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LMLTLT: Learning Music Learning Theory Learning Theory, Part 1

LMLTLT: Learning Music Learning Theory Learning Theory, Part 1

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Theory

Many teachers are often intrigued by Gordon’s Music Learning Theory, but, when put to the task of trying to implement it in their classrooms in a meaningful way, are bereft of any concrete tangible way to start. 

Picking up the mammoth “Learning Sequences in Music” may leave more questions than answers. Having read that weighty tome a dozen or so times, I still find it difficult to wade through. Each sentence could be unpacked into its own chapter!

Learning Music Learning Theory Learning Theory

I’ve often joked that learning Music Learning Theory could have its own learning theory! Having learned a lot about MLT from many of Dr. Gordon’s students in GIML PDLC’s (Professional Development Level Courses), I have seen many approaches to teaching MLT, both to newbies in workshops and level 1 courses and to advanced students in seminars and level 2 courses. 

I have also spent a great deal of time studying the way that Dr. Gordon presented MLT by watching many videos of him teaching, listening to the various lecture series that accompanied the 1980, 1984, 1989, 1993, 1997, 2007, and 2012 editions of “Learning Sequences in Music,” and listening to various seminars and classes he taught. I am a self-identified Gordon Geek!

Having spent all that time synthesizing Gordon’s teaching, I have developed a sort of informal learning theory about how to learn Music Learning Theory. A...Learning Music Learning Theory Learning Theory! (LMLTLT...because everything needs an acronym!)

The First Five: The Tenets of Music Learning Theory

Many different MLT pedagogues have varying opinions about the core tenets of the approach. Though opinions vary about what should or could be on a top 5 list, I present my own “First Five Ideas in MLT” that would be included in a LMLTLT. These are my top five simply because they will allow teachers to incorporate MLT into their classroom in a slow and sequential manner. 



Audiation as the foundation of musical understanding


The Music/Language Parallel


The MLT Three: Skills, Context, Content


The Whole Part Whole Learning Model


Two Teaching Modalities: Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities 

Let’s break each one of these down a bit more with the understanding that each of these “First Five” will be the subject of its own article.

1. Audiation

The same way that we can visualize an image in our brain and bring meaning to it, we can “hear” music. We can have musical thoughts. But to truly audiate, we must understand the thoughts we are having.


Thought:Language:: Audiation:Music

Are you audiating? 

If you are listening to a piece of music, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you know what tonality or meter you are in?
  • Can you pick out the various pitches and give them an aural label?
  • Do you know the underlying harmonic progression?
  • Would you know what chords to play on the piano or guitar?
  • Do you know if a modulation took place?
  • Could you transcribe the rhythm?

If you can do all of those things, you are well on your way to being able to audiate! But remember, as Dr. Cindy Taggart says: “Audiation isn’t yes or no; it's a matter of degree.”  

The Faculty Library

Everything you need for an

audiation-based music curriculum. 

Why do we want our students to audiate?

The answer to this question is a simple one: because we want our students to be independent musical thinkers. (Bluestein) 

If we continue to draw the analogy between music and language, the need for audiation becomes even clearer! We teach our students words and how to use them in sentences not so they can simply echo us forever, but so they can use those words to make their own thoughts and express them through their spoken or written language! They could not do that if they were simply echoing the words, and never had a chance to apply them through language improvisation. 

Gordon argues that we want the same thing for our students in music. We teach them musical patterns so that they can use those patterns to make their own music, thereby triggering musical thought.

Gordon on Audiation

In addition to his prolific writing, Dr. Gordon also left us with many of his lectures memorialized in audio for generations to come. This lecture, which accompanied the 1997 edition of Learning Sequences in Music, brilliantly summarizes audiation. (GIML members can hear all of these lectures in the members-only area!)

Dr. Heather Shouldice on Audiation

For those who haven't checked it out yet, GIML faculty member Dr. Heather Shouldice has a new podcast devoted to MLT. One of her recent episodes focuses on audiation. Please subscribe to her podcast and listen to this episode!

2. We learn music in a very similar way that we learn language. 

Gordon’s research suggested that the process for learning music is very similar to the process for learning language. Although music isn't a language per se, if we treat the music learning process like we do the language learning process, our path to musical understanding becomes quite clear. 

See my article about this comparison: The Music/Language Parallel.

3. The MLT Three: Skills, Context, Content

Aside from the obvious goal of audiation, to get started with MLT, you need to get a handle on three things right off the bat: Skills, Context, and Content.

  • Skills = What can students DO? (verbs: read, write, compare, improvise, echo, etc.) 
  • Context = Everything we teach hangs on the context of a tonality or meter 
  • Content = Functions (eg. macrobeat, microbeat, tonic, dominant) and Patterns (specific examples of a function within a context (eg. do mi so in major)

I do a deep dive into the MLT 3 in this article

How to Teach the Language of Music

Get access to this free eBook to discover the beauty of sequential teaching in a Music Learning Theory-inspired classroom. 

4. Whole-Part-Whole

One of the tenets of Music Learning Theory is the concept of Whole-Part-Whole instruction in curriculum development. Gordon argued that efficient learning takes place using this long-standing learning model. 

  • WHOLE: The big picture or the context is explained or presented to the learner.
  • PART: Individual parts, one by one, are learned.
  • WHOLE: The parts are added back to the whole. Both the part(s) and the whole have more meaning because they were learned in context.

In an MLT-inspired classroom, both of the “wholes” are all of the normal classroom activities that typically happen in a general music class or band, choir, or orchestra rehearsal. The “parts” are the Learning Sequence Activities, the active teaching of musicianship through pattern training. (See #5 below.)

See my article Whole Part Whole in the Music Classroom for specific examples of how this plays out in instruction. 

5. Learning Modalities: Learning Sequence Activities vs. Classroom Activities

As stated above, we need to be cognizant of what teaching modality we are in. 

Learning Sequence Activities

  • Pattern Teaching
  • The musicianship portion of your class
  • Combines skills with context and content in a logical sequence
  • The "Part" in Whole-Part-Whole

Classroom Activities

  • What would normally happen in a music class: songs, games, dances, activities, playing instruments, etc.
  • An opportunity to experience the skills and content in real-life musical situations
  • The "Wholes" in Whole-Part-Whole

That is not to say that there cannot be informal patterning happening in your classroom activities. That is just to say that Learning Sequence Activities should ideally be an isolated portion (roughly 5 minutes) of your class each day.

In my article Two Teaching Modalities: Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities, I share a video example from my classroom of a Whole-Part-Whole series of lessons with bucket drums. 

Next Steps

After you understand the First Five, you should move on to The Following Five, which will be discussed in LMLTLT Part 2.

1. Gordon’s Skill Learning Sequence: The 30,000 Foot View

Learn the two generic types of learning (Discrimination and Inference) and the levels of sub-levels of musical skill that we can teach our students. Check out this article

2. Tonal Content

Learn the basics of tonality ATG (according to Gordon), as well as an understanding of MLT’s preferred solfege system, moveable Do with a La-based minor. This article appears in the Faculty Library

3. Rhythm Content

Learn the basics of meter ATG, as well as an understanding of MLT’s preferred rhythm solfege system, moveable Du. This article appears in the Faculty Library

4. Navigating the Skill Learning Sequence. 

Now that you have an understanding of each of the levels, learn how to navigate through the sequence through stepwise and bridging movement. This article appears in the Faculty Library

5. Combining Skills, Context and Content

Finally, gain an understanding of how to combine the MLT 3 in order to put Music Learning Theory into action! This article appears in the Faculty Library

MLT Any Music Teacher Can Du...De

Confused about Music Learning Theory? This book explains MLT in a practical, brass-tasks, boots on the ground manner. No PhD required!  

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."

  • Hello! I read that MLT is focused on the early childhood, it has the stages of preparatory audiation but can only be used for kids until 9 years old. Is it correct or can we apply the same stages to teens and adults?
    Thank you in advance!
    Regards from Brazil

    • Oh, yes! As Gordon says, when teaching audiation, there is no chronological age, only a musical age. I use MLT as the basis for my middle school curriculum, and it works beautifully. Good luck!

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