RTRL.57: Teacher Beliefs as Predictors of Student engagement and achievement in Math (Archambault, Janosz, & Chouinard, 2012)


Archambault, I., Janosz, M., & Chouinard, R. (2012). Teacher beliefs as predictors of adolescents’ cognitive engagement and achievement in mathematics. The Journal of Educational Research, 105, 319-328.

What did the researchers want to know?

How do teachers’ beliefs affect students’ cognitive engagement and achievement in math?

What did the researchers do?

Archambault, Janosz, and Chouinard studied 79 teachers and 2,364 of their students in Grades 7-11 at 33 schools in Québec. Teacher beliefs were measured using a questionnaire containing items pertaining to their expectancies about students’ ability to succeed in math, their sense of self-efficacy as a teacher. Students’ cognitive engagement was measured using a questionnaire that asked students to rate the amount of time and effort they were ready to invest in math-related activities, and students’ math achievement was gauged by asking them to report their average grade in math during the given school year. The teachers completed their questionnaire between January and March, and the students completed their questionnaire at the end of the previous school year and again at the end of the given school year.

What did the researchers find?

Hierarchical linear modeling revealed that teachers’ expectancies about students’ success and teachers’ sense of self-efficacy had a significant effect on their students’ math achievement at the end of the given school year. Specifically, teachers who expected more student success and who had a stronger sense of self-efficacy had students who showed greater math achievement. Furthermore, this did not vary between high- and low-achieving students. In general, all students showed increased achievement at the end of the school year regardless of their achievement the year before if they had a teacher who expected student success and who had a strong sense of self-efficacy. However, teacher beliefs were not significantly related to students’ self-reported engagement level.

What does this mean for my classroom?

According to the researchers, “the more teachers maintain high expectations and the more efficacious they feel in helping their students succeed, the more students’ achievement in- creased over the year” (p. 324). Although this study was focused on math classrooms, it is plausible that beliefs and self-efficacy among music teachers also can influence their students’ achievement in the music classroom. It is important that music teachers believe that all students can be successful at music and experience growth in musical knowledge and skills throughout the school year. Rather than buying into the traditional myth of musical “talent” that is innate in some but not in others, students will benefit from having a music teacher who believes in the musical potential of every child in their classroom, is confident that every student can succeed in music, and communicates this confidence to their students.

RTRL.54: Can Empathy Reduce Implicit Bias? (Whitford & Emerson, 2019)

Whitford, D. K., Emerson, A. M. (2019). Empathy intervention to reduce implicit bias in pre-service teachers. Psychological Reports, 122(2), 670-688.

What did the researchers want to know?

Can a brief intervention designed to solicit empathy for Black individuals reduce implicit bias among white preservice teachers?

What did the researchers do?

Whitford and Emerson randomly assigned 34 white preservice teachers to two groups, both of which completed the Race Implicit Association Test as a measure of their implicit bias at the beginning of the study. Next, each group was asked to read either the experimental or control group passage, type their thoughts and feelings for 10 minutes after reading, and then complete the Implicit Association Test again. Participants in the control group read an article about integrating technology into elementary science lessons and were asked to write about how this made them feel, what they liked about it, and how they might improve the lessons. Participants in the experimental group read descriptions of 10 personal experiences of explicit racism from Black student peers, and they were asked to imagine themselves in the Black students’ situations and write about how this made them feel, how they would have reacted, and how these experiences might be prevented.

Although the two groups did not differ on their Implicit Association Test scores before the intervention, there was a statistically significant difference between the groups’ post-intervention scores. Possible scores range from -2.0 to 2.0, with scores closer to zero indicating  less bias. While the control group mean only went from 0.53 to 0.47, the experimental group mean went from 0.57 to 0.18, indicating significantly less implicit bias after the intervention. 

What does this mean for my classroom?

Whitford and Emerson’s results suggest experiences soliciting empathy can be effective in reducing negative bias toward Black individuals. Specifically, White teachers who consider and empathize with Black students’ experiences with explicit racism may show less bias toward Black students, thereby reducing discriminatory discipline. Okonofua and Eberhardt found in this study that teachers responded more harshly to behavior infractions committed by students with Black-sounding names than with White-sounding names. However, according to Whitford and Emerson, “our results indicate that teacher training aimed at racial consciousness, and personal awareness of implicit bias holds promise for promoting empathy within the education workforce” (p. 680). Similarly, Okonofua, Paunesku, and Walton found in this study that teachers who take an empathic mindset punish students less severely and that their students have greater respect for them and are more motivated to behave well in the future. As Whitford and Emerson state, “School discipline inequality is one of the major contributors to the prison pipe-line for at-risk children and adolescents, but it does not have to be” (p. 682). Empathy interventions can be one effective strategy for turning the tide.

RTRL.53: Effects of Choral Performance Movement on Choral Sound (Grady & Gilliam, 2020)

Grady, M. L., & Gilliam, T. M. (2020). Effects of three common choral performance movement conditions on acoustic and perceptual measures of choral sound. Journal of Research in Music Education, 68(3), 286-304.

What did the researchers want to know?

How does singer movement affect choral sound and perceptions of choral sound?

What did the researchers do?

Grady and Gilliam audio-recorded a non-auditioned, mixed-voice university choir performing a 16-measure excerpt (Klebanow’s arrangement of “Erev Shel Shoshanim”) under three conditions: standing still, slight swaying (up to 2 inches in any direction), and full-body swaying (“natural swaying that could exceed 2 in. in any direction and include a shifting of weight between feet” (p. 290)). Two weeks later the singers were invited to participate as “singer-listeners,” which 19 of the 29 choir members agreed to do. In addition, the researchers invited  16 “expert listeners” with graduate degrees in music education or choral conducting and experience in choral teaching/conducting to participate. The singer-listeners and expert listeners were asked to rate the overall choral sound and expressiveness of each of the three audio recordings (heard in random order and blinded to condition) and to rank them in order of preference. In addition, the researchers acoustically analyzed the sound of each recording for timbre (“spectral energy”) and pitch.

Acoustical analysis showed significant differences in spectral energy between all three conditions, with full-body swaying showing a the highest mean and no movement showing the lowest. Acoustical analysis also showed that the slight sway condition resulted in the smallest overall pitch deviation, with no movement resulting in the largest overall pitch deviation. 

In terms of singer-listeners’ perception of overall choral sound, the average rating was lowest for the no-movement performance and highest for the full-body swaying performance. Although the lowest average rating from expert listeners was also for the no-movement performance, expert listeners rated the slight-swaying performance as having the best choral sound. When rating expressiveness, expert listeners gave the highest average rating to the full-body swaying performance and lowest to the no-movement performance. Singer-listeners also gave the lowest average rating to the no-movement performance but the highest rating to the slight-swaying performance. However, the only statistically significant difference was between expert listeners’ ratings of overall choral sound for slight swaying versus no movement.

When asked to rank the three recordings in order of preference, singer-listeners most preferred the full-body-swaying performance while expert listeners preferred the slight-swaying recording. Both groups ranked the no-movement performance as least preferred.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Many music educators require their students to stand still while singing because they believe this makes the choir’s performance more visually appealing. However, the results of this study indicate that requiring students to stand still can be detrimental to their pitch, expressiveness and overall choral sound. The researchers also asked the singers to comment on their experiences in each of the three conditions, and the singers remarked “that the full-body swaying helped them feel ‘more free’ and ‘breathe easier’ and that ‘anxiety/tension was reduced’” while they “were ‘stiff’ and ‘tight’ during the no-movement condition, with a ‘tendency to hold and clutch’” (p. 299). Teachers might reconsider the requirement that students stand still while singing and experiment to see whether and what kinds of movement might have the best effect on singers’ sound and experience of singing.

Related Studies:

McCabe (2006) found benefits of movement for beginning instrumentalists.

RTRL.52: Children’s Perceptions of Gender Stereotypes in Musical Instruments (Pickering & Repacholi, 2002)


Pickering, S., & Repacholi, B. (2002). Modifying children’s gender-typed musical instrument preferences: The effects of gender and age. Sex Roles, 45(9-10), 623-643.

What did the researchers want to know?

Do older students perceive stronger gender stereotypes among musical instruments than younger students? Can exposure to counter-stereotyped musicians affect students’ instrument preferences?

What did the researchers do?

Pickering and Repacholi conducted a study involving 156 kindergarten students and 158 fourth-grade students. They showed the students videos of high-school musicians playing one of eight instruments that had previously been identified as either feminine (flute, violin, clarinet, cello) or masculine (drum, saxophone, trumpet, trombone) by Australian adults. The musicians wore school uniforms and all played the same musical excerpt. Participants were divided into three groups: one who viewed videos that aligned with gender stereotypes (e.g., females playing “feminine” instruments and males playing “masculine” instruments), one who viewed “counter-stereotyped” musicians (e.g., males playing “feminine” instruments and females playing “masculine” instruments), and one who simply viewed a static image of the instrument (with no musician visible).

Pickering and Repacholi had each student view their assigned videos individually (in a room separate from their classroom) and then asked them which instrument they would most like to play.

What did the researchers find?

Students in the control group (who saw static images rather than musicians) were significantly more likely to select instruments consistent with gender stereotypes than those inconsistent with gender stereotypes. There were, however, no significant differences in stereotyping by gender or age.

When all three groups were compared, Pickering and Repacholi found that students in the control group and the gender-consistent group were equally likely to prefer gender-consistent instruments. However, students exposed to the counter-examples were significantly less likely to choose gender-consistent instruments. 

What does this mean for my classroom?

The issue of gender-stereotyping of instruments persists in music education. However, the results of this study suggest that exposing students to musicians who defy gender stereotypes can help them resist rather than perpetuate these stereotypes. When choosing audio/video or live examples for use in the music classroom, music educators should be conscious of who is represented and work to actively combat gender stereotypes. In addition to noticing the gender of instrumentalists featured in the music classroom, teachers should also pay attention to the gender of composers and conductors so that students see women represented in these roles. Music educators might also notice who is (or is not) represented in our professional materials, such as textbooks and journals. (This study found that women are much less likely to be represented as conductors in photographs published in the Music Educators Journal.) Similarly, teachers can notice the race/ethnicity of those who are represented. This noticing is the first step to taking action in ensuring that the representation in our classrooms is one that allows ALL students to see themselves represented in a diversity of musical roles.

RTRL.50: Effects of Movement, Tempo, and Gender on Children’s Steady Beat Accuracy (Rose, 2016)

Rose, P. (2016). Effects of movement, tempo, and gender on steady beat performance of kindergarten children. International Journal of Music Education, 34(1), 104-115.

How do movement type, gender, and tempo affect children’s steady beat accuracy?

What did the researcher do?

Rose studied 119 kindergarten students in two schools who were divided into two groups: one that was asked to pat their hands to the beat and one that was asked to step their feet in place to the beat. Each student was asked to move to the steady beat to a musical excerpt heard three times at different tempi (slow/quarter-note = 80 bpm, medium/quarter-note = 100 bpm, and fast/quarter-note = 120 bpm). The hand-patting students were asked to tap the beat with both hands simultaneously on a MIDI controller while the foot-stepping students were asked to step (alternating) on a piece of foam with a MIDI controller against it. The researcher then calculated how many of the 16 total beats each participant accurately moved to at each tempo and conducted a two-way mixed ANOVA with hand/foot grouping and gender as the between-subjects variables and tempo as the within-subjects variable.

The students were least accurate at the fast tempo and most accurate at the medium tempo, but these differences were not statistically significant. There was also no significant difference by gender. There was, however, a statistically significant difference by movement type: students who patted their hands to the beat were more accurate than students who stepped to the beat across all three tempi.

What does this mean for my classroom?

If music teachers wish to help students accurately move to the steady beat, they may find more initial success in asking students to pat with their hands rather than step with their feet. Rose noted that this seemed to be a result of a struggle with balance when standing on one foot at a time. However, it could also be that the alternating bilateral movement required of stepping with alternating feet was the reason for the decreased accuracy when compared to the parallel bilateral hand-patting. If teachers notice students are struggling to keep a steady beat with alternating movement, they might remediate to provide more experiences with parallel movement first or spend more time on parallel movement before progressing to alternating movement in the first place.

The effects of movement type and tempo should also be considered when formally assessing students’ steady beat accuracy. Teachers might experiment with various beat movement experiences and/or provide a variety of opportunities through which students can demonstrate their beat competency to ensure it is being measured validly and reliably.

RTRL.49: Memory for Culturally Unfamiliar Music (Morrison et al., 2013)

Morrison, S. J., Demorest, S. M., Campbell, P. S., Bartolome, S. J., & Roberts, J. C. (2013). Effects of intensive instruction on elementary students’ memory for culturally unfamiliar music. Journal of Research in Music Education, 60(4), 363-374.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does instruction improve memory for culturally unfamiliar music?

What did the researchers do?

Morrison and colleagues used a quasi-experimental design to study 110 students in six fifth-grade classes at two elementary schools. At the beginning of the study, all students completed a music memory test in which they heard examples of culturally familiar (Western) and culturally unfamiliar (Turkish) music. For each type of music, students listened to a longer excerpt (25-33 sec.) and then were asked to listen to 12 shorter excerpts (4-8 sec.) and answer whether or not they had heard each in the longer excerpt. 

Four classes were randomly assigned to experience 8 weeks of instruction in Turkish music. The unit consisted of “singing, moving, playing instruments, and listening, with an emphasis on music literacy and cultural context” (p. 367). This included lessons on Turkish culture and a culminating experience in which Turkish culture bearers demonstrated instruments, discussed musical traditions, and answered questions. Students in the two control classes experienced similar lessons but with English, East African, and Appalachian music instead of Turkish.

After the 8-week instructional unit, students completed the listening test again. Morrison et al. used a multivariate repeated-measures ANOVA to analyze differences in students’ pretest and posttest scores.

Results indicated that all participants’ scores for both Western and Turkish music improved from pretest to posttest. However, all students more accurately remembered Western music than Turkish music on both the pretest and posttest. Furthermore, students who experienced the 8-week instructional unit on Turkish music did not remember Turkish music more accurately than students who had not experienced the unit.

What does this mean for my classroom?

If we consider memory as an indicator of music comprehension, the results of this study would suggest that experiencing culturally unfamiliar music does not increase students’ comprehension of that music after 8 weeks. This has several implications:

  • Hannon and Trehub (2005) found that, while adults’ ability to discriminate between examples of Balkan music was unchanged after 1-2 weeks of listening, infants’ ability to do so improved after 2 weeks of exposure to Balkan music. Along with the findings of the Morrison et al. study, this suggests that exposure to a variety of musics should occur as early as possible in a child’s life. 
  • Eight weeks is a relatively short period of time, and students only received 30 minutes of instruction each week. It is possible that more extensive exposure could result in greater recognition/comprehension.
  • That students who experienced instruction in Turkish music did not show improved aural comprehension of Turkish music may have been a result of the nature of the instruction itself. Morrison et al. did not provide specific details as to how the instructional experiences were designed to help students comprehend Turkish music or whether there were certain musical aspects (e.g., meter, mode/tonality) that may have made the Turkish music more difficult for students to recognize. The researchers did state that the unit emphasized music literacy and cultural context, but it is unclear how these concepts would facilitate greater aural comprehension of culturally unfamiliar music. If the unit had focused on helping students audiate the tonal and rhythmic context (e.g., tonal center, beat levels) of the music and helping students develop an aural/oral vocabulary of tonal patterns and rhythm patterns inherent in Turkish music, it is possible students may have shown improved aural comprehension.

RTRL.48: Predictors of Music Class Enrollment in Urban Middle/High Schools (Kinney, 2019)


Kinney, D. W. (2019). Selected nonmusic predictors of urban students’ decisions to enroll and persist in middle school and high school music ensemble electives. Journal of Research in Music Education, 67(1), 23-44.

Who enrolls in urban middle school and high school music classes?

What did the researcher do?

Kinney obtained student demographic information from one large midwestern metropolis area. This district was comprised of mostly minority students (62% Black, 26% Caucasian, 9% Hispanic, 3% Asian, <1% Native American), and 78.5% of students were enrolled in free/reduced lunch programs. Since elective choices began in 6th grade in this district and state standardized tests were administered in 6th, 8th, and 10th grades, Kinney collected data for students in those three grades.

Kinney assembled a database that indicated whether each student in 6th, 8th, and 10th grade was enrolled in band, strings, or choir. This database also included the following information for each student:

  • reading achievement test score
  • math achievement test score
  • free/reduced lunch status (as an indicator of SES)
  • number of parents/guardians in the home
  • district mobility (whether the student had moved into the district in the past year),
  • school mobility (whether the student had transferred schools within the district in the past year)
  • ethnicity
  • sex

Kinney used these factors as variables in conducting a multinomial logistic regression to build a predictive model for initial 6th grade enrollment and 8th/10th grade enrollment/retention in band, orchestra, and choir.

Statistical analyses revealed the following student characteristics to be significant predictors of whether a student was more or less likely to enroll in elective music classes at each grade level:

What does this mean for my classroom?

Results suggest that students with higher math achievement are more likely to participate in instrumental music in urban schools. However, the fact that this was consistent across the span of grade levels suggests “that higher achieving students are attracted to instrumental programs from the outset and that systematic differences between this population and the general school population remain relatively stable over time” (p. 36). This provides evidence against the common argument that participation in music raises standardized tests scores and instead implies the difference lies in who chooses to participate in instrumental music in the first place.

Band teachers should be aware that student SES can predict whether a student participates in band. Teachers should be conscious of the fact that SES can be a limiting factor for student enrollment and find ways to make access to band class accessible to students who might struggle to afford an instrument or other supplies.

High school band programs typically involve various before- and after-school requirements (e.g., marching band, pep band), which may be why students from two-parent/guardian homes were more likely to participate in band in high school. It is possible that single-parent/guardian homes encounter more challenges in navigating these extra activities. For example, a single parent who works the night shift may not be able to transport their child to or from before- or after-school activities. High school band teachers should be aware of these challenges and work to mitigate them so that all students have equal opportunity to participate.

Finally, teachers should be aware of the ways in which enrollment trends may reflect racial and gendered “norms” of who participates in band, orchestra, or choir. Only band reflected a more balanced enrollment of males and females, while females were two to three times as likely as males to enroll in orchestra or choir. While race/ethnicity trends varied across grade levels and ensemble types, the data implies that white students tend to more consistently enroll in ensemble classes. Teachers can be mindful of these trends in their recruiting efforts, and all music educators can work to defy racial/ethnic and gender stereotypes in the repertoire they choose, the materials they use, and the musicians who are represented in their classrooms. “Through deliberate, conscientious efforts to reach students often underserved by music ensemble offerings, teachers will no doubt create a more democratic, equitable, and viable elective choice for all” (p. 41).

RTRL.47: Band Performance Ratings and Director Gender (Shouldice & Eastridge, 2020)

Shouldice, H. N., & Eastridge, J. L. (2020). A comparison of Virginia band performance assessments in relation to director gender. Journal of Research in Music Education, 68(2), 125-137.

What did the researchers want to know?

Given that existing research shows many women perceive gender-related discrimination in their jobs as secondary band teachers, is there a significant association between band festival ratings and director gender at the middle school or high school level?

What did the researchers do?

Shouldice and Eastridge accessed 6 years (2013-2018) of District Concert Assessment ratings sponsored by the Virginia Band and Orchestra Directors Association (VBODA), which are publicly available on the VBODA website. Data included ensembles’ overall performance ratings and director names, which Shouldice and Eastridge used to code each ensemble performance according to the assumed gender (male/ female) of the director(s). If the first name of a director was ambiguous or gender-neutral (e.g., Robin, Jamie), they performed an internet search to ascertain gender (via pronouns, title, and/or photograph). Finally, Shouldice and Eastridge then conducted statistical analyses to ascertain the percentages of ensembles receiving each rating (by level and director gender) and whether there was a statistically significant relationship between director gender and overall performance rating.

At both the middle school and high school levels, male-directed ensembles were more likely to receive a I rating while female-directed ensembles more likely to receive a II rating. The table below shows the percentages of ensembles receiving each rating by director gender, and the bar chart shows the comparison of I and II ratings by gender and level.

Table 1. Percentages of Ensembles Receiving Each Rating, by Director Gender.*
Figure 1. Number/Comparison of I and II Ratings Included in Chi-Square Analyses.*

*Due to required assumptions of the Chi-Square test, multiple ensemble performances from the same director were randomly removed so that only one listing was included for each director, which is why 3,229 performances are reflected in Table 1 but only 730 in Figure 1.

What does this mean for my classroom?

We cannot definitively infer the cause behind the association between ensemble ratings and director gender discovered by Shouldice and Eastridge. However, it is worth reflecting on possible explanations for this finding. One explanation might be that societal norms expect and permit men to display the behaviors and characteristics that are associated with being a successful band director (such as assertiveness and competitiveness) whereas these traits may be less expected and/or acceptable in women. Another potential explanation could be that women are more likely to be hired for band teaching jobs in smaller and/or rural schools/districts, which may be more likely to earn lower ratings than ensembles from larger school districts. Finally, female-directed bands may receive lower ratings than male-directed bands as a result of gender bias, either explicit or implicit.

One possibility is that gender bias might influence judges to rate female-directed groups differently than male-directed groups. Given that previous research findings suggest larger ensembles or those performing more difficult classifications of music may tend to receive higher ratings than smaller ensembles or those performing easier music, it is also possible that gender bias may be an influence in the hiring practices that lead to greater numbers of men than women securing jobs in larger, more prestigious programs that are likely to perform more advanced repertoire.

The results of this study indicate that although improving, a gender imbalance still exists in the secondary band teaching profession. Discrimination in the hiring process may be one possible explanation for this persistent gender imbalance, as suggested by findings of existing research. It is critical that those involved in the hiring process examine their own biases and actively work toward more equitable hiring of men and women. It is also crucial to strive for more equitable representation of women in the field of secondary band teaching. Rather than reinforcing the common image of conductor as male, music educators and music teacher educators might actively work to provide students with images of women in these teaching roles.

Related Research Summarized by “Research to Real Life”:

Career Intentions and Experiences of Pre- and In-service Female Band Teachers (Fischer-Croneis, 2016)

Male and Female Photographic Representation in 50 Years of Music Educators Journal (Kruse, Giebelhausen, Shouldice, & Ramsey, 2015)

RTRL.46: Practice Habits of Middle School Band Students (Miksza, Prichard, & Sorbo, 2012)

* This guest post was authored by Dr. Lisa Martin, Assistant Professor of music education at Bowling Green State University. Click here to learn more about Dr. Martin and her work.
Dr. Lisa Martin, guest contributor

Miksza, P., Prichard, S., Sorbo, D. (2012). An observational study of intermediate band students’ self-regulated practice behavior. Journal of Research in Music Education, 60(3), 254-266.

What did the researchers want to know?

What characterizes the practice habits of middle school band students?

What did the researchers do?

A total of 30 middle school band students were video recorded as they practiced in a room by themselves for 20 minutes. The student participants were instructed to practice their band repertoire as if working on it at home. Miksza, Prichard, and Sorbo analyzed each video to determine (a) how students organized their practice with regard to time spent on given musical excerpts, (b) which musical objectives students prioritized (e.g., rhythmic accuracy, pitch accuracy), and (c) what strategies students employed to achieve various musical goals. The researchers also rated each practice session using a researcher-developed self-regulation scale to provide an overall picture of the extent to which students demonstrated self-regulated behaviors in their practice.

In terms of practice organization, students tended to practice longer segments of music (nine or more consecutive measures), and they were less inclined to focus on segments of four measures or less. Across the 20-minute practice session, students spent an average of 2 minutes 45 seconds on each segment. As the practice session progressed, students spent significantly less time on each segment. Overall, there was a high degree of variability in the frequency and duration of these practice segments. 

Students tended to focus primarily on pitch accuracy as their main objective, and less attention was paid to objectives such as dynamics or rhythmic accuracy. The most commonly employed practice strategies were repetition and varying the tempo. Around half the participants demonstrated irrelevant playing, and approximately one third clapped/tapped or wrote on their music during the practice session.  

With regard to the self-regulation ratings, the researcher-developed measurement yielded a possible score range of 12 to 60, with higher scores suggesting greater self-regulation. Participants had a mean score of 30.86 on this scale, and those with higher self-regulation ratings typically utilized a higher number of practice strategies during their session. Those students who employed more irrelevant playing in their practice session tended to have lower self-regulation ratings. 

What does this mean for my classroom?

When working with developing musicians, teachers should not assume students inherently know how to practice effectively. Younger students can struggle with establishing priorities during their practice, may find it difficult to identify specific challenges to address, and tend to employ a limited range of corrective strategies. Teachers can help students establish discrete goals for their practice and improve practice time efficiency by modeling practice strategies during class time. The range of self-regulation ratings and demonstrated practice behaviors in this study also suggest that differentiated approaches toward practice instruction could be useful. 

RTRL.45: The Power of Teacher Empathy (Okonofua, Paunesku, & Walton, 2016)

Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention cuts suspension rates in half. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(19), 5221-5226.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does an empathic mindset related to student misbehavior result in more positive outcomes than a punitive mindset?

What did the researchers do?

Okonofua, Paunesku, and Walton conducted three experiments. In Experiment 1, they randomly assigned 39 teachers to either an empathic- or punitive-mindset condition. Each teacher was asked to read a short article in which they were reminded either “that ‘good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control’ (empathic mindset) or that ‘punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom’ (punitive mindset)” (p. 5221). Then they read three minor misbehavior records, described how they would discipline each student, and rated the extent to which they considered each student a “troublemaker.”

In Experiment 2, the researchers asked 302 college students to “imagine themselves as middle-school students who had disrupted class by repeatedly walking around to throw away trash” (p. 5222). Each student then read a description for how their imaginary teacher (“Mrs. Smith”) responded—either by giving them detention and sending them to the principal (punitive) or by asking them about their behavior and moving the trashcan closer to their desk (empathic). After this, the students rated how much respect they would have for Mrs. Smith and their motivation to behave well in the future.

Experiment 3 was a longitudinal study in which the researchers “tested whether encouraging an empathic mindset about discipline would reduce student suspension rates over an academic year” (p. 5222). Thirty-one teachers at five diverse middle schools in California participated in this study. These teachers participated in two online modules, the purpose of which they were told was “to review common but sometimes neglected wisdom about teaching and to collect their perspectives as experienced teachers on how to best handle difficult interactions with students” (p. 5223). After consenting to participate, each teacher was randomly assigned to either the empathic mindset condition or the control condition. Modules in the control condition focused on using technology to promote learning. For the empathic-condition, the first module focused on “non-pejorative reasons why students sometimes misbehave in class and how positive relationships with teachers can facilitate students’ growth” (p. 5223). The materials encouraged teachers to “understand and value students’ experiences and negative feelings that can cause misbehavior” and reminded them that “a teacher who makes … students feel hear, valued, and respected shows them that school is fair and they can grow and succeed there” (p. 5223). This included stories from students and opportunities for teachers to reflect on how they could incorporate the ideas into their teaching. Two months later, teachers completed the second module, which in the empathic condition focused on reminding them that “students’ feelings about and behavior in school can and do improve when teachers successfully convey the care and respect students crave” (p. 5223). At this time, students were also asked to complete a survey assessing the school climate, specifically focusing on perceived respect from teachers and other school adults. At the end of the school year, the researchers collected students’ suspension rates from each school.

The results of Experiment 1 showed the teachers with an empathic mindset chose to punish students less severely and were less likely to label students as troublemakers than the teachers with a punitive mindset. 

In Experiment 2, students whose teacher responded with empathy reported having greater respect for the teacher and being more motivated to behave well in the future than students whose teacher responded punitively. Furthermore, the greater the respect the student reported having for the teacher, the more motivated they were to behave well in the future.

Experiment 3 results showed that students whose teachers received the empathic-mindset intervention were half as likely to be suspended as students of the control teachers, even when statistically controlled for race, gender, and prior-year suspensions. In addition, students with a history of prior suspension whose teachers received the empathic-mindset condition reported feeling more respected by their teachers than did those who were students of the control teachers.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Students whose teachers take a punitive approach to discipline may feel less respected and less inclined to behave well in class. However, students will likely feel more cared for and respected if we try to have empathy for them, to understand the reasons behind their misbehavior, and to assume positive (or at least neutral) intentions. Doing so can help build a positive, caring relationship with the student, which may lead them to want to do better in the future.

Some ideas from teachers who participated in this study include the following:

“When asked how they ‘would like … to improve your relationships with your students?’ teachers powerfully echoed the intervention themes: For example,

  • ‘[I] greet every student at the door with a smile every day no matter what has occurred the day before’;
  • ‘[I] answer their questions thoughtfully and respectfully no matter what their academic history with me has been’; and
  • ‘I NEVER hold grudges. I try to remember that they are all the son or daughter of someone who loves them more than anything in the world. They are the light of someone’s life!’” (p. 5223)

Further Reading:

This research was featured in the New York Times.

This article provides further insight into teaching with empathy.

This article has ideas for helping students learn empathy.

Dr. Okonofua also co-authored this research study on race and perceptions of student misbehavior.

RTRL.43: Race and Perceptions of Student Misbehavior (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015)

Okonofua, J. A., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2015). Two strikes: Race and the disciplining of young students. Psychological Science, 26(5), 617-624.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does race influence teachers’ perceptions of student misbehavior?

What did the researchers do?

Okonofua and Eberhardt conducted two related studies.

Study #1:

The researchers recruited 57 K-12 teachers (38 white, 2 black, 1 Asian, 16 of unknown race) from various school districts across the United States. They showed each teacher a school record for a middle school student who had misbehaved twice, asking them to imagine they were the student’s teacher. The student was assigned either a stereotypically Black name (Darnell or Deshawn) or a stereotypically White name (Greg or Jake). After reading about each of the student’s two behavior infractions (one for insubordination and one for class disturbance), the teacher was asked to answer the following questions on a scale ranging from 1, not at all, to 7, extremely:

  • How severe was the student’s misbehavior?
  • To what extent is the student hindering you from maintaining order in your class?
  • How irritated do you feel by the student?
  • How severely should the student be disciplined?

The order of the two infractions (class disturbance/insubordination) varied randomly across participants to mitigate order effect. After reading and responding to both infractions, the teacher was asked to rate the likelihood they would say the student is a troublemaker. Finally, they asked how likely it was that the student was Black and what they suspected was the study’s hypothesis. (These final questions were used to identify any participants who may have been manipulating their responses based on their assumptions about the study’s hypothesis.) 

Study #2:

The first study was replicated with 204 more K-12 teachers (166 White, 17 Black, 10 Asian, 6 Latino, 2 other, 3 unknown) with an addition: After teachers rated the likelihood they would say the student was a troublemaker, they were also prompted to rate the extent to which they felt the student’s behaviors indicated a pattern and the likelihood they would imagine suspending the student at some point.

Study #1:

Although teachers’ ratings of infraction severity, hindrance, and irritation did not vary by race in reaction to the first infraction, there was a statistically significant difference by race for the second infraction, with teachers rating students with stereotypically Black names more harshly than students with stereotypically White names. Similarly, teachers felt the students with stereotypically Black names should be disciplined more severely after the second infraction than students with stereotypically White names. “Thus, after only two strikes, racial disparities in discipline emerge” (p. 620). Furthermore, “the more likely teachers were to think the student was Black … the more likely they were to label the student a troublemaker” (p. 620).

Study #2:

Again, teachers’ ratings after the second infraction revealed perceptions that the misbehavior was more severe, more irritating, and more of a hindrance and warranted more severe discipline when the student had a stereotypically Black name. In addition, “the more likely the teachers were to think the student was Black, the more likely they were to label the student a troublemaker” (p. 621) and “the more likely they were to imagine themselves suspending that student in the future” (p. 622).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Though many studies and statistics show Black students are disciplined at higher rates and/or with greater severity, most only show a correlation. However, the findings of this study show a direct causal relationship between race and perceptions of misbehavior. According to Okonofua and Eberhardt, “what we have shown here is that racial disparities in discipline can occur even when Black and White students behave in the same manner. We have shown experimentally, for the first time, that teacher responses can contribute to racial disparities in discipline” (p. 622).

Since teaching is a helping profession, it can be assumed most teachers choose their career out of a desire to help others and make a difference. Like the teachers who participated in this study, though, none of us are immune to implicit bias. All educators must work to heighten awareness of their own implicit biases to help ensure all students are treated fairly and have equal opportunities for success.


This document has lots of helpful information and links to free resources: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PrAq4iBNb4nVIcTsLcNlW8zjaQXBLkWayL8EaPlh0bc/mobilebasic

If you want to become more race-conscious, here are some great books:

In memory of George Floyd and far too many others.

RTRL.42: Music Booster Groups and Funding Inequality (Elpus & Grisé, 2019)

Elpus, K., & Grisé, A. (2019). Music booster groups: Alleviating or exacerbating funding inequality in American public school music education. Journal of Research in Music Education, 67(1), 6-22. 

What did the researchers want to know?

What were key financial and demographic characteristics of U.S. music booster groups in 2015, and how does the amount raised by booster groups relate to household income in the community served?

What did the researchers do?

Elpus and Grisé assembled a dataset from publicly available information. This included IRS nonprofit tax return data from 2015. After going extensive lengths to find and record financial information for 5,575 music booster groups from across the U.S., Elpus and Grisé gathered 2015 U.S. Census data pertaining to the annual household income for the city in which each booster group resided and added this to the database. Finally, they calculated a variety of statistics and conducted statistical analyses to answer their research questions.

The states containing the most booster groups were Texas (n = 846), California (n = 594), and Ohio (n = 431). The state with the fewest was Wyoming (n = 1). Elpus and Grisé identified four groups that earned over $1 million in revenue, all of which were in Texas or California. Close examination showed that the group with the second highest revenue “was responsible for raising funds to provide annual salary and benefits for multiple music teachers in the district’s elementary and middle schools, which would not have had music ensembles in the absence of private fundraising. Many of these funds were raised by mandatory contributions from the families of students enrolled in music education” (p. 16).

To examine the relationship between booster group fundraising and household income, Elpus and Grisé looked at whether each booster group filed a Form 990-N (annual income up to $50,000), a Form 990-EZ (annual income between $50,001 and $199,999), or a full Form 990 (annual income of $200,000 or more). They then recorded the median household income within each booster group’s ZIP code to calculate whether the three filing groups differed in average median household income. ANOVA results showed significant differences between the average median household incomes for all three groups. In other words, music booster groups that raised more funds were more likely to reside in communities with higher median household incomes. Further analysis (fixed effects regression model) revealed that, for every additional $1,000 in local median household income, a Form 990-EZ-filing group raises an additional $305 in revenue while a full Form 990-filing group raises an additional $1,637 in revenue.

What does this mean for my classroom?

While it may be make us feel good to believe that music booster groups provide funding for under-resourced music programs, the reality is that booster groups generating more revenue serve schools in wealthier communities, and community wealth tends to also be correlated with public school funding. Thus, not only do booster groups not level the playing field for under-funded music programs, they actually exacerbate funding inequality.

RTRL.40: Rhythmic Perception in Babies vs. Adults (Hannon & Trehub, 2005)

Hannon, E. E., & Trehub, S. E. (2005). Tuning in to musical rhythms: Infants learn more readily than adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(35), 12639-12643.

What did the researchers want to know?

Given that existing research suggests infants gradually lose the ability to discriminate speech sounds in unfamiliar languages, do we also lose the ability to discriminate rhythmic sounds in unfamiliar meters?

What did the researchers do?

Hannon and Trehub conducted three related experiments using Balkan folk music in isochronous and non-isochronous meters. Isochronous meter is one in which the beats are evenly spaced (e.g., 2/4, 3/4, 6/8), and non-isochronous meter is one in which the beats are not evenly spaced (e.g., 5/8, 7/8).

In experiment #1, they studied 52 infants (11-12 months old) with no prior exposure to Balkan folk music using two isochronous (even meter) melodies and two non-isochronous melodies (uneven meter) melodies. Each melody was accompanied by “a drum pattern that subdivided each measure into either a long-short-short or a short-short-long sequence of temporal intervals” (p. 12640), as shown below in Figure 1. Each test stimulus either preserved or disrupted the original meter.

Rhythmic patterns used by Hannon & Trehub

Each infant was randomly assigned to be familiarized with either the even-meter excerpts or the uneven-meter excerpts. The infant was seated on their parent’s lap in front of two monitors, one of which would flash a red light and then show random documentary video footage while a melody was heard. “Infants were first presented with 2 min of the familiarization stimulus, consisting of four 30-s repetitions [of either the even- or uneven-meter excerpts] alternating between monitors” (p. 12640). Then the test stimuli were played six times each, “with the structure-preserving and structure-disrupting test stimuli alternating between monitors” (p. 12640). Each test ended when the infant looked away for 2 sec or when 60 sec had passed. An observer recorded the total time each infant spent looking at the monitor and not looking at the monitor for each test stimulus.

In experiment #2, parents of 26 infants (11-12 months old) with no previous exposure to Balkan music were given CDs of uneven-meter music from Macedonia, Bulgaria, or Bosnia and asked to play it for their baby twice daily for two weeks. After two weeks, each infant was tested using the same procedures as experiment #1.

In experiment #3, Hannon and Trehub studied 40 adults with no previous exposure to Balkan music. They used the same stimuli as the infants in experiments #1 and #2 and asked the adults to rate each variation according to how similar it was to the familiarization stimulus. Each adult was tested at the beginning and end of the experiment. In the interim, half of the adults were given the CD of uneven-meter music and asked to listen to it twice daily for 1 or 2 weeks.

Results of experiment #1 showed that, for even meter, infants spent significantly more time looking at the monitor while hearing the structure-disrupting stimuli than during the structure-preserving stimuli. This indicates that they were able to perceive the structure-disrupting stimulus as novel/unexpected and thus remained interested longer, suggesting the babies were able to differentiate between the stimuli in even meter. However, looking times did not vary between structure-disrupting and structure-preserving variations in the non-even meter, suggesting that the babies were not able to perceive the differences in non-even meter variations.

Results of experiment #2 showed infants spent significantly more time looking at the monitor while hearing the structure-disrupting stimuli than during the structure-preserving variation for both meters, suggesting that the infants who had been exposed to recordings of music in an uneven meter for two weeks were able to distinguish between the stimuli in a non-isochronous meter.

Results of experiment #3 showed the adults were able to more accurately recognize music in even meters than in uneven meters. In fact, “in the [even] condition, adults tended to rate the structure-disrupting variations as more similar to the original stimulus than the structure-preserving variations” (p. 12642), suggesting that they “assimilated the original [uneven] rhythms into a Western, or isochronous, metrical framework” (p. 12643). While the adults who had listened to recordings of uneven/non-isochronous music performed slightly better on the second test, there was no statistically significant difference from those who had not listened.

“In short, adults failed to attain native-like performance after exposure to foreign musical structures, in contrast with 12-month-old infants, whose postexposure performance in the foreign musical context was equivalent to their preexposure performance in the familiar musical context” (p. 12643).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Results of this study suggest that we lose our ability to accurately perceive unfamiliar meters as we get older. Thus, it is important that infants and young children be exposed to music in a wide variety of meters, both even and uneven, as early as possible. By doing so, we will help preserve their ability to accurately perceive and make sense of rhythms in both even and uneven meters, facilitating greater understanding of music in the future.

Music teachers should be aware that older students may struggle to accurately perceive rhythms in meters beyond duple and triple. If students will be expected to perform repertoire in uneven meters (e.g., 7/8, 5/8), the music teacher should provide extensive opportunities for students to be exposed to music in such meters well in advance of being asked to perform them. 

In addition to passive listening to less familiar meters, students might also be encouraged to move their bodies as they are listening. In his book Learning Sequences in Music, Gordon (2012) suggested that moving with continuous fluid movement—in a smooth and uninterrupted manner—can help us feel the space between the beats and thus prepare us to move to the beat. The music teacher might sing or play a recording of a melody in an uneven meter and ask students to move their torsos and/or various body parts in large, fluid circles as they listen. Other imagery to prompt students to move with flow includes pretending to stir a large pot of soup or pretending to smoothly paint the space around them with a paintbrush. Once students can move in a continuous fluid manner while listening to uneven-metered music, model pulsing or flicking your fingers to the big beats. 

Here are some examples of music in uneven meters:


RTRL.38: Participatory Music-making and Adults’ Musical Identities (Woody, Fraser, Nannen, & Yukevich, 2019)

Woody, R. H., Fraser, A., Nannen, B., Yukevich, P. (2019). Musical identities of older adults are not easily changed: An exploratory study. Music Education Research, 21(3), 315-330.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does engaging in informal, participatory music-making affect adults’ perceptions of their own musicality and their likelihood of engaging in particular musical activities in the future?

What did the researchers do?

Woody, Fraser, Nannen, Yukevich engaged a group of 35-40 individuals in a participatory music-making session at a summer camp/retreat for adults. Unlike presentational music-making, in which there is a clear distinction between performers and audience-members, participatory music groups include everyone present as a participant who is expected to contribute to the music-making (Turino, 2008).

Before the session, 31 adults completed a questionnaire, which included items prompting them to rate their own musicality, how likely they would be to engage in various musical activities, the degree to which musical skills are a result of experience and/or innate talent, and the degree to which various musical skills are something anyone or only a musician can do. Two of the researchers then engaged the participants in the hour-long participatory music-making session, which involved using ukulele and various percussion instruments to play/sing the song “Hey Jude” and focused on enjoyment rather than correctness. Immediately after the session, participants were asked to complete the same items rating their own musicality, likelihood to engage in various musical activities, and beliefs about talent, as well as two additional open-ended questions about the experience. Based on the participants’ open-ended responses, the researchers categorized participants as lower, moderate, or higher self-efficacy regarding the participatory music-making experience.

The participants who had formally studied an instrument considered themselves more musical than those who had not, but they were no more likely to engage in various musical activities overall. (There were no differences between those who had sung in a school choir and those who had not.) Those who had formally studied an instrument were more likely to have lower self-efficacy for the participatory music-making experience, while those who had not formally studied an instrument were more likely to have moderate or high self-efficacy for the participatory music-making.

In comparing the pre- and post-test responses, the researchers only found increased likelihood of engaging in one musical activity—playing a musical instrument informally with family or friends. Those who were categorized as having moderate or high self-efficacy for the experience showed gains in their self-ratings of musicality, while those who were categorized as having low self-efficacy for the experience showed a decrease in their self-ratings of musicality.

What does this mean for my classroom?

“Our results may provide some useful insights for those of us in the music education profession who wish to encourage greater music-making among people. Rather than trying to convince people that they are in fact musical as a precursor to them behaving more musically, perhaps they just need to be engaged in music activities with the assurance that ‘being musical’ is not needed. As they enjoy the artistic, social, and individual rewards of that activity, that behaviour will naturally be reinforced.” (p. 326)

The fact that the musical activity rated as most attainable for the general population was “playing a fretted instrument (e.g. guitar, ukulele, banjo)” and the overall self-reported likelihood of “playing a musical instrument informally with family or friends” increased suggests that informal experiences with playing these instruments may be effective means for helping more people engage with music. According to the authors, participatory music-making “can help encourage a society that better values lifelong musicianship for everyone” (p. 327).


For more on distinctions between participatory music and presentational music-making, see this chapter from Thomas Turino’s (2008) book Music as Social Life.

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.35: Predicting Music Achievement From Sources of Self-Efficacy (Zelenak, 2019)

Zelenak, M. S. (2019). Predicting music achievement from the sources of self-efficacy: An exploratory study. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 222, 63-77.

What did the researcher want to know?

To what extent do various sources of self-efficacy predict music achievement, and how does this relationship vary by ensemble setting, school level, student sex, or years of enrollment in secondary school ensembles?

What did the researcher do?

Zelenak studied 73 band and orchestra students who were auditioning for elite “all-county” ensembles. Self-efficacy was measured via the Music Performance Self-Efficacy Scale (MPSES), which students completed before their auditions. The MPSES, which Zelenak designed and used in two previous research studies, contains 24 items that measure the four sources of self-efficacy:

  • Enactive Mastery Experience: previous experiences of success or failure in an activity
  • Vicarious Experience: using others’ accomplishments to understand one’s own capabilities
  • Verbal/Social Persuasion: others’ expressed opinions of one’s capability
  • Physiological/Affective States: degree and quality of arousal brought on by the task

Music achievement was evaluated using judges’ scores of students’ auditions, which consisted of a prepared exercise, scales, and sight-reading.

What did the researcher find?

Analysis revealed enactive mastery experience to have the strongest relationship to overall self-efficacy. However, verbal/social persuasion was the strongest positive predictor of achievement, followed by enactive mastery experience.

In comparing the relationship between self-efficacy and achievement among various groups of students, Zelenak found a modest significant correlation between these factors among string participants but no significant differences by ensemble type (band/strings), school level (high school/middle school), or sex (female/male). Similarly, Zelenak found no correlation between self-efficacy and years of enrollment in instrumental ensembles.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Zelenak’s finding that verbal/social persuasion was more strongly correlated with achievement than was enactive mastery experience suggests that “musicians may use feedback, critiques, and comments received from others to appraise their ability to complete the performance successfully rather than reflecting on past performance experiences” (p. 72). Therefore, music educators should be aware of the power of their feedback to affect students’ musical self-efficacy and future music achievement.

The kinds of feedback we give students also matters. Zelenak references educational psychology literature that suggests teachers “[emphasize] the ways in which students have done well, [provide] students with reasons to believe that they can be successful in the future, [be] specific when telling students how they can improve their classroom performance, and [communicate] that improvement is likely” (p. 72).

RTRL.34: Relationships Between Tonal Aptitude, Singing Achievement, and Grade Level Among Elementary Students (Hornbach & Taggart, 2005)

Hornbach, C. M., & Taggart, C. C. (2005). The relationship between developmental tonal aptitude and singing achievement among kindergarten, first-, second-, and third-grade students. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(4), 322-331.

What did the researchers want to know?

What is the relationship between developmental tonal music aptitude and singing achievement among elementary students?

What did the researchers do?

Hornbach and Taggart studied tonal aptitude and singing achievement among 162 students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade at two elementary schools in Michigan. Tonal music aptitude was measured using the Primary Measures of Music Audiation (PMMA), a published developmental music aptitude test, which was administered by the general music teachers at the two schools. Singing achievement was measured by asking each individual student to sing a familiar song (“Bow Belinda”); performances were audio-recorded and later assessed by Hornbach, Taggart, and an independent judge using the rating scale shown below.

Analysis showed that mean singing achievement scores tended to increase from kindergarten through second grade and then drop between second and third grades. Mean tonal aptitude scores also increased across grade levels, with one school showing a drop between second and third grades. There were no significant correlations found between singing achievement and developmental tonal aptitude scores at any grade level. While tonal aptitude scores did not differ significantly between the two schools, students from School 2 demonstrated significantly higher singing achievement than students from School 1.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Singing achievement and tonal music aptitude seem to be separate from one another. Therefore, a teacher should not assume that a child who demonstrates low singing achievement has low tonal potential nor that a child who demonstrates high singing achievement necessarily has more “talent” than students with lower singing achievement. The fact that students at one school scored significantly higher in singing achievement that students at the other school (despite there being no significant difference in aptitude scores) suggests “that if singing is taught, students’ singing achievement may improve” (p. 328).

Music educators should also be conscious that a student’s lack of success in demonstrating singing skill may be due to choice rather than inability. The drop in singing achievement from second to third grade among students at both schools “may be the result of issues relating to social rather than musical development” (p. 328). Due to increasing social awareness and/or self-consciousness, third-grade students may have chosen not to use their singing voices, even if they were capable. “Teachers and parents may need to find ways to encourage the valuing of singing voice use by children in the upper grade levels in elementary school, as it may be that peer pressure results in less singing achievement in older children” (p. 328).

RTRL.32: The Association Between Music Aptitude of Elementary Students and Their Biological Parents (Guerrini, 2005)

Guerrini, S. C. (2005). An investigation of the association between the music aptitude of elementary students and their biological parents. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 24(1), 27-33.

What did the researcher want to know?

Is there an association between the music aptitude of children and the music aptitude of their biological parents?

What did the researcher do?

Guerrini compared the music aptitude test scores of 88 elementary school students to those of their biological parents. To measure the children’s music aptitude, their elementary music teacher administered the Primary Measures of Music Audiation (PMMA) or the Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (IMMA) during the students’ regular music class time. Both PMMA and IMMA are published music aptitude tests for children developed by Edwin E. Gordon. To measure the parents’ music aptitude, Guerrini administered the Advanced Measures of Music Audiation (AMMA) to any parent who volunteered to participate. The AMMA is a published music aptitude test for adolescents and adults, also developed by Gordon. Scoring of all tests resulted in measurements of tonal aptitude and rhythm aptitude, as well as a composite music aptitude scores, for each child and parent. Guerrini then completed statistical analyses to compare children’s music aptitude scores to those of their biological parents.

What did the researcher find?

Guerrini found no significant association between children’s music aptitude test scores and those of their biological parents. Tonal, rhythm, and composite scores were categorized into low, medium, and high aptitude groupings for both children and parents, and there were no significant relationships between these categorizations. For example, parents with high tonal aptitude were no more likely to have children with high tonal aptitude than were parents with medium or low tonal aptitude, and a child with low tonal aptitude was equally likely to have a parent with high or low tonal aptitude.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Many persons assume that musical ability is inherited from one’s parents. However, Guerrini’s results do not support this assumption. Those who believe musical ability is inherited tend to conflate music aptitude and music achievement. While music aptitude is one’s potential to achieve musically, music achievement is one’s observable musical ability at a given point in time. In order for one’s music aptitude to manifest as music achievement, it must be nurtured in a rich and supportive musical environment. It is probable that parents who demonstrate high music achievement are likely to provide the type of supportive musical environment that will nurture their children’s music aptitude. This may result in higher levels of observable music achievement among their children than children who lack a rich musical environment at home, making it appear that music is “in their blood.” However, in terms of the “nature versus nurture” debate, “the results of [Guerrini’s] study seem to point to the nurture theory” (p. 31).

For an overview of Gordon’s theory of music aptitude and the published music aptitude tests he developed, click to read his monographs entitled Music Aptitude and Related Tests: An Introduction and Continuing Studies in Music Aptitudes.

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.28: 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.

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.

RTRL.27: Who Enrolls in High School Music? (Elpus & Abril, 2019)


Elpus, K., & Abril, C. R. (2019). Who enrolls in high school music? A national profile of U.S. students, 2009-2013. Journal of Research in Music Education, 67(3), 323-338.

What did the researchers want to know?

What proportion of U.S. high school students enroll in ensemble and non-ensemble music courses, and what are the characteristics of students who enroll in ensemble music courses?

What did the researchers do?

Elpus and Abril utilized existing data on 25,210 high school students gathered via a nationally representative longitudinal study that followed students at 940 U.S. high schools. These data included demographic characteristics (e.g., sex, SES, race/ethnicity, prior academic achievement) as well as information from students’ high school transcripts, including whether they participated in a high school ensemble or non-ensemble music class. Elpus and Abril used bivariate and multivariate statistical analyses to identify demographic characteristics of music and nonmusic students and to investigate the unique impact of each characteristic.

Of the students who graduated in 2013, 24% had enrolled in one or more music ensembles during at least one year of high school. Choir had the largest percentage of participation (13%), followed by band (11%) and orchestra (2%). In terms of non-ensemble courses, only 3% of students had enrolled in a guitar class, 3% in a piano class, and less than 1% in a music technology course.

The table below shows cross-tabulations for the entire sample, ensemble students, and each type of ensemble:

Characteristics of Music Ensemble Students and the Full Population
(Elpus & Abril, 2019)

Statistical analysis revealed that differences between instrumental and non-instrumental were statistically significant in every characteristic except birth-assigned assigned sex. In contrast, choir students did not differ significantly from non-choir students for any characteristic except for birth-assigned sex.

In order to investigate the unique impact of each demographic characteristic, Elpus and Abril used logistic regression, which is a statistical analysis that attempts to “control for” (i.e., remove the effects of) certain variables. These results showed that the probability of enrolling in an ensemble music class increases with SES as well as with prior academic achievement (as measured by a standardized algebra test). However, the latter was not true for Black/African American students, for whom “the likelihood of ensemble enrollment decreases as academic achievement increases” (p. 331).

It is also interesting to note that the effects of SES and prior academic achievement were not significant among choir students. When looking at each type of ensemble separately, SES only predicted enrollment among band vs. non-band students, while prior academic achievement only predicted enrollment among instrumental vs. non-instrumental students. With the exception of gender, choral students were more representative of the larger student population than band/orchestra students.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Elpus and Abril’s findings confirm that ensemble music courses are the most prevalent music offerings among U.S. high schools. We need to continue to think about how we might attract more students to participate in school music through non-ensemble courses. However, band and orchestra are disproportionately likely to enroll students of higher SES and higher prior academic achievement. Therefore, Elpus and Abril state, “the problem may not be in increasing the number of students in music courses (which is commonly heard in professional rhetoric) so much as ensuring that music courses are attracting a representative and wide cross-section of the general student population” (p. 334). As music educators, we can be aware of which types of students may tend to be less likely to enroll in ensemble music classes and actively work to recruit these students. 

Additionally, it is worth contemplating possible reasons why choir enrollment tends to be more reflective of the general population. Elpus and Abril suggest several possibilities:

  • The versatility of the singing voice and wide range of cultures and styles in choral music “might be more attractive to students from varying cultural backgrounds” (p. 335)
  • Choir may be “more readily available as an avenue of ensemble music-making for those high school students who, for any of a variety of reasons, did not begin to develop proficiency on a band or orchestra instrument in their earlier schooling” (p. 335).
  • “Choirs may require less time commitment and financial demands than band, which possibly makes them more attractive to students who have familial or work commitments and those of more limited financial means” (p. 335).

Based on these speculations, the following types of questions warrant reflection:

  • How might we increase the appeal and relevance of music course offerings to students from varying cultural backgrounds?
  • How might we provide avenues of entry into high school instrumental music classes for students who haven’t previously participated?
  • What time, financial, or other constraints may deter some students from participating in ensemble music classes? 
    • Are we being reasonable with the amount of time we expect from students outside of regular school hours?
      • Might our attendance and/or grading policies unfairly penalize students with work or family commitments?
      • Do we make the effort to truly listen to and take into consideration a student’s personal situation when they have a conflict?
    • What might be all the monetary costs—both obvious and hidden—to instrumental music participation (e.g., instrument rental/purchase, uniform fees, reeds and other supplies, private lessons)?
      • How realistic are these costs for students of lower SES? 
      • How might we help find ways to ease this financial burden and ensure that every student has the opportunity to participate and be successful in instrumental music?

RTRL.26: Singing Ability, Musical Self-concept, and Future Music Participation (Demorest, Kelley, & Pfordresher, 2017)

What did the researchers want to know?

What factors predict students’ decisions whether to participate in elective music classes?

What did the researchers do?

Demorest, Kelley, and Pfordresher surveyed 319 sixth-grade students (95% of the population) from five elementary schools that feed the same junior high in the Pacific Northwest. Students completed two questionnaires; one asked questions pertaining to their musical and family background, and the other measured their attitudes and beliefs about music participation, including their musical self-concept and perceived costs of participating in music. After students registered for their seventh-grade classes (since music study became elective in seventh grade in this school district), the researchers compared each student’s decision whether to continue participating in school music to their survey results.

The researchers conducted a second study in which they randomly sampled 55 of the 319 sixth graders to complete a singing assessment, in which students were asked to sing the song “Happy Birthday” as well as echo-sing various pitches, intervals, and patterns. Singing accuracy was compared to students’ decisions whether to participate in music and to their questionnaire responses.

Students who elected to participate in a music class reported “significantly higher perceptions of musical self-concept than those who did not . . . ; were more likely to be influenced by peers in their participation choices . . . ; and believed more strongly that music is not a barrier to other activities” (p. 410). Further analysis revealed that musical self-concept, peer influence, and family musical engagement were the strongest predictors of students’ decisions whether to participate in music.

Statistical analysis showed no significant difference in singing accuracy between those who elected to participate in music and those who did not. Comparison to questionnaire responses revealed that “musical self-concept was the only unique predictor of singing accuracy” (p. 414).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Music teachers should be aware that musical self-concept is strongly related to students’ future musical participation and consider monitoring students’ musical self-concepts “to identify students who may be feeling less positive about their musicality. If caught early enough, perhaps teachers could provide opportunities for students to improve their self- perceptions of musicality. . . . If we as a profession are interested in expanding the number of children who choose to continue elective music instruction, we should continue to explore how singing skill and musical self-concept interact throughout a child’s early development and what experiences might encourage improvement in both attributes” (p. 417).

In Memoriam

Dr. Steven M. Demorest

August 24, 1959 – September 22, 2019

With gratitude for his many contributions to the music education profession

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.20: School Music Participation and Lifelong Arts Engagement (Elpus, 2018)

Elpus, K. (2018). Music education promotes lifelong engagement with the arts. Psychology of Music, 46(2), 155-173.

What did the researcher want to know?

Does participation in school-based music education affect the likelihood that students will engage in music performance or attend musical events as adults?

What did the researcher do?

Elpus analyzed data from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. To examine musical creation/performance, he looked at respondents’ answers to items that asked whether they had played a musical instrument or performed/practiced any singing (alone or with others) in the previous 12 months. To examine music patronage, he examined respondents’ answers to items that asked whether they had attended live performance of classical music/opera or live jazz in the previous 12 months.

Elpus analyzed this data in relation to whether respondents participated in school music education (performance and/or appreciation). Elpus treated the study as quasi-experimental, using observable covariates to adjust for selection bias. In other words, he took into consideration the respondents’ answers to the following:

  • race/ethnicity
  • gender
  • education level
  • parent’s education level
  • household income (above or below $50,000)
  • region of the U.S. in which they lived

What did the researcher find?

According to descriptive statistics, 28% of respondents had participated in school-based music education. In the year prior to the survey, only 13% had attended live classical music/opera, 13% had played an instrument, and 10% had sung.

Those who had participated in school-based music education (performance or appreciation) were two to three times more likely to to play an instrument or sing as adults. Interestingly, there was no significant relationship between household income and musical creation/performance (after controlling for other variables). However, Elpus found that those with higher levels of education and those whose parents had attained higher levels of education were more likely to play an instrument, which corresponds with existing notions “that children of higher socioeconomic status (SES) parents are more likely to pursue instrumental music education, with parental education serving … as a blunt proxy for respondents’ family SES in childhood” (p. 165).

Those who participated in school-based music performance classes were 35% more likely to have attended classical music or opera performance than those who hadn’t participated in performance classes, while those who had taken music appreciation classes were 93% more likely to attend these events than those who hadn’t taken music appreciation classes. The likelihood that respondents had attended classical music/opera events increased significantly with education level; those holding bachelor’s degrees were over five times more likely to attend these performances than those with no high school diploma.

Compared to White respondents, African American adults were significantly less likely to report that they played an instrument or had attended classical music/opera but were 244% more likely to have attended live jazz.

What does this mean for my classroom?

If one of our aims as music educators is to foster in our students a lifelong connection with the arts, Elpus’s findings can reassure us that this goal is indeed being achieved for many. Furthermore, if we wish to increase lifelong engagement with the arts, we must be sure that all students have access to high-quality music education. 

However, the topics examined in this study focused on Euro-centric art music, with popular/vernacular forms of music largely ignored. We must continue to examine the kinds of musical experiences we offer in schools, who may or may not choose to participate in the courses offered, and how we might broaden our concept of school music to engage and better serve more students.

RTRL.19: Tonal & Metric Variety In Elementary General Music Textbooks (Lange, 2009)

Lange, D. M. (2009). An examination of the tonalities and meters in 21st-century elementary music textbooks. The GIML Audea, 14(2), 7-10.

What did the researcher want to know?

What tonalities (i.e., modes) and meters are prevalent in commonly-used elementary music textbooks?

What did the researcher do?

Lange examined two major textbook series: Making Music (2006) published by Silver Burdett and Spotlight on Music (2006) published by McGraw-Hill. For each series, she compiled a list of every song that appeared at each grade level (1-5) along with the tonality and meter of each song.

What did the researcher find?

The majority of songs featured in these common elementary music textbooks were in major tonality.  As shown in Tables 1-2, the percentage of songs in major tonality ranged from 57% to 87%. The next most common tonality was pentatonic (3-31%), followed by minor (3-16%). There were few to no songs in other tonalities, such as Dorian or Mixolydian.

The majority of songs featured in common elementary music textbooks were in duple meter. As shown in Tables 3-4, the percentage of songs in duple meter ranged from 80% to 94%. The next most common meter was triple (6-18%). Few to no songs were in uneven meters (such as 5/8 or 7/8) or were multi-metric.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Exposing children to songs in a variety of tonalities and meters enriches their musical vocabularies. However, if music teachers wish to include a variety of tonalities/meters in their classrooms, they will need to look outside of the most commonly-used elementary general music textbook series. Below are some resources for songs/chants in a wide variety of tonalities and meters:

If you are unfamiliar with the term “tonalities,” you can find more information and examples here:

RTRL.18: Male and Female Photographic Representation in 50 years of Music Educators Journal (Kruse, Giebelhausen, Shouldice, & Ramsey, 2015)

Kruse, A. J., Giebelhausen, R., Shouldice, H. N., & Ramsey, A. L. (2015). Male and female photographic representation in 50 years of Music Educators Journal. Journal of Research in Music Education, 62(4), 485-500.

What did the researchers want to know?

What was the gender makeup of photographs depicting adults in implied positions of authority in Music Educators Journal (MEJ) during the years 1962-2011?

What did the researchers do?

Between the four of them, Kruse, Giebelhausen, Shouldice, and Ramsey examined each photograph in every issue of MEJ during the 50-year time period and tallied the number of photographs depicting adults in three categories: (1) conductors/directors, (2) teachers/presenters, and (3) named persons (e.g., head shots, posed group photos). More specifically, the researchers calculated the percentage of photographs showing adult men and adult women in each role. 

Note: Because gender could not be ascertained in terms of each individual’s identity, the researchers had to assume gender based on clothing, hairstyle, and/or name. Gender was indeterminate in 0.53% of the total 7,288 photographs depicting adults in the three categories. For more specific details regarding data collection and analysis procedures for this study, see the full article, which is available for free to NAfME members by logging in at https://nafme.org/my-classroom/journals-magazines/.

Of the 7,288 total photographs featured in issues of MEJ during the years 1962-2011, 71.4% featured men in positions of implied authority while only 28.1% featured women. Although female representation increased over time, the percentage of photographs depicting women only exceeded 40% in 9 of the 50 years.

Of the 871 photographs of conductors, 79% were male. While the percentage of female conductors pictured has gradually increased, women still made up only 30.1% of conductors pictured during the years 2002-2011, and there was not a single female conductor depicted in MEJ in 2001. Of the 4,813 photographs of named persons, 80% were male, with photographs of named persons in the most recent 10 years (2002-2011) being 69% male. In contrast, women made up 56% of the 1,608 photographs of teachers/presenters over the 50 years. 

What does this mean for my classroom?

“Visual images play a powerful role in the construction of one’s identity…. When a woman opens her professional journal and views photographs that predominantly portray males rather than females in these positions of implied authority, it may hinder her ability to imagine herself as a potential holder of these positions. Thus, a lack of equitable visual representation of females can be detrimental to women’s identity development and navigation as music educators” (p. 493).

“Music educators can be more sensitive to the representations they are encountering as well as those they are presenting in their classrooms. Teachers might consciously consider the images they view in journals and the impact that representation in these images might have on their perceptions of gender roles for both adults and students in the field of music education. In doing so, teachers can develop their awareness of issues of representation and stereotyping and apply this critical awareness to the images they are using in their own classrooms” (pp. 497-498).

RTRL.17: Successful Sight-singing Strategies (Killian & Henry, 2005)

Killian, J. N., & Henry, M. L. (2005). A comparison of successful and unsuccessful strategies in individual sight-singing preparation and performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(1), 51-65.

What did the researchers want to know?

What observable strategies or characteristics are associated with high-, medium-, or low-accuracy among high school sight-singers?

What did the researchers do?

Participants were 198 singers in two high school choir camps designed to help prepare students for Texas all-state choir competition. Killian and Henry recorded each participant sight-singing two melodies—one in which they were given 30 seconds to prepare and one in which there was no preparation time. Each student’s performances were audio-recorded and later scored for accuracy, which Killian and Henry used to classify them into high-, medium-, and low-accuracy groups. The researchers also viewed videos of each student’s preparation and compiled a list of observed behaviors, which included the following:

  1. pitch strategies (tonicizing, using Curwen hand signs, using solfege or numbers)
  2. rhythm strategies (keeping a beat in the body)
  3. overall strategies (tempo, starting over, isolating trouble spots)

Participants also completed a survey to provide demographic information, such as age, voice part, and sight-singing practice habits.

Strategies associated with higher sight-singing accuracy for either condition included tonicizing (vocally establishing the key), physically keeping the beat, and using hand signs. Students who performed with more accuracy were also more likely to state that they practice sight-singing individually and/or that their director tests sight-singing individually.

Note: Killian and Henry’s complete findings, including the effect of preparation time and other demographic differences associated with sight-singing accuracy, can be accessed in the full article, which is available for free to NAfME members at https://nafme.org/my-classroom/journals-magazines/.

What does this mean for my classroom?

If we wish to improve our students’ sight-singing abilities, modeling and practicing strategies such as tonicizing (establishing the key), physically keeping the beat, and using hand signs may help. For example, tonicizing before any type of singing will strengthen students’ audiation and recognition of where the tonal center is, thus helping them sing with a more accurate sense of pitch. This could be done by arpeggiating the tonic chord or singing a quick “tune-up” in the appropriate key.

Tune-up/Sequence of Tones in D Major

If sight-singing is an important skill we wish our students to have, we should also consider encouraging them to practice sight-singing on their own and holding them accountable through individual sight-singing tests.

RTRL.16: Adults’ Recognition of Young Children’s Musical Behaviors (Reese, 2013)

Reese, J. A. (2013). Adult identification of music behaviors demonstrated by young children. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 198, 51-67.

What did the researcher want to know?

Do adults’ backgrounds affect their recognition of young children’s musical behaviors?

What did the researcher do?

Participants were 24 child development teachers (not music specialists), 24 early childhood music teachers, and 24 professional musicians (not early childhood music specialists). Reese showed each participant a video of adults interacting musically with young children (ages 5-15 months) and asked them to indicate every time they saw or heard a child demonstrating a behavior that made musical sense or that seemed intentionally musical. Such behaviors may have included looking responses, vocalizations, and movement.

What did the researcher find?

The early childhood music teachers identified significantly more music behaviors than did the child development teachers and the professional musicians. However, the professional musicians did not identify significantly more music behaviors than did the child development teachers. Furthermore, while all three groups tended to agree in recognizing beat-related movements as musical behaviors, vocalizations were less likely to be identified as musical behaviors by the professional musicians and child development teachers. Reese’s findings suggest it is not just musical expertise that enables a person to recognize young children’s musical behaviors but a greater awareness and understanding of how children develop musically and what “counts” as a musical response.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Young children’s language development is facilitated when adults interact with them in ways that recognize and extend their emerging language behaviors. Similarly, young children’s musical development is facilitated when adults interact with them in ways that recognize and extend their emerging musical behaviors. The more adept a person (such as a music teacher or parent/guardian) is at understanding and recognizing musical behaviors in young children, the more opportunities for musical interactions they will recognize and pursue, thus facilitating the child’s further musical development.

Similar to language babble, young children also exhibit “music babble,” in which they make musical sounds or movements that do not yet seem “correct” (e.g., in tune and in rhythm). However, this music babble is a sign that the child is responding to, exploring, and experimenting with music, which are necessary precursors to making music in a more traditionally recognizable way. Music teachers and parents/guardians should be alert for music babble and other musical behaviors and responses in young children and respond to them in ways that extend the music-making and thus further the child’s musical development.

Some examples of tonal babble (from my daughter!):

Example of tonal babble/vocalization in a 4-month-old
Example of tonal babble/vocalization in a 4-month-old
Example of tonal babble/vocalization in a 7-month-old

For more information on music babble and guiding musical development in young children:

RTRL.13: Gender Representation in Early Childhood Songs (Dansereau, 2014)

Dansereau, D. R. (2014). Considering gender: Representation in early childhood songs and implications for practice. Perspectives: Journal of the Early Childhood Music & Movement Association, 9(3), 10-13. 

What did the researcher want to know?

What gender representation exists in early childhood music curricular song material?

What did the researcher do?

Dansereau examined a sample of commonly used early childhood music education curricular materials, such as those created by Kindermusik, Music Together, and Feierabend. She analyzed songs, chants, and poems in which the lyrics referred to a human or animal character, calculating whether each was male-dominant, female-dominant, represented both genders equally, or was gender-neutral. Of the 953 songs analyzed, 299 featured lyrics that were either male- or female-dominant.

What did the researcher find?

Significantly more male characters were represented in early childhood music materials than female characters. Of the 299 songs, chants, and poems examined by Dansereau that were either male- or female-dominant, 65.2% featured male characters and 34.8% featured female characters.

What does this mean for my classroom?

If there tends to be an underrepresentation of female characters in the songs included in popular early childhood music materials as Dansereau’s findings suggest, “children are likely hearing, singing, and learning songs that favor males” in early childhood music settings (p. 12). Underrepresentation of female characters in children’s literature and media has been deemed problematic because it can limit children’s developing identities and send a message that females are less valued. It stands to reason that gender representation in children’s songs may have similar effects. Teachers who wish to provide balanced gender representation in their classrooms will need to make concerted efforts when choosing the songs they will teach their students. “Altering song texts in order to achieve balance or presenting equal numbers of male- and female-dominant songs to children are two strategies for addressing this inequality” (p. 12).

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.11: “The Effect of Vocal Modeling on Pitch-Matching Accuracy of Elementary Schoolchildren” (Green, 1990)

Green, G. A. (1990). The effect of vocal modeling on pitch-matching accuracy of elementary schoolchildren. Journal of Research in Music Education, 38(3), 225-231.

What did the researcher want to know?

Does children’s pitch-matching accuracy vary depending on whether the vocal model is female, male, or a child?

What did the researcher do?

Green tested the pitch-matching ability of 282 children in grades 1 through 6. Each individual student was prompted to echo a recording of the tonal pattern sol-mi (G-E above middle C) on a neutral syllable (“la”) on three separate occasions: once in response to a female vocal model, once in response to a male vocal model, and once in response to a child vocal model. Three judges then used a tuner to evaluate the accuracy of each pitch as correct, sharp, or flat.

What did the researcher find?

The child vocal model prompted the highest number of correct responses, and the male vocal model prompted the lowest number of correct responses.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Children may more easily match pitch when the timbre of the vocal model is similar to their own voice. Similarly, some children may struggle with matching pitch in response to an adult male voice due to the octave transfer. If an individual student is struggling to accurately sing pitches modeled by the teacher, consider asking a strong singer to repeat the prompt and then have the struggling student echo their classmate.

RTRL.10: “Testing the Beneficial Effects of Singing in a Choir on Mood and Stress” (Linnemann, Schnersch, & Nater, 2017)

Linnemann, A., Schnersch, A., & Nater, U. M. (2017). Testing the beneficial effects of singing in a choir on mood and stress in a longitudinal study: The role of social contacts. Musicae Scientiae, 21(2), 195-212. 

What did the researchers want to know?

Can singing in a choir enhance mood and reduce stress? If so, do these effects increase over time, and/or are they associated with social contacts within the choir?

What did the researchers do?

Linnemann, Schnersch, and Nater studied 44 singers in an amateur university choir that rehearsed one evening per week for the duration of a semester. The participants completed a mood assessment questionnaire before and after each rehearsal, in which they rated their stress on a scale of 1-100 and rated their mood on six visual scales pertaining to three dimensions: calmness (agitated — calm; relaxed — tense), valence (unwell — well; content — discontent), and energetic arousal (tired — awake; full of energy — without energy). To explore connections between mood/stress and social contacts, participants were also asked to create a “social network map” (in which they indicated the number of their close friends, friends, and acquaintances who were also in the choir) and to rate their perceived social support within the choir. The researchers used a complex analysis called hierarchical linear modeling to compare each participant’s pre- and post-rehearsal scores as well as change throughout the semester.

There were statistically significant differences in participants’ calmness and valence before and after choir rehearsals. On average, participants felt more calm and relaxed after choir rehearsals, as well as more content and well. There was also a statistically significant difference in pre- and post-rehearsal subjective stress levels, with participants generally reporting less stress after choir rehearsals than before.

There was no statistically significant increase in feelings of calmness and valence over time. However, participants did report feeling more energetic after choir as time went on, yet they reported feeling less awake (possibly due to the 10pm rehearsal ending time). Further examination of fluctuations over time indicates that participants actually experienced an increase in stress, discontent, and feeling unwell after rehearsals immediately preceding the first performance.

Number or type of social connections in the choir was not significantly related to changes in mood or stress.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Results of this study suggest that singing in a choir can have positive effects on mood and stress level, and these benefits may not be due simply to social connections with other choir members, as previous researchers have suggested. Music teachers should be aware of these benefits, share these benefits with others (e.g., students, parents, administrators), and encourage students to participate in singing. However, teachers should be mindful that rehearsals leading up to a performance can lead to increased stress and negative feelings among choir members and be sensitive to this when preparing for a performance.

RTRL.08: “An Examination of Music Teacher Job Interview Questions” (Juchniewicz, 2016)

Juchniewicz, J. (2016). An examination of music teacher job interview questions. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 26(1), 56-58.

What did the researcher want to know?

What do principals think are the most important questions to ask when interviewing prospective music teachers? Does a principal’s school level, setting, or years of experience affect which interview questions they believe are more important?

What did the researcher do?

Juchniewicz surveyed 405 principals in North Carolina via an online questionnaire. Respondents were asked to rate the importance of 27 given interview questions and were provided an opportunity to list any additional questions they believed were important.

What did the researcher find?

The top three interview questions rated as most important by principals overall were:

  • “How will you connect with your students?”
  • “Tell me what I’ll see happening in your classroom.”
  • “How would you make sure students are successful in music?” 

This table shows the rankings and mean ratings of the top 20 most important interview questions (p. 62):


Principals rated each question on a 5-point scale
(1 = “not important at all” to 5 = “very important”).

Perceived importance of questions did not vary significantly by principals’ school level (elementary, middle school, or high school), setting (urban, suburban, or rural), or years of experience (5 or more years or less than 5 years). Among the free responses provided, “integrating other subjects into the music classroom” and “team player/colleague” emerged as common themes.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Regardless of whether you are applying for a music teaching job in an elementary, middle, or high school or in an urban, suburban, or rural area, certain questions are likely to be asked in the interview.  “Music teacher candidates should pay particular attention and be prepared to respond to several of the interview questions … rated as very important by principals of the present study” (Juchniewicz, 2016, p. 66).

RTRL.07: “Teachers’ Beliefs Regarding Composition in Elementary General Music” (Shouldice, 2014)

Shouldice, H. N. (2014). Teachers’ beliefs regarding composition in elementary general music: Definitions, values, and impediments. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(2), 215-230.

What did the researcher want to know?

How do elementary music teachers define composition, what relationships exist between their beliefs about the importance of composition and their use of composition, why do they believe composing is valuable, and what prevents them from incorporating more composition in their classrooms?

What did the researcher do?

Shouldice surveyed 176 elementary general music teachers from across Michigan via an online questionnaire, which included items such as the following:

  • Please describe the characteristics of music composition. (e.g., What is composition? What does it entail?) 
  • Why do you feel composition is or isn’t important for elementary music students? 
  • What influences your decision to NOT incorporate composition in elementary general music? (OR what influences you to not incorporate composition more frequently?) 

What did the researcher find?

Definitions of Composition:

Many teachers agreed that composition involves creating, self-expression, and replication.  However, they differed in their beliefs about the complexity of composition and/or whether it requires notation.  While some teachers believed that composition involves the creation of a complete piece of music, others believed it could be as simple as creating a melody or an ostinato pattern.  Similarly, while some believed that composition by nature involves the notating of musical ideas, others believed it could be strictly aural/by ear.

Use and Importance/Value of Composition:

Teachers’ use of composition increased with grade level.

There was a positive correlation between teachers’ beliefs about the importance of composition and their use of composition.  Teachers who believed composition was more important were more likely to include it in their teaching and to do so more frequently than teachers who believed composition was less important.  Many teachers expressed beliefs that composition is valuable because it helps students develop, demonstrate, and apply their understanding of musical concepts and skills; develops creativity; allows self-expression; and lets students take ownership of their music-making.

Impediments to Composition:

When asked what keeps them from doing more composing with their students, many teachers mentioned time (amount of contact time with students and/or feeling that composition takes too long).  Another common struggle cited was logistics, including large class sizes and a lack of resources (e.g., instruments, technology).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Elementary music teachers who don’t believe composition is important may be less likely to provide their students with composing experiences.  Therefore, helping teachers see the value of composing may increase the likelihood they will teach it!  Click below to view a presentation slide deck for this study, which includes direct quotes from teachers who participated about why they believe composition is important:

Teachers’ conceptions of composition likely influence whether, when, and/or how they teach it.  Given that more teachers in this study incorporated composing into later grade levels than early grade levels, it might be because many believe composition must be complex and/or notated, whereas teachers who incorporate composing in early grade levels may be more likely to do so in simple, aural/ear-based ways.

Broadening teachers’ conceptions of composition may help alleviate perceived impediments.  How might elementary music teachers incorporate composing in ways that are simple, quick, don’t involve notation, and don’t require instruments/technology? 

Ideas for Aural Composition:

Composing a Melody for a Familiar Chant:
  1. Review a familiar chant, such as “Engine, Engine” while moving to big/little beats.
  2. Choose and establish tonality and sing several tonal patterns for the class to echo. Then invite students to improvise a tonal pattern that is different from yours. Repeat several times to “get the musical juices flowing.”
  3. Invite students to improvise tonal patterns to use in the song, practicing each phrase as it is created. (Tip: I find it helpful to notate/dictate students’ ideas on the board as they create them so that I can help them retain/replicate their melody.)
Sample class melody for the chant “Engine, Engine”
Composing a Melody for a Poem:
  1. Choose a simple poem (like “The Mule” below). Have the class try chanting the chosen poem in duple meter while moving to big/little beats. Then try chanting the poem in triple meter while moving to big/little beats. Invite the class to vote to choose meter.
  2. After deciding the meter, try chanting the poem while teacher accompanies with I/V chords in major tonality. Then try chanting while teacher accompanies with I/V chords in minor tonality. Invite the class to vote to choose tonality.
  3. Optional: Sing a few tonic/dominant tonal patterns in the chosen tonality for the class to echo. Then ask the class to sing back a few patterns that are different from yours. (I find that this step helps prepare the students to improvise melodically in the next step.)
  4. Invite the class to try improvising pitches for “Voice of the mule” as a group. Invite an individual student to share their idea, and have the class echo. Have class sing again and then add on a group improvisation for “bray.” Invite another individual student to share an idea, and have the class try echoing. Continue adding on new improvisations until you have an entire composed melody! (Tip: I find it helpful to notate/dictate students’ ideas on the board as they create them so that I can help them retain/replicate their melody.)


“The Mule” by Douglas Florian

Voice of the mule: bray.

Hue of the mule: bay.

Fuel of the mule: hay.

Rule of the mule: stay.

Melody for “The Mule” composed by one 3rd grade class
Another version of “The Mule” composed by a second 3rd grade class

Shout-out to Jennifer Bailey, music teacher in the Farmington (MI) Public Schools, for this idea! Visit Jennifer’s website (www.singtokids.com) for more great teaching ideas.

Any children’s poem can work for this composition project, but Jennifer shared with me the poems of Douglas Florian, featured in books such as Beast Feast, Mammalabilia (which includes “The Mule”), and Insectlopedia After composing a few as a class, I would then let the students work in small groups to choose a poem and create a melody for it using the same process. I would give the students this checklist I created as a guide:

Once each group decided on their poem, I highlighted the text using two colors to indicate a harmonic progression. One color represented tonic and the other represented dominant. The groups would use the color-coding to play chords (on a Q-chord, iPad in Garage Band, etc.) when choosing their tonality and composing their melody. Here is an example of a color-coded poem:

Because this project took several days to complete, the groups would record their progress with an audio-recording device (e.g., small digital audio recorder, voice memos, etc.) at the end of each class and then listen to their recording at the beginning of the next class to get their melodies back in their heads. When the groups were done, they recorded a final version of their melody, which I uploaded to our music program website and also burned onto CDs for each student, titling the album “John Doe Elementary School’s Carnival of the Animals.” Here is a video of one group practicing their composition:

Third grade students working on their small group composition

Here is their finished audio recording:

Here is another group’s version of the same poem (Douglas Florian’s “The Tiger”):

Poem (“The Tiger”) by Douglas Florian, Melody by 3rd grade students

And here is one more final version of another poem (Douglas Florian’s “The Whale”):

Poem (“The Whale”) by Douglas Florian, Melody by 3rd grade students
Other Simple Composing Ideas?
  • Have students create a four-beat rhythm (chant on “bah” or play on an unpitched percussion instrument) to perform as a rhythmic ostinato to accompany a song/chant. (For more challenge/extension, have students add rhythm syllables to their ostinato and/or notate it.)
  • Combine a created rhythm with the bassline/chord roots to a familiar song to create a harmonic accompaniment. (For more on basslines/chord roots and teaching them, see this post.)
  • Create a variation of a familiar song by improvising a new tonal pattern to replace a repeated pattern in a song.

For many more ideas as well as how to help better prepare your elementary students for composing, see my 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.

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

RTRL.02: “Elementary Students’ Definitions and Self-Perceptions of Being a ‘Good Musician’” (Shouldice, 2014)


Shouldice, H. N. (2014). Elementary students’ definitions and self-perceptions of being a ‘good musician.’ Music Education Research, 16(3), 330-345.

What did the researcher want to know?

What do elementary students believe it means to be a “good musician” and to what extent do they perceive themselves to be “good musicians?” 

What did the researcher do?

Shouldice (2014) individually interviewed 347 students in grades one through four.  The students answered questions pertaining to the kinds of things a good musician can do, how one knows if a person is a good musician, and who can be a good musician. At the conclusion of each interview, each student was asked to choose the statement that best described him/herself (see scale in Figure 1) and explain why.

What did the researcher find?

While students across all grade levels most commonly described a “good musician” as someone who plays an instrument, practices, and/or sings well, other characteristics fluctuated across grade levels, suggesting that students’ perceptions of what it means to be a “good musician” may change over time in relation to their own experiences.  Statistical analysis showed that students in grade one perceived themselves as better musicians than did students in upper grade levels, indicating that elementary students’ perceptions of their own musical ability may diminish as they get older.

Qualitative analysis of the data revealed that some children’s ability self-perceptions were based on how they believed others perceived their abilities, such as a first-grade girl who knew she was a good musician “because my [music] teacher always picks me first” (p. 336), or were reached as a result of comparing themselves to others.  A number of students believed that innate musical talent is necessary in order for a person to be a “good musician;” their comments included the belief that “only some people are born with the talent” and “either you got it or you don’t” (p. 339).  Additionally, responses from some students implied the belief that skill in certain musical genres or modes of music making do not qualify one as a “good musician,” such as one second-grade boy’s statement that rappers and beat-boxers cannot be good musicians and that he himself was not a good musician despite describing himself as a “rapping pro.”

What does this mean for my classroom?

Elementary music teachers should be aware of the tendency for students’ musical ability self-perceptions to diminish over time and work to help students maintain positive musical identities as they get older.  Teachers also should be aware of the ways in which they might inadvertently communicate their own judgments of students’ musical abilities and/or beliefs about the value of certain musical genres or modes of musicking.  Additionally, teachers can encourage students to focus on effort and practice as determinants of musical ability rather than emphasizing innate musical talent.  

Note: 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.

RTRL.01:“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.