Improvisational Practices in Elementary General Music Classrooms (Gruenhagen & Whitcomb, 2014)


Gruenhagen, L. M., & Whitcomb, R. (2014). Improvisational practices in elementary general music classrooms. Journal of Research in Music Education, 61(4), 379—395.

What did the researchers want to know?

To what extent and how is improvisation being taught in elementary general music, and how do teachers perceive the quality of students’ improvisations?

What did the researchers do?

Gruenhagen and Whitcomb surveyed 145 elementary general music teachers in the U.S. (who were members of the National Association for Music Education). Participants completed an online questionnaire in which they answered items related to their training in improvisation, the amount of instructional time devoted to improvisation, and the kinds of improvisation activities they include in their classroom.

What did the researchers find?

When asked to approximate the percentage of instructional time spent on improvisation, most respondents (58%) indicated that improvisation accounted for 0% to 10% of their instructional time, while only 16% indicated that improvisation accounted for more than. 20% of their instructional time.

When prompted to indicate which types of improvisational activities they include, call-and-response/question-and-answer singing was the most common (97%), followed by improvising on unhitched percussion instruments (96%), and improvising on pitched percussion instruments (94%). The table below provides more examples of improvisation activities, along with the number/percentage of teachers who stated using each.

Percentage of Teachers Reporting Implementation of Improvisational Activities
(Gruenhagen & Whitcomb, 2014)

When asked to describe specific types of improvisation activities, teachers described a plethora of ideas. Gruenhagen and Whitcomb’s summary of the most common improvisational activities reported by grade level can be found here, and additional ideas can be found in the full article.

Finally, participants were asked to reflect on their students’ achievement with improvisation, and Gruenhagen and Whitcomb’s analysis identified three broad themes:

  1. Process, Practice, and Experience: Many participants felt that the improvisational process was more important than the product and believed that judgments of student improvisation should vary depending on the student’s developmental skill level. In addition, the student improvisations were affected positively by “allowing numerous opportunities for students to explore and internalize fundamental skills, such as phrase length and steady beat,” prior to improvisation (p. 389).
  2. Sequencing, Scaffolding, and Modeling: Many teachers believed appropriate sequencing was important in preparing students to improvise and that providing structure, parameters, and a step-by-step process gives students the support necessary to be successful with improvising.
  3. Collaboration, Reflection, and Creation: Improvisation activities were described by many as a collaborative and reflective process, and the more opportunities students are given to create and improvise, the more complex and creative their improvisations become.

What does this mean for my classroom?

There are many ways in which elementary students can engage in improvisation, and the more opportunities students are given to improvise, the better improvisers they will become! Clear and thoughtful planning in regards to sequencing, structure, parameters, and process for improvisational activities can help students experience more success with improvising.

A previous study by Guilbault (2009) found that experiencing bassline/chord root accompaniments can help students become better vocal improvisers. To read a summary of this study and see examples, view this post.

A previous study by Azzara (1993) found that experiencing improvisation also helps students become better at reading music notation. To read a summary of this study, view this post.

For more tips on teaching vocal improvisation and composition in elementary general music, see the following book chapter: Shouldice, H. N. (2018). Audiation-based improvisation and composition in elementary general music. In S. Burton & A. Reynolds (Eds.), Engaging musical practices: A sourcebook for elementary general music (pp. 113-134). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

“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

“The Effects of Harmonic Accompaniment on the Tonal Improvisations of Students in First Through Sixth Grade” (Guilbault, 2009)


Guilbault, D. M. (2009). The effects of harmonic accompaniment on the tonal improvisations of students in first through sixth grade. Journal of Research in Music Education, 57(2), 81-91.

What did the researcher want to know?

How might experiencing root melody (bassline) accompaniment to songs affect elementary students’ tonal improvisations?

What did the researcher do?

Guilbault (2009) studied 419 of her own students in grades one through six for almost an entire school year.  These students were divided into two groups, with approximately half of the classes (the “treatment” group) experiencing “root melody” accompaniments during music instruction and the other half (the “control” group) experiencing only a cappella singing.  Similar to a bassline, “a root melody is the melodic line created by the fundamental pitches of the harmonic functions found in a song” (p. 84).  Pitches in a root melody can be played/sung and sustained once per chord change or repeated on each beat.  The students in the treatment group experienced root melodies with approximately 80% of the songs included in each class period and during improvisation activities.  These root melody accompaniments were either played on a pitched instrument (e.g., xylophone, piano), played by a voice recording, sung by the teacher/researcher as the students sang a song, sung by the students as the teacher/researcher sang a song, or sung by the student(s) as another student(s) sang a song.  The students in the control group experienced all the same songs and improvisation activities as the treatment group but without any accompaniment.

What did the researcher find?

At the end of the school year, Guilbault (2009) recorded each student vocally improvising an ending to an unfamiliar song without accompaniment. Three music educators judged the recordings, rating the degree to which each student improvised a melodic ending that used clearly implied harmonic changes and good harmonic rhythm. Statistical analysis of these ratings revealed that the students in the treatment group (who had experienced root melody accompaniments throughout the school year) were able to vocally improvise song endings that made more harmonic sense than students in the control group (who had not experienced root melody accompaniments).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Exposing students to harmonic progressions in familiar songs helps them develop better harmonic understanding, which in turn enables students to vocally improvise with a better sense of harmonic progression. If music teachers wish to help their students develop the ability to vocally improvise with a good sense of harmonic progression, they might consider providing students with many opportunities to experience root melody accompaniments to the songs they learn in music class. Teachers could do this by playing root melody accompaniments on an instrument, singing them while students sing a song, teaching students to sing root melody accompaniments while the teacher sings the song, or having students sing songs and root melody accompaniments in two groups or even as duets.

Examples of Tunes with Simple Chord Root Accompaniments:

Video of first grade students practicing singing a melody and bassline/chord root accompaniment in partners. (View video description on YouTube site for an overview of the teaching process used.)
Video of first grade students singing a duet with me: I sing melody; student sings chord roots in solo. (View video description on YouTube site for an overview of the teaching process used.)

Note: Some text featured in this post was originally published in the following article:

Shouldice, H. N. (2016). Research to ‘real life’: Implications of recent research for elementary general music. Michigan Music Educator, 53(2), 23-26.