MUSIC LEARNING THEORY

In addition to being an improving musician, I am also an improving music teacher!

Nothing has had a more profound impact on my music teaching than the Music Learning Theory (MLT) of Dr. Edwin E. Gordon. MLT shows teachers, in a very systematic, yet flexible way, how to teach students to audiate. 

Not that my teaching before was “bad,” by any means, but MLT has given my teaching a direction, a laser-like focus. I always know where I’ve been, where I’m going, what I’m doing, and what it is readiness for. I want to share audiation and MLT with the world, so that students across the globe benefit from its amazing possibilities.

A Beginner’s Guide to Gordon’s Music Learning Theory: How To “Jump Right In” to Teaching Musical Understanding

The Core of MLT: Skills, Context & Content

Sometimes teachers who are interested in MLT get bogged down in the details, get intimidated by the terminology, or just plumb don’t get it. 

The goal of MLT is to teach students to audiate music. That is, we want our students to understand music so that they will become independent musical thinkers. 

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 Are Students Doing?

This answers the question, “What do I want students to be able to DO?” 

Possible answers:

  • I want them to be able to read music. 
  • I want them to be able to echo patterns.
  • I want them to be able to improvise. 

Gordon has categorized musical skills into his Skill Learning Sequence

Once you are armed with that knowledge, they need something to read, they need patterns to listen to, and they need something to improvise with. What will they read? What will they echo? What will they improvise? That’s where the second two items come in: context and content.

Context:

Bringing Meaning to Musical Sounds

One of the hallmarks in Music Learning Theory is that learning music is very similar to learning a language. Music is not a language in the strictest sense, but there are many parallels that assist in the learning process. 


In language, context is everything.

Take the word “read,” for example. In one context (“I read that book.”), it is in the past tense. In another, (“My son just learned how to read music.”), it is in the present tense. Or, if it were only spoken language, “I lost my reed” would have a totally different meaning! 

In MLT, we seek to put all music into a tonal or rhythmic context (major tonality, duple meter, for example) so that the patterns we teach (the upcoming content) have meaning because they are being taught within the framework of a tonality or meter.

ContentFunctions and Patterns

Finally, in addition to teaching the context (tonality or meter), we teach students content within the context. What is content? Functions and patterns. 

Functions represent aspects of tonality or meter, and patterns are specific examples of those functions. 

For example, major tonic would be a harmonic function, and “do mi so” would be a pattern within that function. 

Or, duple macrobeat/microbeat would be a rhythmic function, and “du du du-de du” would be a pattern within that function.

Putting It All Together

Once you understand each of these three big ideas (skill, context, content), they are combined to create the musicianship portion of your class where you are guiding your students toward audiation. 

For example, you could teach them:

  • Skill: How to read
  • Context: Duple meter
  • Content: Macrobeats and microbeats

Once these three big ideas are ingrained, the rest of MLT (and there is more to learn!) will make a lot more sense. 

Action Steps: What to do next

After you understand those three main concepts - Skills, Context and Content - you are ready to dig a little deeper. Scroll down to see your next steps.

Some Starter Blog Posts

Learn the basics of MLT in the Blog

Become the student. Take the free course, "The Literate Musician."

Download the free eBook, "How to Teach the Language of Music."

See MLT in action. See what happens "live" in Mr. Mullen's Room.