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Specific Applications to Music Instruction

General Music

The application of music learning theory in a general music or vocal music setting occurs within a whole-part-whole structure for the overall curriculum and the individual class period. An overview of the curriculum structure is presented below.

Experience the Whole Study the Parts Understand and Comprehend the Whole

Type of Learning


Verbal Association
Partial Synthesis
Symbolic Association
Composite Synthesis


Generalization Verbal


Students are introduced to a given skill level in learning sequence activities and then are taught to use that skill level in classroom activities. Students are introduced to content in classroom activities, building listening and interaction vocabularies in new content.

During classroom activities teachers should focus on exposing children to new and unusual tonalities and meters using familiar classroom techniques such as singing, chanting, moving, and dancing. At the same time they should be teaching children to understand and comprehend familiar tonalities and meters (major and minor, duple and triple) in learning sequence activities. Children are ready to study the specific parts of familiar tonalities and meters because they have heard music in those tonalities and meters in the culture and they have learned to sing, chant, and move to music in those tonalities and meters.

Learning Sequence Activities should be taught during the first ten minutes of every general music class period. Tonal and rhythm Learning Sequence Activities should be presented on alternate weeks. Even though children are learning in major and minor tonalities and duple and triple meters in Learning Sequence Activities, they should be experiencing music in other tonalities and meters in classroom activities.

Movement is an important part of music education. Children should experience continuous fluid movement with flow and weight before they are taught to focus on beat movement and before they experience movement focused on space and time.

A typical 30-45 minute general music class period should include 10 minutes of Learning Sequence Activities and a variety of other activities that feature singing, movement, creativity and improvisation, and play. Children should sing, chant, and move during every general music class period.

There is no need to coordinate the tonal or rhythm content of Learning Sequence Activities and Classroom Activities within a single class period. It is the skill level itself that transfers, not the specific content.

For example, in Learning Sequence Activities, a child may be learning to identify and sing tonic and dominant patterns in major or minor tonality. In Classroom Activities songs in other tonalities should be taught. If the children have not yet learned to identify resting tone and harmonic function in Learning Sequence Activities, the teacher may still focus attention in resting tone and tonic function by having the children sing those important
functions using a neutral syllable.

If the children in the class have reached the verbal association level in Learning Sequence Activities, it would be appropriate for the teacher to label the resting tone of the song and to sing the tonic function with solfege syllables. The teacher should briefly explain that the song they are moving to or learning to sing also has a tonic function and a resting tone. For example, if the children are learning to sing a song in Dorian tonality, the
teacher should identify the resting tone as RE and should sing the tonic pattern using the syllables LA FA RE. There is no need to explain the theory of Dorian tonality and its relation to major or minor tonality. The idea that there is a resting tone and a tonic function (and other important harmonic functions) is what is important.

Jump Right In: The General Music Series is the new series that guides teachers in implementing Music Learning Theory principles and methods in the elementary general music classroom. The entire series will encompass kindergarten through eighth grade. Books and recordings for first, second, and third grades are available now.

Instrumental Music

The goal of instruction in instrumental music is to learn to play an instrument as an extension of the inner audiation instrument. When students are able to “sing” through their instrument, they play with better intonation, phrasing, expression, and rhythmic “flow.”

Prior to beginning instruction on the instrument, students build a strong audiation foundation through singing, chanting, and rhythmic movement. Each song they learn to play on their instrument is first learned through singing. Learning sequence activities proceed much as in a general music classroom, but with the added step of playing tonal and rhythm patterns on the instruments. Executive skill development also commences prior to the first experiences playing the instrument. Students articulate basic rhythmic figures in separated and connected styles using the voice, the breath, the mouthpiece, and finally the assembled instrument. And, while fingering an “imaginary” instrument, they sing the tonal patterns, melodic patterns, and songs they will later learn on their real instrument.

An audiation-based approach to instrumental instruction differs significantly from traditional methods:

Rote before note. Singing and playing by ear are essential for developing the ability to connect audiation to the physical manipulation of the instrument. Instrumentalists should spend at least a semester playing by rote before learning to read notation. Tonal and rhythm patterns–sung, chanted, and played–are the content of learning sequence activities. Songs are the primary content of classroom activities. Songs are musical stories, essential components of the aural/oral foundation upon which higher levels of audiation skill are built. In early language learning, a large repertoire of familiar stories is a readiness for formal instruction in reading. The same is true in music, and the number of songs a student knows is an important measure of musical achievement. At all stages of instrumental instruction, students should be encouraged to learn to sing and play as many rote songs as possible.

Patterns, not individual notes. Most beginning instrumental methods start by having students play one note at a time. Because a single note has no musical meaning, this process does little to develop audiation and the connection between the inner audiation instrument and the physical instrument. Further, many methods begin with whole notes, which are difficult to audiate. In Jump Right in : The Instrumental Series students first learn to perform basic tonal and rhythm patterns. The first rhythm patterns they learn are at the most basic level of rhythm content, namely, macrobeat and microbeat patterns in duple meter. (These patterns are first notated as quarter notes and eighth notes in the measure signature of 2/4. Later, students read the same patterns, with the same rhythm solfege, as half notes and quarter notes in 2/2, or “cut” time.) They soon encounter these same basic patterns in the songs they learn to sing, play, and read.

Solfege, not letter names. Students learn the letter names of musical notes at the theoretical understanding level of inference learning. That level should be preceded by extensive experience audiating tonal and rhythm solfege while singing and playing by rote or from notation. Instrumental students learn to associate tonal syllables with specific fingerings in different keys. They also play songs and tonal patterns in different keys, establishing an early foundation for development of transposition skills.

Jump Right in : The Instrumental Series is a complete method for teaching the audiation and executive skills necessary for instrumental musicianship. In addition to a teachers manual and a variety of student books, the series includes compact disc recordings of 300 tunes students can use to develop their rote song repertoire.


Musical improvisation is a uniquely fulfilling form of musical expression and an essential component of comprehensive music learning. To improvise is to demonstrate understanding of music in much the same way as the ability to rephrase a paragraph in one’s own words is a measure of language comprehension. Musicians who improvise bring greater understanding through audiation to the music they listen to, perform, read, and write.

To teach improvisation effectively, proper sequence is crucial. Learning is most efficient when it proceeds one step at a time, but beginning improvisors are often introduced simultaneously to several new processes. They are taught a new skill (improvisation) at the same time they encounter an unfamiliar style and literature (jazz). And instrumentalists’ difficulties are sometimes compounded when they try to improvise without having first mastered the
essential readiness of playing familiar tunes by ear.

Following are some guidelines that will help the teacher teach improvisation in accordance with Music Learning Theory principles:

Sing first. To improvise meaningfully, the instrumentalist must learn to play the instrument as an extension of the inner audiation instrument. Singing is the key.

Learn lots of tunes by ear. Learning a large repertoire of tunes is at the heart of improvisation. The objective is for the student to learn so many melodies and and bass lines that he begins to hear harmonic progressions (“the changes”) and generate his own melodic lines.

Learn tunes thoroughly. A key to improvisational success is the ability to audiate the tune while improvising. To do this, the tune must be learned well. Beginning improvisors should spend enough time listening to, singing, then (if instrumentalists) playing each tune so that audiating and performing it become second nature.

Learn bass lines. A capable improvisor audiates in at least three separate “tracks” simultaneously. As he creates his improvisation, he also has an ongoing awareness of both the melody and the bass line of the tune to which he is improvising. Knowing the bass line, otherwise known as root melody, is the foundation for understanding the harmony of a tune. Students should learn to sing the bass line just as they would any other rote song.

Use familiar tunes of appropriate difficulty. Beginning improvisors are often asked to improvise to jazz or blues tunes that are harmonically complex and stylistically unfamiliar. A better practice is to start very simply, especially with regard to tonal content. Beginners of all ages, including many with extensive traditional music training, find the task of improvising to a simple major tune comprised of only tonic and dominant tonal functions very challenging. As skill grows, tunes with new tonalities and new tonal functions can be added to the student’s tune repertoire.

Focus on the ears. Beginning improvisors are sometimes shown a set of written notes and then are told to use those notes somehow to create their own unique musical ideas. Lacking the ability to audiate the melody, bass line, and form of the tune, however, the student can do little more than explore aimlessly what he sees on the page or chalkboard. Likewise, students are often told the theory of intervals, chord spellings, and tonal functions, but such intellectual understanding in the absence of aural ability is of little value. A better approach is to put notation and theory aside for a while and encourage the student to rely entirely on audiation.

Try to make up your own melodies. After learning many tunes, initiate the idea of improvisation by creating responses to familiar songs and musical phrases performed by another individual.

Improvise with tonal and rhythm patterns. To improvise intelligently, one must have something to improvise with. Learning sequence activities help the student develop the tonal and rhythmic vocabulary necessary for successful improvisation in classroom activities. Remember, improvisation is a level of skill learning sequence, and new skills should always be introduced in learning sequence activities (see rules of content and skill introduction). By improvising tonal patterns and rhythm patterns in learning sequence activities, students build a foundation for combining tonal and rhythm elements successfully when improvising to a tune.

Having built foundational skills with familiar rote tunes, interested students are ready to learn the specific styles, literature, harmony, and vocabulary of jazz improvisation.

Developing Musicianship Through Improvisation, by Christopher Azzara, is an improvisation method that is based on the learning principles described here. It comes with a professionally recorded CD containing familiar tunes, their bass lines, and rhythm section accompaniments. Also included are tracks for practicing tonal and rhythm patterns in various tonalities and meters.