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Verbal Association Part 1: The Workhorse of the Skill Learning Sequence

Verbal Association Part 1: The Workhorse of the Skill Learning Sequence

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Theory

Verbal Association (abbreviated VA) is the second level in the Skill Learning Sequence.

At this level, we use tonal solfege (movable do with a la-based minor) and rhythm solfege (movable “du,” a beat function rhythm syllable system) to label the sounds we have already heard at the Aural/Oral level of learning.

In this article, I will be explaining the tonal and rhythmic verbal association systems typically used in an MLT classroom. In my next article, Verbal Association Part 2: Building a Musical Vocabulary, I will explain how to practically apply them in the classroom according to the standard practical applications of MLT. 

Connection to Language

When we are first learning to speak, we can look at something and give it a name: Mommy, Daddy, baba, dog, etc. (See The Music/Language Parallel.) This is a visual association. Similarly, we can associate words with feelings (mad, glad, sad, scared) or tactile sensations (hot, cold, soft, sticky). In music, we need to go the extra step to organize and label the musical sounds we hear. This is what Gordon calls verbal association

At this level, we name things in our audiation. Specifically, we label: 

  • Names of contexts (tonalities and meters)
  • Functions within contexts (e.g. major tonic; duple macrobeats)
  • Pitches and rhythmic durations within those functions (e.g. do re mi; du de), as necessary

Because this is a discrimination level of learning, all of the information is provided by the teacher.

Tonal Solfege

In a Music Learning Theory-inspired classroom, we use the movable do with a la-based minor syllable system to organize tonal audiation. This is a very useful system because it allows for a unique resting tone for each tonality, and requires students to use very few chromatic alterations. 

Eventually, students will be able to connect the moveable system of solfege, which organizes their tonal audiation, to the fixed system of letter names, which tells them where specific pitches are on an instrument, to bring precision and meaning to their own individual musicking.
Tonalities, Resting Tones, Solfege and Harmonic Functions

We use this system to label resting tone and harmonic functions within each tonality, and to a lesser extent, but as a function of the previous labeling, the names of individual pitches, as necessary. 

Because the half steps between DO and TI and MI and FA are consistent, students can become very facile at singing in all tonalities by making generalizations from what they know about major and minor. 

Another benefit of using this system is that students can see the tonalities organized linearly. That is to say, the syllables for tonic function in major will also be the syllables for sub-tonic function in Dorian. Conversely, the syllables for tonic function in Dorian will also be the syllables for supertonic (ii) function in Major. 

Need Help With The Tonalities?

I have created Tonality Acculturation videos that can help you or your students get acquainted with the essence of each tonality, including the resting tone and essential harmonic functions. 

Tonal Acculturation Videos

The Faculty Library

Everything you need for an

audiation-based music curriculum. 

Labeling Harmonic Functions

One of the most important tonal aspects of music learning theory is the labeling of harmonic functions as central to tonal audiation. Harmony, especially at the elementary school level, is often ignored, and is left for high school music theory classes, if anything. If harmony is, as Leonard Bernstein championed, "one third of music," then we must not neglect this important aspect, and leave it until high school (or never!).  

At the verbal association level of learning, important vocabulary is taught to students. This is vocabulary that will carry them through all other levels of the skill learning sequence (hence the labeling of Verbal Association as the “workhorse” of the skill learning sequence). 

In addition to being taught the names of the resting tones for major and minor tonalities (DO and LA, respectively), they are taught the syllables for tonic and dominant harmonic functions, as well as the words tonic and dominant themselves. 

Tonic and Dominant

Students are taught that, in major tonality, combinations of DO, MI and SO are called “(major) tonic” and that combinations of SO, FA, RE and TI and called “(major) dominant.” Similarly, in minor tonality, tonic function is combinations of  LA, DO and MI, and dominant function is combinations of MI, RE, TI and SI. 

Because we learn what something is by what it's not (the point of discrimination learning!), you'll notice that Dr. Gordon has set up many contrasts to spark students' audiation: major vs. minor, tonic vs. dominant. 

Major Tonality

Minor Tonality

Rhythm Syllables

Just as we did tonally, we need a system for organizing the rhythmic sounds in our audiation. Because rhythm is felt before it is counted, we use a beat-function system to label rhythmic sounds, rather than a system that uses numbers. 

Check out my video which explains the Beat-Function Solfege System:

Labeling Beat Function

Macrobeats, regardless of the meter, get the syllable “Du.” According to Gordon’s rhythm classification system, microbeats get different syllables based upon their meter classification. 

In duple meter, the microbeats are chanted as “Du De.” In triple meter, the microbeats are chanted as “Du Da Di.” The syllable “Ta” is used to represent the division of a microbeat in any meter. 

Rhythm Syllables in Duple Meter

Rhythm Syllables in Triple Meter

Enrhythmic Notation

Here are the syllables used for macrobeats, microbeats, and divisions in duple and triple meters represented in standard musical notation. You’ll notice that the same syllables are used for multiple time signatures because the sounds are enrhythmic (the rhythm equivalent of the term enharmonic). 

Rhythm Syllables in Duple Meter

Rhythm Syllables in Triple Meter

How to Teach the Language of Music

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Labeling of Rhythm

At the verbal association level, we teach students the names of meters (duple, triple), rhythmic functions (macrobeat, microbeat, division, etc) and the corresponding syllables. 

In addition, at this level, students echo the same patterns that they echoed at the Aural/Oral level, but this time, with rhythm syllables. 

More on Verbal Association

The labeling of musical sounds is very important. It allows for a common language amongst teachers and students, and allows for the building of a shared vocabulary of tonal patterns and rhythm patterns. 

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, when we teach our students patterns at the verbal association level, and teach them the systems themselves, we arm them with the tools to teach themselves new patterns, and to make generalizations based upon what they already know! 

Remember what Dr. Gordon says: The richer our knowledge at the discrimination level (read: the greater our musical vocabulary), the more inferences we can make at a later time.


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.

MLT Any Music Teacher Can Du...De

Confused about Music Learning Theory? This book explains MLT in a practical, brass-tasks, boots on the ground manner. No PhD required!  

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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