Music Learning Theory - Creative Music Education

Music Learning Theory

By Tim Topham | Front Page

Jul 05

music learning theory

Have you ever read something, or heard a speech that really changed your viewpoint?

This happened to me last year and the speech is still having ramifications for my teaching today.

In fact, it has had such a profound impact on my pedagogical thinking, that I want to commit July to sharing it with you.

It’s called Music Learning Theory (MLT) and I guarantee that it will make you rethink every long-held belief you’ve ever had about the way you teach your students.

Do you believe me?!

Step One

Before you go any further, I want you to set aside 10-20 minutes clear reading time right now for an article I need you to read.

The article is the exact speech that had such a profound impact on me.

It is the keynote that the founder of MLT, Dr Edwin Gordon, prepared for last year’s NCKP conference but was unfortunately unable to deliver due to illness.

It’s called Beyond the Keyboard, and I want you to click the title and read it now.


If there’s nothing else you read this holidays, read this article.

Don’t worry – I’ll wait for you 😉

What’s holding your students back?

OK so you’ve read the article, right?

What did you think?

Did some bells go off in your head? Did things click into place? Did it make you think?

I am lead to believe piano is taught to many persons by teachers who typically teach the way they were taught rather than according to an objective learning theory and current research. – Dr Edwin Gordon

Perhaps you already teach with a MLT approach, without even knowing that it had a name.

Or perhaps you’ve just had your mind blown about what music teaching should look like and want to get started right away!

However, what I want you to do now is stop and write down the Top 5 things that you find students struggle with the most when it comes to reading music.

Is it their ability to find the right place on the keyboard? Or to recognise patterns? Or feel a groove? Or to play without stopping? Or get the right rhythm? Or to remember FACE/EGBDF (or whatever system you use)?

What do your students still struggle with, even after a year or two of lessons, every time they start learning a new piece?

What’s holding them back the most?

music learning theory

My guess is that near the top of your list will be feeling a groove, recognising and playing patterns and understanding rhythms without having to painstakingly write out the counting, clap/tap/etc.

That’s how it is for my students.

If this is the case, then MLT could just be the missing piece you need.

This month, we’re going to explore what MLT is about, see and hear about it in action, explore resources and work out for ourselves whether it’s something that we should try in our lessons.

Wherever you are in your views having read Dr Gordon’s keynote, remember one thing: my goal on this blog is to get you thinking, give you ideas, challenge your assumptions and help improve your approach to teaching.

MLT could just be the thing that has a massive impact on your students’ abilities to learn to read, play and enjoy music in the most holistic, relevant and connected way possible.

So, are you ready to explore some new ideas?

piano teaching method

Dr Edwin Gordon

What is Music Learning Theory?

Put simply, Music Learning Theory is

…an explanation of how we learn when we learn music. Based on an extensive body of research and practical field testing by Edwin E. Gordon and others, Music Learning Theory is a comprehensive method for teaching audiation, Gordon’s term for the ability to think music in the mind with understanding. The primary objective is development of students’ tonal and rhythm audiation – The Gordon Institute of Music Learning

This month could be the most important month on the blog so far.

music learning theory patterns

When I first heard about Music Learning Theory and the work of Dr Edwin Gordon, a whole lot of puzzle pieces I had about music reading suddenly fitted into place.

In case you haven’t read it yet, let me provide you with part of his speech to get you thinking (my emphasis):

There are five…music skill vocabularies. In sequential order of development, they are 1) listening, 2) singing and chanting, 3) audiating and improvising, 4) reading, and 5) writing.

As with language, listening is basic in piano instruction as well as all music instruction.

Unfortunately, in typical instruction, listening is disregarded. A most egregious consequence is that piano instruction typically is begun with the fourth vocabulary. Students are generally presented with a book of notation. The first three readiness vocabularies are bypassed.

It is not surprising a high proportion of students are frustrated with good reason. It is assumed they are able to silently perceive sounds notation represents. That ability is rarely achieved…Learning letter names of detached notes to audiate music makes little more sense than teaching the alphabet, not words, to understand language.

We think with words and we audiate with patterns. Tonal patterns and rhythm patterns are the words of music.

I guarantee that the more you look at MLT, the more you will think differently about your approach to teaching.

If you’ve ever wondered why your students find sight reading so hard, or why they struggle to grasp simple rhythms, or why they can’t understand why the same rhythm can be written different ways depending on the meter, then the MLT approach will have solutions for you.

music learning theory reading

What do the teachers say?

I asked a couple of teachers using the MLT approach in their lessons to tell me about their experience.

Here’s Emma Barson from Adelaide, Australia:

I teach piano and early childhood music in Adelaide.

Music Learning Theory informs all of my teaching. It has given me the key to raising the ceiling on my own and my students’ ability to audiate (to think music with understanding) which directly affects our musical achievement and enjoyment.

I now have a method of sequencing learning activities that makes sense and takes into account the aptitude and developmental stage of every student. For music teaching to be a truly rewarding profession, one that we can be proud of, I encourage all teachers to take the plunge into understanding and implementing MLT in their own musical life and that of their students.

MLT is backed up by years of research, and is used by the most inspiring and reflective teachers I have ever met. Without such a framework, we teachers run the risk of simply teaching as we were taught, without questioning why we do it this way, and whether it is truly serving the needs of every student, regardless of their experience and aptitude.

music learning theory teaching

MLT gives us a way of answering the question, “Why can’t my student play this right (yet…)?” Instead of just saying to them, “Not like that, more like this”, we know HOW to get them there.

I teach music now through singing, purposeful movement, ensemble playing, improvisation and rote-learning, transposition into 8 modes and 12 keys. I wish my own piano lessons had been like this. I would be a very different musician now.

How we teach our students, especially in the years from birth to age 9 will directly affect their ability to learn, understand and enjoy music for the rest of their lives. I love teaching because I am working with a philosophy and a framework that I believe in. Thank you Edwin Gordon.

And here’s Todd Hayen:

I have used MLT both with individual, small groups (pairs or trios), and medium sized group keyboard instruction (middle school general music class). The sequential nature of MLT and the development of audiation skills is really amazing for piano.

Especially since so many approaches are focused on individual notes and the technical demands of reading notation at the instrument – this technical emphasis can sometimes inhibit musicality, listening, and audiating.

An MLT-based approach delays traditional reading initially for the sake of musicality and musicianship – it is very engaging and exciting for students to learn this way.

Action steps

In order to get the most out of this month on the blog and podcasts, make sure you read the keynote. It won’t take long, and it will give you a great grounding in this month’s pedagogical discussion.

I also want you to seriously consider the order and approach you use to teaching reading right now.

Actually make a mental (or physical) note of what you would call your beginner teaching approach.

What does it look like? How would you describe it to somebody else?

For example, how soon does a new beginner in your studio open a method book and start learning to read?

If it’s before they’ve learnt how to sing, feel and move to lots of melodic and rhythmic patterns in duple and triple meter; if it’s before they’ve learnt to feel pulse and steady beat; if it’s before they’ve sung lots of melodies and chants; if it’s before they’ve learnt a musical vocabulary… then chances are, it’s too early.

What do you do in the meantime? How do you teach these patterns and grooves? What is audiation anyway?

Stay tuned – that’s exactly what we’re going to be talking about this month.

Make sure you keep your notes about Dr Gordon’s speech and your own ‘beginner approach’ handy as we dive in.

Resources: Articles and Podcasts


About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

  • I am so happy to get more information on this. I am always telling my piano students that the hardest part about playing an instrument is the rhythm. Especially when they want to dive into a piece and I want them to clap out the beat first. I also tell them repeatedly that note reading is mainly to let you know where to start your piece. As you play you read patterns not notes. When I taught myself how to play many moons ago, I thought once I learned to read the notes I could play….lol. Oh how wrong I was. Patterns and rhythm that is how we learn. You cannot learn a new language by reading the alphabet you must listen.

    Look forward to the rest of the month.

    • Tim Topham says:

      Thanks Susan – I know the podcasts and posts are going to answer some of these questions so I look forward to hearing what you think as the month unfolds.

  • Amy Chaplin says:

    In August Joy Morin and I are road-tripping it to a two-week workshop with GIML and Marilyn Lowe in Boston! Can’t wait! This topic is perfect timing and I’m especially excited to hear Marilyn’s podcast!

  • Tim,
    I am so happy that you are addressing this Tim. My hobby is studying music and methods. I have been to a ton of conferences, workshops, trainings and seminars. I have read hundreds of books. When I first got involved in GIML I thought it was just to add to my file of fabulous information on how to be a more effective teacher.
    I found something else entirely. I found not another method or idea. But the understanding that underpins any and all methods I might use. I realized it wasn’t an add on, it was a foundation.
    Being part of the GIML movement has revolutionized my thinking and transformed my teaching. I have real confidence now. I can discern the difference between a really fun and cool idea, and on that is actually sound and effective.
    Edwin Gordon was an AMAZING man. I am so happy to have had a chance to know him.
    He leaves in his wake an amazing cadre of competent and inspiring fellows.
    He is the Carl ORFF of our generation.
    No one has contributed as much to music education as Gordon and his compatriots.
    Thank you so much for letting people know about this exciting research.
    Oceans of Love,
    Ruth Michaelis

    • Tim Topham says:

      Wow! Thanks Ruth. I hear you – these are fundamental concepts that many of us just weren’t taught ourselves which means that we don’t teach it to our own students. Glad to have your support with it 🙂

  • Nancy K. Anderson says:

    Thank you for writing this excellent blog. I had a similar reaction th – a life changing moment when I first heard Dr. Gordon in 1988. I have been studying MLT and teaching with it ever since, in the Public Schools and now in my piano studio. Thank you for interviewing Marilyn Lowe.
    Ruth, your comments are insightful.

  • Jay Liu says:

    So grate! I can post something here cause I was back to Taipei these days.
    I wondered someone could solve my problem that some students keep silence all the time and unwilling to sing even after I play and sing the song again and again. Just because the shy? Or overshadowed by certain early experience?

    Thanks Tim present this issue


    • Tim Topham says:

      Hey Jay. Just keep at it and make it an expectation. I’m still learning to do more singing in lessons myself. Always sing with the student and just make it a standard thing. Allow kids to mumble and gurgle when they start and they’ll eventually get it!

  • Barb Grout says:

    I listened to the WHOLE podcast!! It progressed very logically and was very informative. Wonderful! It really renewed my enthusiasm for teaching using MLT principles. MLT has changed my musical life. If I hadn’t stumbled upon it 7 years ago, I do not think I would still be teaching. When students understand what they are learning, it is an entirely different experience. Thanks for sharing this information.
    Barb Grout

  • Melanie Sorokine' says:

    Hello Tim,
    I am very interested in Music Learning Theory, after reading all your blogs and info on the topic. I was wondering if it was possible to get the books by Marilyn Lowe anywhere in Australia, or do you have to order them from America?

    Thanks, love your website,


    • Tim Topham says:

      Hi Melanie – Don’t think they’re available from a local distributor in Australia sorry. Grab them online from her website or Amazon 🙂

      • Marilyn says:

        Our website is down and consequently is being rebuilt. Will better than ever. E-mail for more information.

        All books sold by Amazon are 3rd party, out-of-date books. Don’t go there.

        BTW, Tim Topham. Where is my interview about Music Moves for Piano? Would love to share it.

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