The MLT Approach

Method is the order in which sequential objectives are introduced in a curriculum to accomplish a comprehensive objective, a goal. A good method tells us what to teach, when to teach it (the best sequencing of instruction), and why to teach it. A good technique tells us how to teach. Music Learning Theory provides teachers a comprehensive and sequential method for teaching essential audiation skills.


Music teaching methods are often categorized as either rote first or note first. Music Learning Theory has many characteristics in common with such rote-first methods as Suzuki, Dalcroze, Kodály, and Orff. Students build a solid foundation of aural and performing skills through singing, rhythmic movement, and tonal and rhythm pattern instruction before being introduced to notation and music theory.

The process of learning music is much the same as that for language. In learning to speak, children first listen. From the time of birth, and even before, they are surrounded by the sounds of language. They absorb these sounds and become attuned to the language of their culture. Soon after, children begin to imitate. They receive much praise and are encouraged to “babble,” even when their sounds do not make sense to adult listeners. Then they begin to think in the language. Words and phrases start to have meaning to them. Next, children improvise in the language. They make up their own phrases and sentences that are organized in a logical manner. They can engage in conversation. Finally, after several years of developing their ability to think and speak, children are taught how to read and write. Only after all these skills are well in place is grammar, the theory of sentence construction, introduced.

Sequence in Music Learning Theory has much in common with that of language learning. Skill learning sequence accounts systematically for the readinesses needed to learn each new musical skill. Students taught according to Music Learning Theory learn to read notation (see symbolic association), but only after they have developed the ability to audiate the note patterns written on the page. Reading becomes a process of recognition rather than decoding.

The Whole/Part/Whole Curriculum

The Whole/Part/Whole approach (sometimes called Synthesis/Analysis/Synthesis) is a common way in education to organize students’ experience with content. The first whole stage (Synthesis) is an introduction, an overview that establishes basic familiarity with what the topic is about. The second stage (Analysis) consists of detailed study of the parts of the topic. On returning to the whole (the second Synthesis) students have a more sophisticated understanding of how the parts fit together to form a unified whole.

Music teachers often take a Whole/Part/Whole approach to new literature. The first step is to “run through” the piece, to give students a general, if somewhat crude, sense of how it goes. Detailed rehearsal on small sections follows (Analysis). The next run-through (the second Synthesis) is usually with greater technical precision and overall understanding of the music. This final Synthesis step then becomes the first step of another Synthesis/Analysis/Synthesis cycle. From cycle to cycle students’ skills go through progressively higher stages of refinement.

Music Learning Theory provides an elegant Whole/Part/Whole approach to developing audiation. Songs and music literature are the “whole” part of the music curriculum. These are taught during classroom activities. Tonal and rhythm patterns are the “part” part, and are taught during learning sequence activities. Although learning sequence activities are the heart of Music Learning Theory, where theory is applied directly to music teaching practice, the main objective is to enhance the teacher’s ability to help students understand the music they study in classroom activities.

The eight hierarchical levels of skill learning that comprise skill learning sequence in learning sequence activities are also relevant to classroom activities. Aural/oral, for example, is the most basic level of skill learning sequence in learning sequence activities, but it also plays a major role in classroom activities. Learning a new song, for example, first takes place at the aural/oral level, with no reference to tonal or rhythm solfege (verbal association) or notation (symbolic association).

Other Central Principles

Focus on patterns

Tonal and rhythm patterns, not single notes, are the basic units of meaning in music. They are roughly analogous to words in language. Learning sequence activities help students give musical meaning to the individual pitches and durations that combine to form tonal and rhythm patterns.


We understand what something is by comparing it to what it is not. To learn to audiate major tonality, for example, one must also have experience with other tonalities such as minor, dorian, and mixolydian. Music Learning Theory methods help children learn to discriminate among diverse tonal patterns, rhythm patterns, tonalities, meters, tonal functions, and rhythm functions. This discrimination learning develops in students the foundational tonal and rhythm vocabulary necessary to generalize, improvise, and create in inference learning.


Just as the meaning of a word is affected by the sentence in which it resides, so is context critical to the audiation of musical elements. It is important during both classroom activities and learning sequence activities to establish tonal and rhythm context. For example, during tonal pattern instruction the teacher repeatedly establishes tonality, perhaps by playing tonic-dominant-tonic at the piano. Students are guided to audiate tonal patterns in reference to a tonality, resting tone, and tonal function (chord). In rhythm instruction, meter is continually reinforced and students are encouraged to move rhythmically while audiating rhythm patterns.

Rhythmic Movement

Rhythm is not processed intellectually; it must be felt in the body through movement. Music Learning Theory methods are designed to help students develop an inner awareness of meter, macrobeats, microbeats, and melodic rhythm (see rhythm content) in order to perform with accurate rhythm, steady tempo, and rhythmic “flow.”