music learning theory

Music Learning Theory & Orff Schulwerk

A Meeting of the Minds

Joan: It was several decades ago that I was first exposed to the ideas of Edwin Gordon. Even as a young teacher studying my first Level of Orff Schulwerk at the time, I knew that Music Learning Theory (MLT) was something important and I needed to investigate. Since then, I have done much reading, attended as many workshops as possible, and worked directly with Music Learning Theory teachers. A few years ago, I was excited to meet and work with Dr.Wendy van Gent of Northern State University in Aberdeen, SD while I was living in Bismarck, ND.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the importance Music Learning Theory places on the diverse richness and vastness of the many tonalities and meters that we have access to in the Schulwerk. Exposing my students to as many tonalities and meters as possible at younger ages while passing beanbags, moving, and working with speech pieces helped them to develop a rich palate of meters and tonalities for musical understanding and musicianship. I found that integrating a multitude of tonalities and meters with my younger students through exploration and responding activities enabled them to understand and create at a higher level when teaching the pieces in Volumes II & IV.

The importance Gordon places on the Laban efforts and movement to experience effort, flow, weight, time and space fit so well with my movement curriculum that I had already developed. The emphasis on learning musical language using the Whole-Part-Whole approach helped solidify my belief that integrating Music Learning Theory into my Orff-based classroom was important in developing a sequential curriculum where my students could explore and develop a meaningful musical vocabulary gained through learning by doing.

Wendy: My journey to MLT came after my public school teaching career. When I left the classroom to pursue my terminal degree, I had the good fortune to work with Dr. Cindy Taggart at Michigan State University. The seeds she planted grew as I began to understand why my teaching techniques and choral program in Virginia Beach, VA were so successful. MLT provided the foundation for the next step in my career as I became a Music Teacher Educator. I embrace the many techniques and methods of delivery for music teachers, and work to connect them to MLT as an explanation of how to refine them before delivery. In other words, “How can I improve my lesson using Orff-Schulwerk techniques while I am planning?” Here are the basic tenets of MLT that can guide lesson planning and delivery:

What is Music Learning Theory?

A Fundamental Definition

We learn music the same way we learn language (Gordon, 2007, 2008; GIML, 2019).

MLT is an explanation of how the brain learns when learning music. It differs from a method or technique of delivery in that it is a learning theory. While multiple methods of delivery can be effective, Dr. Gordon developed his own based on his theory. This ‘Gordon Approach’ should not be confused with MLT. Rather, the reason his techniques are so effective is because they are connected to the theory about how we learn music. I believe that many techniques can be effective, and improved by understanding how our students learn.

Why Should We Consider MLT?


MLT is based on a large body of research. Research conducted and published since the 1970s supports the explanation of learning music through techniques Dr. Gordon expressed. In my opinion and experience, that makes it worthwhile.


MLT is highly logical. MLT suggests that all humans are born with an aptitude for music. If we use the language/music thought, then if all people are born with an aptitude for language (communication), then all people are born with an aptitude for music.
For example, consider these sequences for language and music (Shouldice, 2015):


1. Listening
2. Speaking
3. Thinking/Conversing
4. Reading
5. Writing


1. Listening
2. Singing, Chanting, Moving,
3. Playing
4. Audiation/Improvising
5. Reading
6. Writing

What does MLT look like in an Orff-Schulwerk lesson?

Next week we will take a look at a lesson Joan has been doing in her classroom for many years. Using MLT thought-processes, Wendy will explain why this lesson has been so successful in helping students develop higher order thinking skills and musical understanding. When one plans lessons integrating the thought process of MLT with the processes of imitate, explore, create, our students are able to think and act with purposeful musicianship.


Bolton, B. M., Taggart, C. C., Reynolds, A., Valerio, W. H., & Gordon, E. (2001). Jump right in: The music curriculum: Book 2 Teacher/Student Editions. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc.
Gordon, E. (2007). Learning sequences in music : a contemporary music learning theory (2007 ed.). Chicago: GIA Publications.
Gordon, E. (2010). Essential preparation for beginning instrumental music instruction. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications.
Gordon, E. (2019). The Gordon Institute for Music Learning. Retrieved from
Shouldice, H. (Producer). (2015). An overview of two core ideas of Gordon’s Music Learning Theory (MLT): Audiation and Sequential Music Learning. Retrieved from

Joan Eckroth-Riley Wendy van Gent

For over 35 years Joan Eckroth-Riley has been sharing her passion for music education with students ranging in age from kindergarten through college. She currently shares the joy of making music with students at Murray State University in KY as Coordinator of music education. Joan is the author of “Everyday Improvisation; Interactive Lessons for the General Music Classroom” & “Everyday Composition; Interactive Lessons for the General Music Classroom” published by Alfred, and a contributing author to “Kaleidescope,” lessons on the new Core Music Standards sponsored by NAfME. In addition to her teaching duties, Joan is a frequent workshop presenter on Standards and assessments for elementary music, is a certified recorder and movement instructor for Orff Schulwerk courses, and serves as a clinician for JW Pepper & Alfred Music companies. Joan holds an MA in Music Education with an emphasis in Orff Schulwerk from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. She is the president of the newly formed Quad State Orff Chapter, a Past-President of the North Dakota Music Educator’s Association and Prairie Winds Orff, and was honored to be named the 2016 ND Music Educator of the Year. •••• Dr. Wendy van Gent is Associate Professor of Music Education at Northern State University, in Aberdeen, SD where she teaches Music Education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, supervises student teachers, and conducts the vocal jazz ensemble. She is a vocal educator with extensive experience in choral music, vocal jazz, private vocal instruction, and musical theater. Dr. van Gent’s research interest is focused mainly on music student teachers as they transition into the first few years in the classroom and scaffolding current music teachers to become master music educators. Dr. van Gent earned her PhD from Oakland University (Educational Leadership), a Master of Music Education from Michigan State University (Choral Conducting), and a Bachelor of Music degree (music education, music theory, musical theater) from Western Michigan University. For 16 years, Dr. van Gent was the Choral Director and Chair of the Performing Arts Department at Frank W. Cox High School in Virginia Beach, VA, and an active member of VMEA. She is the current NAfME Collegiate Chapter Advisor at NSU and the research representative and New Music Teachers Mentorships Chair on the Board of Directors of the South Dakota Music Education Association (SDMEA).


  1. Tonya McKenna on November 4, 2019 at 6:06 am

    Great article. I had the privilege of taking my son to early childhood music classes based on MLT and the ideas of Gordon. I loved every minute of those classes with Dr. Diane Lange because I knew my son was benefiting and I was learning along side him. Now, my K and 1st grade classes are built on what I experienced and having Dr. Lange guide me along the way. I love the results that I see in my students and I love the incredible musician my son is becoming.

    • Joan Eckroth-Riley on November 6, 2019 at 2:40 pm

      What a wonderful experience for you both!

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