Skill Learning Sequence

There are two main categories of levels of skill learning sequence: discrimination learning and inference learning. Discrimination learning is rote learning. It takes place when students are conscious of, though they may not fully understand, what they are being taught. For example, they may be taught that two familiar tonal patterns are the same or different. A student is conscious of what he is learning because he is being taught by someone else. Inference learning is conceptual learning. It takes place when a student is unconscious of what he is learning because he is teaching himself.

Discrimination learning is of initial primary concern to a teacher because students cannot learn to make inferences unless they have learned how to make and have made discriminations. Without the readiness that the ability to discriminate provides, they would find that everything sounds the same.

Discrimination Learning

In order for children to understand music, they must build a vocabulary of tonal and rhythm patterns, comparable to a vocabulary of words in language. Most discrimination learning consists of students echoing tonal or rhythm patterns sung or chanted by the teacher. The format is call and response, and students may perform as a group or in solo.


Aural/oral is the most basic level of skill learning sequence, the foundation upon which all higher level skills are built. Listening is the aural part, while performing, usually singing, is the oral part. Optimum musical development occurs when the two are combined in a continuous loop so that they interact with and reinforce each other. At this level in learning sequence activities, students perform tonal and rhythm patterns with neutral syllables. The suggested syllables are “bum” for tonal patterns and “bah” for rhythm patterns.

Verbal Association

At this level, students associate vocabulary names and proper names with the patterns, functions, tonalities, and meters they learned at the aural/oral level. The tonal and rhythm patterns taught at the aural/oral level are learned with appropriate tonal solfege syllables or rhythm solfege between patterns. Without it, students would be unable to keep track of more than about ten patterns of each type. Assigning a unique “name” for each pattern through solfege serves much the same purpose in music as naming objects and concepts in language. We think with words, and the more words we have in our language vocabulary the better is the quality of our thinking. So, too, in audiation, and verbal association facilitates the development of a large vocabulary of tonal and rhythm patterns.

Two types of verbal association are used. The main type is the rhythm and tonal solfege syllables assigned to individual pitches or durations in tonal and rhythm patterns (for example, the tonal syllables do-mi-so for the notes C-E-G in C major). The other type, Verbal Association/Proper Names, refers to the names given tonalities, meters, and functions. Students learn to identify various tonalities (major, minor, dorian, mixolydian, and so on), tonal functions (tonic, dominant, subdominant, and so on), meters (duple, triple, unusual, and so on), and rhythm functions (macrobeats, microbeats, divisions, and so on). Note that music theory is NOT taught at this level of skill learning sequence. Students are taught the names and makeup of musical concepts (for example, that tonic patterns in major are comprised of some arrangement of do-mi-so), but not the “why” behind those concepts (for example, that a tonic chord in major includes a major third and a perfect fifth).

Partial Synthesis

At the aural/oral and verbal association levels, students learn tonal and rhythm patterns individually. Although the teacher always establishes tonal or rhythm context, syntactical relationships among patterns are not emphasized. At partial synthesis, students learn to give syntax to a series of tonal or rhythm patterns. The teacher performs a series of familiar tonal or rhythm patterns without solfege and without first establishing tonality, and students are able to identify the tonality or meter of the series. The purpose is to assist them in recognizing for themselves familiar tonalities and meters. As a result of acquiring partial synthesis skill, a student is able to listen to music in a sophisticated, musically intelligent manner.

Symbolic Association

At this level, students learn to read and write music notation by associating the sound and solfege of the patterns they learned at the aural/oral and verbal association levels with the notation for those patterns. The process is one of recognition, not decoding. As the teacher points to a pattern, the students are simply told “What you are audiating looks like that.” Students are not taught the letter names and time values of individual notes, nor the definitions of key signature and other symbols. These are taught at the theoretical understanding level of inference learning. When symbolic association is properly taught, students are able to bring meaning to the notation, rather than trying to take meaning from the notation. The notes on the page “sing” to them. Singers perform independently from notation, without having to hear their parts played for them at the piano, and instrumentalists don’t need their instruments to “tell them how the notes go.”

Composite Synthesis

At the partial synthesis level, students are able to give syntax to a series of familiar tonal or rhythm patterns. At composite synthesis, students read and write a series of tonal and rhythm patterns with the ability to identify the tonality or meter of the series.

Inference Learning

Students are not taught by rote at this level; they make their own discoveries. As a result of their experience with familiar patterns at various levels of discrimination learning, students are able to identify, create with, and improvise unfamiliar patterns in inference learning. Whereas in discrimination learning a teacher teaches a student both what to learn and how to learn it, in inference learning a teacher teaches a student only how to learn. The student teaches himself what he learns.


Generalization has three sublevels: aural/oral, verbal, and symbolic. The sublevels are analogous to the corresponding levels of discrimination learning, except, that the student is able to audiate unfamiliar patterns by comparing them to the familiar patterns he learned by rote. At generalization-aural/oral, for example, the student indicates whether two tonal or rhythm patterns are the same or different. At generalization-verbal the student, upon hearing a tonal or rhythm pattern performed without solfege, is able sing or chant the pattern with appropriate solfege. At the generalization-symbolic level, students read unfamiliar patterns (commonly called sight-reading) and write unfamiliar patterns from dictation.


In order to create or improvise, the student must have something to create or improvise with. The tonal and rhythm patterns learned in discrimination learning comprise the content the student uses to form his own unique musical ideas in creativity and improvisation.

Creativity is easier than improvisation because there are more restrictions on a performer when he improvises than when he creates. In improvising to a song, for example, the student is limited to a particular tonality and meter, and he must follow tonal functions according to the form (chord progression) of the song. When engaging in creativity, the student is in effect creating his own “song,” and selects his own restrictions of tonality, meter, tonal and rhythm functions, and form.

As in discrimination learning, learning sequence activities at the creativity/improvisation level consist of tonal and rhythm pattern echoes between teacher and students. In creativity, the student responds to the teacher’s pattern with a different pattern of ANY function. For example, if the teacher sings a tonic pattern in major, the student may respond with a different tonic pattern, a dominant pattern, a subdominant pattern, or a pattern of some other tonal function (see tonal content). In improvisation, the student must respond with a different pattern of a specific function stipulated by the teacher. For example, the teacher may chant a macrobeat/microbeat pattern in duple meter and ask the student to respond with a different macrobeat/microbeat pattern (see rhythm content).

See improvisation for methods and materials specifically developed for teaching improvisation in classroom activities.

Theoretical Understanding

Music theory explains why music is audiated, performed, read, written, created, and improvised as it is. It is to music what grammar and linguistics are to language. Taught in proper sequence, theoretical understanding can strengthen what was learned at the lower levels of music learning. In language learning, grammar and the parts of speech are not taught until children have developed considerable skill in thinking, speaking, improvising (conversing), reading, and writing in their native tongue. The same should be true in music teaching.

Unfortunately, music theory is often taught to students who do not audiate. Such a sequence can only hinder audiational development. For most efficient learning, ideally students should not be introduced to theoretical understanding until they have achieved all previous levels of discrimination and inference learning to the extent that their music aptitudes will allow.

At the theoretical understanding level, students learn information commonly taught in traditional methods as a readiness for music reading, such as the names of lines and spaces, time value names (eighth note, quarter note, half note, and so on), sharps and flats, measure (“time “) signatures, and key signature definitions. They also learn intervals, chord spellings, and other information traditionally taught as music theory.