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Book Review: Learning Sequences in Music

April 29, 2013

by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

Learning Sequences in Music by Edwin E. Gordon is a great summer reading book.  Not a "sit on the beach and feverishly turn pages" book or the new Grisham, but more like "I finally have time to seriously devote to this huge book."  Gordon is a music ed researcher who has devoted his life to figuring out how students learn music when they learn music.  His primary research interests are the psychology of music, music aptitudes, music-learning theory, and audiation.  His work constitutes the foundation of Music Learning Theory, which stands with the other main pillars of music education: Suzuki, Dalcroze, Orff, and Kodaly.

This book is the keystone to Music Learning Theory and primarily addresses how tonal and rhythm content is cognitively acquired (excited to read it yet?!) and implications for music teaching.  He suggests a series of short activities, aptly called Learning Sequence Activities, that guide students through acquiring a sense of tonality and meter.   Regardless of instrument, setting, or goals, these ideas are extremely useful. If you've ever struggled with why students don't sight read well, play rhythms accurately (despite stomping their foot and counting out loud), or sing in tune, this book is for you. 

For all you ECM folks, Gordon is a huge proponent of music learning from the early days of students lives and has even written a book specifically about teaching and learning sequences for newborns.  I'd be interested to here if any ECM teachers practice is influenced by Music Learning Theory.

If you are unfamiliar with Music Learning Theory, this book might actually not be the best introduction. I would suggest you read Eric Bluestine's book: The Ways Children Learn Music first (a quick read,which will be reviewed soon). I feel like Gordon's work has always been in a strange limbo between being too scholarly and technical to interest K-12 music teachers who are busy taking care of the day to day and too speculative for psychologists interested in perception and cognition.

Gordon's ideas are very compelling but not complete, and he readily admits that his ideas will constantly evolve and change as research progresses.  As proof, this book is in it's 4th edition since 1998(we own the 2007 edition in the Community Partnerships Resource Library).  He has had his fair share of detractors, which is the sign of any solid educational theory, and I'd be interested to see what other MacPhail teachers think of his ideas.

So if you still aren't convinced this should go on your summer reading list, consider this: Understanding what is going on in your students head is central to effective teaching.  This book carefully considers this topic and backs it up with research, not intuition. Music Learning Theory has literally helped me survive teaching students in all age ranges and settings.

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