As modern society advances in technology, science and philosophy; many new theories and methods of music education evolve. Learning music theory is a method of music education which is developed by Edwin E. Gordon who is a well-known researcher, teacher, author, editor and lecturer (GIML).

Music Learning Theory is a process by which Gordon explains how music is learned through the basic beliefs that music is learned primarily through audiation, and that the process of learning music is very similar to the process by which one learns a language. Gordon later defines Music Learning Theory as “the analysis and synthesis of the sequential manner in which we learn when we learn music”(Colwell 2002, 381).

Audiation is a key element in which Gordon explains how one learns music. Audiation is used by Gordon to describe the “…basic patterns within music that he believed represented the basic vocabulary of music…sound patterns become the musical vocabulary for the inner ‘voices’, but instead of talking, the voices sing.”(Colwell 2002, 293) Audition is a musical imagery and vocabulary which is related to experience of music through the pre-audiation stages. Gordon believes that there are three basic stages which one must complete before successfully moving on to audiation. Gordon calls these stages ‘Preparatory Audiation’. The stages of preparatory audiation are very similar to the stages one goes through to learn a language.

Once one has experienced these three stages of preparatory audiation, one advances on to the stages of audiation. Gordon describes there three categories of music learning sequence; the first of which contains are two main levels of learning music with several different sublevels. The two main levels of learning music are discrimination, and inference learning.

One main theory that seems to drive Gordon’s Music Learning Theory is the relationship of how the experience of learning music very similar to the experience of learning a language.  This relationship between language and music is known as the Language-music acquisition metaphor; and seems to be very popular amongst many theorists of music education. Edwin E. Gordon’s Learning Music Theory is an explanation of how learning music is similar to learning a language (Colwell 2002, 380-383).

When we learn how to speak, read and write, there are certain stages that we go through before they can continue to the next. The first year of our life is spent listening to the sounds around us, even though we do not understand what the sounds mean or what they are. Between the ages of nine and eighteen months, we begin to make noises that do not make sense; in an attempt to imitate the sounds we hear.

Eventually, we are successful in our practice and we start to make words. During this stage, we start to build our vocabulary of words that will be put into place later. Finally, by the age of three, we start to improvise, using the words and meanings that we have learned before. By age five, we receive the first formal instruction of our language through schooling. We learn how to read and write and we continue to develop our language vocabulary and skills through listening and practicing. This process in which we learned our language is much like the process in which we learn music.

However, Gordon describes these particular stages as the pre-audiation stages. When learning music, as a child we are exposed to the music around us and we begin to hear certain aspects of tonality and rhythm; this stage is described as our ‘Listening’ stage. During the listening stage, we start to build a vocabulary of sounds which will become more familiar to us; the more we hear and recognize similar patterns. Next, we have our ‘Performing’ stage, where we start to use the vocabulary learned from the listening stage. We now begin to make music ourselves; however, this may be purely from imitation of songs we have heard others.

The more we practice these songs, the more precise we can imitate what is heard. Next, we are taught how to read music and de-code the symbols on the page to audible sound. This stage is ‘Reading’ and it has much the same process as reading when learning a language. Next, we have the final official stage of Gordon’s pre-audiation stage: writing. During this stage, we learn musical theory; much like in learning a language, we learn grammar. Gordon believes that it is with this stage of musical theory that we are able to begin to improvise successfully. Once we have completed these pre-audiation stages, our musical aptitude is determined by the level, quality, and quantity that we have received each stage. However, Gordon believes that by the age of eight, most of our musical aptitude is set, and it is harder (but not impossible) for us to obtain more skill in a particular stage (Gordon 1999, 41-42).

Next, we move on to audiation; which is where we begin to use our musical vocabulary and reading/writing skills to understand music that may or may not be physically heard. For example; in audiation, we are able to predict by thought what a song will do next or hear what a melody sounds like while looking at a score of music, without actually having the opportunity to perform or hear the music. According to Gordon, “Audiation is to music what thought is to language” (Gordon 1999, 42).

Gordon believes that the audiation for both tonal and rhythm audiation have similarities within the stages of each. There are six types of audition described by Gordon, each having a different situational setting. The first type of audition is the most common, and occurs when we listen to music. As we are listening to music, we hear familiar and unfamiliar sounds that we place together to create an overall statement within context of the piece. We are capable of audiation to the pitches and rhythms that are important to the overall statement of the piece. We omit the unessential pitches and rhythms that do not have a significant meaning to the overall statement of the piece.

Unessential pitches and rhythms of a piece are those which repeat pitches consecutively or the minor, simple variations of rhythmic motifs; whereas essential pitches and rhythms to a piece include the rhythmic motifs and tonality. The second type of audiation is known as notational audiation; and occurs when we are reading familiar and unfamiliar patterns in music notation. We should be able to audiate or understand the music without the aural aids because of our musical knowledge and vocabulary with regards to pitch and rhythm. The third type of audiation occurs when we dictate what is being performed.

When we are dictating; we are writing down what we have aurally perceived with symbols of notation. The fourth type of audiation occurs when we are performing a memorized piece on an instrument or in thought. We memorize a piece by audiating the pitches and rhythms. Our muscle memory of our fingers, vocal cords, etc. aids our production of the correct pitches and rhythms. A fifth type of audiation occurs when we are improvising unfamiliar music; through our vocabulary of familiar and unfamiliar tonal and rhythmic patterns. This occurs whether it is performed or is thought through.

The last type of audiation described by Gordon occurs when we compose music. Audiation allows us to recall music we are either thinking; or music we just performed through improvisation. There are also six stages of each of the six types of audiation. The first stage occurs when we audiate pitches and rhythms a moment after they occur, since we need to be able to hear the rhythms and pitches first. The second stage occurs when we organize the pitches and rhythms that we have just heard. While we are hearing the pitches and rhythms; we are unconsciously imitating what we heard a split second ago.

After the melody is complete; we have time to imitate what we have heard and further organize the pitches and rhythms to recall the melody. “The more sure we are of the pitch center and the placement of macro beats in the music, the better we can recognize or identify the tonal patterns and rhythm patterns of essential pitches and durations in the music.” The third stage occurs when we consciously organize and recognize the tonality and meter of a piece.

We are continuously engaged in the first three stages simultaneously. The fourth stage of audiation occurs when we are consciously retaining the tonal and rhythmic patterns of the essential rhythms and pitches of the piece that we have already organized in the previous stages. This stage also occurs simultaneously with the first three stages and occurs in a cyclic process where the stages interact with each other. In stage four, we recognize the aspects of sequences, repetition, form, style, timber, dynamics and any other relevant factors that give the music meaning to us.

In stage five, we consciously recall the patterns heard and recognized in stages one through four. We may be recalling the piece heard from a day, week, month (etc.) ago. During this stage, the more music we have heard and the larger our musical vocabulary is; the more accurately we can communicate our recollection of the piece. The final stage, stage six, is when we predict what is to occur within the near future of the music. This prediction is based upon the patterns of tonality and rhythm previously heard within the piece. The more accurately we can predict what will occur next within the music; the better understanding of the music we have. Again, our musical vocabulary and experience play a vital role here to allow us to predict the piece’s near future (Gordon 1989, 10-14).

Gordon describes music learning theory in three categories: the first being skill learning sequence, the second is tonal content learning sequence, and the third is rhythmic content learning sequence. The first category, Skill learning sequence, will be discussed in detail in this paper; as it is considered the most important of the three categories. Skill learning sequence contains two general types of learning: discrimination and inference learning.

Discrimination learning accents rote learning, while inference learning emphasizes conceptual learning. Discrimination learning occurs when the students are aware and conscious of the fact that they are being taught material by another (usually a peer, teacher or parent).  The students usually acquire a majority of their rhythmic and tonal patterns that make up their vocabulary by rote learning. The students then utilize the tonal and rhythmic patterns that are incorporated into their vocabulary through the act of performance and inference learning. This process of discrimination and inference learning is also much like learning a language because when we are learning grammar, and how to read; we learn new vocabulary that we did not learn by situational settings by rote.

We then are able to utilize those new words or grammatical devices when we speak. Discrimination and inference learning is divided into hierarchical levels and subparts. The following outline is an outline of both the discrimination and inference learning levels and subparts. The levels are represented by capital letters; while the subparts of the levels are represented by lowercase letters. “…after each level or subpart of a level is achieved in the learning sequence, it becomes combined and interacts with the next higher level or subpart of a level of learning in the sequence hierarchy. Just as inference learning incorporates discrimination learning, every level of learning (except, of course, the most elementary) incorporates all lower levels of learning, and every subpart of a level of learning incorporates all lower subparts of that level of learning.”

In Learning Music Theory, Gordon describes the sequence of how music should be taught. Gordon also describes the importance of audiation to build a musical vocabulary. Gordon believes that music is a language, and thus should be taught as such. There are many similarities between language and music including the process of learning a language, reading and writing skills.

Gordon also believes that for the most effective musical aptitude to be obtained, one must be exposed to as many different types and styles of music while young; because by the age of eight or nine, our musical aptitude is strongly based. Gordon’s research and theories have been the center for many new developments and are used as support for several more recent theories.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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