MLT-How Do We Learn Music? - The Improving Musician



Music Learning Theory operates under the assumption that we learn music in a very similar way that we learn language. Although music isn’t a language in the strictest sense, we can certainly communicate with each other through music.

If thinking is an essential part of language, then there must be musical thinking. Musical thinking is called audiation.

Therefore, if we are going to learn to think musically, we need to follow parallel steps that we use in language acquisition.


  • Listening to the language as a whole
  • Speaking the language
  • Thinking and improvising 
  • Reading the language
  • Writing the language


  • Listening to music
  • Singing, chanting, playing an instrument
  • Audiation, improvisation
  • Read music notation
  • Write music notation


At the heart of the learning model for MLT is an educational paradigm called Whole-Part-Whole. 


  • The whole of the task, or concept at hand, is presented. This allows learners to see the big picture, to understand the context.


  • The student is taught content, the parts of the whole, one by one.


  • The parts are then returned to the whole, and the whole has new meaning because the parts are understood in context.


Too often in music, we learn many parts without too much reference to the whole. For example:

  • we learn songs in music class without ever knowing the big picture (What tonality or meter we are in, for example).

  • We learn guitar chords for individual songs without making generalizations from song to song.

  • We are overly reliant on music notation to tell us where to put our fingers.

Music Learning Theory aims to break that cycle by asking us to make generalizations about music, to put our seemingly isolated musical parts into a whole so that the big picture makes sense.

In its simplest form, here is how WHOLE-PART-WHOLE plays out in MLT:


We get a fuzzy notion of the whole of a tonality (Major, Minor, Dorian, Mixolydian, for example) or meter (Duple, Triple, for example) simply by being exposed to it.


We learn, or are taught, patterns, the parts that make up that tonality or meter. For example, in each tonality, we learn:

  • The resting tone
  • The primary harmonic functions
  • Harmonic and melodic tonal patterns

In each meter, we learn:

  • What defines the meter (macrobeat and microbeat)
  • The primary rhythmic functions


Once we understand the parts, we return to the whole with greater understanding. The parts we learn are no longer in isolation because we are learning them within the context of a tonality or a meter.

We will learn to make generalizations about music from song to song, and the mystery of how music “works” becomes a thing of the past.


Click here to see a lesson using Rote Song Procedure. This is an interesting way that MLT teachers present songs to students. Students first listen to the song as a whole. Then, the teacher asks them to isolate the parts - melody, macrobeats, microbeats, resting tone, bass line. Then, the song is performed together, and the students have a greater sense of the whole.  


Listen to Ed Gordon give a lecture on the tenets of Music Learning Theory. This mp3 is hosted by the Gordon Archives at the University of South Carolina.

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Andrew Mullen is a teacher, folk musician, multi-instrumentalist, song-writer, 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.

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