“Audiation-based Improvisation Techniques and Elementary Instrumental Students’ Music Achievement” (Azzara, 1993)


Azzara, C. D. (1993). Audiation-based improvisation techniques and elementary instrumental students’ music achievement. Journal of Research in Music Education, 41(4), 328-342.

What did the researcher want to know?

What effect does an improvisation curriculum have on instrumental students’ music achievement?

What did the researcher do?

Azzara (1993) studied 66 fifth grade students from two different schools who were in their second year of instrumental music study.  Students at each school were randomly assigned to either the control group or the treatment group.  Both groups received instruction using Jump Right In: The Instrumental Music Series, which utilizes a “sound before sight” learning process and includes tonal pattern and rhythm pattern instruction.  In addition, the treatment group also regularly engaged in improvisation activities, which included “(a) learning selected repertoire of songs by ear, (b) developing a vocabulary of tonal syllables and rhythm syllables, and (c) improvising with their voices and with their instruments tonic, dominant, and subdominant tonal patterns within the context of major tonality, and (d) improvising with their voices and with their instruments macrobeat, microbeat, division, elongation, and rest rhythm patterns within the context of duple meter” (p. 335).

What did the researcher find?

At the end of the 27-week period, Azzara (1993) recorded each student individually performing three etudes: one prepared without teacher assistance, one prepared with teacher assistance, and one sight-read.  Four judges rated each recording for tonal performance, rhythm performance, and expressive performance.  Statistical analysis of these ratings revealed that the students in the treatment group (who had experienced improvisation activities) had significantly higher composite etude performance scores than students who had not received instruction incorporating improvisation.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Having experiences with improvisation can help improve students’ performance achievement.  Just as speaking and conversing enhance the skills of reading and writing language, improvising music can enhance students’ music reading skills and performance of notated music. “When improvisation was included as a part of elementary instrumental music instruction, students were provided with opportunities to develop an increased understanding of harmonic progression through the mental practice and physical performance of tonal and rhythm patterns with purpose and meaning. Improvisation ability appears to transfer to a student’s clearer comprehension of the tonal, rhythmic, and expressive elements of music in an instrumental performance from notation” (p. 339).

Suggestions for Teaching Improvisation:

(From Azzara’s 1999 MEJ article “An Aural Approach to Improvisation”)

  • First and foremost, “use your ears. To develop improvisational skill, don’t rely on notation to remember music; rely on your ears” (p. 23).
  • Provide students with opportunities to listen to music (e.g., performed by the teacher, recorded music) in a wide variety of styles, tonalities (i.e., modes), and meters.
  • Develop a repertoire of simple tunes that students can sing and play by ear.
  • Teach students to sing and play basslines of simple tunes by ear.
  • Chant simple rhythm patterns for students to echo (chant/play) to develop their rhythmic “vocabulary” and sing simple tonal patterns for students to echo (sing/play) to develop their tonal “vocabulary.”

Examples of Rhythm Patterns and Tonal Patterns:

  • Learn tonal solfege and rhythm syllables by ear. These systems help students organize, comprehend, and read/write music.
  • “Improvise (1) rhythm patterns with and without rhythm syllables, (2) tonal patterns with and without tonal syllables, (3) rhythm patterns to familiar bass lines, and (4) rhythms on specific harmonic tones from particular harmonic progressions [e.g., to familiar tunes]. Improvise a melody by choosing notes that outline the harmonic functions of the progression (i.e., notes chosen from arpeggios) and perform them on each beat” (p. 23).
  • Play around with embellishing melodies, harmony parts, chord tones, and basslines.

Azzara’s 2011 TEDx Talk on Improvisation

Other Helpful Resources:

Developing Musicianship Through Improvisation

Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series