Music Learning Theory Hack – How I’ve Started Teaching the First Tonal Register Activity

Hey folks. So I know this post is going to only interest a niche market – those of you who use music learning theory and learning sequence activities in your classroom, but I just have to share a new idea I am really excited about. And even those of you who aren’t Music Learning Theory practitioners, you may still enjoy learning about this pedagogy, so take a peek and see what you think.

The Tonal Register

So the tonal register has all of these skills, from singing to adding solfege to even identifying major and minor tonality. It helps teach students about the building blocks of music from the inside out. As in, students understand concepts through audiation (internal understanding of what music sounds like), then they learn them externally (by seeing them).

The very first page has a rather challenging activity. The teacher sings a series of 2-3 notes. Then, the kid has to sing back JUST THE FIRST PITCH. The idea is that this will teach the students to beginning audiating (processing the pattern internally), rather than just echoing – where they really don’t have to think or engage.

The Challenge

So, as you can imagine, often it is a bit difficult to keep the students from just echoing back ALL the notes the teacher sang. My professor in college had a good recommendation of how to make this a little easier to do (shout out to Dr. Taggart!). She recommended that you use 3 stuffed animals, and have the kids remember and sing the note that the first animal sings.

So, for years, I used this approach to teach the first activity to the kids. Last year, I moved schools and didn’t get to take any stuffed animals with me to the new school. So I was starting from scratch and had to grab whatever I could find at the local dollar store. And that’s where I hit on my idea. There, among the toys I had grabbed, was a royal blue tang. What is a blue tang? Well, it’s a type of fish. Why do I know this type of fish? Because here’s what a blue tang looks like:

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 6.21.38 PM

That’s right. My new stuffed animal looks like Dory. And what does Dory struggle with? Her memory. PERFECT! So obviously, Dory became my first stuffed animal, and the students have to help Dory remember her note.

But there is one other modification I made. My stuffed animals were super floppy and fell over and just din’t sit well. It was an awkward setup. So I made my stuffed animals digital. Check it out:


Now I have my whole Dory theme going! And no stuffed animals falling over. Such a simple solution to this challenging first activity in the tonal register. I can’t believe it took me upwards of ten years to think of it!

DO, RE, MI is the New “SO-MI”

Sorry if that blog title is confusing. Let me explain. Last winter during our annual state conference, I wandered in to a workshop done by a guy named Andrew Ellingsen. And he shook my world around – my solfege world to be exact. Around the music world, a large portion start teaching note-reading with SO and MI. Makes sense – high and low pitches. But Andrew was showing us how he started with DO, RE and MI. And his rational made sense. There are so many songs in the American folk song tradition that contain MRD.

Side note: If you would like to hear more awesome ideas from Andrew Ellingsen, guess what: He is going to be the clinician for our State Orff Workshop this year. If you are in the Florida area, checkout this webpage for more info!

Reasons Why I’m Making the Switch

So besides the first reason I mentioned – the multitude of songs that contain this pattern, here are some of the other reasons I decided to move my curriculum around this year:

  • You can do more with MRD.
  • It matched the first 3 notes we learn on recorder.
  • It fits better with songs that contain I and V chords.
  • The notes are right next to each other and are the first 3 notes of the scale – seems like a logical starting spot.
  • The first note we learn is DO, and this fits with me teaching the resting tone/tonal center to my students.

My Plan

So here’ say big plan. In previous years, I taught the following sequence:

K – S/M.  1 – SML   2 – SLMRD   3 – MRD (recorder)   4 – SFMRD (recorder)   5 – diatonic

This year I’m making the switch:

K – no reading, lots of listening and singing   1 – DRM   2 – DRMSL   3 – MRD (recorder)   4 – MRDSL (recorder)   5 – diatonic

I love the idea of giving those kinders an extra dose of singing/listening, to strengthening that inner understanding before jumping into reading.

You also may have noticed that I am switching my recorder sequence. I used to teach BAG, then CD, then low E and D. But a different clinician (don’t remember who) suggested going to the low notes first and then adding C and D. This helps teach the kids to not overflow. I very, very much like that idea.

This will be my first year trying this sequence, so we will see how it goes. Just goes to show that even after 10 years of teaching, you’re always learning and changing!

Get on Your Feet: A New Way to Teach a Song to the Class (part of the Getting Started with Gordon Series)

Usually when teaching a new song, many teachers (including myself) start by having the class echo you in small pieces, gradually adding more until they sing the whole song. This can be efficient, but it can also be problematic. Do you ever have a song you are trying to teach to your kids, but they are just getting wiggly? Maybe you have two new songs to teach in the same day and you want to shake things up by not just having kids sit and echo you. Whatever the reason, here is a different way to try teaching a new song to your kids. I like to throw it in there sometimes, to keep things fresh and focus on some of the musical stuff BESIDES the words.

OBJECTIVES: sing a song with multiple verses, identify the meter of the song, identify the tonality of the song, move to the big and little beat with solfege, sing the resting tone on solfege


So the main kicker to this method is that the kids have to LISTEN the first couple times you sing this. They don’t sing (even when some of them are able to, don’t let them!). There is a method to the madness. As is typical with any song you do in class, you are teaching a lot more than the words. Often we teach the words first and THEN get into the content. This method reverses that, and might actually save you some time in the process because you never have to explicit teach the words. They learn them through repetition while you focus on the other content. Then, when it’s time to sing, BAM! They are all ready because they have heard it many a time.


You can have students start by sitting and tapping the big beat on their lap. I aimed this activity for second grade, where they would know the words that go with the big and little beat, but if you are doing it with younger grades, you can do the same thing, just without words. Have students chant DU (or TA depending on what syllable system you use) as they pat the beat and you sing the song. Have them stand and walk to the beat, again saying DU or TA, while you sing the song. Have them sit and tap the little beat, saying DU-DE or TI-TI, while you sing the song. Then have them stand and move to the little beat saying DU-DE or TI-TI, while you sing the song. Ask the students, since the little beat is saying DU-DE/TI-TI, what is our meter? Answer: DUPLE! You may have to give them this answer, depending on how many times they have been exposed to the concept of duple meter. It’s all good. One of the things about Music Learning Theory is taking kids a their musical level, rather than their age.


My students would have already learned about the resting tone (first note of the scale, tonal center). Kids have just been moving around the room, so I would just have them sit, scattered around the room, and I would sing the song – maybe even taking the words out if I feel like it – depends if the melody or the lyrics is the trickier part of the song. I would roam around the room with a ball in my hand, and pause at points throughout the song to toss the ball in the air. When I catch the ball, the class would sing the resting tone. I might even pass it to individuals and have them sing the resting tone as a solo. You can sing it on a neutral syllable or on solfege, depending on what level they are at. You can even ask about what tonality it is, based on the resting tone. Singing the resting tone helps students learn the relation of each pitch in the scale, leading to more in tune singing.


So, at this point they have heard the song A LOT. But I would probably wait until the next class to have them sing along. Brain research shows that sleep is essential to learning. We process a lot of new things in our sleep. So then, when the students come back for the next class, I would tell them to audiate the song we heard last week – and I would also tell them our goal today is to sing the song without my help. After modeling it for them, I would put them in charge of a specific phrase, then maybe half the song, and finally the whole song.

Getting Started with Gordon: Elephant and Grasshopper Rhythmic Lesson

So in my previous Getting Started with Gordon posts, I’ve explained what some of the main thoughts are behind Gordon and talked about how to add different learning levels into your classroom (in a general sense). Now I wanted to try and pepper in some specific lessons that use some of the things I’ve talked about. Today’s lesson: The Elephant and the Grasshopper. It’s a very cute little song. And we get to work on so many different elements here:

  • Laban movement (heavy/light)
  • big and little beat
  • echoing rhythms with movement
  • FUN: pretending to be an elephant or grasshopper

CLICK HERE to watch the video

Getting Started with Gordon: Reading Notation

A couple weeks ago, I started a series – Getting Started on Gordon, to introduce Music Learning Theory to teachers. You can check out the first parts here:

Getting Started with Gordon – Intro

Getting Started with Gordon – Learning Levels

Getting Started with Gordon Demo Video

Today I’m going to talk about the last two levels of discrimination learning – Symbolic Association and Composite Synthesis. So again – discrimination learning is basically about teaching the kids basic musical facts.

Symbolic Association – This is the level where kids get to see music written in notation.

Composite Synthesis – This is when students can look at notation and understand it in context (ex – This song is in minor and it is duple meter). I may be wrong in this, but I believe that they should be able to audiate it too (ex – look at a song in notation and realize it is Happy Birthday. Or on the simpler end: Look at a rhythm pattern in duple meter and realize it’s duple and be able to read it in their head).

One thing that is important to remember about written notation is that it is a spiral. You will keep coming back to it. So for example, my second graders might be at Composite Synthesis with duple rhythm patterns, but are still on Verbal Assocaition with DO-RE-MI patterns.

So lets see how we would add these things into an actual music class …


Now that we’ve laid down the basics about rhythm in the earlier levels (saying them, labeling them, understanding them in context) we can show them in notation with much better understanding and connection. So usually, for me symbolic association started with echo-me flashcards. I show it too them, I read it to them, them echo. Then, when that is good, I show it to them, they audiate the pattern, then they say it out loud. Finally, I may challenge them to read it outright, with no practice it in your head audiation round beforehand. I move RIGHT from reading into writing. I feel like these are super duper linked – two sides of the same coin. I ordered whiteboards from US Toy for cheap and we use them all the time for rhythm writing. Saves me so much paper! I may start out by just having them copy the notes we are learning (draw a quarter note or a rest, etc). Then I will SAY a rhythm and they will dictate it. Then, we compose our own songs. I have a Composer Fair every year at my school where our final projects are displayed.


Please, please remember that you don’t have to teach your kids every rhythm under the sun by ear before they read anything. So for example, my first graders learn to READ quarters, paired eighths and rests, but they are echoing 16th notes at aural/oral – with no syllables yet. Over the years we are introducing things in that sequence, and by 4th grade they will be at symbolic association and composite synthesis with 16th notes.

As I am writing this, I am thinking, okay, well when does it turn from symbolic association to composite synthesis? For reading, I would say when they are echoing you it is symbolic association, and when they are reading alone it is then composite synthesis. I mean technically to check you should also ask them what the meter is, I suppose. With writing, I would say that the transition happens when they go from copying you to dictating on their own and composing on their own. Again, the useful part of MLT is knowing what is happening internally in each stage of learning, so you can fill in any gaps – especially when you see your kids failing at something and need to know where to backtrack to put them on the right course. So do you REALLY need to worry about what is Symbolic Association stage and what is Composite Synthesis? Not really. You just need to know that kids may need to echo-read with your help before you pull the training wheels off and have them do it themselves.


When teaching note reading, I start with echoing flashcards again. Then we go to audiate, then sing (not always perfect at first, but actually often pretty decent. I sing them the correct answer if they mess it up). Finally, we read/sing right away (small patterns). I start with just SO-MI patterns, then add LA, then DO-RE-MI. This is not really 100% MLT, but it IS what my state benchmarks tell me to do, so it’s one of those compromises. I believe that pure MLT would start with tonic and dominant patterns (ex DO-MI-SO, SO-MI-SO, SO-RE-SO, TI-RE-FA), just in case your were wondering. The reasoning (or my best guess at it because I really am not an MLT guru): 1) students first learned about major by listening to tonic and dominant patterns during Learning Sequence Activities 2) they are trying to build knowledge of chord structure, versus individual intervals.

So with singing, that spiral teaching that I talked about really comes through again. According to my state benchmarks, kindergarteners are supposed to learn to read SO-MI patterns. Since my kiddos aren’t really even at verbal association with solfege yet, I have to do a mini spiral where we learn those two names. First we just sing them on “high” and “low”. Then we give them names (SO-MI) and echo. Then we sing. Yeah, not perfect, but I’m just trying to meet my benchmark while keeping a little integrity in my teaching. I don’t grade too harshly, and I consider it sort of an introduction so we can jump back into it in first grade.

In first grade and second grade we are in verbal association, so it is easier to make a quick spiral back in to teach SO-MI-LA patterns through echo-reading. But it isn’t until 3rd grade that we get serious about note reading, because by then they have really had the chance to cover tonality (partial synthesis) and understand notes based off the resting tone. We really focus on MI-RE-DO at the end of second grade and going into third, since we will start to read notes and then transfer them on to recorder. We also start to move DO around. I make sure to talk a lot about how DO can be any note, but on recorder G is an easy key, so we make G DO. But when we get on the xylophones, maybe C is DO.

Just like the whiteboards with my rhythms, I use big, laminated staffs and bingo chips to teach staff notation. In K – we create SO-MI patterns with partners. In first grade we add LA. In second we start to focus on MI-RE-DO. In third we start to talk about note names (BAG). In fourth I normally would add FA, but I am thinking of adjusting this, since 3-5 grade note reading is linked to recorder playing, and usually I go from BAG to CD, but now am thinking of going from BAG to low DE to encourage gentler playing and to talk about minor tonality. In fifth grade, we learn ALL the notes of the staff and explain ledger lines.

SO hopefully this gives you some ideas of how you can create successful note and rhythm reading in your classroom. Please stay tunes for some specific lesson ideas as I continue this series. And please feel free to post any questions or message me! Happy teaching!

MLT in Action – a Demo Video for the Getting Started with Gordon Series

Hello! Click the link below to watch my video. I tried to show how you might use different learning levels in your classroom. Please feel free to comment or message me with questions about MLT. That’s what my blog is here for. You can comment on the blog or on Facebook. Enjoy!

MLT Demo Video


Getting Started With Gordon: Levels of Understanding (Aural)

Welcome to Getting Started With Gordon, a series for people interested in learning more about Music Learning Theory and how they might apply it in their classroom. Last week we looked at how MLT meshes well with what you are already doing in your classroom and what unique things it can offer.

Getting Started With Gordon: Overview

Two important points before we start today’s topic:

  1. For better information on all topics covered here, check out This is the official site and they know much more than I do.
  2. Why should I incorporate MLT in my teaching? MLT is a body of research that explain how kids learn music and how to best teach it to them for maximum understanding. And it fits with what you already do in class, just you will know why you are doing it, and when to do it. I don’t know about you, but I think that is a super helpful thing to know!

Speaking a Musical Language

Research has found that students learn music much like they learn language. Based on this, there are 5 levels of musical understanding. Today we will delve deeper into what those would look like in a music classroom. Specifically, we will be looking at the first three, which deal with singing and listening and no written notation. As a side note, as I teach each of these things, I would isolate the skill and teach it specifically, but I would also just pop things in to the middle of songs that I am teaching.

Level 1 – Aural/Oral

This is a listen/sing/say level. Everything is on a neutral syllable. I guess if I were to compare this with language, I would say this is like when a baby accurately matches the sounds or gestures you do. This is the stage where you are trying to get students to imitate with accuracy.

RHYTHM: tapping or playing the steady beat, echo rhythms on a neutral syllable, echo rhythms on an instrument, tapping/moving to the big and little beat, create a different rhythm than the teacher (either through body percussion, percussion, or chanting on a neutral syllable)

TONAL: echo melodic patterns on a neutral syllable, sing the resting tone (tonal center) on a neutral syllable, playing patterns on instruments (although I save a lot of this for later when we get in to labeling. I tend to stick with simple things like tremolos), create a different pattern than the teacher through singing or playing

Level 2 – Verbal Association

This is when we start to label everything we already learned. In language, this would be where you start putting words to objects.

RHYTHM: move to the big and little beat while chanting rhythm syllables (TA/TI TI or DU/DU-DE), echo rhythms with syllables, label duple and triple meter (with teacher help), teacher says a pattern without syllables and students say it back with syllables, improvise a pattern using rhythm syllables

TONAL: echo tonal patterns with solfege, sing the resting tone on solfege, determine tonic and dominant patterns, sing a pattern (neutral) and students sing it back with solfege, label major and minor tonality (with teacher help)

Partial Synthesis

This where those melodic and rhythmic patterns you’ve been teaching are understood in context. In terms of language, this where words would be combined to create sentences. In music, it is where students can analyze and improvise because they understand the context of the meter and tonality.

RHYTHM: chanting a group of patterns without syllables – students determine if it is duple or triple meter based on what syllables they are audiating in their head

TONAL: singing a group of notes without syllables – students determine if it is major or minor tonality based on what solfege they are audiating in their head

And that is it for this week. Next week, I give you a sample lesson with a common song and show you what it would look like at each level. Then, we will delve into the last two levels, which deal with written notation.