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Whole Part Whole in the Music Classroom 1

Whole Part Whole in the Music Classroom

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Theory

One of the tenets of Music Learning Theory is the concept of Whole-Part-Whole instruction in curriculum development. Gordon argued that efficient learning takes place in a Whole-Part-Whole manner. 


The big picture or the context is explained or presented to the learner.


Individual parts, one by one, are learned.


The parts are added back to the whole. Both the part(s) and the whole have more meaning because they were learned in context.

Real Life Example

Consider a parent teaching his child how to mow the lawn. If done using a Whole-Part-Whole manner, the parent might do the following:


Explain to the child that he is going to learn how to mow the lawn. Then, the parent instructs the child to simply watch as the parent mows the lawn himself. This gives the child the opportunity to see the Whole of the task in action.

"There are two main purposes of the 'first Whole.' One is to provide a mental scaffolding through advance organizers and schemata alignment to prepare the learners for the new instruction that they will be receiving. The 'first Whole' also provides motivation for the participant to want to learn by revealing the meaningfulness and connectedness of the content."

~Swanson/Law, "The Whole-Part-Whole Learning Model"


Next, various aspects of the task at large are explained. For example:

  • How to start the lawnmower
  • How to turn it off
  • What are safety protocols that must be followed?
  • Where are the perimeters of the lawn?
  • How to clean up afterwards

All of the PARTS make more sense because the child got to experience them during the first WHOLE in context.


Lastly, the child mows the lawn on his own, with parent guidance and repetition as necessary. He assimilates the parts into the whole because he has experienced both.

Whole Part Whole in Language Development 

When we are born, we learn language in a Whole-Part-Whole manner.


For the first year of our life, we simply listen to the language as a gestalt before we ever attempt to speak it. We hear whole conversations with sophisticated vocabulary spoken around us all the time.


When we are around one year old, we begin to learn individual words by naming things around us: Mommy. Daddy. Bottle. Doggy. Kitty. Brother. We learn the all-important words “yes” and “no” which, combined with the nouns we know, give us the ability to improvise with language. (“Mommy, no bottle.”)


Then, slowly but surely, those words begin to make sense in the context of the first Whole. This process continues with more Wholes and more Parts in a very effective cyclical process until we are masters of our native language, and have a significant vocabulary with which we can improvise in order to communicate.

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Whole Part Whole in the Music Classroom

There are a number of ways that music teachers can apply Whole-Part-Whole in their lessons and rehearsals. Most teachers probably do this naturally without even knowing that it was “a thing.” 

Consider you are a choir teacher, and you are introducing a new piece of repertoire. You first might play the song for your students so they can hear what it sounds like and get a sense of the tonal and rhythmic gestalt (First Whole). Then, you would learn each section (Part) until the entire piece was learned. Then, a performance would follow (Second Whole).

Gordon’s Whole Part Whole

In his music learning theory, Gordon has applied the whole-part-whole concept in a very specific and elegant manner as the basis for curriculum development. 

Remember The MLT 3: Skills, Context and Content! 

  • Skills: we are teaching students how to DO things within a musical framework (perform, read, write, compare, improvise, etc.)
  • Context: Tonality and Meter. Nothing is devoid of musical context. Everything we teach to students hangs upon the syntactical structure of a tonality or meter. (Taggart)
  • Content: Functions and Patterns. We teach students musical functions within a tonality (tonic, dominant, for example) or meter (macrobeats, microbeats, for example) and patterns, which represent examples of those functions within a context. 

In an MLT classroom, Gordon clarified Whole-Part-Whole in the following manner:

  • Context: tonality or meter introduction/exposure
  • This is achieved by using songs or chants in a classroom activity that are in a specific tonality or meter.
  • MLT teachers often present songs to students using the Rote Song Procedure, which is, in itself, an example of Whole-Part-Whole. 
  • Content: A specific function within that tonality or meter is taught. Teachers choose patterns that exemplify that function.
  • Skill: The content is taught in coordination with a skill (Students need to be able to do something with the content.).
  • The parts (content and skill) are reinforced by returning them to the context (the tonality or meter, using the song or chant as the teaching vehicle).

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. 

Example of Whole Part Whole

First Whole

In the first whole, teach a song to the class. Using Rote Song Procedure is always a good way to start. For example, here is a recent song I have been teaching my classes: 


Engage in Learning Sequence Activities (pattern instruction) at the Verbal Association level in major tonality. Students are taught the syllables for tonic and dominant functions in major tonality, and echo patterns using tonal syllables. 

Second Whole

On a subsequent period, once students have ownership of both the song and the harmonic functions, show students places in the song where specific patterns occur. For example: "The words 'eat it with my feet', are the pitches SO RE TI which, as you know, is a dominant function in major tonality." Then, you could have the students sing SO RE TI whenever that pattern happens in the song. On other days, you could bridge to generalization and have students find other functions in the song. 

Whole-Part-Whole Live in the Classroom

See below for an example, which extends over several class periods, of one way that Whole-Part-Whole can play out using bucket drums. 

First Whole

In this lesson, students are introduced to buckets, and experience the whole of duple meter.


In this lesson, I am working on duple divisions in an LSA (Learning Sequence Activity).

Second Whole

In this lesson, the parts (duple divisions) are returned back into the whole.

More on the Second Whole

No one has contributed more to the practical applications of Whole-Part-Whole from an MLT perspective than Dr. Jill Reese. Dr. Reese, who is on the faculty of the Gordon Institute for Music Learning, has written and presented extensively on the subject. 

In a recent webinar presented by the Ohio chapter of the Gordon Institute for Music Learning, Reese provided an excellent summary of the second Whole:

“The last whole is when you apply the skill from the part to the song. You’re trying to transfer that skill to actual music.”

In her recent book, “Navigating Music Learning Theory,” Reese provides dozens of examples of Whole-Part-Whole in every skill level of Gordon’s Skill Learning Sequence using repertoire that most general music teachers will know. This alone is worth the price of admission! I highly recommend this book to all MLT teachers.


In addition to it "just making sense," Whole Part Whole is an effective way to balance context (tonality and meter, through your repertoire) and content (functions and patterns).

Slowly but surely, those patterns within tonalities and meters begin to make sense in the context of music at large. This process continues by adding more patterns and tonalities and meters in more Whole-Part-Wholes within Whole- Part-Wholes within Whole-Part-Wholes. 

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!  


Gordon, E. E. (2012). Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory. Chicago: GIA.

Swanson, R. and Bryan D. Law. "Whole Part Whole Learning Model." Performance Improvement Quarterly 6 (1993): 43-53. 

Reese, J. (2019). Navigating Music Learning Theory: a Guide for General Music Teachers. Chicago: GIA.

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."

  • Thank you for your work Andy!!! It is so thoughtful, clear, and original. Great explanations and examples of whole-part-whole here.

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