Music Learning Theory

I wanted to take a little time to discuss the music pedagogy that I follow in my classroom. I think understanding this is important to understanding why I do what I do in my classroom.

If you have read my bio page, you know that I graduated from Michigan State University’s College of Music. It was at Michigan State that I first came into contact with Music Learning Theory. And folks, let me tell you, it has changed my life. I know that sounds like a strong statement, but it is completely true! Up until the day that I entered Teaching Elementary General Music with the amazing Dr. Cynthia Taggart, I had in my head I was going to be a band director. After all, I had been in band as long as I could remember. All my musical memories were in the band. It was all I really knew. But the moment I began to learn about Music Learning Theory, I thought “Wow! This makes SO much sense. Every child needs to get this kind of music education.” And from that moment on I was hooked on elementary music.

Now don’t get me wrong. Music Learning Theory is not an elementary methodology. It is quite simply, the study of how people learn music. When you put it like that, doesn’t that sound like something every music teacher should know about? Seems pretty relevant in my opinion!

*quick disclaimer: I want to make clear that I do not claim to speak on behalf of GIML (the official organization for Music Learning Theory). This is just me, chatting away to other music teachers about the way I look at Music Learning Theory and hoping that you might find some useful insight that will help you in your music classroom. I know it made a big difference for me in my own classroom. If you would like the official word on all things Music Learning Theory, check out The Gordon Institute for Music Learning Theory. They will have a more detailed explanation of the pedagogy, as well as info on where you can go to take a certification workshop, which is HIGHLY beneficial if you really want to understand all that Music Learning Theory has to offer. *disclaimer finished*



Basically what research has found is that people learn music that same way that we learn a language. Think about a baby, first exposed to language. Well, when a baby is newborn, they don’t say very much, but they are doing an awful lot of listening. In fact, the ears are fully formed after the first trimester of pregnancy, so babies are even starting to listen to vocabulary in the womb! Pretty crazy, huh? Eventually the baby starts to make sounds, trying to match what they hear around them. They become more and more accurate until they are able to say words. They begin to understand meaning of words and the objects they go with: ball, mama, bed. They string words together to create sentences and begin to get an understanding of correct sentence syntax. Finally, they head to school. Here they learn how to read and write words.

Okay, so how does this relate to music? Just like language, music has a vocabulary of rhythms and notes that must be learned. If you are an Orff person, think of Keetman’s “building blocks” – short rhythmic or tonal patterns that can be combined to create whatever you want. Children absorb the music they hear around them, and begin to develop a music vocabulary. The richer the variety of music they hear, the richer the vocabulary. Listen, sing and play in a variety of modes and meters to give your kids a rich musical background to draw from. Next, start to “label” some of that vocabulary. Sing notes using solfege. Have students echo rhythms using rhythm syllables. This is the musical equivalent of holding an object up and calling it by its name. It is not until the students have an internalized understanding of a concept that we move to reading and writing it. To put it simply, remember: SOUND before SIGHT. Here’s a good checkpoint I like to do before moving to notation: If I say a rhythm without syllables, can the students say it back to me using the correct syllables? If they can, they are ready to see the rhythm in notation.


Music Learning Theory breaks this whole process down into five main stages.

1. Aural/Oral: This is where students listen and echo short rhythms and melodies using a neutral syllable (bum, loo, etc).

2. Verbal Association: Here we start to associate rhythms and melody with words – namely solfege and rhythmic syllables. Students echo rhythms, but using words. This is the stage that is the musical equivalent of holding up a ball and saying “ball” to a young child. It’s all about labeling the musical world.

3. Partial synthesis: In this stage, students should be able to listen to a rhythm and determine the meter. Or listen to a song and determine the tonality. This step is all about musical syntax.

4. Symbolic Association: Here is where students start to see music in notation. The key is that since we’ve held back on note reading until now, the child will have an internal understanding of the rhythm or melody when they go to read it. When they see it, they already know what it sounds like. Now they are just learning how to represent it in written form. For example, you might hold up a flashcard with BAG written on it and have students echo-sing “MI RE DO.” These are the music equivalent of sight words.

5. Composite synthesis: Students can look at a rhythm or melody and read it and understand it in context.

6 thoughts on “Music Learning Theory

  1. Pingback: New Page on the Blog! | Sunshine Music

  2. Pingback: Lesson Planning: It’s all about Skills | Sunshine Music

  3. Pingback: Getting Started With Assessment in the Music Classroom | Sunshine Music

  4. Pingback: Sunshine Music | Meet Me In Tampa, Readers. Meet Me at the (Curriculum) Fair.

  5. Pingback: Sunshine Music | Let the Sunshine In: A Little Inspiration to Keep You Going

  6. Pingback: What Is a Music Aptitude Test and Why Is It Important? | Sunshine Music

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s