Modify your surroundings or adapt to them? MLT in a multicultural world

Since the main object of this blog is to make Music Learning Theory and Edwin Gordon’s ideas accessible in Spanish, the posts I write in English are mainly for those who happen by and wonder what the blog is about or for readers from other countries interested in the topic but not knowledgeable in Spanish, just to give them an idea of the blog’s contents.  However, this post in particular is aimed more as a reflection on a question I think important for all to consider: how MLT should be applied in a diverse, multicultural world (I am also publishing the post here in Spanish).

I am convinced that Edwin Gordon’s Music Learning Theory (MLT) gives us the key to a music education that respects the student’s cognitive development and is effective in forming complete musicians: musicians who are not only capable of interpreting sheet music with their instrument but of comprehending its musical content and expressing their own musical ideas fluidly and with musical criteria. Little by little the work of MLT teachers around the world is being noticed, and we can expect it to be noticed even more in years to come.

Having come to this point of growth in the field of MLT, I believe it is important to keep in mind that in any current of thought one’s own convincement can impede seeing a new reality or valuing new paths to the same goal. Things get even more complicated if we carry a cultural baggage we are not aware of which causes us to interpret this new reality in a biased way. This type of thinking can limit the application of MLT in a very diverse world that requires diverse solutions, and it would be shame that the great advancement that MLT represents in music teaching were to be adversely affected by ways of thinking that hinder its application, especially with respect to countries with musical cultures different to the Anglo-Germanic culture.

Those who teach MLT are by definition open-minded and willing to make an effort to improve their way of teaching; by no means are they close-minded people guided by their prejudices. However, both our culture of origin and our attitude with respect to Gordon’s ideas can condition us when confronting new or up to that time unknown ideas and practices, and for the sake of helping MLT grow it seems to me not only useful but necessary to be conscious of these factors and not let them condition our thinking.

In my 15 years with MLT I have come to notice, generally speaking, three types of “baggage” or unconscious attitudes on the part of some teachers I have met (by no means all of them). These tendencies are not exclusive to MLT – they can be found in any field. One of them is the result of a lack of familiarity (completely understandable) with cultures other than one’s own – especially if one comes from the dominant culture (in this case the Anglo-Germanic culture) – which leads to the belief that people everywhere think and act like one does. Another thinking type can be found in countries that are not part of this culture, where I have often noticed a certain inferiority complex that leads some people to accept without questioning points of view coming from abroad (which usually arrive accompanied by a subtle aura of superiority). The third type of “baggage” has nothing to do with the country of origin: it occurs when someone is so convinced of Edwin Gordon’s ideas that they interpret his statements literally, without nuances, and without giving priority to the essence of his ideas over his exact words when adapting them to new situations. To illustrate how these ways of thinking can condition the acceptance of MLT around the world, I will speak in more detail of each type.


All of us – whatever our origins – have the tendency to think everyone does things the way we do, especially if we haven’t had the opportunity to live in a foreign culture and learn its customs. Even if we travel often, if on those trips we don’t share the daily life of the natives for quite a while, it’s hard to avoid that tendency, which usually comes accompanied with the belief that, if they don’t do things like we do, they should. This belief is even stronger if we come from one of the currently most influential countries or from their zone of influence.

How does this tendency affect MLT? Edwin Gordon, born in the United States, wrote in English, which makes it easy to understand why his first followers were from English-speaking countries. In his writings, Gordon advocates the use of the movable Do, a system that is part of his culture and in which the letters for note names complement the movable Do. The system is also traditional in countries with German influence; for this reason, and due also to the widespread knowledge of English in these countries, MLT adapts very easily to the Anglo-Germanic zone of influence. As could be expected, when the theory began to be applied in other countries outside this zone, it was done assuming that the only way to do it was with movable Do syllables, and in fact it was the only way for many years. However, the tendency towards “cultural-centricity” (for lack of a better word) manifests itself when, upon discovering that there is another way, some show reticence about it with arguments that reveal the “baggage” they carry.

This tendency has nothing to do with nationalism or xenophobia, nor with a conscious negative attitude toward other cultures on the part of these persons who, I am sure, are dedicated to MLT with all the altruism in the world and would never host sentiments of cultural superiority. But it does lead, in the case of MLT, to the belief among some that movable Do with letter names for notes is, and should be, the only way to apply Gordon’s ideas, in spite of their awareness that, in effect, it is not the only way. Upon discovering another possible way of doing it, their first reaction is reticence, and when the new method is proven to be effective, their second reaction is that it simply should not be used.

For example, confronted with the evidence that demonstrates the viability of alternative tonal syllables to replace the movable Do syllables, those who are reticent about the idea reason that movable Do should be used “because it is better”, “because everyone uses it” (even though the great majority of western countries actually do not use this system), or that if you use a different method you won’t understand other musicians when you travel to one of the movable Do countries or use a book from one of them (let us not forget that tonal syllables are not so much a system of communication as simply a pedagogical tool).

The idea that movable Do is the only adequate system for applying MLT comes, in part, from a misconception about the nature of the other most used system in the Western world, based on fixed Do. It comes from the belief that the fixed Do syllables, by themselves, constitute a musical system rather than being merely other languages’ note names (which are letters in Anglo-Germanic culture). In the same way that movable Do syllables are complemented by the letter names forming a system in which the syllables refer to tonal relationships, in the fixed Do system numbers are usually used for tonal relationships, forming a similar system where, in this case, the syllables refer to absolute notes. The two systems, therefore, are not actually different musical systems but rather two versions of one identical system. The existence of a large number of teachers in fixed Do countries who insist on teaching absolute pitches exclusively does not mean they have no way of referring to tonal relationships (no matter what Gordon’s opinion may be on using numbers for teaching these relationships to children).

According to Gordon, numbers are not appropriate for teaching tonal relationships at an early age. Given that all MLT teachers agree on this and believe that tonal syllables are more helpful for this purpose, then I ask: why don’t we start here instead of with scorning a set of note names that have nothing to do with the matter? The fixed Do note names are not the problem. The problem is failing to teach tonal relationships auditively at an early age and, instead, either doing so very late and exclusively by means of theory, or doing so with a tool that presents difficulties for young children. In my opinion it would be completely acceptable to try to convince a fixed Do user to adopt a tool that has proved to be more effective than numbers for teaching tonal relationships (especially to children), suggesting that tonal syllables (which do not necessarily have to be the movable Do syllables) work much better. And in the event that this user were not aware of the benefits of teaching tonal relationships over the exclusive use of absolute pitches, one could show the value of teaching both concepts – since they complement each other – and at the same time show how to do it without having to abandon one’s own musical tradition. Not by telling them that their musical system is terrible (insulting millions of highly talented musicians in the process), not by insisting that they should adopt letter names for notes and use their own note names for a different concept, not by affirming that everyone does it the way you do, but rather by showing how the fundamentals of MLT can be applied in any musical cultural of the world.

To serve as examples, I will cite here a few of the statements I have heard in my conversations with other MLT teachers of Anglo-Germanic origin when they discover that alternative tonal syllables can be used instead of movable Do:

The movable Do system should be used because it is better”. Since this is a very general statement, let’s look deeper to find out why someone might have this opinion:

I teach the letter names because they are universal.” The letters of the Latin alphabet are only “universal” in those countries that use this alphabet. Is Russia, for example, a different universe? Even supposing the Latin alphabet to be widely extended, once the letters are used to represent a concept they become not mere letters but words, which are rarely universal. In English and German (and certain other languages) a note with a frequency of 261hz is called C. In Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and other languages (the sum of whose speakers is a lot of people), this note is called Do. The C can mean many things, but not a note. Latin letters as symbols may be widespread, but their meaning is not universal.

Some argue that letters are used in chord notation of jazz and pop music and, therefore, it is better to learn them from the start. Of course students should learn them, but we should distinguish between acquiring basic concepts, which is normally done early on and in the mother tongue, and the knowledge of different practices that one acquires throughout life depending on one’s interests and necessities. Those interested in Indian ragas must learn the corresponding terminology and practices, but first (if they are not Indian) they learn the basics of music in their own language. Jazz and pop music practices are based on the English language, which for however widespread it is, is not the mother tongue of the majority. The more interested the students are, the sooner they will want to approach these practices according to each one’s preferences, but they will understand them better if they have assimilated well the basics of music in their own language .

Movable Do is better than fixed Do because with the latter you can’t teach tonal relationships.” It is true that with fixed Do syllables you cannot teach tonal relationships; it is also true that with letter names for notes it cannot be done either. Let’s not mistake which tool we’re using: in neither case can absolute note names be used for tonal relationships. We can discuss preferred ways of doing it, but let’s not be confused: note names (in this case fixed do syllables) are not the problem.

Movable Do is Guido d’Arezzo’s original idea for the syllables; therefore fixed Do should not be used.” For five centuries the fixed Do syllables have formed part of the languages of countries that were fundamental in Europe’s musical development; at the time they assigned the syllables to absolute pitches these countries were in the musical vanguard. It was precisely because of the musical evolution they were experiencing that they opted for fixed Do, keeping the numbers for referring to tonal relationships. This same need led to the adoption of the letter names in Anglo-Germanic countries, where they opted for keeping the movable Do (as well as numbers) for expressing tonal relationships. Is there really a need to change five centuries of history when one can simply adopt the tool that works best in each circumstance to facilitate musical comprehension at an early age?

It is preferable to adopt the movable Do system because it’s used everywhere”. “Everywhere”, in this case, refers to Anglo-Germanic influenced countries (although not even all teachers in these countries use it). If we roughly calculate the population of countries of the Western World that use movable Do the result is approximately 692,539,000 people. The people who live in countries that use fixed Do add up to about 1,366,632,000 – almost twice as many.

If they use a different system, those who travel to our countries will not be able to communicate with other musicians”. This statement assumes that the said countries are a musician’s obvious destination (perhaps due to their superior musical culture?), again leaving out of the picture countries like Russia and others. But let’s talk about the question of musicians understanding each other. First of all, tonal syllables are a pedagogical tool to help in teaching a concept, that of tonal relationships. More than for communicating with other musicians they are an aid for one’s own understanding of these relationships. Using different syllables does not change the musical system, it only changes the language used (different systems are the music of Arab countries, India or China). Second, tonal syllables are not music (which is supposedly universal); they are the names used for tonal relationships and, therefore – like the note names – form part of verbal language, which is not universal. It is often stated that the Italian words used for music terms are universal, but in reality we have all learned the concepts first in our own languages and then translated them to Italian. So far musicians have understood each other just fine talking about music by translating into different languages. Are we all going to have to abandon our mother tongues only  because in the future we might need to talk about music if we go to these countries?

No, translating seven syllables and the note names is not the problem. If I can understand tonal relationships I can talk about them in a different language. Even if in that language the note names are my tonal syllables, by knowing what they refer to and having the equivalent in my own language, I will understand. But if I don’t have an equivalent in my language and don’t understand tonal relationships, not even the universal language of music will help me communicate with other musicians. The real problem is failing to understanding tonal relationships, which means the priority should be to teach them in the most effective way possible and as early as possible. Our goal should be to insure the concept is assimilated, independent of which words we use to refer to it.

All of these quotes show both a lack of familiarity with other cultures and musical systems as well as a biased idea of one’s own culture with respect to the rest of the world. The danger is that when newcomers to MLT hear these statements they often accept them at face value without further thought, multiplying the limiting effect of this type of thinking, especially in countries where fixed Do is the traditional system, as the following examples will show.

Inferiority complex

Just as MLT teachers born into the Anglo-Germanic culture are generally not aware of their possible “cultural-centricity”, those from other areas do not always realize their tendency to attach more value to what comes from abroad than to what is local. This can be seen in the large amount of English words that are adopted with no need – an obvious example is the most important word in MLT: audiation. In Spanish there is, so far, no equivalent. Gordon invented the word precisely because it didn’t exist in English, and he did not search for it in another language, but rather created it in his own. Why not create an equivalent word in Spanish, like audiación? Ah no, it sounds strange. In English, the word is curious at least, the first time one comes across it, but we’re getting used to it. In Spanish, however, it seems that audiation, pronounced in English, sounds much better than “audiación” o “audiamiento”, quite legitimate equivalents (in my non-native opinion, of course).

Instead of capturing the essence of new ideas from abroad and adjusting them to the local culture, this tendency causes some teachers to adopt the ideas in their entirety along with aspects specific to the countries they come from, accepting their reasoning without further thought and advocating the foreign method “because that’s how everyone does it” (everyone in those countries, as I mentioned before). They absorb the cultural bias, passing it on to many who are newcomers to MLT. For this reason I have often heard statements similar to the aforementioned ones uttered by MLT teachers in the country where I live (Spain).

A fact that should worry those who wish to spread Gordon’s theory is that many teachers in fixed Do countries reject MLT entirely because it requires them to adopt a system with which they do not feel comfortable. Instead of explaining the advantages of tonal syllables over numbers or the benefits of educating relative pitch over absolute pitch, those presenting MLT generally insist on using movable Do syllables – which cause difficulties for many – in addition to changing the note names, when actually this is not necessary. In my opinion this limits the spreading of MLT (and also disregards an important premise of Gordon’s, which is to avoid confusion in students whenever possible, making their unhindered learning a priority).

Which brings me to the third mindset that can limit MLT’s application outside its original ambit.


This is another human tendency that is luckily not widespread but that can block acceptation of ideas that, in principle, are valid. As for MLT, Edwin Gordon’s writings are rightly the “bible” of those who follow his ideas, including me. But I believe we should keep in mind the aspects mentioned so far as well as the time and place where Gordon developed his theory, and not take his writings literally without taking these factors into account.

One of the characteristics that distinguish Gordon’s theory is precisely its openness to musical diversity, insisting on the importance of teaching a large tonal and rhythmic vocabulary that includes diverse modes and meters in search of a greater comprehension of the fundamentals of music. It would thus be entirely unjust to accuse Gordon, precisely, and his followers of cultural bias. But we all are formed within a culture and Gordon is no exception. This does not make him less respectable as the creator of MLT; we must simply understand his circumstances.

Gordon created, along with others, a series of rhythm syllables. He admitted that anyone could create other equally valid syllables as long as they were consistent and represented rhythmic functions and were not related to rhythmic notation. In fact, some teachers use different syllables that are more comfortable to them and no one is scandalized by the fact. However, Gordon did not create his own series of tonal syllables but rather advocated using movable Do with a la-based minor. Here is where fundamentalism finds a place to seep in: if Gordon says we should use movable Do, that’s what we must use even though there could be other ways.

But why did Gordon opt for movable Do? Simply because it was already there for him, in his own culture, a tool that adapted itself perfectly to his needs. If it hadn’t existed, we can suppose that Gordon would have invented his own series of tonal syllables, just as he created the rhythm syllables, and that he would have said the same about the former as he did about the latter. However, he did not need to do so, and being from the movable Do culture he did not consider inappropriate that everyone should adopt the system.

I do not know whether Gordon ever contemplated the possibility of using alternative tonal syllables in the same way he admitted the possibility of other rhythm syllables. In his little book Quick and Easy Introductions to MLT (page 8) he says: “Although there are various syllable systems that may be used at the verbal association level, it is recommended movable Do with a la-based minor be used to perform tonal pattern an macro and microbeat functions be used to perform rhythm patterns.

Although unfortunately we cannot ask him, I believe it is probable that Gordon was thinking of movable Do with a la-based minor as being more suitable than a Do-based minor, and not of the possibility of using alternative syllables that work the same as the system he recommends. The fact that he was open to using alternative rhythm syllables makes it probable he would also be open to alternative tonal syllables provided they meet the same purpose. For this reason, to insist on using movable Do only because Gordon said so can only be considered fundamentalism. A fundamentalism which disregards the concept previously mentioned, equally part of Gordon’s theory, referring to avoiding confusion in students (which often occurs when applying movable Do where the norm is fixed Do).

For a multicultural MLT

In a multicultural world we should be able to capture the essence of ideas, wherever they come from, in order to apply them in new situations. Thus, taking Gordon’s words literally without comprehending their basic meaning only limits the theory’s application in a diverse world, where there are already enough barriers to its acceptance. Let’s not add more barriers from the very ranks of MLT.

What is the essence of Gordon’s theory? If I have understood correctly, it is that we should educate the capacity to understand  music auditively as early as possible, long before the ability to understand it through theoretical means appears, and we should follow the correct sequence in the process, avoiding as much as possible any confusion of terms when the student begins to attach names to concepts.

In addition (and in this case I am unaware if Gordon said anything to this respect) I think any music teacher would prefer students not to encounter contradictions in meaning between the words used in music class and in other situations. I would also suppose that teachers would prefer not to have to unlearn what they have learned during their entire career, if it’s not necessary to do so, and would rather desire to feel comfortable with the tool they will be using with students. To provide teachers with the option of choosing the tool that, in their opinion, best facilitates their students’ learning and with which they as teachers feel most comfortable, would smooth the way for the growth of MLT throughout the world.

In this case, the tool I propose in this blog (in the same way that others may propose different tools in the future) is a series of alternative tonal syllables to complement the absolute note names of fixed Do. I have been using them with my students for over six years with excellent results, and although they require the teacher to make the small effort of learning them, at least they do not require one (or one’s students) to unlearn anything, nor change the concept of words learned as a child (the fixed Do syllables), nor learn new note names (letters). They do not enter into conflict with any other concept the student might encounter, neither in daily life nor in other music classes, in contrast to movable Do with fixed Do. They facilitate unhindered learning at an early age of the important concept of tonal relationships, and since it is well assimilated with no confusion using the syllables, when they are older, students have no problem understanding another system like movable Do when they come in contact with it.

I do not mean to imply that teachers in fixed Do countries who have already adopted movable Do should now adopt the alternative syllables (although I hope these comments provide food for thought). What I do believe necessary if we want to promote Gordon’s ideas is that new and valid ways of applying his theory (in this case the example is alternative tonal syllables, but in the future there may be others) be supported by MLT organizations, making them known to those who approach MLT for the first time so they can weigh the different possible tools to be used. Instead of insisting on one sole line of thinking (which in the long run only serves to limit the acceptance of MLT outside its original ambit), I think it would be more positive to show a will to adapt to the cultural environment of the country, making known at MLT workshops the different existing ways to teach according to Gordon’s theory. MLT organizations should publicly show support of the teachers who decide to try the new ways in their schools (these often require “official” backing before approving a project, and there are teachers who hesitate to try out the alternative syllables if there is no support “from above”). Approving new ideas, if they prove effective, is a way to show that MLT is an expansive theory that need not be exclusive to one culture. Some may fear the forming of different camps within the MLT community, but I think there is no need to fear diversity if we maintain a clear understanding of the essence of MLT and of the fact that we are all working towards the same goal in the way that works best in our situation. To facilitate this is to favor the expansion of MLT. The world is diverse; MLT can be so, too.

Those who promote MLT around the world must decide if they prefer a kind of globalization where the dominant culture determines their pedagogy without taking into account local culture, or if they wish to achieve an even greater globalization with a multicultural MLT, respectful of the world’s immense diversity and adapted to it. An MLT useful to all.

In my opinion, however globalized the world is becoming, music is our first language, intimately tied to our first words, and until globalization completely eliminates all different cultures along with their languages, we should be respectful of them for the sake of their children’s music learning and out of respect and empathy for their teachers; we should be conscious of our different mindsets and not allow them to take us down a narrow path when we could take the wide one. A multicultural MLT will grow stronger and more widespread every day.  A closed, monocultural MLT, even though it will always convince some, will never reach all who could otherwise be convinced, which would truly be unfortunate.