Gordon Music Learning Theory

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The Gordon Music Learning Theory, often referred to as simply Music Learning Theory, is one of a number of theoretical models of music learning. Developed by Edwin E. Gordon and based on research and field testing, it is a stage specific model of how students learn music and how it should be taught. It was first presented in his 1971 The Psychology of Music Teaching and has been revised and clarified in his subsequent texts.[1] A teaching method, using MLT as its framework, is sequential and uses the concept of audiation, Gordon's term for mentally hearing and comprehending music.[2] Music Learning Theory has many characteristics in common with rote-first methods such as those developed by Suzuki, Dalcroze, Kodaly, and Orff. Students build a foundation of aural and performing skills through singing, rhythmic movement, and tonal and rhythm pattern instruction before being introduced to notation and music theory.[3]

Music learning sequences[edit]

Music Learning Theory uses three basic learning sequences - skill learning, tonal content, and rhythm content.[4] As a method of instruction, the learning sequences are combined in various learning sequence activities which, in turn, can be combined with classroom activities. In this method a skill level cannot be achieved except in combination with a tonal or rhythm content level.[5]

Audiation[edit]

Audiation is fundamental to Music Learning Theory,[6] and knowledge of its role is considered basic to an understanding of the learning sequences involved.[7] The theory proposes that audiation is a cognitive process and the musical equivalent of thinking in language. The sole measure of musical intelligence is the ability to audiate. In contrast to aural perception, audiation takes place when music is mentally heard and understood when the physical sound is no longer present (or never has been). Although Gordon was the first to coin the term audiation in relation to music learning theory,[8] the subjective experience of hearing in the absence of physical sound (often referred to as auditory imagery) has long been studied by psychologists and neuropsychologists.


According to Gordon, “audiation is to music what thought is to speech."[9]Audiation is “performing” a piece of music in one’s mind, “the process of assimilating and comprehending (not simply rehearing) music that one has just heard performed or has heard performed sometime in the past. We also audiate when we assimilate and comprehend music we may or may not have heard, but are reading in notation or composing or improvising."[10] Audiation is not simply replaying what was heard in one’s mind; this is called inner hearing. Inner hearing is a product, whereas audiation is a process. Audiation requires a deeper understanding of the music and is a delayed music event, in contrast to being an immediate music event as with inner hearing. A person with better audiation ability may be able to process a song faster than a person with poorer audiation ability. Furthermore, the brain does not process every note of a song, and the brain only chooses the important parts of the song to “perform”.[9]

Music aptitude and standardized testing[edit]

Music Learning Theory explicitly takes into account students' differing potentials for musical achievement when designing their individual learning programs. In this theory, musical aptitude is considered to be normally distributed in the population, with relatively few people having high or low aptitude and the majority having average aptitude.[11] Gordon devised several instruments for testing musical aptitude in children – most notably the Primary Measures of Music Audiation (PMMA) and the Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (IMMA) and emphasises the need to develop whatever aptitude the child has from an early age:

"The fact is, music aptitude is something we're born with; it's an innate capacity, and unless it's nurtured at an early age, by age 9 nurturing will no longer help." – Edwin Gordon [12]

The IMMA and PMMA aptitude tests have been frequently used in studies on the development of children's musical abilitities,[13] including those by Peter Webster (1987) and Sam Baltzer (1990) which found no relationship between measures of music aptitude per se and measures of creative thinking in music.[14]


A common misconception is that there is a significant number of very naturally talented musicians, and similarly that there are many people who are naturally untalented in music. The results of valid musical aptitude tests suggest that “more than two thirds of us are average"[5] and the remainder have above or below average musical aptitudes. People whose test results indicate extremely high or extremely low musical aptitude are relatively rare. Because audiation is “fundamental to music aptitude",[5] Gordon can predict the potential for music achievement by testing audiation through his music aptitude testing. However, there is a difference between intellectual musical and musical aptitude: “aptitude refers to potential, and achievement is used synonymously with accomplishment”.[15] Students who have a high musical achievement profile must also have a high musical aptitude. Yet students who have a low musical achievement profile may have a low or high musical aptitude. Thus, students with high musical aptitude but low musical achievement are not achieving their potential. Such problems can occur when a student lacks the motivation to study music, or the proper guidance and instruction in music learning.[5]


Gordon’s research shows that both nature and nurture contribute to musical aptitude. A child born with any amount of musical aptitude must have a certain amount of musical nurturing to develop the level of aptitude and potential to achieve in music later on in life. At the present, there is no evidence that suggests that musical intelligence is hereditary. Therefore, regardless of the parents’ musical aptitudes, a child may be born with high, average or low musical aptitude. Many children “will never have a higher level of music aptitude than at the instant of birth",[5] the reason being that most environments children are nurtured in are not conducive to developing musical aptitude. The musical training and exposure that a child receives from birth onward will determine his or her musical aptitude until the age of nine. At the age of nine, a child’s level of aptitude stops fluctuating and stabilizes.[9][5] Therefore, both nature and nurture are responsible for a child’s musical aptitude.

According to Charles Spearman in the American Journal of Psychology, “the function [overall intellection] appears to become fully developed in children by about their ninth year, and possibly even much earlier. From this moment, there normally occurs no further change even in extreme old age. The function . . . is nine parts out of ten responsible for success in such a simple act as discrimination of pitch."[5]

It is common knowledge that there is a positive correlation between the scores of certain tests of intelligence and academic achievement.[15] However, Gordon’s research shows that there is no relationship between music aptitude and intellectual ability (logical-mathematical and linguistic ability).[9] Even though it has been suggested that music lessons enhance IQ,[16] it is important to note that music lessons may not necessarily contribute positively to music aptitude. Gordon found that IQ cannot be predicted from his music aptitude tests, but language arts subtests show a relationship with musical aptitude.[15]


Gordon also theorized that there are at least twenty types of music intelligences. However, one of his tests, the Musical Aptitude Profile, measures only seven intelligences: melody, harmony, tempo, meter, phrasing, balance and style. Two of his other tests, Primary Measures of Music Audiation and Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation, measure only two: tonal and rhythm. The reason for this is that many of the intelligences, such as timbre, are difficult or unreliable to measure. Gordon’s research also showed that it is rare for a person to have a high aptitude for all of the intelligences measured during a test. Similarly, it is also rare for one to have a low aptitude for all intelligences measured during a test. It is far more likely that a person will have a high aptitude on some intelligences and a low aptitude on others.[9]


Music aptitude tests should help teachers achieve two purposes. Firstly, aptitude testing must only be used to help teachers meet the individual needs of their students, but test results should not be shared with the students or parents. Course content for students of all aptitudes must be the same, as all students should be given the same opportunity to learn the same materials, but guidance should be adapted towards each individual student according to their test results. For example, a student who tests higher in tonal aptitude than in rhythmic aptitude may require special attention to learn rhythm.[5] Test results should also be used to enable high scoring students to receive special instruction in a school. For example, students who score highly should be encouraged to join ensembles. At the present moment, “almost half the number of students who score in the upper 20 percent on a valid music aptitude test never receive any special instruction in school music, nor do they participate in music activities”.[5] Teachers should be aware of their students’ abilities, so that they can guide them to achieve their full potential. Secondly, aptitude tests should be used to monitor the progress of musical development in students of ages nine and younger. A decline in the aptitude of a student may indicate that his or her musical needs are not being met.[9] Consequently, aptitude tests can be used to monitor teaching effectiveness. Lastly, Gordon believes that his tests should not be used to stigmatize weaker students as disabled or slow students, and “when used with judgment and wisdom and treated with sensitivity and confidentiality, test results serve as valuable objective aids to parents’ and teachers’ subjective opinions and observations”.[5]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Luce, David W., "Music Learning Theory and Audiation: Implications for Music Therapy Clinical Practice" in Music Therapy Perspectives, American Music Therapy Association, 2004. Accessed via subscription 28 December 2008
  2. ^ Dalby, Bruce. "About MLT". The Gordon Institute for Music Learning. Retrieved on 2008-12-01
  3. ^ Dalby, Bruce. "About MLT". The Gordon Institute for Music Learning. Retrieved on 2008-12-01
  4. ^ Dalby, Bruce. "About MLT". The Gordon Institute for Music Learning. Retrieved on 2008-12-01
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Gordon, Edwin (1984). Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory. GIA Publications. 
  6. ^ Shehan, Patricia K. (February, 1986). "Major Approaches to Music Education: An Account of Method.". Music Educators Journal 72(6), 26-31.
  7. ^ Gordon, Edwin E. (1980). Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns(1984 ed.). G.I.A. Publications, Inc.
  8. ^ Schneider, Peter, Source activity and tonotopic organization of the auditory cortex in musicians and non-musicians, PhD Dissertation, University of Heidelberg, 12 December 2000.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Bluestine, Eric (2000). The Ways Children Learn Music. GIA Publications. 
  10. ^ Gordon, Edwin (2006). Buffalo Music Learning Theory: Resolutions and Beyond. G.I.A. Publications. 
  11. ^ Dalby, Bruce. "About MLT". The Gordon Institute for Music Learning. Retrieved on 2008-12-01
  12. ^ Quoted in Howard, Sharma, "Teaching music to children should begin at an early age", Norwich Bulletin, 24 November 2007
  13. ^ Kreutzer, Natalie Jones. "Music Acquisition of Children in Rural Zimbabwe: A Longitudinal Observation, Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 2001. Accessed via subscription 28 December 2008
  14. ^ Peter Webster, "Refinement of a Measure of Creative Thinking in Music," in Applications of Research in Music Behavior, Clifford Madsen and Carol Prickett (eds), University of Alabama Press, 1987; and Baltzer, Sam, A Factor Analytic Study of Musical Creativity in Children in the Primary Grades, Ed.D. Dissertation, Indiana University, 1990; both cited in Webster, Peter and Richardson, Carol, "Asking children to think about music", Arts Education Policy Review, 1993. Accessed via subscription 28 December 2008.
  15. ^ a b c Gordon, Edwin (1971). The Psychology of Music Teaching. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 
  16. ^ Schellenberg, Glenn (2004). "Music Lessons Enhance IQ". Psychological Science 15 (8): 511–514. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00711.x. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gordon, Edwin E. (1979). Primary Measures of Music Audiation. Chicago: GIA Publications.
  • Gordon, Edwin E. (1989). Learning sequences in music; Skill, content and patterns. Chicago: GIA Publications.
  • Gordon, Edwin E. (1997). Learning sequences in music: Skill, content and patterns; A music learning theory (1997 ed.). Chicago: GIA Publications.
  • Gordon, Edwin E. (1997). A music learning theory for newborn and young children (1997 ed.). Chicago: GIA Publications.
  • Gordon, Edwin E. (2001). Jump Right In: The Music Curriculum: Reference Handbook for Using Learning Sequence Activities (3d rev. ed.). Chicago: GIA Publications.

External links[edit]