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Verbal Association Part 2: Building a Musical Vocabulary 1

Verbal Association Part 2: Building a Musical Vocabulary

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Theory

In Part 1 of this article, I explained the basics of verbal association as a level of learning in Gordon’s Skill Learning Sequence. In this article, I will endeavor to describe the ways in which Gordon and his contemporaries have taken the theory and created practical applications to help students build a musical vocabulary through Learning Sequence Activities. In Part 3, I will explain ways that all of this content and context can be reinforced throughout normal day to day and week to week instruction.

Reminder: Learning Sequence Activities vs. Classroom Activities

In my article Two Teaching Modalities, I describe the differences, similarities and co-dependencies between Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities in an MLT-inspired classroom. In Learning Sequence Activities, we devote a short chunk of time each class - roughly 5 minutes - to the active teaching of tonal and rhythmic musicianship. In Classroom Activities, we reinforce, review and apply the musicianship concepts to the songs, dances, games, and activities that are already happening in our classrooms. 

Learning Sequence Activities

  • Pattern Teaching
  • The musicianship portion of your class
  • Combines skills with context and content in a logical sequence
  • The "Part" in Whole-Part-Whole

Classroom Activities

  • What would normally happen in a music class: songs, games, dances, activities, instruments, etc.
  • An opportunity to experience the skills and content in real-life musical situations
  • The "Wholes" in Whole-Part-Whole

At the verbal association level of learning, we need to:

  • Introduce students to a fair amount of vocabulary (both context and content)
  • Teach students patterns that fit specific labeling criteria.
  • Reinforce that knowledge and demonstrate examples of content and context in classroom literature

In this article, I will only be speaking in terms of Learning Sequence Activities.

A Shared Musical Vocabulary

One of the most amazing things about teaching with MLT is that teachers and students can have a shared musical vocabulary. When this happens, students can explain musical ideas to teachers that are in their audiation, and vice versa. For that to happen, some basic audiational agreements must come to pass in the form of musical vocabulary. 

I explain to my students that the below vocabulary is just the bare minimum that a musical citizen needs to know.

Rhythmic Vocabulary

Gordon’s ideas about rhythm are based upon how music is felt and audiated rather than how it is counted or how it compares to notation. 

After students have moved to music in both duple and triple meters, have heard and sung songs in both meters, and echoed rhythm patterns, they are ready to label the sounds they have been hearing and feeling. 

Names of Meters, Macrobeats and Microbeats

Each meter - duple and triple - is taken one at a time, and is explained to students in terms of “what they’re audiating.” Meter is explained in terms of two other important terms: macrobeat and microbeat.


The macrobeat is the “pulse” of music, and defines the tempo. It’s the beat you might move to when you’re dancing or marching to the beat. 


The microbeat defines the meter. When you audiate two microbeats for every macrobeat, you are audiating duple meter. When you audiate three microbeats for every macrobeat, you are audiating triple meter. 

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I use these slides as a visual reminder of the syllables for each meter. They are available for teachers here.

Rhythm Solfege

As explained in Part 1, MLT practitioners use a beat-function solfege system to label the rhythmic sounds in their audiation. So you might say something like, “When you audiate DU as the macrobeat, and DU DE as the microbeat, the music is in duple meter.” If it were my class, I would have half of the class chant DU while the other half chants DU DE, and then switch a few times. 

All of this information needs constant review, repetition, and reinforcement. Many MLT teachers use audiation prompts to review vocabulary and big ideas.

Vocabulary Prompts

“Macrobeats in duple meter are [Students: Du, Du, Du, Du!]”

“Microbeats in duple meter are [Students: Du De, Du De, Du De, Du De!”]

“When you audiate DU DE as the microbeat, you are in…[Students: Duple meter!]” 

As soon as students have had sufficient experience with duple meter, the parallel information is taught in triple meter. All other vocabulary, including additional rhythmic functions (divisions, elongations, etc.) and their associated syllables are taught as necessary.

Tonal Vocabulary

After students have heard and performed music in both major and minor tonalities, have found their singing voices, and can echo patterns at the Aural/Oral level, they are ready for verbal association.  Just as we did with meter, we need to label both context and content. 

Tonalities and Resting Tones

Just as meter is explained to students in terms of the microbeats that they are audiating, tonality is explained to students in terms of the resting tone they are audiating. 

In the teaching of this concept, a teacher can establish tonality using Dr. Gordon’s tonal sequence. 

Tonal Sequence in Major

Tonal Sequence in Minor

A very simple explanation like “Today, I ended on DO, so we are in major tonality” will suffice. No theoretical explanations of half steps and whole steps are prudent at this level of learning. 

Tonic and Dominant Functions

Also at this level, students are taught both the names of the primary harmonic functions (tonic and dominant) and their associated syllables. 

Once students have a good handle on the vocabulary, and have engaged in Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities in major, the parallel instruction is initiated in minor tonality. 

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Learning Sequence Activities and General Teaching Techniques

Keeping in mind that Learning Sequence Activities only account for approximately 5 minutes of each class’s instructional time, one must be as efficient and consistent as possible in their teaching. 

I outline some general teaching procedures for Learning Sequence Activities in my article, A Beginner's Guide to MLT. Below are some suggestions specifically related to the Verbal Association level of learning. 

Establishing Context

If we remind ourselves of the MLT 3: Skills, Context and Content, then we must pay attention to context in everything we do. Nothing musically that we do happens in a bubble devoid of musical context, and pattern teaching is no exception. 

For tonal context, Dr. Gordon uses a tonal sequence to establish tonal context (see above). In my GIML Elementary General Level 1 certification course, my instructor Dr. Alison Reynolds referred to this as a phone number we should remember: 565-4327-1. The numbers in this case refer to scale degrees. 

Tonal Sequence in Major

Tonal Sequence in Minor

By establishing context, we not only provide students a tonal anchor, but we offer them a problem-solving tool (Taggart) that they can use later in order to establish context for themselves. 

For rhythm context, Dr. Gordon suggests that chanting macrobeat/microbeat combinations establish rhythmic tempo in a satisfactory manner. 

Duple Meter: Du-De Du, Du-De Du. Du-De Du, Du-De Du. 

Triple Meter: Du-Da-Di Du, Du-Da-Di Du. Du-Da-Di Du, Du-Da-Di Du.

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Rhythm Learning Sequence Activities at the VA Level

After the Pre-LSA vocabulary has been taught, teachers are ready to administer the “LSA Proper” and go into Go-mode. There are two main types of Rhythm LSAs that happen at the verbal association level: echo the pattern and name the function. 

Echo the Pattern

In this type of LSA, a teacher chants a pattern that exemplifies a rhythmic function (Duple, macrobeat/microbeat, for example), and the students echo them back, both as a class and individually in the teaching and evaluation modes. 

This is important for several reasons. First, it gives students an opportunity to hear the vocabulary that they have been taught in context, just as they would hear new subject-specific vocabulary used in context. This provides readiness for the use of these patterns in improvisation and composition at a later date. Secondly, just as in Aural/Oral, it provides continued work on the feedback loop, both in their own responses and in the responses of their peers.

In this video, I teach an LSA at the verbal association level of learning with duple divisions.  

Name the Function

In this generic type of LSA, students hear a pattern performed by the teacher, and instead of echoing, they name the function that they hear (or, if they do not hear a function). 

There are many possible variations and specifications on this technique. Watch how master MLT teacher Jennifer Bailey of Sing To Kids fame administers these types of LSAs. 

Tonal Learning Sequence Activities at the VA Level

Just as in rhythm, after the Pre-LSA vocabulary (name of tonality, resting tone, tonic and dominant syllables) has been taught, teachers are ready to administer the “LSA Proper” and go into Go-mode. There are several types of LSAs that happen at the Verbal Association level: First Pitch, Resting Tone, Echo the Pattern, Name the Function

First Pitch and Resting Tone

As was done at the Aural/Oral level, the techniques of having students only respond with the first pitch or the resting tone was designed by Gordon to break the cycle of imitation and force students to audiate. This time, however, they use tonal solfege. 

With the first pitch technique, students are forced to keep the first pitch in their audiation while hearing one to two others. With the resting tone technique, no matter what they hear, they respond by singing DO (or LA for minor). This is especially difficult (and powerful) when they hear a dominant pattern, and need to keep DO (part of tonic function) in their audiation. This seemingly simple technique sets up audiation very elegantly. 

Watch this video from my YouTube series, The Literate Musician, to see an example of how you might teach these types of LSA to students:

Echo the Pattern

This process is very similar to the Aural/Oral level, however at the verbal association level, we add syllables to the patterns. 

Here I am administering an LSA at the verbal association level in minor tonality.

Here, Dr. Heather Shouldice administers an LSA at the verbal association level in major tonality. Notice how playful she makes this activity. 

Name the Function

In this technique, students listen to a pattern, take a breath, and name the harmonic function that they hear. The specific way that students respond varies from teacher to teacher. Some teachers have the students sing the tonality and function (“major tonic”) on the root of the chord. Other teachers just have students speak the function (“tonic”). Other teachers have students respond by singing their more informal verbal associations “one” or “five” on the chord root, although this is not recommended for very young students who have preconceived notions about numbers. Here is the way that Jennifer Bailey does these types of LSAs:

Other LSA Reminders

Alas, there are many other considerations when administering Learning Sequence Activities at the verbal association level (or any level!). These include:

  • Which patterns to use
  • How many patterns to assess
  • Sequencing of objectives
  • Gestures
  • Breaths and pauses
  • Teaching Mode and Evaluation Mode
  • Class Patterns vs. Individual Patterns
  • All of these concepts are discussed in depth in my article, A Beginner’s Guide to MLT

    In addition, I highly recommend taking a 2 week level 1 certification course with The Gordon Institute of Music Learning in Elementary General Music. You will learn all of these techniques (and more) from a highly qualified instructor in a very supportive setting, all the while working on your own musicianship and audiation skills. 


    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.


    Even though they have been referenced throughout this article, I highly recommend that reader spend some time watching the teaching of Jennifer Bailey and Heather Shouldice, the world's most predominant practitioners of MLT. They both generously share their ideas. 

    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! 


    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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