Music Learning Theory in Collegiate Music Education

August 31, 1991

Collegiate music education is responsible for educating teachers of music in public and private institutions. We are ultimately responsible, therefore, for the education of consumers of music in many facets of society. Because of the importance of that task, it is crucial that we continue to explore innovative ways to teach and learn music. Edwin Gordon's Music Learning Theory is receiving increased attention as a realistic and common-sense model for teaching music at the collegiate level (see Edwin Gordon, Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns [Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, Inc., 19891). Gordon's model of music learning is based on years of experimental and practical research in how children learn music. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Gordon's research is the concept of audiation.

When originally coined by Gordon, audiation was defined as "the ability to hear music for which the sound is not physically present." It was not unlike more commonly used terms such as"inner hearing," "silent singing," or "mental hearing." Gordon's most recent research has expanded the definition of audiation to comprise seven types and six stages. Audiation is perhaps best understood when compared to imitation. An individual who imitates a language pronounces the words correctly without giving meaning to the words. That is true when someone reads or speaks in a foreign language but does not comprehend the meaning of the words. An individual who imitates music is also unable to give meaning to music. For example, a person who imitates rhythm will often experience difficulty maintaining a consistent tempo. An individual who imitates melodies will often sing with faulty intonation. In extreme cases, the individual who only engages in imitation may not even recognize the same piece when someone else performs it. Imitation is not unimportant; it is audiation, however, that forms the basis for all musical behavior. Audiation includes comprehension, and it occurs when an individual gives meaning to music through reading, writing, creating, improvising, listening, and performing. Audiation is to music what thinking is to language.

Gordon's Music Learning Theory is based on the principle of "sound before sight." He is obviously not the first to espouse such a common-sense approach. Because of years of experimental and practical research, however, his theory provides a more organized and sequential process than those of previous music-learning theorists. Gordon's model includes a skill-learning sequence and a content-learning sequence that interact with each other in the learning process. Skill-learning sequence consists of discrimination and inference learning; content-learning sequence comprises various tonalities and meters. At the discrimination level, for example, the teacher teaches students to make discriminations between major and minor tonalities and duple and triple meters. The students build a vocabulary of tonal and rhythm patterns at the discrimination level that enable them to engage in independent music behavior at the inference level of learning. Among other behaviors, students are able to hear the sound of notation in their heads before they perform it with their voices or on their instruments. As a result of learning to audiate they will also be ready to understand and appreciate all of music during and beyond their formal education.

Gordon's Music Learning Theory has applications to vocal, general, and instrumental music. It is a significant step toward meeting intrinsic objectives for the music education at the collegiate level and eventually in the public schools.

3346 Last modified on May 3, 2013
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