Symbolic Association: Connecting the Eye to the Ear

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Theory

Symbolic Association (abbreviated SA) is the first time that students read musical notation. Students first heard the sound at Aural/Oral, gave it an aural label in Verbal Association, solidified musical context at Partial Synthesis, and now they are ready to read notation, and bring meaning to it. At this discrimination level, students are reading tonal and rhythm patterns that are familiar to them because they learned them at the first two levels (A/O and VA). There are both reading (SA-r) and writing (SA-w) sub-levels. In Reading, the students move from notation to audiation, whereas in Writing, students move from their audiation to notation.

Learning Sequence Activities at the Symbolic Association level are pretty straight forward. A teacher shows students what a familiar pattern looks like using standard notation, performs the pattern with students, and then asks students to read the pattern by him/herself. In a Writing LSA, the teacher shows students a familiar pattern, they read it, and then the notation is hidden. Students then must write the pattern from their audiation rather than simply copying it.

In Symbolic Association Classroom Activities, there are many possibilities to make connections between patterns and repertoire and/or instrumental performance. Just as they did at Verbal Association, teachers can show students where familiar patterns happen in the notation of a song. Teachers can have students perform familiar patterns using instruments as they read the notation (playing rhythms on bucket drums, strumming rhythm patterns using the ukulele, reading tonal patterns at the keyboard, etc.).

General Procedures for Teaching Rhythm Reading at the Symbolic Association Level

When I conceptualize teaching students how to read rhythmically, I envision symbiotic relationships and continuums between all of the notation levels: Symbolic Association, Composite Synthesis, Generalization-Symbolic (and eventually Creativity/Improvisation-Symbolic).

It is sometimes difficult to say with any degree of accuracy where Symbolic Association ends and Composite Synthesis begins. The same can be said of the relationship between Symbolic Association and Generalization-Symbolic. The lines are somewhat murky, especially given the ambiguity of the term “rhythm pattern.” I welcome the murkiness, and tend to push students to make generalizations based upon smaller bits of information that I teach them at the Symbolic Association level.

For clarification purposes, I call the teaching of rhythmic cells Symbolic Association. “This is what it sounds like; this is what it looks like.” Once students begin to read those cells in four beat rhythm patterns, we teeter on the edge between Symbolic Association and Generalization-Symbolic. When you read longer rhythm patterns, and ask students to bring context to what they are reading, that decidedly becomes Composite Synthesis. Rhythmically speaking, an important part of Composite Synthesis involves combining rhythmic functions. This will be discussed in more detail in another post.

Teaching Rhythm Reading Process

A broad outline of the teaching process might look something like this: 

  • Make the connection for students between music and language. See this blogpost for the general connections I use.
  • Point out the bare minimum notational concepts to students (time signature, note names, if necessary). Remember: this is Symbolic Association, not Theoretical Understanding.
  • Teach students the rhythm cells (musical words) for the rhythmic function you are teaching. Drive home the concept that they are reading musical words which represent musical sounds in their audiation.
  • Put those rhythmic words into musical sentences (four macrobeat rhythm patterns). Read those sentences to students as they look at the notation. Then, have them read the sentences as they look at the notation.
  • Once students can read rhythmic sentences with all of the possible rhythm cells, see if they can make the leap to generalization and read more familiar patterns in an unfamiliar order. This task is on the continuum between Symbolic Association and Generalization-Symbolic. 

Then, later...

  • Give students the opportunity to read longer patterns (approximately 8 macrobeats) and show them how to bring context to the notation. This skill is called Composite Synthesis.
  • As soon as possible, show students the exact same patterns but in different time signatures. These enrhythmic patterns will drive home the concept that we audiate, and in turn, read rhythm based upon beat function. In 4/4, students will learn that you can have more macrobeats in a measure; in 3/4, students will learn that different notes can represent macrobeats and microbeats in notation.
  • Finally, return to Composite Synthesis by showing students longer musical sentences in all four time signatures (2/4, 6/8, 4/4 and 3/4). Charge them with reading and bringing contextual understanding (Is it in duple or triple?) to the passage.

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Rhythm Symbolic Association in Action

For a step-by-step demonstration of how I approach Symbolic Association rhythmically, I will point your attention to one of my courses, Rhythm Reading Fundamentals. It is listed below. When I first teach at this skill level, my Learning Sequence Activities follows this course pretty closely. 

7 lessons


In this course, we will learn to read macrobeats and microbeats in duple and triple meters, as well as read longer rhythmic sentences and figure out the meter.

Reinforcing with Classroom Activities

Once students are taught to read in a more formal manner, look for ways to apply and reinforce the skill in Classroom Activities. You can do this with instruments, games like Poison Pattern and BINGO, "Walk the Room" notation games, and movement. You are only limited by your imagination! 

Here are a few videos of MLT practitioners doing Classroom Activities at the Symbolic Association level. 

In this video, I extend Symbolic Association by having students read patterns on the bucket drums (my favorite!)

Here, Heather Shouldice "pulls a pattern" from a familiar classroom chant, and then shows students what it looks like in notation. 

Cindy Taggart does a similar activity, but shows you how to prepare for the activity at Verbal Association. 

If you haven't been to Jennifer "Sing to Kids" Bailey's Teachers Pay Teachers page, then you are missing a lifetime's worth of MLT activities! Here are just a few of Jennifer's videos which show off her engaging resources especially designed for elementary-aged students. 

General Procedures for Teaching Tonal Reading at the Symbolic Association Level

This section will serve as an introduction to the way I approach tonal reading, which, when compared to rhythm reading, can be a more significant challenge for students for a number of reasons. Firstly, the specificity of pitch and the necessity of a singing voice can prove to encumber some students from achieving success at this skill. Rhythm, it seems, can be easier to “fake” in this regard. Secondly, there are far many more tonal patterns than rhythm patterns. When you consider that there are only four possibilities of duple macrobeat/microbeat combinations, the number of major tonic patterns seems staggering by comparison, especially when taking into account the number of keys and the expansive range of the tonal spectrum. Because we can’t possibly teach all of those combinations, we will most definitely need to harness the power of generalization when reading tonally.

When I conceptualize teaching students how to read tonally, the lines are a bit clearer (compared to rhythmic reading) as to what is Symbolic Association, what is Composite Synthesis, and what is Generalization. 

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Teaching Tonal Reading Process

Here is a broad approach to the way I approach tonal reading:

  • As with rhythm, I try to make as many connections between language and music as I possibly can.
  • We have spent a lot of time tonally with the FPIFO (Familiar Patterns in a Familiar Order), both in major and minor tonalities. Because students are familiar with this series, I begin there. I show students broadly what tonic and dominant patterns look like in standard musical notation. I begin with the first position tonic chord and the second position dominant chord, and show them what they look like vertically (that is, stacked, as a harmonic gestalt) and horizontally.
  • Next, students listen to me sing the FPIFO while they look at and point to each pattern. This is the equivalent of a teacher showing students the written word for something for which they already have an understanding of. “This is the word ‘cat.’”
  • Students then sing the FPIFO while looking at the notation. I often will sing the first pitch with them. 
  • To see if they have indeed married the aural pattern to its symbolic association, I then challenge students to read the same familiar patterns, but in an unfamiliar order (FPIUFO).  
  • Then, after that broad introduction, I attend to individual functions with more specificity. I begin with tonic patterns because they are easier, and students have more success connecting the tonic patterns in their audiation with notation on the page. I teach students to read, by rote, the same patterns I assessed at the Verbal Association level because they are the most familiar. We do this in at least two keys so students don’t get the mistaken notion that DO can only be in one place on the staff. (Dr. Richard Grunow refers to this as “Fixed Bb.”)

Then, later...

  • As soon as possible, I like to bridge students to Generalization-Symbolic, and have them use those familiar patterns as the basis for teaching themselves unfamiliar patterns. In other words, I teach students how to teach themselves.
  • At this point, once we know how to read tonal patterns and rhythm patterns separately, I feel it’s important to put these patterns to work in the form of “real music.” I have created a series of Reading Benchmarks which combine tonal patterns and rhythm patterns into exercises in a very sequential manner. Note: All of the Reading Benchmarks are in my book, The Literate Musician, as well as in the Digital Appendix of MLT Any Music Teacher Can Du...De for ease of teacher printing.

You can see much of the above process play out in my free course, Tonal Reading Fundamentals

8 lessons


In this course, participants will make connections between the tonic and dominant patterns in their audiation and standard musical notation by reading those same familiar patterns in familiar and unfamiliar orders. This course will only focus on major tonality.

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For tonal and rhythmic slideshows to assist you with Symbolic Association, Composite Synthesis and Generalization-Symbolic, check out The Literate Musician Teacher Slideshows in my shop. With over 1000 slides, this is a terrific bargain! 

"The Literate Musician" Teacher Slideshows (2nd edition)

Tonal Reading Examples from the Classroom

Here are some other examples of MLT practitioners teaching at the Symbolic Association skill level. 

This is an example of me teaching a group of chorus students. 

Here are a few examples from Dr. Heather Shouldice's YouTube channel:

"Pull a Pattern" at the Symbolic Association Level

These techniques will be very similar to those shown at the Verbal Association level. Look for familiar songs that have very obvious examples of familiar tonic patterns with the goal being to connect the pattern work in LSAs with real life musical examples. "Shoo, Fly Shoo" and "Chew, Chew, Chew" are two of my tunes from Fifty Tunes for Teaching that work well for this type of activity. 

These two songs have good examples of familiar tonic patterns that have hopefully already been pointed out at the Verbal Association level. Now, you can draw students’ attention to these patterns at the Symbolic Association level. There are a number of ways to do this, but here is one way:

1. Display the notation of the song. Even though students won’t be able to read it in total, it is good practice for students to see musical notation long before they are expected to read it. Explain that this song is in C-DO. Show students the three familiar patterns in C-DO. Point to the patterns as students sing them. You may wish to point out the fact that DO is not on the staff.

2. Tell students that two of these patterns appear in the song, “Shoo, Fly, Shoo.” Temporarily bridge students tovGeneralization-Symbolic and ask them if they can identify where the patterns happen in the song. Sing it for them. Some of your students might be able to figure it out. Good for them! If not, point out that the first “Shoo, Fly, Shoo” lyric is on the pattern DO MI SO. Circle it in the song. Sing the first line for them, and when that lyric happens, point to the pattern and have them sing DO MI SO. Repeat the process for the second “Shoo, Fly Shoo,” pointing out the fact that the lyric happens on the pitches SO MI DO.

Follow the same procedures with other "on the nose" examples of tonic patterns, like "Ally Bally" and "Love Somebody" (or my updated version of the latter, "Chew, Chew, Chew"). 

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In the next article, I show you how to extend the learning at Symbolic Association-Reading with Symbolic Association-Writing


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.

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

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

Additionally, 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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