RTRL.37: Ear Playing and Aural Development in Instrumental Music (Baker & Green, 2013)

Baker, D., & Green, L. (2013). Ear playing and aural development in the instrumental lesson: Results from a ‘case-control’ experiment. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(2), 141-159.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does experience with playing an instrument by ear help students’ aural skill development?

What did the researchers do?

Baker and Green examined 32 instrumental students (ages 10-14 years) taught by four teachers. Sixteen of the students experienced ear playing strategies, and the other 16 learned only from notation. Before the instruction period began, each student was given a test in which they were asked to listen to a recording of a short melody twice and then play it back on their instrument (without notation). Then, for a period of 7-10 weeks, half of the students experienced instruction that incorporated ear playing strategies. These included playing along with a recorded pop-funk bass riff by ear, playing a classical piece by ear, and choosing a piece in any style to learn by ear. After the instructional period, all students were tested again. Each student test performance recording was rated in terms of pitch accuracy, contour accuracy, rhythmic accuracy, tempo accuracy, and closure (stopping before or continuing until the end).

Analysis revealed that the students who had experienced instruction that included ear playing strategies achieved greater gains than students who had not.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Playing by ear is a skill that can be learned. Providing students experiences with playing instruments by ear will improve their ability to do so!


For more information on helping students develop their ear playing skills, see the book Hear, Listen, Play! How to Free Your Students’ Aural, Improvisation, and Performance Skills by Lucy Green.

For more information on informal music learning, see this post, which summarizes a study by Dr. Julie Derges Kastner and includes ideas for application and links to resources.


RTRL.30: The Effect of Movement-based Instruction on Beginning Instrumentalists’ Rhythmic Sight-reading (McCabe, 2006)

McCabe, M. C. (2006). The effect of movement-based instruction on the beginning instrumentalist’s ability to sight-read rhythm patterns. Missouri Journal of Research in Music Education, 43, 24-38.

What did the researcher want to know?

Does movement-based instruction affect beginning instrumentalist’s rhythmic sight-reading ability?

What did the researcher do?

Study participants were 81 students in 6th-, 7th- or 8th-grade who were enrolled in a beginning instrumental music class which met 5 times a week for 40 minutes (four separate classes). All classes used the same method book and used a variety of rhythm syllables and vocalization techniques (Kodaly syllables, numerical syllables, sizzling, note names). However, the control group (two classes) was “not allowed to use bodily movements to mark the beat or to clap rhythm patterns” during rhythm instruction (p. 29), while the experimental group (two classes) moved to the beat of recordings, clapped rhythm patterns while tapping their foot or marching to the beat, played rhythms while tapping the beat, conducted the beat pattern while chanting rhythms, and “use[d] designated body movements to represent different beat values” (p. 30). Instruction lasted for 18 weeks, with 15 minutes of rhythmic instruction per class period. The Watkins-Farnum Scale, a standardized music achievement test, was used to measure each student’s rhythmic sight-reading ability, both before and after the 18-week instruction period.

What did the researcher find?

Watkins-Farnum rhythm sight-reading scores indicated that, although both groups scored similarly on the pre-test, the treatment group scored significantly higher than the control group on the post-test. Overall, the students who experienced movement-based instruction showed an average gain that was 229% greater than the average gain of students who were not allowed to move.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Moving to the rhythm and/or beat can help students develop a stronger sense of rhythm and become more proficient at rhythmic sight-reading. Some teachers may be hesitant to encourage or allow students to move because they may believe it is distracting to the audience. However, the findings of McCabe’s study suggest that requiring students to remain still actually hinders their rhythmic development. Engaging students in movement-based instruction can enhance their sense of rhythm and help them perform with a more consistent tempo. Findings also suggest that aural reinforcement of the beat (e.g., using a metronome, teacher tapping or clapping the beat for students) may not be as effective as FEELING the beat.

One helpful suggestion I have heard is to have students tap their heels to the beat (rather than the traditional practice of toe-tapping) because this larger movement engages more weight, thus helping students better feel the beat. This article provides many more ideas for incorporating movement in the instrumental classroom to facilitate beat competency:

RTRL.25: The Influence of Beginning Instructional Grade on String Student Enrollment, Retention, and Performance (Hartley & Porter, 2009)

Hartley, L. A., & Porter, A. M. (2009). The influence of beginning instructional grade on string student enrollment, retention, and music performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(4), 370-384.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does the starting grade level of beginning string instruction affect initial enrollment, retention, or ensemble performance by the seventh-grade year?

What did the researchers do?

Hartley and Porter surveyed 166 elementary, middle, and junior high school string teachers in Ohio about their initial enrollment, retention at the end of the first year of instruction, and retention at the beginning of the seventh-grade year. To gauge performance achievement, Hartley and Porter visited and recorded 22 middle school orchestras (that were primarily made up of seventh-grade students), 36% of which started in fourth grade and 32% started in fifth grade and sixth grade respectively. Three string specialists (who were not told the starting grade level of the ensembles) rated each performance using the state-approved form for large-group adjudicated events.

Just over half (50.3%) of all schools enrolled 20% or less of students in the starting grade level, 37.6% enrolled 20% to 40%, and only 12.1% enrolled 40% or more. When comparing the percentages of the student body who enrolled in beginning strings according to starting grade level, Hartley and Porter found no statistically significant differences in initial enrollment.

In terms of retention at the end of the first year of instruction, 23% of teachers reported retaining 50-65% of students, 19.6% retained 65-80% of students, 36.5% retained 80-95% of students, and 22.6% retained 95-100% of students. There was a significant difference in relation to starting grade level: schools with later starting grade levels were more likely to retain 80% or more of their students at the end of the first year of instruction, as shown in the table below.






In terms of retention at the beginning of the seventh-grade year, 12.8% of teachers reported retaining 30% or less of students who initially enrolled, 27.6% retained 60% of students, 40.4% retained 90% of students, and 19.2% retained 95-100% of students. There was a significant difference in relation to starting grade level: schools with later starting grade levels were more likely to retain 60% or more of their students at the end of the first year of instruction, as shown in the table above.

When comparing the overall ensemble performance ratings, there were no statistically significant differences between groups that began instruction in fourth grade, fifth grade, or sixth grade.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Some teachers may worry whether starting instrumental music at a later grade level could have negative effects in comparison to starting at an earlier grade level. However, delaying the start of instrumental music until sixth grade likely will not hurt initial enrollment or performance achievement in later grades and may actually help increase retention.

Additionally, Hartley and Porter found that schools with a fourth-grade start level were more likely to have fewer meetings per week than sixth-grade beginners, and schools with more class meetings per week were more likely to have a higher retention rate at the end of the first year. If given the choice between starting instruction in an earlier grade level but with fewer class meetings per week or starting in a later grade level but with more frequent class meetings, the latter may be preferable.

RTRL.12: The Effect of Instrumental Music Participation and Socioeconomic Status on State Proficiency Test Performance (Fitzpatrick, 2006)

Fitzpatrick, K. R. (2006). The effect of instrumental music participation and socioeconomic status on Ohio fourth-, sixth-, and ninth-grade proficiency test performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(1), 73-84.

What did the researcher want to know?

How do the standardized test scores of instrumental music students compare to those of noninstrumental students, and what influence does socioeconomic status (SES) have? 

What did the researcher do?

Fitzpatrick collected existing standardized test scores for 15,431 high school students in the Columbus (OH) Public School District, 915 of whom participated in band, orchestra, or jazz ensemble. She used eligibility for free or reduced lunch as an indicator of SES and separated students into the following four groups:

  • Instrumental music students receiving free/reduced lunch
  • Instrumental music students paying full price
  • Noninstrumental students receiving free/reduced lunch
  • Noninstrumental students paying full price

Fitzpatrick then used a retrospective design to compare the four groups’ existing scores on the Ohio Proficiency Test (in citizenship, math, science, and reading) from ninth, sixth, and fourth grades.

What did the researcher find?

Full-price students outscored free/reduced-lunch students in the majority of the sub-tests Fitzpatrick examined. When analyzed separately according to SES, “students who would eventually become high school instrumental music students outperformed noninstrumental students of like socioeconomic status in every subject and at every grade level” (p. 78). However, these differences in test scores existed even before students started instrumental music. The string and band programs in the Columbus Public Schools began in the fourth and fifth grades respectively, but students who would go on to participate in instrumental music in high school were already outperforming their classmates in fourth grade — before experiencing much or any instrumental music instruction.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Many persons argue that participation in school music makes students “smarter” by raising their standardized test scores. However, Fitzpatrick’s finding that differences in test scores existed before instrumental music study began suggests that music participation did not actually cause higher scores. Therefore, music educators should be cautious about using this claim to justify the importance of their programs.

Given the fact that those students who chose to participate in instrumental music in high school were already scoring higher than their noninstrumental classmates even before beginning instrumental music instruction, there could be several other possible explanations:

  1. Instrumental music classes attracted students with higher test scores to begin with. 
  2. Students with higher test scores were the ones who persisted in instrumental music until high school.

Because Fitzpatrick did not have data on how many students may have initially participated in instrumental music but chose to quit before high school, we don’t know which of these two explanations is more accurate. Still, each possible explanation leads to further questions worth considering:

  1. Why might instrumental music classes attract certain kinds of students and not others?
  2. Why might students with lower test scores choose to quit instrumental music? Might there be anything about the way we traditionally teach instrumental music or structure our classes that allows some students to experience more success than others?

***Note: Earlier this month, the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) announced that NAfME members now have FREE online access to all digital issues of the Journal of Research in Music Education. To read Fitzpatrick’s full article and others from the past 60 years, simply log in with your email address and password at https://nafme.org/nafme-research/journal-research-music-education/.

RTRL.06: “Investigating Adjudicator Bias in Concert Band Evaluations” (Springer & Bradley, 2018)

Springer, D. G., & Bradley, K. D. (2018). Investigating adjudicator bias in concert band evaluations: An applications of the Many-Facets Rasch Model. Musicae Scientiae, 22(3), 377-393.

What did the researchers want to know?

What is the potential influence of adjudicators on performance ratings at a live large ensemble festival?

What did the researchers do?

Springer and Bradley (2018) collected evaluation forms from a concert band festival in the Pacific Northwest U.S. Each of the 31 middle school/junior high school bands performed three pieces and were rated by three expert judges on a scale of 5 (superior) to 1 (poor). Judges were also allowed to award “half points,” and they rated each group on eight criteria: tone quality, intonation, rhythm, balance/blend, technique, interpretation/musicianship, articulation, an “other performance factors” (such as appearance, posture, and general conduct). The researchers analyzed the data through a complex process called the Many-Facets Rasch Model.

What did the researchers find?

The use of half-points resulted in less clear/precise measurement than if half-points had not been allowed. All but one of the performance criteria “did not effectively distinguish among the highest-performing ensembles or the lowest-performing ensembles” (p. 385), which could indicate a halo effect–when judgements of certain criteria positively or negatively influence judgements of other criteria. Examination of judge severity revealed that one judge was more severe in their ratings than the other two, though all three more heavily utilized the higher end of the rating scale, indicating “leniency or generosity error” (p. 386). Finally, numerous instances in which some bands were rated unexpectedly higher or lower by one judge than the other two suggests “evidence of bias” (p. 386).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Adjudication training and calibration—ensuring judges rate in similar manners—is critical. Adjudicator training for the band festival studied by Springer and Bradley involved only a 30-minute session in which the adjudicator instructions and evaluation form were discussed and adjudicators were allowed to ask questions. A more in-depth and ongoing adjudicator training process may help improve the validity and reliability of ratings given. For example, Springer and Bradley suggest that adjudicators might participate in an “anchoring technique”—a process in which judges rate sample recordings and then discuss the specific “aural qualities necessary for rating each performance criterion on the scales provided on the evaluation form” (p. 389).  Festival coordinators might also attempt to hire adjudicators from other geographic regions in order to reduce bias due to prior familiarity with bands or directors.

RTRL.03: “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