Learning Basic Music Theory through Improvisation: Implications for Including Improvisation in the University Curriculum

December 3, 2014


In today’s music world, a wide variety of music styles and traditions demand that musicians improvise to some degree. To best prepare musicians for successful careers as performers and teachers in the 21st-century global society, teaching improvisation in higher education should be an important educational objective; however, improvisation is largely marginalized in the curriculum despite being a core component in the standards for undergraduate music education specified by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). Despite the lack of courses devoted to teaching improvisation as a core skill, there are some notable exceptions worthy of investigation. The purpose of this study was to describe the Integral Basic Musicianship course at the University of Michigan from the perspective of undergraduate students, the professors, and the researcher-as-observer. Data included interviews with six student participants and two professors, observations of classes and a small group rehearsal, and artifacts such as course syllabi, email messages, and the textbook. Findings indicate that students desire innovative, integrated approaches to learning improvisation and music theory, improvisation is an effective mode for learning and understanding music theory, integrating improvisation in another course is possible, and regular study and performance of improvisation leads to higher levels of confidence and performance awareness. Future research should include longitudinal studies of course participants, comparative case studies with traditional theory courses, and quantitative studies that attempt to measure development of improvisation skill in this type of courses.

Improvisation is a practice that is part of many of the world’s music traditions. It appears in Western art music of the Baroque, Classical, and avant-garde, as well as African, Asian, and Persian music traditions (Azzara, 2002; Elliott, 1995). It is the essence of jazz music and plays a prominent role in many popular music styles. Improvisation is an important skill for musicians because it enables them to spontaneously create music in the moment without the need for written notation. In today's music world, a wide variety of music styles and traditions demands that musicians improvise to some degree. In order to best prepare students for successful careers as performers and teachers in the 21st century, teaching improvisation in higher education would seem to be an important objective. However, in many cases, improvisation courses are limited and usually only offered through jazz studies departments in many colleges and universities (Wollenzien, 1999). As such, improvisation has been marginalized in secondary and tertiary music education (Azzara, 2002; Sarath, 2002).

In 1996, former President of Music Educators National Conference (MENC, now National Association for Music Education, NAfME) Carolynn Lindeman applauded the move by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) in creating standards for including improvisation and composition within tertiary music programs (Lindeman, 1996). This was important in view of the adoption of the K-12 National Standards for Music Education (National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, 1994), which included improvisation and composition (Standards 3 & 4) as practices to be taught by elementary and secondary music educators1. Acknowledgment was given to these practices for inspiring creativity, critical thinking, and utilizing a wide variety of musical skills and knowledge. Since the 1994 standards, there was strong interest in promoting these practices in university music schools (Bading, 1996). However, it remains to be seen how much curricular change in higher education over the past 15 years has effectively and holistically prepared musicians for performing and teaching careers.

The NASM Handbook (2011-2012) provides guidelines for all professional baccalaureate degrees in music and those degrees leading to teaching certification. The body of knowledge and skills students must acquire include (a) performance experience, (b) musicianship skills and analysis, (c) composition/improvisation, (d) history and repertory, and (e) synthesis (NASM, 2012, p. 101). This last category is the ability to combine understanding of the other four categories for the musical endeavors encountered throughout one’s career. What courses in the undergraduate degree program provide an integrated approach to working with musical materials that cultivate this ability to synthesize multiple perspectives and understandings?

Another concern is much of the music curriculum in music schools today is compartmentalized in distinct courses, such as music theory, aural skills, music history, piano proficiency courses, performance classes, and private studio instruction. Schüler (2005) noted the lack of connection between courses in his review of the music theory program at Texas State University in San Marcos. Many music programs are based on old European university and guild models that do not accurately represent the plurality of music and learning styles of the 21st-century global society (Shuler, 1995). This has lead to statements such as “the musical activities and behaviors that students take for granted as they go about their lives in the modern world are suddenly rather meaningless when they enter the classroom” (Cavicchi, 2009, p. 98). And considering that course content of most academic institutions is largely based on the interpretation and performance of formal written works from Western art music (Cavicchi, 2009), the cultivation of improvisation and composition practices using tonal materials of present-day idioms is largely marginalized.

The undergraduate music theory courses in many institutions are also reflective of this phenomenon (Hijleh, 2008). Focused primarily on analysis and development of harmonic understanding through teacher-directed instruction, these courses rely on methods of musical understanding from the past (i.e., common practice period) rather than the nomenclature of the present time. Thus, Hijleh (2008) is right to question if students are excited about the work they are doing in college theory courses today. To remedy the situation, Larson (1995) advocates for integrated music learning, drawing upon the use of improvisation as a suitable bridge between analyzing, performing, and creating:

Integrated music learning combines aural, vocal, visual, intellectual, digital, kinesthetic and emotional understanding of musical relationships. If the focus of that learning is to understand the expressive meanings of those musical relationships and the intent is for that learning to benefit the practical and creative activities of performers, composers, teachers, and scholars, then much is to be gained from using improvisation in that learning. (p. 90)

In the NASM Handbook, Section VIII.B.3 states: “Students must acquire a rudimentary capacity to create original or derivative music. It is the prerogative of each institution to develop specific requirements regarding written, electronic, or improvisatory forms and methods” (NASM, 2012, p. 101). As this statement indicates, NASM does not prescribe how improvisation or composition should be implemented in a school’s curriculum. That task is left up to each institution, which is challenging considering the overloaded demands of current music degree programs (Shuler, 1995). However, in view of the need to broaden and diversify basic musicianship courses in higher education while integrating creative music activities (i.e., composition and improvisation), music school administrators could learn from successful models in other institutions that meet these criteria.

Within music education, integrating improvisation and composition in some music education methods courses has been successful. Della Pietra and Campbell (1995) reported the benefits of a 5-week improvisation-training segment in a secondary school music methods course. Students successfully learned to improvise through model-based instructional strategies, listening, collaborating, performance, and evaluation activities. Froseth (1996) examined undergraduate and graduate students’ readiness to address the K-12 National Standards for Music Education, implementing composition and improvisation instruction in a music education methods class and resulting in greater confidence in teaching the Standards. Similarly, Ward-Steinman (2007) assessed teachers’ confidence in implementing improvisation in music classes. The results of her study indicated that respondents felt “moderately confident” in teaching improvisation according to the National Music Standards for kindergarten through fourth grade, but became less confident with the improvisation standards for higher levels.

At the University of Michigan, a basic musicianship course in the theory sequence titled “Integral Basic Musicianship” (IBM) uses improvisation as a vehicle for learning music theory, aural skills, and keyboard realization. The purpose of this study was to describe the Integral Basic Musicianship course at the University of Michigan from the perspectives of undergraduate students, the professors, and the researcher-as-observer. Research questions included: (a) How do students describe their experiences in the IBM course? (b) How do the professors describe the development, planning, and implementation of the course? And (c) how do observations by the researcher support or question the descriptions provided by the students and professors?


This instrumental case study examines the perceptions and experiences of students and their professors in a music theory course that integrates improvisation. Creswell (2007) defines a case study as “a qualitative approach in which the investigator explores a bounded system … over time, through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information” (p. 73). An instrumental case study is one that focuses on “an issue or concern” (p. 74). In this study, the bounded system consists of the course Integral Basic Musicianship and the participants (i.e., teachers and students), and the issue is the integration of improvisation and the study of contemporary music styles in a university basic musicianship course. This specific case shows a compelling model of how this can be done.

Sample. The criterion sample (Patton, 1990), meaning those cases that meet the criterion of participating in the course, consisted of the instructors of the course, Professors Mark Kirschenmann and Ed Sarath, as well as six student participants (out of 23 students enrolled in the class). The student participants (see Table 1) were selected based on their enrollment in the course and willingness to participate in the study after I made an announcement in class. All student participants had some exposure to improvisation prior to enrolling in the class. Both professors were faculty members in the Department of Jazz and Improvisation. Professor Sarath has taught IBM since its inception, while Professor Kirschenmann began teaching it a few years later. To maintain confidentiality, pseudonyms have been substituted for the actual names of the student participants. The professors requested that I use their actual names.


Table 1

Ramona Harp Classical Performance November 2011
Sam Piano Performance Arts Technology January 2012
Lucy String Bass Classical Performance January 2012
Susan Voice Classical Performance March 2012
Tim Voice Classical Performance March 2012
Tina Violin Jazz Studies January 2012


Data Collection. The study took place between October 2011 and March 2012, beginning in the Fall semester and continuing through the Winter semester. All student participants in this study were enrolled in the class for the entire academic year. The data collected for this study included one semi-structured, one-on-one interviews (see Table 2) with six students and Professor Sarath. Professor Kirschenmann provided written comments to interview questions via email. In addition, four observations of the course (seven hours) were conducted in which I took extensive field notes and collected written artifacts (i.e., syllabi and email communications about the course). Furthermore, I observed a small ensemble rehearsal of students preparing for one of their in-class performances.

Table 2

Student and Professor Interview Protocols

Student ProtocolProfessor Protocol
1. What motivated you to take Integral Basic Musicianship? 1. How long have you taught this course?
2. Can you describe your improvisation experience prior to taking the course? 2. How did the course come into existence?
3. Do you believe improvisation is an important skill to have? Why or why not? 3. Can you describe the students who enroll in this course?
4. Have you studied improvisation in other courses while at UM? If so, which ones? 4. What are the fundamental objectives of the course?
5. In your experience up to this point, what impact has improvisation had on your ability to learn and understand music theory and aural skills? 5. Can you speak about the use of the text in the course?
6. How have your views changed regarding improvisation through participation in this course? 6. What changes do you see in students’ musicianship as a result of this course?
7. Do you see yourself using improvisation in the future? 7. What feedback have you received from students over the years who have taken the class and then applied it to their career?
8. What impact has improvisation had on your ability to learn and understand music theory and aural skills? 8. What do you believe is the ultimate value of such a course?
  9.What is it like to team-teach this course?

All interviews were transcribed and coded for themes. Analysis of field notes, syllabi, and email communications confirmed themes or added to an overall understanding of the course and participants’ experiences. Member-check procedures and triangulation of data sources were conducted to strengthen the trustworthiness of the findings.


The findings are presented in three sections. The first section, Description of the Course, documents how the course came to be, students’ motivations for taking the course, the course structure and curricular components, such as the transcription project. The second section, Perceptions of Improvisation, explores student perceptions of improvisation prior to enrolling in the course and after enrollment. The third section, Benefits of Improvisation as a Means for Learning Music Theory, examines the perceived benefits of using improvisation as a means for learning music theory.

Description of the Course “Integral Basic Musicianship”

Integral Basic Musicianship (IBM) is a hands-on, second-year alternative theory course for undergraduate music majors integrating improvisation, composition, performance, keyboard realization, analysis, rhythmic training, and various approaches to aural skills. The course content includes a wide variety of musical traditions including jazz, popular, European classical and world music. Rhythmic exercises are based on Indian, Arabic, African, African-American, and European sources. Through their study of these genres and practices, students are exposed to concepts in music cognition for developing a foundational understanding of the creative process. In the course description, the professors explain how IBM diverges from other basic musicianship courses:

Where IBM is unique is in its hands-on, diverse, creative, and integrative qualities. As much as possible, all material in IBM is covered through the multiple modalities of 1) principal instrument 2) voice 3) keyboard 4) improvisation 5) composition 6) analysis 7) aural skills. As these processes intersect, an entirely new kind of musicianship begins to emerge that enables entirely new levels of musical expression, understanding and fulfillment, and which is highly compatible with today’s broad musical landscape. (Professor Sarath, email communication, 2009)

Beginnings. Integral Basic Musicianship began as an alternative freshman theory course at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, prior to curriculum reform initiatives made by NASM. It emerged from discussions among certain faculty members across departments who shared an interest in promoting the development of basic musicianship through hands-on, exploratory experiences. It was also a response to students’ growing dissatisfaction and lack of understanding in traditional theory courses. Professor Sarath recalled, “I was engaged in some dialogues with the chair of the theory department at that time … and he’d go up and down the hallways and peer in the door of the theory classes and see there were a lot of blank faces” (interview, 11/2011).

The course began as an alternative freshman theory course called “Pilot Theory” and later transitioned to its current placement as an alternative sophomore-level theory course. Enrollment in the course is based on an application process. In the spring of their freshman year, all music students are sent an email containing a description of IBM, testimonials from former students, and questions asking why they would be interested in participating in such a course. The course description reads:

This course is for musicians who are interested in developing multi-musical skills, who want to engage in the musical world not just as interpretive performers, but as comprehensive musical artists who transcend style categories and are involved in diverse creative processes …. The musical leadership of the 21st century will be assumed by those musicians who have the tools to adapt to change, [who can] synthesize influences from a variety of sources, and who also are grounded in the treasures of the past. IBM, oriented toward the improviser-composer-performer, aims for this diversity of skills. (Professor Sarath, email communication, 2009)

The professors screen the applications and accept up to 30 students for the class each year. Students are selected based on the need for balanced instrumentation as well as responses to interview questions concerning their desire to learn improvisation and composition. No audition is required and novice improvisers are encouraged to apply.

The students who enroll in Integral Basic Musicianship possess a wide variety of musical backgrounds and have a diverse range of primary instruments. This year’s class includes six vocalists, three pianists, three violinists, three percussionists, two guitarists, two clarinetists, one trombonist, one flutist, and a harpist. Most students are classically trained musicians, though a few jazz and technology majors will take the course. “It was designed for classical music majors in music education” (Professor Sarath, interview, 11/2011).

Motivations. Asked why they chose to take Integral Basic Musicianship in place of a traditional theory course, many participants explained how they wanted a new challenge and approach to the subject. “I was in the regular music theory and then I was in the accelerated music theory … but I wasn’t really into it enough. But then this course was offered [and] I wanted to … dig into what jazz is about” (Sam interview, 01/2012). As a jazz violinist, Tina wanted a theory course that applied to her major: “Classical theory is coming from a whole different realm and approach and it’s harder to apply to jazz” (interview, 01/2012). Lucy noted, “I really did not like theory, conventional theory last year. And jazz singing has always been something I’ve been interested in … so, I thought this would be a good way to expand my skill set as a singer” (interview, 3/2012). Tim also perceived a difference between the two types of courses: “I look at the stuff [the traditional theory classes] are doing now. It’s different … but I couldn’t sit there and analyze music all the time. I really wanted something different” (interview, 3/2012). Professor Kirschenmann confirmed these sentiments when he wrote, “Some students are simply dissatisfied, rightly/wrongly, with their traditional theory training, and [are] therefore looking for an alternative” (email communication, 02/2012).

Participants were also motivated by the opportunity to expand their knowledge and experience with improvisation. Ramona explained, “I … think it’s very important to learn how to improvise so that you force yourself to think about what you’re doing instead of just following what’s on the page” (interview, 11/2011). Sam agreed with this assertion by saying “I think improvisation is extremely important for developing a musical ear, for being able to interface with other people musically …. We’ve sort of lost it as we’ve gotten so attached to the page and so attached to tradition” (interview, 01/2012). Lucy described being “freaked out by improvising” in middle school and wanted to confront her fear through this course. “I kind of just wanted the challenge. I knew it was going to make me uncomfortable” (interview, 1/2012).

Professor Sarath also noted that students enroll in IBM because it matches their particular learning style, one that involves the study of music theory through active music making in contemporary idioms. Not only did Tina want to learn the nomenclature for her major, she wanted a hands-on approach. “It’s a lot easier to learn something and have a greater understanding if I’m actually playing it” (interview, 01/2012).

Course Structure: First Hour. IBM meets two days each week for two hours in a classroom located in the School of Music. Upon entering the room, I notice the chairs are situated in a horseshoe shape to accommodate the improvisation activities that are a regular part of the learning experience. The first hour is dedicated to performances by student ensembles. The second hour is dedicated to learning new concepts of theoretical analysis. In this way, students are constantly putting into practice what they are learning. As Tina noted, “It has really helped bridge the gap between standing up, performing, improvising and then sitting down, looking at, [and] analyzing a piece of music” (interview, 01/2012).

The first hour of class is devoted to the performance of three tasks by two chamber ensembles, according to a predetermined schedule. At the start of the first semester, students are asked to create mixed chamber ensembles (e.g., quartet) with other members of the class. These ensembles rehearse specific improvisatory, rhythmic, and compositional exercises for weekly performances in class. The first performance task involves the chamber group chanting and clapping Indian rhythmic patterns found in Professor Sarath’s text. As Sarath (2010) notes, “The exercises … can be quite helpful in developing your sense of internal pulse, polyrhythmic skills, and the ability to work with metric cycles other than those based in four and three” (p. 80). Students sing a drone while they intonate the syllables and clap accent markings. In my observations, I noted that each group demonstrated differences in its ability to effectively demonstrate the exercises, suggesting the important role these exercises play in the development of rhythmic awareness and competency.

The next task features the performance of a melodic pattern or motive in 12 keys by ensemble members on their primary instruments. The purpose of this exercise is to develop facility on one’s instrument, ability to transpose ideas into all keys, and to work on unison playing with members of the ensemble. Although this exercise was easier for vocalists, it did present challenges for all musicians, particularly when Professor Sarath asked groups to perform at a fast tempo.

The final task is the performance of an original composition in any style, jazz standard, or etude found in the textbook. The requirements for this task are similar to the process of performing a jazz standard: Statement of the melody, individual improvisational solos, and a re-statement of the melody. However, students were also required to write and perform a tutti chorus, which is a unison melody that incorporates the improvisation, composition, and theoretical concepts discussed in the class. As such, the overall performance of the composition synthesizes the course material through performance. After one ensemble’s performance, Professor Sarath asked:

How do all these things fit together? Why are we doing all of these exercises? We need to integrate all of our studies in our work. We are enlivening more lines, more tributaries are flowing into each moment. Don’t treat the motive transposition as just one exercise …. Combine fun with challenging so that you are connecting your ear and hand coordination. (observation, 11/01/2011)

Commentary and discussion are a regular part of the class following a group’s performance. The professors facilitated discussion and analysis of each person’s improvisation, noting areas of growth and improvement while suggesting ways to augment their solos. I found the comments from the students and professors supportive and encouraging. Many focused on the development of confidence and risk-taking in the improvised solos.

Second Hour. The second hour of the course is devoted to learning new concepts for theoretical analysis. Rather than approaching harmonic progressions using the nomenclature of traditional theory, Professors Sarath and Kirschenmann use the language used by contemporary jazz musicians. Sarath explains this through his description of the course objectives:

[The] fundamental objectives are to lay groundwork for foundational skills in improvising and composing based in a diversity of material that include jazz and pop influences … keyboard … figured bass … species counterpoint. But the important thing is that these come through the lens of the present. We don’t start in the old time, tracing the history of music. (interview, 11/2011)

During this half of the class, the professors write a chord progression on the board and ask students to determine the key, provide a Roman numeral analysis, and make suggestions for what chords and scales could be played over the progression. Students spend this hour working independently on the progression, seeking help from a classmate or professor when necessary. After a period of time, the professor asks students to provide their answers verbally so a discussion can ensue. Through this process, students are actively engaged in working through an analysis with others that prepare them for the homework they encounter for the rest of the week.

Keyboard exercises are also assigned during this period for upcoming examinations. Rather than focusing solely on traditional chord progressions and harmonies, these keyboard exercises incorporate the use of extensions (e.g., ninths, elevenths, thirteenths) and idiomatic jazz progressions, such as the ii-V7-I. To prepare for an upcoming keyboard exam, Professor Sarath played through a progression, asking the class to sing the bass line. Focusing their ears on the root movement enables them to recognize the pattern and transpose it to other keys. Another component of the exam is sight-reading from chord symbols found in jazz, popular music, and Baroque keyboard music (figured bass). Learning these different systems allows for comparison and greater understanding of style specific harmonic realization. Developing this skill was important to Tim. “I know a lot of time I see chord symbols and for the longest time I’d say ‘What is that?’ The keyboard skills help you to understand chord symbols” (interview, 03/2012).

Transposition Project. To further develop their understanding of music theory through performance, the professors assign projects on transcription and composition. Modeling the aural approaches to learning improvisation used by jazz musicians, students are required to select a jazz solo to transcribe aurally. Students may notate it if they wish, but they are to learn a jazz solo to be played along with the original recording in class.

During one of my visits in February, I listened to solos originally conceived by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Charlie Parker, to name a few. After each person’s performance, Professor Kirschenmann asked students to discuss the benefits of this project in developing their understanding of improvisation and basic musicianship. They noted how they were able to readily understand the concepts they were learning in class in the solos. It also challenged students who were transcribing for a different instrument, particularly vocalists, to come up with vocabulary that would match the articulations of the original instrument. Students also expressed a greater awareness for the sense of flow in an improvisation and the use of space, important aspects in the development of improvisation skills.

Sam chose to learn Thelonious Monk’s solo on “’Round Midnight”. He perceived this exercise as an opportunity to connect with Monk’s way of thinking. “In thinking that same thought, you are going to gain some of the insight that he had and you are going to widen your own reality tunnel, your own perspectives. You’re going to learn something, no matter what” (interview, 01/2012). Lucy found transcribing a solo by Esperanza Spalding challenging and time-consuming. Yet, in the end “I think that was kind of a turning point for me in the class where I didn’t take myself so seriously. Because I’m obviously not her, but I can still have fun with it” (interview, 01/2012). Professor Sarath described the transcription project as “intensive”. “I am very surprised that [the classically trained musicians] do some very impressive transcriptions” (interview, 11/2011).

Perceptions of Improvisation

Preconceptions. Prior to enrolling in the course, participants had mixed views and experiences with improvisation. Both Ramona and Lucy expressed a lack of confidence in their abilities as improvisers. Ramona explained, “I was never any good at improvising and never really liked it because I didn’t like being put on the spot without having something planned out” (interview, 11/2011). For Lucy “it was performing, being on the spot, like soloing” (interview 01/2011). Yet, both chose to take the class to confront their lack of confidence and to practice “getting out of [their] comfort zone” (Ramona, interview, 11/2011).

The other participants discussed positive experiences with improvisation as an important part of their musical development. Sam noted that he has “improvised forever. Since I was very little, my mom had me playing on the C Jam Blues. My earliest memories [are improvising at the piano]” (interview 01/2012). Tina had experience playing her violin in her school jazz band. Susan had experience improvising as a vocalist in a rock band. And although Tim’s music improvisation experience was limited, he had had improvisation experience in musical theatre.

Post-conceptions. Through their participation in IBM, the participants in this study have broadened their understanding and appreciation for improvisation. Ramona expressed that it helped her to develop confidence and flexibility. “I think to be a well-rounded musician, it’s good to be able to do the straightforward aspect of Classical and Baroque in addition to being more flexible with improvising and jazz” (Ramona, interview, 11/2011). Focusing on temporal and expressive elements, Susan explained:

It is a really important skill because it’s a new level of being in the moment as a performer…and I’m thinking about the mood that I’m helping shape in the room. That’s really cool for me…because when you have that, when you experience just pure, raw, this is it, then you can take that back into classical singing or violin, or whatever. (interview 3/2012)

Lucy has learned about complexity and challenge involved with improvising, which has developed her respect for improvisation. “I’m glad that I chose classical music” (interview, 01/2012). And Tim noted the sense of freedom improvisation inspires. “It causes you to stop being constricted …. I think that really helps free up your musicianship. It’s something that allows you to have fun” (interview, 03/2012).

When asked if they would continue their exploration of improvisation beyond this course, all participants indicated ways in which they would do so. Such opportunities include enrolling in private jazz lessons, performing in the Creative Arts Orchestra, an ensemble dedicated to free improvisation, taking jazz classes, and seeking performance opportunities outside school in popular music ensembles and on cruise ships.

Benefits of Improvisation as a Means for Learning Music Theory

All of the participants expressed benefits of using improvisation as an integrative approach to learning music theory. Having the opportunity to perform and put into practice what they were learning conceptually created a deeper, more meaningful learning experience. “Just being able to do it on the harp, doing it on the piano, and being able to look at it and see it happening other than just seeing it written out on paper … that makes a big difference” (Ramona, interview, 11/2011). Sam explained how improvisation served as a catalyst for making connections between performance and analysis:

I’ve been starting to make more connections that [I wasn’t making when I was in classical theory]. I’d be learning how to talk about music that I was hearing but it was harder for me to make the connection [with performance]. And I couldn’t just jump the gap myself. I guess it required some catalyst and this helped. (interview, 01/2012)

This adds support to Tina’s statement that IBM helped her to “bridge the gap” between performance and analysis. It also supports the intention of the professors. “I believe that Professor Sarath and I provide a deep learning experience that integrates performance, improvisation, ear training, writing and listening into a cohesive whole” (Kirschenmann, email communication, 02/2012).

A more specific finding was that participants valued the study of contemporary harmony at the keyboard. Lucy felt she developed a deeper knowledge base of harmony. “Doing piano work is really [helpful for internalizing the sounds and chords] on a deeper level than I did last year” (interview, 01/2012). As a vocalist and musical theatre major, Tim expressed appreciation for learning how to read contemporary chord symbols. “The keyboard voice-leading that’s often used in popular music today …. Hearing those chords in front of me really helps” (interview, 03/2012).

As a future music teacher, Susan noted the benefits of using improvisation as a means for developing musicianship. “I think it’s something that should really be brought to earlier childhood … because it is so good for developing that musical ear and emotional expression …” (interview, 03/2012). Recognizing her own growth as a musician through improvisation, Susan is beginning to imagine how this could be a regular part of her teaching practice in future years.


For the past 20 years, Integral Basic Musicianship has been an alternative theory course for undergraduate students at the University of Michigan. Existing prior to NASM’s implementation of standards for composition and improvisation, the longevity and success of this course is a testament to the vision of Professors Sarath (founder) and Kirschenmann. Such vision has lead to a learning environment that not only prepares student musicians for the 21st-century global society, but also represents the musical practices and knowledge bases of the contemporary world of music.

The student participants in this study enrolled in Integral Basic Musicianship are motivated by their desire for an integrative, holistic approach to learning music theory. Rather than focusing primarily on analysis of repertoire of the common practice period, these students sought a hands-on approach that involved jazz, composition, and improvisation. Some entered the class with significant improvisation experience, while others had limited experience.

Through the class, all participants developed a greater sense of confidence as improvisers and a broader understanding and awareness of it as a practice. Their concepts of improvisation grew to include the ideas of space, mood, and time. The development of these understandings not only deepened their sense of musicianship and connectedness to music making, but has also prompted many of the participants to consider exploring improvisation in other contexts in the future.

In addition, the frequent performing opportunities in each class provided a space for students to synthesize the material they were learning. Giving students a chance to creatively engage and manipulate the tonal materials beyond understanding it on paper allows for deeper learning experiences. The authentic learning activities of transcribing jazz solos, composing an original work, realizing figured bass, interpreting contemporary keyboard harmonies, and regular improvisation within an ensemble are integrative approaches for developing a more global view of musicianship. Such engagement demands regular synthesis of one’s musical knowledge and creative and performance abilities, the fifth standard expected of undergraduate music majors by NASM.

While the conclusions drawn from this study suggest this course may be beneficial to developing musicianship, additional study is needed to confirm or refute these findings. The focus on improvisation as a means for learning theory in this course does not supplant the pedagogy and content found in traditional music theory and aural skills courses; nor does it focus on the development of improvisation expertise in a given style. Integral Basic Musicianship, as presented in this instrumental case study, should be viewed as an alternative approach to developing basic musicianship among undergraduate music majors, who should continue to develop a higher level musicianship.

As this study suggests, integrating improvisation in a music theory course is one answer to meeting the various NASM standards for undergraduate education. Future studies should examine other forms of integrated learning and approaches to incorporating improvisation in the curriculum. Longitudinal studies could be conducted to track the influence such coursework has on the professional lives of musicians. Comparative case studies could be conducted between populations enrolled in traditional theory courses and those enrolled in integrated courses. Finally, quantitative studies could examine the knowledge and skills gained over the course of a semester or year in integrated courses. The collection of additional data on such courses is an important step to justifying their inclusion in the regular undergraduate curriculum and providing successful models for how this may be accomplished.


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1. These Standards have since been revised and published in 2014, focusing on the artistic processes of creating, performing, responding, and connecting.

9480 Last modified on March 7, 2019