RTRL.68: Effects of Melodic Familiarity on Children’s Piano Performance Accuracy (Goins Frewen, 2010)


Goins Frewen, K. (2010). Effects of familiarity with a melody prior to instruction on children’s piano performance accuracy. Journal of Research in Music Education, 57(4), 320-333.

What did the researcher want to know?

Does familiarity with a melody affect children’s learning to play the melody on the piano? 

What did the researcher do?

Elementary music classes at one school from kindergarten to fourth grade were divided into two groups: “familiar” and “unfamiliar.” All students in the study had no previous instrumental instruction. Children in the familiar group listened to a new melody as they entered and exited music class over the course of two weeks, hearing the melody more than 100 times during this period. Next, the familiar group received 25 minutes of instruction by rote from the researcher, who taught them how to play the melody on the piano. The rote methods used to teach the melody included modeling one measure at a time and singing finger numbers as the melody was played. Children in the unfamiliar group went straight to the step of learning the piece in 25 minutes by rote instruction from the researcher. Both groups were tested for pitch sequence accuracy immediately following their instruction session.

What did the researcher find?

A significant effect was found between familiarity and pitch sequence accuracy (more than one pitch correct in a row). Children in the familiar group scored significantly higher at all grade levels, both pre and post-test, than the unfamiliar group. Researchers state the aural familiarity allows students to have a “knowledge of a target response, allowing them to detect errors” (p. 329).  This greater ability to detect errors also bolstered students’ patience and attention to learn the piece. Video observation “suggested that students who were familiar with the melody were more willing to keep practicing, even when the music became more challenging” (p. 329).  Finally, a significant effect was found for accuracy in older students compared to younger students.  

What does this mean for my classroom?

Aural modeling is recognized as an effective and vital instructional technique, yet, building familiarity with a new melody is rarely included in the piano lesson. So often the habit of the piano teacher is to turn the page of the method book and dive into having the student count, recite, and play the new piece. This research serves as reminder that piano students—and surely all music students—benefit from familiarity with a melody. It is important to note that even though all students received the same 25 minutes of rote instruction (using a slow tempo, one measure at a time, and singing finger numbers), students unfamiliar with the melody had significantly more pitch sequence errors than students in the familiar group.  hen you picture the traditional piano lesson, many involve the exact same steps the researcher used when introducing a new piece. Students start off into unfamiliar music territory armed with a slow tempo and finger numbers as their support system. Perhaps these approaches could be replaced with active listening to learn the “whole” of the melody, before trying the “parts.” Remember Goins Frewen’s findings suggest that students are motivated to keep practicing, even through challenging parts, if they are familiar with the music. This is a win for both student and teacher! Including preparatory steps to familiarize students with their music isn’t a “crutch” to learning, it is a crucial part of the learning process.

Familiarity can easily be built into a piano lesson by playing an upcoming piece (live or recorded) as a student arrives or as they pack up to go. Recordings of the piece can be listened to ahead of time during home practice.  Planning ahead for repertoire so students are able to listen first is crucial in this process.  While it may seem like an extra step, it will be time well spent, as Frewen’s findings suggest. Music Moves for Piano, a piano series by Marilyn Lowe, includes a “Song to Sing” for each lesson. The student learns these songs by ear, using their pattern vocabulary. The same songs become performance pieces later in the series, facilitated by the melodic familiarity established by singing the song first.  Allowing piano students to work up to their full potential by including familiarity with a melody is a crucial part of the learning process.  

* This guest post was authored by Sarah Boyd, graduate student at Eastern Michigan University, Lead Teaching Artist for the Detroit Symphony, and director of Hummingbird Music Together. Click here and here to learn more about Ms. Boyd and her work.

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