Music

Learning

Theory

What Is Music Learning Theory?

Music Learning Theory, developed by Dr. Edwin E. Gordon, is a research-based explanation of how we learn when we learn music . MLT provides a learning model for students, ourselves included, and a teaching model for us to use as a guideline to teaching our students to audiate. 

  • A model for one direct route to audiation.
  • A useful organizational system of Tonality and Meter.
  • A pattern taxonomy for Tonal and Rhythmic function.

One can certainly learn music in a multitude of ways, but "Music Learning Theory" provides a practical learning model for us, a roadmap to audiation. 


Gordon's ideas have been applied to several school music curricula. As musicians, we can learn a lot from studying what Gordon has to say. A thorough explanation of Gordon's main ideas, theories, and concepts can be found on the Gordon Institute For Music Learning (GIML) website.

The Goal: Audiation

The primary goal of "Music Learning Theory" is to enhance one's musical understanding through the development of audiation, thereby making yourself or your student an independent musical thinker.

AUDIATION

The ability to hear and understand music with or without the sound of the music being present.

Audiation : Music : : Thought : Language


How Do We Learn Music?

"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.

Language Vocabularies

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

Music Vocabularies

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

WHOLE-PART-WHOLE

At the heart of the learning model for 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.

Part

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

Whole

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

Whole

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

Part

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

Whole

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

Whole-Part-Whole In MUSIC Learning

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:

WHOLE

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.

PART

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
  • Rhythm patterns

WHOLE

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.

MLT Videos

Watch these two videos giving great summaries of the basic concepts of MLT!

MLT In Action

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. A video, then, must be worth at least 1500! 

Below are some examples of Music Learning Theory in action in a general music setting. Click each to learn more.

Gordon On Audiation and MLT

Listen to Dr. Gordon give a lecture on what audiation is. This mp3 is hosted by the Gordon Archives at the University of South Carolina.

Click to listen

Listen to Dr. 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.

Click to listen

Watch Dr. Gordon give an overview o the THEORY of Music Learning Theory. This is the first in a series of videos.

Watch Dr. Gordon give a lecture on the PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS of Music Learning Theory. This is the first in a series of videos.