Music Learning Theory

What is “music learning theory”, exactly?

I first encountered music learning theory as an undergraduate student in September of 2008, when Hope College (Holland, Michigan) hosted Dr. Edwin E. Gordon (1927-2015) for a five-day visit. I was fascinated by everything Gordon had to say and have carried his influence with me as I went on to complete a Masters degree and start an independent piano studio in following years. In the summers of 2016 and 2017 respectively, I completed the Piano certification and Early Childhood Music certification offered by the Gordon Institute for Music Learning (see The implications of Gordon’s work regarding how we can best teach music resonates with me, and so I continue to familiarize myself with his research and writings.

Music learning theory is a relatively new subject area within academia gaining increasing recognition and respect in recent decades. While music education and early childhood music communities currently are largely familiar with the concept, piano teachers as a whole are mostly unfamiliar with music learning theory.

To those new to music learning theory, its name might suggest that it is systematic way to teach music theory. In fact, music learning theory has little to do with music theory; nor is it a curriculum.

To those who happen to hold a strong association between the term “music learning theory” and Edwin E. Gordon, the term might seem synonymous with Gordon’s work. The subject area, however, is larger than one individual’s work — no matter how great his or her contributions. Gordon’s own Music Learning Theory (MLT) exists within the larger subject area known as music learning theory.

I’d like to make some clarifications about the subject of music learning theory. In this short article, I will define the subject of music learning theory and discuss possible benefits for piano teachers who choose to familiarize themselves with music learning theory.

What is a theory?

Let’s break down the term “music learning theory”.

A theory is a statement — or set of statements — explaining a phenomena. In other words, a theory is a plausible way to explain facts determined through research. Examples of theories include linguistic theory, theories of motivation, theories of instruction, and theories of cognitive development.

Theories are used to ground further research to test aspects of the theory. As more information is gained, theories can change over time.

Theory becomes most valuable, in my opinion, when it is used to inform practice — application of theory. There is often a kind of tension between theory and practice. Practitioners are often most interested in figuring out how to put theory into practice, while theorists are often most interested in keeping the theory pure. Ideally, theory informs practice while, at the same time, practice informs theory.

What is a learning theory?

learning theory is a theory explaining how we learn — in other words, how we acquire, retain, and recall knowledge. Examples of learning theories include Gestalt theory, Constructivist theory, Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, and Gagne’s Conditions of Learning theory. Learning theories are useful to educators who are interested in increasing the effectiveness of their instruction.

What is a music learning theory?

music learning theory, as you might surmise, is a theory for explaining how we learn when we learn music. It strives to explain the natural learning sequences when in comes to music; in other words, what readinesses lead to consequent learning.

Although “music learning theory” is often associated with the work of Edwin E. Gordon — who dedicated his life to music learning theory — it is a subject area larger than Gordon’s work.

Despite the fact Gordon did not capitalize “music learning theory’ in his writings, proponents of Gordon’s work began using capitalization to help clarify the distinction between general music learning and Gordon’s own theories within general music learning theory. (See the preface written by the editors on page “v” in the book “Readings in Music Learning Theory”.) Personally, I agree it is useful to use uppercase and lowercase for “music learning theory” to specify whether we are referring to the general subject or Gordon’s Music Learning Theory (commonly referred to as MLT).

Despite the fact that studying Gordon’s Music Learning Theory is probably the best way to begin familiarizing ourselves with general music learning theory, I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between his theories and the subject as a whole — especially as future research and theorization begins to contradict or substantiate currently-accepted tenets of music learning theory.

What music learning theory is NOT:

As alluded to earlier, music learning theory is not about music theory. It has little to do with conventional theorization of the phenomenon of music.

Second: Music learning theory is not a method; meaning, it does not tell us exactly what to teach and when. Theory informs our practice of that theory, but the theory itself is not the practice. Therefore, music learning theory can inform a method or teaching approach, but it is not a method or approach itself. Put into practice, music learning theory could be the basis on conceivably a countless number of methods or approaches to teaching music.

What can I gain from music learning theory?

Most of us piano teachers have been trained how to teach without having also been taught the theory inherently underlying that approach. In fact, as a whole, we piano teachers are largely unaware of why we teach the way we teach. We piano teachers, in other words, tend to be practitioners of theory of which we are largely unaware.

Here’s a truth for us practitioners to ponder: Practice makes much more sense when it is consciously based on theory.

When we become educated in music learning theory, we understand why we teach the way we teach. We then become empowered to make well-grounded decisions about what to teach (and what not to teach), and when to teach what.

Have you, like me, questioned some of the learning theories underlying typical contemporary piano method books? What if traditional piano pedagogy has tended to perpetuate inaccurate assumptions about natural learning processes when it comes to music? What if we piano teachers could better understood how minds tend to learn when we learn music? Imagine if our piano teaching community was more aware of what research and contemporary theories say about how music learning occurs. Music learning theory can open our eyes and minds to nonconventional — but more effective — learning sequence possibilities.

Gaining familiarity with music learning theory enables us to begin recognizing the learning theories underlying our current approaches, and begin to initiate changes as desired in accordance with new learning theories.

How can I study music learning theory?

There are many books about music learning theory to check out. But if you’re brand new to the subject I would recommend starting with Eric Bluestine’s book “The Ways Children Read Music” (read my full review here).

I also recommend, if you are a piano teacher, joining the facebook group “Edwin E. Gordon and Music Learning Theory for Piano Teachers”. It’s a wonderful study group to be a part of. If you’d like to join, visit the group here and then click the “Join Group” button to request to join the group.

And stay tuned — I hope to continue talking about music learning theory here on the blog.

Questions to ponder: Why do you suppose we piano teachers as a whole tend to teach as we’ve always been taught? What problems do you see with the way piano teachers tend to teach? What if music learning theory offers solutions to those problems?

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9 thoughts on “What is “music learning theory”, exactly?”

  1. I suspect piano teachers tend to teach as we’ve always been taught because:

    – We were taught that way, and we were told we learned because of how we were taught, so we assume it’s true.
    – Most piano teachers don’t really understand why this stuff needs to be learned at all, because it tends to come naturally to them.
    – It conforms to the cultural narrative of how learning should happen.
    – The field as a whole doesn’t really encourage exploration of fundamental questions.

    As far as problems go, the biggest problem is that teachers are too focused on outcome, and not enough on process. The outcome is the result of the process. If the outcome isn’t correct, there is a problem in the process. It’s basic cause and effect. When you combine this misunderstanding with the personal insecurities of the teacher, it becomes disastrous. Now, students don’t exactly help matters either, because they come with their own insecurities. But, we are supposed to be the professionals.

    We need to keep asking basic questions.

    1. So, so true, Michael. Everything you said here rings true to me.

      It’s so much easier to just continue teaching as we’ve been taught. But if we’re honest with ourselves about the problems we see in music education, we can see that we need to be asking those basic questions, as you put it. It’s worthwhile to question the way things have always been done.

  2. Thank you Joy for this extremely interesting article which invites you to ask yourself excellent questions as a piano teacher; thank you also for the reference of the book that I can not wait to discover! Personally, I don’t teach at all the way I was taught to me; I have found myself so many times frustrated not to receive any advice on work, organization of my learning, consideration of my personal aptitudes and my musical tastes that when I found myself teaching, I swore to myself to do things differently. However, no one is perfect of course, and I most certainly make lots of mistakes with my students, but I have a constant desire to question myself and stay open to discussion. I think a common problem encountered is that some teachers decide to have ONE method, the one they received, and apply it to all students when each is unique and learns in a unique way. My psycho-pedagogy teacher told us during the first class: “when a student does not apply the advice or instructions you have offered him, the first question you should ALWAYS ask yourself is:” Did I explained what I wanted with the right language for THIS student, so that he can benefit from it … not just any other student, this student here! “. At every stage of my life of teacher, I try to become more and more simple, clear as possible and I am certainly still very perfectible, but there also lies the wonderful world of teaching, isn’t it? Something that I still noticed is that when we connect an apprenticeship with other apprenticeships, this sometimes “unlocks” things for the students (for example, a student comes for her piano lesson and is also a very good national junior in figure skating: I do comparisons, either in terms of organization, so it on problem-solving processes, either of a musical nature between learning your piece on the piano and practicing skating before a competition). But I admit that we constantly have to learn about the theory of learning music…Another problem is that some teachers think, wrongly, that questioning a way they have always done will jeopardize their usual results when it is surely the opposite because they will enrich their teaching. However, for a teaching to work well, I think it is our responsibility as a teacher to guide the pupil to “get to know himself better and to take charge of his learning” and not to decide that we are talking. and that he only listens, even if his reflections “jostle” our certainties as teachers. These are some of my first thoughts following this article.

  3. How can I apply MLT if I am a self learner with very limited knowledge about music? How can I know if I am doing those MLT based pattern drills and exercises correctly?

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