Improvisation in the Aural Curriculum: An Imperative

October 1, 1997

Improvisation has long been a part of the music curriculum, at least in certain areas of study. It is a staple of jazz studies where students learn the skill through ensembles and specific courses. Organists are taught improvisation as a means of addressing service playing needs, such as creating bridges, accompanying, and modulating. Recent interest in improvisation is evidenced by an increasing number of publications about this topic by musicians and psychologists, as well as the Handbook of NASM (the National Association of Schools of Music) where there is a recommendation that music students develop improvisational and compositional skills. Improvisation is important because it is able to fuse the three primary musical activities of composition, performance, and critical listening/analysis; it involves all three simultaneously. One area in which improvisation could be incorporated into the music curriculum and which would reach all music majors is aural training. Improvisation in aural pedagogy should not be just a discretionary choice but an essential component; theories of learning and cognition are demonstrating that a skill like improvisation has the potential to be the catalyst for a level of aural synthesis and understanding not being attained by more traditional means.


The Imperative As Based on Theories of Learning and Cognition

Recent research studies in cognition and learning theory, specifically in the areas of constructivism and schema theory, have revealed that meaningful knowledge acquisition of complex concepts cannot occur unless learners interact with these concepts in an active environment. That is, learners cannot be expected to comprehend the complexity of musical elements and their integration, nor can they be expected to transfer musical knowledge and skills to real-life situations unless they have the opportunity to work actively with these elements in some mode of performance.


Learning by Doing in Real-World Contexts

The importance of learning by doing has long been recognized by writers such as the psychologist Jean Piaget, who expressed the idea that concepts are never truly assimilated into one's working knowledge unless they have first been reformed or rediscovered by some activity. A more recent psychologist, Carl Rogers, believed that significant learning is acquired through doing. Much of what we have learned has been acquired in an experiential context, whether it is bike riding, basics of cooking, car repair, or baseball. When we learned to ride a bike, we did not study its history, learn the names of all its parts, or explore the physics of wheels and motion. Nor did we learn this skill sequentially, spending a week on braking, then a week on steering, and so forth. And yet, as adults, even if we do not ride for several years, we have no doubt that we can still demonstrate this skill, exhibiting remarkable retention of understood physics concepts and sophisticated kinesthetic achievement.

The instruction transmitted daily in written and aural theory classrooms does seem to show less effective retention than those early bike-riding lessons. As instructors, we often treat knowledge as an end rather than as means to important ends. Furthermore, information stored as facts often cannot be spontaneously used to solve problems; traditional instruction often fails to produce the kinds of knowledge transfer to real-world situations that most educators would like to see. In fact, the way in which individual concepts and theories are initially learned seems to play an important role in the degree to which this information is used later on.1

Concepts and skills learned in the classroom are often presented with a narrow focus, in artificial contexts that are foreign to the ways in which the knowledge is expected to be used in real-world situations, and this is often true of aural pedagogy. Knowledge is "situated;" that is, it is a part of the activity, context, and culture in which it is initially acquired.2 If concepts are initially learned with a narrow focus or in a sterile, out-of-context manner, then they will not be serviceable in a more complex, real-world environment. There is a significant difference in knowing how to respond on a test and being able to use a skill when one is engaged in an actual problem-solving situation. David Jonassen advocates "cognitive apprenticeships" for teaching in real-life contexts with case-based or problem-based learning.3 Joanna Dunlap and Scott Grabinger have proposed REALs—"rich environments for active learning." REALs involve contexts and activities which are complex or "information-rich," like real-world situations; their proposed learning environments are characterized by experimentation, creativity, and looking at topics or concepts from multiple perspectives.4 Preparing students to function in a professional sphere demands that we teach them to think about or aurally comprehend music like experts, and to do this means training them in an expert arena. The cognitive demands required of classroom activities need to be consistent with the cognitive demands of the environment for which we are preparing musicians.


Constructing and Integrating Complex Knowledge

The difficulty of students' being able to transfer knowledge from one situation to another is further addressed by the theory of constructivist learning. By way of definition, it is helpful to examine its antithesis, objectivist learning, where the goal is to strive for complete and correct understanding of a distinct set of facts and skills. Specific tasks are identified and their frequency and order of presentation are determined. These tasks might be procedures for identifying intervals or the process for deciding in which inversion a chord is arranged. Information is simplified for comprehensibility, and extraneous information is eliminated; tasks are isolated, subject complexity is reduced, and boundaries are artificially neatened. An objectivist learner experiences instruction divorced from real-world contexts. Objectivism may call for an active learner, but "the purpose of that activity is to cause the student to pay closer attention to the stimulus events, to practice, and to demonstrate mastery of the knowledge" by retrieving and responding with the correct answer as validation that learning has occurred.5 Responses generally can be classified as correct or incorrect, and the assessment is highly quantitative.

In the constructivist environment, the natural complexity of the subject's content is supported and over-simplification is avoided. Each learner is essentially constructing his/her own knowledge out of authentic, performance-based tasks, with knowledge that is usable as different situations occur. Prior experiences are important, as new information is integrated with that learning already present. The goal is not the final product but rather the flexible capability of applying pre-existent knowledge to new situations. A constructivist curriculum is presented whole to part, with the teachers behaving in an interactive manner. An apprenticeship is an excellent model of constructivist learning, and certainly one which is important to performers, conductors, and composers.

For both objectivist and constructivist learning, it is informative to consider knowledge as units called schemata, which are structures for representing concepts, how multiple concepts are interrelated, or the procedures for using those concepts.6 Schemata which we have already learned may be simply recalled, or may be changed by new experiences, or may be restructured into new schemata. Schemata have variables; for example, we have a schema for what to do in a restaurant, and whether we go to McDonalds or to a cafe where the waiter presents the menu on a small chalk board, we are able to place orders, find places to sit, locate the restrooms and know whether or not to leave a tip. These variables are dependent on contextual and situational factors, and usually if we are given certain variable values, we are able to make successful predictions about the others. For example, if we are listening to a passage by Bach and hear certain accidentals consistently used, we can with fair certainty predict the tonality of the next cadence. Rumelhart has said that "the bulk of the processing in a schema-based system is directed toward finding those schemata which best account for the totality of the incoming information."7

Schemata are constructed in a way that reflects the contexts in which they are learned. Schemata of concepts that are trained in isolation from other concepts tend to become rigid and compartmentalized, rather than allowing for the flexible redesign or reassembly into new schemata. If students are trained to hear and identify isolated sonorities, they may become quite successful at that skill and reflect valid learning according to an objectivist model. However their sonority schemata may not allow them to transfer or use that learning when they conduct a band rehearsal and need to identify the problem in a particular measure.

When a knowledge domain is "well-structured," i.e., when it is highly rule-based with little room for confusion from one context to another, objectivist training works very well. Labeling an interval visually is an example of a well-structured domain. Now it may seem that the identification of a heard sonority is also "well-structured," and yet, in considering the many voicings and spacings, not to mention the different possible harmonic functions of that chord, it becomes evident that this task is concerned with knowledge which is quite "ill-structured," to use terms presented by Rand Spiro. He says the following about ill-structured domains:

(1) Each case or example of knowledge application typically involves the simultaneous interactive involvement of multiple, wide-application conceptual structures, and
(2) the pattern of conceptual incidence and interaction varies substantially across cases nominally of the same type.8

Thus, in objectivist learning, concepts which are complex, ill-structured domains are simplified and treated in a way which is different from a real-world context. And ill-structured domains whose schemata in reality are highly interdependent are treated in an isolated way, with their interdependence totally ignored.9 If a concept is acquired in only one context, it will be wedded to that context and will not likely be spontaneously accessible and able to be used in new settings. An example might be the teaching of a perfect fourth only in isolation and always in connection with the March from Lohengrin. Successful learning involves the revisiting of the same material at different times, in varied contexts, for different reasons and from different conceptual perspectives for attaining the goals of advanced knowledge acquisition; Spiro calls this "criss-crossing the conceptual landscape."10 Simply expressed, students cannot be expected to learn to deal with complexity unless they have the opportunity to do so.

David Merrill's assumptions about learning are pertinent because they remind us of some of the concerns regarding the way aural training is often approached, and they demonstrate the need for performance-based experiences such as improvisation.

(1) "Knowledge is constructed from experience," and if the experience is artificial, so is the learning.
(2) "Learning is a personal interpretation" of one's experience.
(3) "Learning is active," and needs to be based on experience rather than observation; it should occur in realistic settings, or information-rich contexts.
(4) Meaning is accomplished through multiple perspectives or dimensions; it reflects the acquisition of an understanding of the integration of parameters or aspects of the discipline.11

Improvisation in the Aural Curriculum

While composition is taught in nearly every music school and department, improvisation as a separate course rarely is. And yet, improvisation has had an impact on nearly every musical field and has influenced in a major way most musical techniques or forms of composition.12 Malcolm Goldstein notes that it is ironic that many composers who are part of the European classical repertory were noted as great improvisers, but today's composers rarely study it.13 Nor is it included in most performance study. How many pianists today would even think of improvising a concerto cadenza on the spot? While improvisation has not been a standard component of musical study in higher education, except in specialized studies such as jazz and Baroque performance, it has been an integral aspect of some prominent elementary methods such as Dalcroze Eurhythmics and Orff-Schulwerk.


The Imperative for Improvisation

It was stated earlier that NASM recommends that improvisation be included in every music curriculum. The importance of improvisation is supported by the psychologist Richard Parncutt, who states that students entering higher education in music often lack the simplest of musical skills, including the ability to play by ear and the ability to improvise, and that despite our spending much of the curriculum time on written materials, our students "will never get a really good grasp on theory until they can 'inwardly hear' and improvise basic tonal patterns."14 Jaques-Dalcroze was amazed that improvisation received so little attention in applied instruction, for he believed that it "establishes direct communications between the spirit that pulses, the brain which represents and co-ordinates, and the arms and hands which put into execution."15 Goldstein sees improvisation as "weaving the fabric of many threads—music theory, compositions studied and rehearsed, ear training—into the present moment: the whole musician sounding."16

It is the position of this author that not only can improvisation logically be included within the aural curriculum, but should be because it is an "authentic" task in a real-world context, it ensures avoidance of over-simplification, and it retains the complexity of the content. Improvisation involves active learning, or learning by doing, meeting Piaget's criterion that real learning is discovered and assimilated by active, personal involvement. Steve Larson discusses the importance of improvisation in teaching skills which will support students' music pursuits, whether performance, teaching, or further learning.17 By necessity, improvisation occurs in "real-world" contexts which possess more similarities to career activities and professional needs than sitting at a desk and responding with paper and pencil. Improvisation thus satisfies one of Merrill's requirements, that knowledge should be acquired from real experiences. By implication, no two improvisational experiences will be the same, ensuring that even if someone improvises on the same harmonic progression multiple times, it will be revisited each time from a somewhat different perspective. Each improvisational experience will be complex, an "information-rich context," with multiple, variable aspects such as melody, harmony, texture, timbre, etc. Finally, improvisation by definition guarantees that each learner will be gradually constructing his/her own understanding of multiple musical parameters, represented by schemata which are continually being reconstructed, altered, or linked to other schemata.

More specifically, improvisation has the potential to successfully address two critical problems in aural training pedagogy. The first problem concerns the separation of linear and vertical elements. The topics of a typical aural training course include rhythmic dictation, melodic dictation, and sight-singing (the "linear" activities) and sonority identification and chord progressions (the vertical ones). Most instructors would like to see these integrated, and even though harmonic dictation often involves the notation of outer voices, students are encouraged to consider the analytical implications of the notated pitches, rather than developing a contrapuntal concept of how the lines create and relate to harmonic functions. Thus traditional aural pedagogy fosters a separation of linear and vertical dimensions in the aurally-based understandings of students' musical knowledge. If a student should improvise a melody around a given harmonic progression or create a harmonic accompaniment for a given melody, the construction of more elaborate, integrated schemata representing linear and vertical musical understandings is virtually ensured. A second problem with traditional aural pedagogy is that it primarily addresses aspects of pitch and rhythm, to the virtual exclusion of other music parameters, such as texture, timbre, dynamics, and articulation. Improvisation with several performers, involving complex aural environments, demands that the practitioner consider and integrate these other dimensions into existing and developing concepts of pitch and rhythm.


The Teaching of Improvisation

Should improvisation be a separate course? Can it be included in other courses? And, how should it be taught? Dalcroze felt that learning to improvise is similar to learning a language; "you speak it fluently when you reach the stage of not having to think about each and every word you enunciate; you can concentrate entirely on the content of the communications."18 According to Dalcroze, this skill cannot be learned sequentially or in an objectivist manner. John Sloboda compares improvisation with the re-telling of a story.19 The teller has knowledge of a particular set of episodes which constitute the "plot" of the story. The "frame" of the story is compared to characteristic harmonic or melodic progressions that underlie many different types of music. Sloboda implies the efficacy of setting certain parameters, whether tonal, harmonic, metric, etc. and the continuing evolvement of this skill within each musician.

There is no general or widely held theory of improvisation instruction. Improvisational strategies and pedagogical methods are found in jazz methods, keyboard harmony sources, organ books, and more general sources. Jazz improvisation is primarily melodic and style specific, but offers ideas for melodic embellishment and the use of a melodic structural line, and demonstrates melodic concepts strongly influenced by harmony. Organ improvisation methods are service oriented and are harmonically and tonally driven. An organ improviser needs to adapt to flexible lengths and learns to be sensitive to melodic motives and the influence of tonal goals. Keyboard harmony methods are primarily influenced by harmonic function considerations. Other sources, such as that by Roger Dean, offer insights into improvisation in a contemporary idiom and reflect interest in polyphonic textures and in music which is less tonally oriented.


Strategies for Using Improvisation in Aural Training

Strategies for using improvisation in aural pedagogy were initially developed by listing and categorizing activities drawn from my experiences with improvisation in aural training, as well as an examination of a number of varied sources, including jazz methods, keyboard harmony textbooks, organ methods, and more general sources. A list of possible strategies is presented in Table 1. These strategies and the methods to be described in the following discussion are not an attempt to duplicate keyboard harmony textbooks and their respective courses. Nor are these proposals an attempt to substitute for the important improvisational instruction in jazz curriculums. The strategies and methods are not really designed for the specific goal of teaching improvisation; rather, they are tools for enhancing aural training, and for facilitating the learning, integration, and synthesis that need to occur in the aural curriculum.




1. Improvise rhythmic phrase using given motive/s
2. Improvise rhythmic phrase of a specified length in a specified meter or with changing meters
3. Improvise rhythmic phrase as conducted by a classmate with a specific meter or with changing meters
4. Improvise a consequent phrase to a given or an improvised antecedent phrase


5. Improvise a melody using only the scale, ascending and/or descending
6. Improvise in a meter as conducted by another student
7. Improvise a melody using specified rhythmic patterns; the rhythms may or may not be in contour
8. Improvise a melody with specified melodic motives
9. Improvise a consequent phrase to a given antecedent phrase,
which is provided by the instructor
which is composed by the student
which is improvised by a classmate
(these may be similar or contrasting phrases)
10. Improvise a melody using a given melodic reduction; improvise a variation of that melody
11. Improvise a melodic variation of a given familiar melody;
consider varying melodies with embellishing tones, dynamics, articulation, rhythm, etc.

FREE IMPROVISATION (pitched or non-pitched)

12. Improvise using a described image or short narrative
13. Improvise using a given visual image
14. Through improvisation, explore different timbral sounds of body percussion, or voice, or instruments
15. Improvise using limited possibilities, such as using only one or two pitches; aspects such as dynamics, articulation, tempo, etc. could receive special consideration
16. Imitate a conversation, thus creating a musical dialogue with another improviser


18. Improvise a melody in a prescribed form or with a particular contour
19. Improvise around a given poem or narrative
20. Improvise by imitating an established genre, such as a funeral march
21. Improvise a counterline around a heard line of music
22. Improvise a consequent phrase to an antecedent phrase, followed by a constrasting section and then a variant of the first section

23. Improvise a melody over a drone bass or an ostinato bass
24. Improvise a melody over a given harmonic progression, with a given melodic structural outline or without a given melodic structural outline
25. Improvise a melody which emphasizes a given harmonic structure
26. Improvise a melody over different accompanimental patterns, but with similar harmony
27. Improvise a melodic variation using a familiar melody (see no. 11) varying devices could include different notes of the chords, contour changes, simplifying the line, changing the rhythm or the metric groupings, adding or omitting notes, etc.
28. Improvise a melody which relates negatively to the given harmonic progression


29. Improvise a bass line using a given melody
30. Improvise a bass line using a given harmonic succession (with no inversions specified)
31. Improvise an Alto or Tenor harmonizing part using a given harmonic succession;
experiment with different rhythmic patterns
32. Improvise an Alto or Tenor harmonizing part using arpeggiations in a given harmonic succession


33. Improvise a scale melody (see no. 5) and an accompanying line
34. Improvise a modulatory bridge between parts of two pieces or between two sections of a piece
35. Improvise a consequent phrase to a given or improvised antecedent phrase
36. Improvise a set of phrases which modulate and then return to the initial key
37. Improvise an introduction to a given melody

[the following strategies assume the use of a sequencer]

38. Improvise a harmonization of a given melody; then improvise a melody over the harmonization
39. Improvise a bass line for a given melody; then improvise a new melody over the bass line

The strategies in the Table are categorized and ordered (numbered) somewhat arbitrarily. The Non-Pitched strategies are excellent for beginning improvisatory exercises, because students seem more at ease with percussive improvisation than with using their own pitched instruments, where the "threat of exposure" seems greater. These strategies are also useful for introducing new rhythmic and/or metric concepts, such as complex meters, hemiola, multimeter, etc. The Melodic strategies are particularly useful for accompanying aural topics such as phrase structure, motives, similarity and dissimilarity of phrases, variation techniques, etc. The strategies which combine linear and vertical aspects of music, strategies numbered 23 through 39, are especially important for addressing the need to integrate these multiple dimensions in students' aural concepts of music. These strategies are particularly useful if students are able to use a sequencer for improvising. The Free Improvisation suggestions may be more difficult for students who wish to have more structure and less latitude in what they create. Likewise, Melody in a Set Form strategies are for those who are comfortable and somewhat experienced with improvisation.

For my own use, I have taken these strategies and, by comparing them to the aural training curriculum in place at my institution, have written an accompanying improvisation curriculum that observes and facilitates my particular aural training objectives.20 These strategies could be mapped into a variety of aural training approaches in many different ways. I will describe possible mappings in the context of two components of our freshman aural training program: descriptive listening and harmonic function identification. The descriptive listening mapping will also include a flow chart showing a sequence for how the improvisation could be taught, while the harmonic function mapping will demonstrate how improvisation allows the user to approach harmonic listening from a number of perspectives.


Using Improvisation to Teach Descriptive Listening of Melodies

Descriptive listening involves the diagramming or defining of different parameters of a heard piece; these parameters include form, cadences and keys, prominent motives, phrase contours, timbres and their uses, textures, etc. Initially, students listen to melodies which are 2-6 phrases in length, and respond by providing as much information as they can about what they hear. The goal of the improvisatory activities that accompany this course component would be for a student to be able to improvise a consequent phrase that borrows motives from an antecedent phrase which has been improvised by another student immediately prior to this. Thus the goal is to have students validate an understanding of form, phrase relationships and lengths, cadences, use of motives, tonality, and meter. These goals might be addressed in the following sequence of activities, spread over a number of class meetings (strategy numbers are shown in parentheses).

1st day: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase in 2/4, 4 measures long (#2).
2nd: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase in 3/4, 4 measures long (#2).
3rd: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase using a given motive (#1).
Each student improvises a melody using a suggested rhythm, 8 beats long, using only tonic and dominant pitches (#5).
4th: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase, a consequent to the instructor's antecedent phrase, which changes for each student (#4).
Each student improvises a melody using a suggested rhythm, 8 beats long, using a range of the first 5 notes of the major scale.
5th: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase, the first student an antecedent phrase, the second a consequent to the previous antecedent, etc.
Each student improvises a melody using a suggested rhythm, 8 beats long. Students are asked to be aware of cadences being used by each student.
6th: Each student improvises a melody using a suggested rhythm, 8 beats long. Students are asked to use conclusive (ending on tonic) cadences.
This exercise is repeated with inconclusive cadences.
(This would seem to be an unnecessary step, but I have discovered that the eventual melodic improvisatory goal is more successful if this step is taken.)
7th: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase, the first student an antecedent phrase, the second a consequent to the previous antecedent, etc. Consequent phrases are to include a motive borrowed from the antecedent phrase.
Students alternately improvise antecedent and consequent phrases, with primary attention given to the kinds of cadences used.
8th: Repeat activities from previous class.
9th: This is the goal: students improvise antecedent and consequent phrases alternately, with each consequent phrase including a motive borrowed from the immediately previous antecedent phrase.

Instructors may proceed through this sequence more quickly or more slowly than outlined here, depending on the readiness of the students. When I use these activities, each student takes a turn, with no breaks between students. I do not judge or assess their efforts with words or facial expressions; students discover for themselves what works well and what does not, and the continual refinement of their efforts over several weeks will confirm the learning that is occurring. One activity which could accompany this unit is to improvise on a short, familiar melody such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat. I have students notate it and play it by ear. We briefly mention ways in which it could be varied. I may let students practice some variations "en masse" to reduce the stress level, and then we listen as each student in turn improvises a variation on the tune. When I use this type of activity with a longer melody, an outline of that melody, shown in strong-beat pitches, is given. This is also a way to address from another perspective the use of structural listening, a technique which I teach for melodic notation.


Using Improvisation to Teach Identification of Harmonic Functions

Another component of the aural training curriculum involves the identification of harmonic functions in a context. By mid-year, the listening goal would be to identify tonic, dominant, sub-dominant, and supertonic functions.21 Students need to develop an understanding of harmonic functions by sound and sight, from different parts of the musical texture, and through linear and vertical dimensions, thus demonstrating the understanding of harmony from multiple perspectives. Improvisation can play a significant role in this development, and the melodic/harmonic strategies are particularly important.

The following strategies are pertinent:

#10, 11 Improvise a variation of a melody using a reduction of the melody.
#24 Improvise a melody over a given harmonic progression.
#27 Improvise a melodic variation of a familiar melody.
#31, 32 Improvise an Alto or Tenor part to a given harmonic progression.
#29 Improvise a Bass line for a given melody.

Other strategies which could be used include playing a familiar melody by ear and harmonizing a melody at the keyboard. Two melodies which have worked well in my classes are "London Bridge" (tonic and dominant functions) and "When the Saints Go Marching In" (tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant chords). A possible sequence of activities would be the following:

(1) Have students notate the melody, in class or as an assignment.
(2) Have students notate a structural outline of the melody, before or as a part of the previous step. Students should also learn to play the melody by ear.
(3) Have the students identify harmonic functions upon listening to an accompanied version of the melody.
(4) Let students play the melody, the bass line, and possible accompanying alto and tenor parts. Different students may explore different lines simultaneously.
(5) The final step is the "jam session," with each student in turn improvising on the melody, and others playing bass or other accompanying lines.

Students enjoy hearing the improvised variations of classmates; they have the opportunity to explore harmonic structure from the bass, inner voices, and melodic perspectives; they enhance their aural imaging as they develop the ability to hear internally with meaning; and they attain an intuitive understanding of the mutual influence of linear and vertical elements on one another.


Suggestions for Using Improvisation in Theory Instruction

There are many combinations and ways for incorporating improvisation in the aural training curriculum, and these same techniques would enhance written theory as well. Instructors who wish to use improvisation should themselves be comfortable doing whatever is requested of the students, and in fact, they can serve the important function of modelling. The following guidelines are offered for the inclusion of improvisation in aural training or in other courses.

(1) Set certain parameters, such as key, rhythm, and length. You may wish to include certain materials in written notation and have that information transposed for those playing transposing instruments.
(2) It may be helpful to use unfamiliar instruments, tuned and untuned, so that students do not lapse into stereotypical patterns. The use of less familiar instruments will also reduce inhibitions.22
(3) People think that creativity is an innate ability for a limited few, and yet everyone has the capacity to create and to create with feeling. The most troubling obstacles stem from our inhibitions. The use of rhythmic improvisation, the use of less familiar instruments, and the absence of critical judgment from the instructor will lessen the stress associated with improvisation.
(4) There is no wrong improvisation; an error may be only an unintentional rightness.23 Don't stop when improvising; keep playing and incorporate mistakes. An organist once said, "Salvation is never more than a half step away."24
(5) Provide an environment that is non-threatening, one in which students feel comfortable experimenting and playing something that does not sound polished. The instructor should be non-judgmental and receptive to all efforts, especially at the beginning.
(6) Students' improvisations may sound contrived and often mechanical, but over time their skill and freedom in improvisation will improve. Be aware that students will mature in their improvisational skills at different rates.


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1John D. Bransford, Robert D. Sherwood, Ted S. Hasselbring, Charles K. Kinzer, and Susan M. Williams, "Anchored Instruction: Why We Need It and How Technology Can Help," in Cognition, Education and Multimedia: Exploring Ideas in High Technology, ed. Don Nix and Rand Spiro (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990), 115-141.

2John S. Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid, "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning," Educational Researcher 18 (1989): 32-42.

3David H. Jonassen, "Supporting Communities of Learners with Technology: A Vision for Integrating Technology with Learning in Schools," Educational Technology 35 (July-August 1995): 60-63.

4Joanna C. Dunlap and R. Scott Grabinger, "Rich Environments for Active Learning in the Higher Education Classroom," in Constructivist Learning Environments, ed. Brent G. Wilson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 1996), 66-67.

5Thomas M. Duffy and David H. Jonassen, "Constructivism: New Implications for Instructional Technology?" Educational Technology 31 (May 1991): 7-12.

6David E. Rumelhart, "Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition," in Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension, ed. Rand J. Spiro, Bertram C. Bruce, and William F. Brewer (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1980).

7David E. Rumelhart and Andrew Ortony, The Representation of Knowledge in Memory, Technical Report no. 55 (San Diego: Center for Human Information Processing, Department of Psychology, University of California at San Diego, 1976), 112.

8Rand J. Spiro, Paul J. Feltovich, Michael J. Jacobson, and Richard L. Coulson, "Cognitive Flexibility, Constructivism, and Hypertext: Random Access Instruction for Advanced Knowledge Acquisition in Ill-Structured Domains," Educational Technology 31 (May 1991): 25-26.



11M. David Merrill, "Constructivism and Instructional Design," Educational Technology 31 (May 1991): 46.

12Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Ashbourne, Derbyshire: Moorland Publishing, 1980), 2.

13Malcolm Goldstein, Sounding the Full Circle (Published by the author, 1988), 9.

14Richard Parncutt, "How to Teach Reading," In [SMT-LIST] (Santa Barbara, California: Society for Music Theory, 1995 [cited 4 June 1995], Available from

15Marie-Laure Bachmann, Dalcroze Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 107.

16Goldstein, Sounding the Full Circle, 10.

17Steve Larson, "'Integrated Music Learning' and Improvisation: Teaching Musicianship and Theory Through 'Menus, Maps, and Models,'" College Music Symposium 35 (1995): 80.

18Bachmann, Dalcroze Today, 109.

19John Sloboda, The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 139-141.

20The aural training program at the University of Kentucky was developed by the author and Charles Lord. For more information on this curriculum, see our article, "Epistemology and Procedure in Aural Training: In Search of a Unification of Music Cognitive Theory with Its Applications," which was published in Music Theory Spectrum 16 (1994): 159-170.

21An example of a piece for a class exercise or a test might be the Schubert Ländler excerpt found on p. 21 of Music for Analysis by Thomas Benjamin, Michael Horvit, and Robert Nelson (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1992).

22Eric F. Clarke, "The Role of Improvisation in Aural Perception," in A Conference on Aural Training: Proceedings, ed. Michael Henson (Huddersfield, England: Huddersfield Polytechnic, 22-24 April 1987), 87.

23T. Carl Whitmer, The Art of Improvisation: A Handbook of Principles and Methods for Organists, Pianists, Teachers and All Who Desire to Develop Extempore Playing, Based upon Melodic Approach (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1934).

24Gerre Hancock, Improvising: How to Master the Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

6804 Last modified on October 18, 2018