Classroom Activities

Music Learning Theory is sometimes viewed as a uniquely different approach to all aspects of music teaching. This characterization is inaccurate. The purpose of Music Learning Theory is to provide ALL music teachers with knowledge and tools to develop their students’ tonal and rhythm audiation within the context of traditional music teaching practice. Music Learning Theory should be seen as a powerful way to enhance the many things good music teachers already do well.

Although learning sequence activities are where Music Learning Theory is directly applied, they take only five to ten minutes of each music class period. The remainder of the class is spent doing classroom activities. Band, orchestra, chorus, jazz, elementary general music, multicultural music, Dalcroze, Orff, Kodály, Suzuki: any approach to music can be enhanced by the skills and terminology children learn in learning sequence activities.

Teaching a Rote Song

Rote songs are an essential component of each student’s aural/oral foundation. All music teachers, whether they use learning sequence activities or not, should teach their students rote songs. Instrumental students are especially apt to experience years of music instruction without ever learning to play by ear. They should, of course, first learn to sing each song before playing it. Following are some recommendations for effective rote song instruction:

Establish tonality and meter. The “tune-up” is an excellent way to start a song. Shown below is a tune-up for a major song in duple starting on mi (such as “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”). In this simple four beat pattern you establish seven crucial aspects of the song: tonality, meter, keyality, resting tone, starting note, tempo, and style. Some teachers like to precede the tune-up by establishing tonality at the keyboard (tonic-dominant-tonic, for example, in major).


A tune-up for a minor song in triple meter would go like this:


Repetition. A class may need to hear a song four to six times before most students are able to sing it accurately. Keep them actively involved in the listening process by adding a new task to each repetition. This sequence works well:

Rote Song Procedure

Step 1.

Just listen to the teacher sing the song (unaccompanied).

Step 2.

Move heels to macrobeats while listening

Step 3.

Move hands (patsch lightly on thighs) to microbeats while listening.

Step 4.

Move to both macrobeats and microbeats while listening.

Step 5.

Audiate the resting tone while listening. Sing the resting tone after teacher finishes singing the song.

Step 6.

Audiate the song.

Step 7.

Sing the song without accompaniment.

Step 8.

Sing the song with accompaniment.

Delete or add steps as appropriate. You might precede each of the listening steps with a standard tune-up finishing with “Lis-ten, please” or “Au-di-ate” instead of “Rea-dy, sing.” If the group has difficulty singing a part of the song, don’t go back to the beginning. Isolate the troublesome segment and repeat as necessary, then repeat the entire song.

Sing for students, not with them. Students first need to hear you sing the song in order to learn it. When it’s their turn to sing don’t provide them with an aural model (your voice or the piano) to imitate. Just listen, or play a keyboard accompaniment without melody. When the melody is always sounded for them, students may learn only to hone their skills of rapid pitch-tracking. They don’t necessarily learn to internalize the song through audiation.

Teach the song first, then teach the words. Words are a valid part of songs, but it is best to teach them after students have learned the musical aspects of the song. If you teach the text first, much or most of students’ attention will be on the words, not audiation. Children in our culture get plenty of practice learning language, but rather little learning music through their ears. Maximize their opportunity to learn to audiate the song by postponing teaching the words. Then, when you do teach the text, teach it in segments, chanting (without pitch) to the melodic rhythm of the song.

Teach bass lines. Conscientious music teachers want their students to grasp the “big picture” in music, to understand how their part relates to others in the overall musical texture. But how does one approach this important objective? What should one tell them to listen to? And how should they listen? Start simply, by teaching bass lines, also known as root melodies, to familiar tunes. Every tune has one, and knowing the bass part is the foundation for understanding the harmony of a tune. Teach students to sing the bass line just as you would any other rote song. 

Then, if you are teaching instrumental music, teach them to play it. Create an instant duet by splitting the class in two, with half singing or playing the melody, the other half the bass line. Or, have students sing or play the bass line while they audiate the melody, and vice versa (sing or play the melody while audiating the bass line). Gradually, students will learn to bring greater harmonic understanding to all the music they sing, hear, and play.

Coordinating Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities/Repertoire

A few basic principles guide the teacher in effectively coordinating learning sequence activities with classroom activities. Both skill learning sequence and content learning sequence must be addressed.

Coordinate general types of content, not specific patterns. It is not necessary to coordinate the specific tonal patterns and rhythm patterns found in the literature used in classroom activities at any given time with the patterns taught in learning sequence activities. Such a practice would be far too complex. Coordination is instead accomplished according to general categories of content. The tonalities, meters, tonal functions, and rhythm functions found in the music literature being used in classroom activities at any given time are the same ones being used in learning sequence activities. For example, if a class is studying a song in classroom activities that contains tonic and subtonic patterns in dorian tonality, tonic and subtonic tonal patterns in dorian are the patterns that the teacher would teach in learning sequence activities. The same principle would apply to the specific meters and rhythm functions of the rhythm patterns used during learning sequence activities.

Rules of Content and Skill Introduction

Two rules dictate the process of introducing new content (both tonal and rhythm) and levels of skill learning sequence:

  • New skills are always introduced in learning sequence activities. Students first experience verbal association in pattern instruction. Likewise, they would read (symbolic association) and improvise with tonal and rhythm patterns in learning sequence activities before attempting those skills with music literature in classroom activities.
  • New content is always introduced in classroom activities. The first time students experience a new tonality, for example, is in classroom activities. Say they have learned some songs in major. Perhaps they have also started tonal pattern instruction (learning sequence activities) with tonic and dominant patterns in major. Then they are introduced to minor by learning a minor song. There is no reference to the tonal solfege for minor at this time. They simply learn the song by rote. Soon after this, perhaps within two to four class periods, is an appropriate time to start teaching tonic and dominant tonal patterns in minor at the aural/oral level in learning sequence activities. The same principle holds true for rhythm content. If students have learned some songs that contain macrobeat and microbeat patterns in duple meter, their first experience with triple meter would be in a song taught by rote in classroom activities.

Using Tonal Patterns and Rhythm Patterns During Classroom Activities

Learning sequence activities provide students with skills and knowledge that enable them to bring greater understanding to the music they study in classroom activities. By isolating the tonal and rhythm patterns that constitute a musical work, teachers help students comprehend how musical parts fit together to form musical Wholes.

The number of possible ways to refer to tonal and rhythm patterns while teaching music literature is virtually limitless. Many examples are provided in chapter nine of Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns. Some representative examples from various levels of tonal skill learning sequence follow.

  • Aural/Oral. Sing, using a neutral syllable, one or more tonal patterns included in the rote song that students are learning. Then ask students to audiate and to sing, using a neutral syllable, each tonal pattern in ensemble and/or solo at various times as they are learning the song.
  • Verbal Association. Sing, using tonal syllables, one or more tonal patterns included in the rote song that students are learning. Then ask students to audiate and to sing, using tonal syllables, each tonal pattern in ensemble and/or solo at various times as they are learning the song.
  • Symbolic Association-reading. Isolate an individual tonal pattern in a rote song. Sing the tonal pattern without rhythm, using tonal syllables. Then ask students to audiate and to read the tonal pattern without rhythm, using tonal syllables.
  • Generalization-verbal. Sing one or a series of unfamiliar tonal patterns using the text or a neutral syllable, that are part of an unfamiliar song. Ask students to audiate and to sing, without rhythm, the one or series of unfamiliar tonal patterns, using tonal syllables.

Note that when addressing tonal patterns or rhythm patterns during classroom activities, the teacher should present them in the same way as during learning sequence activities: tonal patterns without rhythm and rhythm patterns without pitch.