“My best recommendation to music teachers of the next century is to improvise, improvise, improvise! Get rid of notation. Learn from music learning theory to teach children to make music without the aid of notation or music theory. Follow religiously the process of the way we learn language.”
Edwin Elias Gordon 1927 – 2015
Music Learning Theory is an explanation of how we learn when we learn music. One of the “First Five” tenets of the Learning Music Learning Theory Learning Theory is that we learn music in a very similar way that we learn language.
Although Gordon claims that music is not a language in the strictest sense (because, he argues, “music has no words or grammar”), the parallels between the two are unmistakable:
- We can communicate musical ideas.
- We can read music.
- We can write music.
- We can improvise in music.
- We can compose new music.
- We can express emotion through music.
We don’t simply emerge from the womb, and guffaw, “Ugh! I am FREEZING! Won’t someone PLEASE get me a blanket and a latte?!” We have five language vocabularies that are acquired sequentially.
We spend the first year of our lives LISTENING to and absorbing the language of our culture. We subconsciously seek to understand the meaning of the words that are coming into our ears in our Mother Tongue. It should be noted that we are simply listening to words, but whole sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, nuances, and the like. We are listening to the whole of language.
Around one year old, we begin SPEAKING. It is minimal at first, but we slowly begin naming things around us: Baba, Mama, Papa, Nana, and the like. We are taught to connect things we see in our environment with a name.
Then, we learn two powerful words: “Yes” and “No.” This gives us the power to improvise in language. Once we can combine “Yes” or “No” with “Baba” or “Mama” or “Papa,” we have really truly embarked on our THINKING vocabulary.
“Mama, no Baba.” and “Nana, yes Binky!”
This circular acquisition of language goes on for four more years until we finally enter school.
We then learn to read the words that we already know. We know what a dog is, so we learn the “word picture” of what dog is.
Subsequently, the same words that we can read, we learn how to write.
In his research, Gordon found that the process for learning music is very similar to the process of learning language.
We must first listen to as much music as possible so that our brains can make as many synapses as possible. Like language, this listening cannot begin soon enough. The more music we hear when we are young, the stronger our musicianship we be when we are older.
After sufficient listening, we can begin with the second vocabulary. In language, that is speaking. In music, that is singing and chanting and moving. In a music learning theory classroom, we learn functional tonal patterns and rhythm patterns (content) within tonalities and meters (context) as the basis of our performance vocabulary.
Once we can do some basic singing and chanting, we can begin to think musically, to audiate. This gives us the ability to improvise as musicians. And, perhaps most importantly, once we begin to audiate, and to understand deeply the syntactical structures of tonality and meter, we can harness the power of generalization to teach ourselves new patterns. Just as a parent or English teacher cannot teach his students every possible word, a music teacher can’t possibly teach a student all of the possible tonal and rhythm patterns.
Reading and Writing Vocabulary
Then, if following best practices, we learn to read music notation of material we can already audiate, and then write that very same material.
This process is cyclical. We listen more, which we then learn to sing, which we then learn to audiate and improvise, and read and write. More listening, more singing, more audiation, more improvisation, reading with comprehension and clear writing.
How to Teach the Language of Music
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Music as a Second Language Pedagogy
MLT, meet Little Kids Rock. Little Kids Rock, meet MLT!
These two seemingly disparate music education frameworks have been operating next to each other for years. Little Kids Rock, the “new kid on the block” in music education, has been espousing the benefits of the so called “modern band movement.” This curriculum seeks to reach the students that don’t fall into the typical band, chorus or strings category, and has created an astounding amount of free instruments and materials for the better part of a decade.
Interestingly, at the core of their pedagogy is the same underpinning philosophy of MLT: we learn music in a very similar way that we learn language. In fact, they take it one step further, and actually call music a “second language.”
In this article, Little Kids Rock founder David Wish outlines the justification for his Music as a Second Language pedagogical framework. It’s interesting to note that these two music education frameworks use the same parallels to defend their philosophy!
With a few tweaks in vocabulary, MLT and LKR can live side by side in a music classroom, and can support each other beautifully. (Marshall) MLT provides the audiation and musicianship portion of the class, while LKR provides a wonderful practical application of functional rhythm, harmony and melody. In fact, while I don’t call it “Little Kids Rock,” (lest I get booed by my middle schoolers!), this is the approach I take in my middle school general music classes with great success!
Sharing the Analogy with Students
I have found that my students really respond to “music as a second language” analogy, and I draw the connections between music and language in my classroom whenever I can.
Although several music education pundits have written extensively on the music-language connection, and have argued that the connection between patterns and words breaks down after a certain point (see the very interesting series of blog posts on the music/language parallel by noted author of “The Ways Children Learn Music” Eric Bluestine here), the connection generally finds purchase with my middle school students.
I must admit that the music/language connections I make for my students are at best approximations and are used to serve specific purposes. In addition, I will use different parallels depending on whether I am talking about tonal patterns, rhythm patterns, or when I am combining tonal and rhythm for so called sight reading in my choirs.
2 Rhythm Cells
4-8 Rhythm Cells
8+ Rhythm Cells
2 Tonal Patterns
3-4 Tonal Patterns
Series of Familiar Patterns in Familiar Order (FPIFO)
As you can see, I give myself a fairly wide birth as I don't want to be pigeon-holed into a corner (mostly because, as Gordon argues, music is not a language). Rhythm is particularly difficult to connect to specific aspects of a language because the definition of a rhythm pattern is broad. What makes a rhythm "pattern"? Is it a cell (like "du-ta de-ta")? Or is it a 4 macrobeat pattern?
Although music is not a language per se, the parallels between the way we learn language and the way we learn music are not only unmistakable, but also serve as a helpful tool in the classroom to use with our students.
Gordon, E. E. (2012). Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory. Chicago: GIA.
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