Music Learning Theory

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Here is an excerpt from Learning Sequence and Patterns in Music by Edwin Gordon, pages 1-5.

In order to understand music, one must first be aware of its basic aural elements. To achieve this awareness, one must have developed a sense of tonality and a sense of meter. This is true even for avant-garde music, where timbre (including noise), dynamics, and silence may be dominant over melody and rhythm: if one believes that in order to be able to appropriately understand the new, an understanding of the traditional is necessary. A sense of tonality provides one with the ability to understand, or, to coin a word, "audiate", a piece of music as being, for example, major or minor; a sense of meter provides one with the ability to audiate a piece of music, as being, for example, duple or triple. (Of course other aesthetic qualities of musical sound, such as timbr and expression, function in audiation.)

Consider the importance of modulations to an understanding of style and form in music. Only through tonal audiation can any type of modulation be appreciated as it applies to form and style in music. When verbal descriptions, such as "expected" and "unexpected", are used as a substitute for audiating a modulation, at best only superficial explanations are implied. Moreover, such implications, because they bear so indirectly on the elements of music, are useless for a student's further development of understanding.

To understand music, audiation must precede the use not only of descriptive words but also of the definitions of music symbols and structures. That is, the ability to audiate musical sound in terms of tonality and meter provides the basic readiness for the interpretation of metaphors and for the theoretical understanding of music symbols and structures. To define mechanically a key signature, meter signature, or sonata form suggests one's theoretical knowledge, but to audiate how key signatures and meter signatures interact with tonality and meter and how tonality and meter interact with sonata form, attests to one's musicianship.

Basic audiation provides the immediate readiness for intelligent listening to music. Further, basic audiation interacts with rote performance (recall) and original performance (creation) of music because basic audiation and performance are mutually dependent upon each other. Basic audiation also provides the immediate readiness for the development of music literacy skills (notational audiation). To read and write music meaningfully, one must be able to hear music seen in notational form before it is performed, and to hear what one is composing. The mechanical ability to name and define individual notes or other music symbols does not, of itself, provide the readiness for music literacy. One does not read music names or definitions, but, on the contrary, one hears groups of notes (patterns) as one reads. Only when one can audiate tonal and rhythm notation can the names and definitions of music symbols become musically relevant. An analogy, though it should not be taken precisely, may clarify the foregoing concept. Linguists suggest that knowledge of the alphabet, or even reading phonetically by recognizing the letter in print, has little to do with reading comprehension. The alphabet serves only as an explanation of aspects of the basic theoretical structure of a language to one who can already read that language with meaning. We read words, not the names of letters or a definition of the alphabet. When we read, we give meaning to the words as a result of experience with the objects or ideas that the words represent. We cannot give meanings to letters because letters do not generally represent meaningful objects. We can only take meaning from letter to explain aspects of the basic theoretical structure of a language. To complicate matters, different persons can give different meanings to the same words. The situation is not so complex in music reading but the analogy is quite apt. The letter names and time value names of notes represent the alphabet of the music language. To be able to recite or identify the letter names and time value names of notes does not indicate a readiness to read music. In themselves, individual notes have no meaning except as we take meaning from them to partially explain the basic theoretical structure of the music language which we can already read. And, as we cannot take theoretical meaning from individual letters in a language until we can understand and read words in that language, we cannot take theoretical meaning from individual letter names and time value names in music until we can audiate and read groups of notes. Just as we read words (groupings of letters) in a language, so we read patterns (groupings of notes), both tonally and rhythmically, in music. We give meaning to the pattern we read in music because we can audiate notation. That is, as a result of being familiar with the sound of the pattern through basic audiation (as we are familiar with the sight of the object which the word represents in a language), we can read that pattern with meaning through notational audiation. Only possibly with a sense of absolute pitch might it be imagined that meaning can be given to an individual note.

Music psychologists believe that to be able to audiate tonally one has to be able to sing, because when one engages in tonal audiation, he is also actually singing silently. (It might be added that when one initially learns to sing only with harmonic, and without melodic, reinforcement, he will better develop a sense of tonality for occidental music and more ably adapt to the music of non-western cultures.) Similarly, to be able to audiate rhythmically one has to be able to react kinesthetically, because when one engages in rhythmic audiation, covert, if not overt, eurhythmics is also functioning. (It might be added that one should initially learn to sing concurrently with eurhythmic training, but the development of singing voice should precede the chanting of rhythm patterns. Further, rhythm patterns should not be clapped; they should only be chanted as one claps meter and taps tempo.) Some persons delude themselves by believing they are reading tonally, that is, giving musical meaning to the notation, when they perform at the keyboard, even though they are not capable of audiating tonal notation, that is, even though they cannot mentally hear what is seen in notational form before it is performed. Actually, they are not giving musical meaning to the notation, but rather, through necessity, they are fallaciously taking whatever they can from the notation by using the keyboard as an inadequate substitute for their singing voices. They are merely distinguishing among individual letters of the music alphabet (parts of a pattern) in the same way that a child might phonetically distinguish among individual letters which comprise a word before the word can be read. It is futile to try to precede audiation with theoretical understanding, which prevents giving comprehensive musical meaning to the pattern. This type of error is evident in the wind instrument performer who cannot tonally audiate what is seen in notational form but nevertheless manipulates keys or valves on a music instrument as dictated by the letter names of notes. Because a wind instrument does not have fixed pitches as compared to a keyboard instrument, the limitations in tonal notation audition of the wind instrument performer who indulges in such a musically perfunctory activity become obvious when he is unable to adjust pitches for purposes of good intonation. Further, when associating note value names with symbols is substituted for giving meaning to the notation because the keyboard or wind instrument performer is not capable of audiating rhythm notation, tempo and meter become unstable. The rhythmic limitations of such performers are more obvious than their tonal limitations because there is no key or valve to associate with the time value name of a note in the reading process. If a stringed instrument performer cannot audiate tonal and rhythm notation, such limitations become even more eviddent because there are neither keys nor valves on the instrument which might be associated with notation. Suffice it to say that an instrumental performer gives good intonation and rhythm to a music instrument; these attributes cannot be taken from a music instrument.

... After basic audiation is developed, learning to read and write music is relatively simple. Just as students learn to read a language after a functional vocabulary of words is established, so students learn to read and write music, that is, notationally audiate, after a functional vocabulary of tonal and rhythm patterns is established.