification Course in Elementary General Level 2. Baldwin Wallace University. Berea, OH.

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

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

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.

Shouldice, H. & Taggart, C. (2019). GIML Certification Course in Elementary General Level 2. Michigan State University. Lansing, MI.


The Gordon Institute of Music Learning has many resources for MLT practitioners, including a wonderful YouTube channel and a members-only area that contains lectures, videos, and exclusive content. I would strongly encourage my readers to become a member of the GIML community! 


About the author, Andy Mullen

Andy Mullen is a teacher, folk musician, multi-instrumentalist, recovering singer-songwriter, and lifelong learner. He has taught all levels of students in a number of subjects, and is currently a middle school general music and choir teacher in Burlington, Massachusetts. Mr Mullen holds Masters degrees in Music Education and School Administration, and serves on the faculty for the Gordon Institute of Music Learning (GIML) in Elementary General Music and Choir. He is the author of "MLT Any Music Teacher Can Du...De," "The Literate Musician" and "Fifty Tunes for Teaching," and the composer of the children's album, "Chucka Chucka Wawa."

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