Developing Musicianship: A Cognitive Approach

Myth:  If delivered well, all methods are equally effective.
Truth:  Method matters a great deal, and effectiveness varies greatly among methods. 

What’s new about this approach?
Instruction is based on how the musical mind works (known as Audiation). Other approaches are based on such things as:
  • how the musical body works  
  • how the musical page works 
  • seasons & holidays of the year 
  • coordinating lyrics with themes in other disciplines
  • biography, geography, history 
  • (or most likely) ad hoc/eclectic combinations of the five immediately above 
These other approaches all sacrifice---to some degree or other---sequential musical learning to other concerns.  Basically Gordon and others rediscovered 'brain-friendly' learning sequences that were lost when the music theorists took over in the 1900's. Using this re-searched knowledge of how we learn to become musical, we music teachers can devise more effective, more musically viable curricula.

W.I.I.F.M.K? What’s in it for my kid?
Among other benefits, redesigned curricula (based on the ways the musical mind works) empowers students to:

1. Learn to play instruments more easily; because they will have the proper mental musical readiness(Physical readiness--which all good teachers can define--is not nearly as consequential as mental readiness.  But, as it's recent information, few persons know what cognitive musical skills ought be in place to smooth and accelerate instrumental learning.)
2. Listen to music intelligently; go beyond lyrics, timbres, & dynamics and gain practical skills with the interactions between surface structure (melody), middle-ground structure (harmony), and deep structure (Mode).  (Deep Structure?  What's that? Contexts are Crucial)
3. Learn to read with musical comprehension.  Notation becomes ‘icons that sing’ to the reader, as opposed to button-pushing instructions.  (More at Reading Readiness Readdressed)
4. Engage meaningfully in higher-order skills;   True improvisation and composition are possible for all students.  Most persons never get beyond sampling & layering sounds.  Timbral coherence & textural interest are not replacements for melodic, harmonic, & rhythmic skill.  (More on Improvisation)

How does it work?
Developing musically should be quite similar to developing linguistically. Consider how you learned language:

First, you listened to language being spoken directly to you. You absorbed these sounds and became acculturated to the sound of the language.  Next, you attempted to imitate (you were unsuccessful at first). But your unsuccessful imitations were praised. Essentially, you were encouraged to ‘babble’, even when the sounds you were making did not make sense.  After that, you began to think in the language (you proved this through pointing and following spoken instructions).  Then you ‘broke the code’ of language, stopped babbling, and taught yourself to speak (perform), initially with single words.  Then after that, you began to improvise with combinations of words (both on your own, and in dialogue with others).  Finally, after a few years of expanding your vocabulary and refining your conversational skills, you learned to read & write, initially drawing on the words you had listened to, thought about, copied & conversed with. (More here: Early Childhood

You & I: Independent Linguists:
Largely because of this learning sequence and it's time-frames, today you command the language in all its forms (Listening, Echoing, Thinking, Speaking, Conversing, Reading, and Writing.), and you have the power to expand this expertise independently every day.

Becoming a Self-Taught Digital Communicator
In addition, after rich work in the above manner you were able to teach your digits (fingers) to text, because texting is simply muscular manifestations of linguistic thoughts.

Your Kid’s Future: Independent Musician. 
We music teachers have a responsibility to guide our students to command music in all it's forms [Listening, Echoing, Thinking/Audiating, Performing, Improvising, Reading & Writing], and we should empower them to be able to expand their expertise independently.

Is this possible? Yes. The italicized learning sequence shown earlier, properly applied to musical content (including the time-frames) allows us to do just that.

How does it work in Music?
First, listen & move freely to a rich variety of music being sung directly to you. Absorb these sounds to become acculturated to the sound of music.  Next, try to imitate. Don’t worry, all imitations, successful or not are important. Essentially, you will ‘babble’. The sounds you will make need not make sense. After that, you will began to think musically (you will prove this by identifying specific musical features; keynotes & metric patterns, etc).  You’ll then ‘break the codes’ of music (there are 2; rhythm & tone), stop babbling, and teach yourself to sing & rap, initially with single patterns.  Then after that, you will begin to improvise with combinations of patterns (both on your own, and in dialogue with others).  Finally, after a few years of expanding your vocabulary & refining your improvisation skills, you will learn to read & write, initially with what you listened to, thought about, & performed.

Becoming a Self-Taught Digital Communicator (on an Instrument)
In addition, after rich work in the above manner you will be able to teach yourself to play an instrument, because instruments--properly played--are muscle manifestations of musical thought. It's tone texting.  (Read my post Making Muscles Mirror Thoughts for more on this.)

....And, by the making is NOT about talent!!

I'm blessed to teach at Horizon School.  The kids I teach are curious and motivated. They sing well and are industrious about developing their playing & reading.  Folks consistently call them talented.

Drives.  Me.  

My students will tell you, ''Mr. Malanga doesn't like that word.''  And I really don't. I don't like it in music learning, sports commentary, dance recitals, scholastic merit, etc. It's a cheap, sugary idea that creates an artificial short-term boost at substantial long-term costs. It's Monster Energy Drink for the ego.  Bad juju.  Allow me to explain why I don't want the word talent associated with skill-building activities.  

Research clearly shows that kids who are told they're talented
  • Tend to take fewer risks. The 'talent' label grants them a status worth preserving and so they avoid risks that could jeopardize that status. (Read Carol Dweck for more.)
  • Tend to produce less effort. They’ve already achieved a desired status; why work?
  • Often revert to the mean (Yes, even prodigies!). 
  • Are often wrongly informed.  Predictions about who will succeed & who will fail often turn out to be colossally wrong. (For examples, go here and/or here.) 
In addition, kids who are told they're NOT talented:
  • Often get demoralized and never even start. Why should they try hard & risk failure, if 'talent' actually controls outcomes? 
The deeper problem here is a practical one. The ''Talented Child'' myth is unfortunately baked into Western culture. And as with many myths, it's simplicity obscures the true story.  In this case, the story of how we learn music.  That process is far deeper than a 'you're born with it or your not' talent idea.  In truth, becoming musical involves opportunity, early childhood experiences, properly sequenced work, resilience, character, support and--above all--effort.

But kids who are told they are gifted or talented often become convinced of their brilliance; they can & should be able to solve any problem effortlessly...but then WORK sets in and   :-( 

It takes me about two solid months to relieve kids of the talent idea and replace it with a skill-building, growth mindset. This involves showing them how much they don’t know, and how hard they must work. Only after I (gently) disabuse them of their omnipotence can we (all of us) really start progressing as musicians.

One way I quash the T-word is by designing learning to promote mastery over time.  My students are permitted to re-take tests over and over (for 2 weeks) until they achieve a score 90 or above. It sounds crazy, until you see a kid who scored a 75 or an 85 dive back into a test, excited to improve.  In this way, tests stop being a verdict, and start functioning as levers for greater effort (& it's resultant progress).

Here's how you can join me in lessening the use of ''the T-word''.
 Here's a few suggestions that will help:
  • Praise kids for effort and for the time they put into preparation. 
  • Use words like ''skilled'' or “proficient” or “experienced” or “mastery” — words that avoid the “born magical” talent vibe, but still speak to achievement. 
  • Don’t say anything about talent. Perhaps it feels sort of nice, but there’s no useful reason to label anybody as talented, so just don’t. 
Lastly, let me be clear. I don't believe we’re all created equal.  If we were, I'd have your hair. Genes do matter.  So yes, a tiny minority of are people born to perform way above the norm.  

But for me, the 'gifted child' narrative is still wrongheaded because it takes the spotlight away from the real gift, the truth.  This lovely fact: becoming musical is based on a within-our control set of skills, not some out-of-our-control genetic talent lottery.

Myth:  Music-making is about God-given talent.   Truth:  Music-making is about man-made skills.

Personal Note: Edwin E. Gordon’s Music Learning Theory provides the basis for virtually everything in this blog. I urge all parents & teachers to discover the efficacy of MLT.  Start here:


  1. I still love it Mr.Malanga! This really helps!
    So does your book!

  2. Hi Mr. Malanga. Thank you for everything. You are my favourite teacher! I hope you liked your coffee mug!

    P.S.If you want to email me anytime here is my email:

  3. I was not aware of this theory and its relation with music. I am glad to visit here and thanks for the same.

  4. Hi Mr. Malanga, I really miss Horizon, the music in my new school isn't AT ALL like the music we did in Horizon, we do notes, articulation, tempo, duration, composition, and other things like that. I miss you so much!!!!!

  5. Ibani, I miss you too! You're awesome. More importantly, you're through partial synthesis tonally & rhythmically, and you can improvise. This means you are truly an autonomous learner and we music teachers can no longer do you any harm!!! :-) You

  6. YAY!!!!!!!!!! :) I wush i could visit again. I visited in the first few weeks but you had already left. I was with Sasha!!!!!! :).

  7. Interesting ideas on your site, Ron.
    I realize that I am a bit late to this conversation, but I will be addressing the topic of Emergent Musicianship and its relation to MLT, in Chicago. I hope we can meet.

  8. Rick,

    Thank you for reading, and particularly for taking the time to comment. It will be my pleasure to hear your session & meet you personally in Chicago.




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