The MLT 3: Skills, Context and Content 1

The MLT 3: Skills, Context and Content

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Theory

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 in a very elegant way into his Skill Learning Sequence

Once you are armed with that knowledge, they need something to read, they need patterns to echo, and they need a contextual framework for improvisation. 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. (See The Music/Language Parallel) 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 organizational framework of a tonality or meter.

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. 

Content: Functions and Patterns

Finally, in addition to teaching the context (tonality or meter) of the songs, chants and activities in our classrooms so they have meaning, we teach students content within the context. What is content? Functions and patterns. 

Functions represent working aspects of tonality or meter, and explain what is “going on” musically underneath the proverbial hood. In rhythm, the layers of the beat (macrobeat, microbeat, division) are functions, as are any other way that rhythm functions (elongations, ties, rests, upbeats, etc.). Tonally, the primary functions Gordon has identified are harmonic functions (tonic, dominant, subdominant), but melodic devices are functions, as well. 

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. 

Duple macrobeat/microbeat would be a rhythmic function, and “du du du-de du” would be a pattern representing 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

The Faculty Library

Everything you need for an

audiation-based music curriculum. 

Wrapping Up

MLT can be daunting for the uninitiated. However, if we adapt Gordon’s Music Learning Theory into a Learning Music Learning Theory Learning Theory, then we should acquire small chunks of information which become readiness for the next chunk of information (which become readiness for the next chunk of information), and so on.

Once the MLT 3 (skills, context and content) are ingrained, the rest of MLT (and there is more to learn!) will make a lot more sense. 


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.

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.

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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