Specific Applications to Music Instruction

General Music

The application of music learning theory for learners 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.

Classroom Activities

Learning Sequence Activities














Verbal Association

Partial Synthesis

Symbolic Association

Composite Synthesis



Generalization Verbal



Theoretical Understanding











Students are introduced to a given skill level in learning sequence activities and then are taught to use that skill level (along with prior skill levels) in classroom activities. Students are introduced to content in classroom activities, building listening, singing, chanting, playing, and moving vocabularies using new content.

During classroom activities teachers  focus on exposing children to new and unfamiliar tonalities and meters using familiar classroom techniques such as singing, chanting, moving, and playing classroom instruments. At the same time teachers guide  children to understand and engage with familiar tonalities and meters (major and minor, duple and triple) in learning sequence activities. Most 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, play, 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 in alternate class meetings. 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. Children should sing, chant, and move during every general music class period.

Movement is an important part of music education. Children should experience continuous fluid movement with flow and weight before they learn  to focus on beat movement and before they experience movement focused on space and time (for definitions of these Laban terms, see Music play: The early childhood curriculum).

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 on 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, then it is 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 curriculum  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. GIML’s Professional Development Learning Courses in elementary general, levels 1 and 2, focus on pattern instruction and the classroom content in the Jump Right In series.

Instrumental Music

Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series, Grunow, Azzara, Martin, and Gordon (JRI: TIS) is a comprehensive curriculum for instrumental music based on music learning theory. The four most important goals of JRI: TIS are: (1) to motivate students to be successful in performing on an instrument with enjoyment and practical musicianship; (2) to teach students to perform on an instrument without aid of notation, and to improvise; (3) to teach students to read, write, compose, arrange, and perform with comprehension; and (4) to enable students to continue meaningful performance on their instruments and to become intelligent music makers and music listeners during and beyond their formal education. 

With those goals in mind, teachers using JRI: TIS teach students to audiate (a) by singing and playing songs, harmony parts, tonal patterns, and melodic patterns, (b) by chanting and playing rhythm patterns, and (c) by improvising with their voices and instruments. Students develop executive skills, e.g., embouchure, articulation, posture, hand position, and finger dexterity in the context of audiation skills. Although students require various lengths of time for growth and development of executive skills, one fact remains constant: executive skills are easier to achieve when supported by audiation skills. Teachers using JRI: TIS give audiation skills and executive skills equal emphasis, and they teach them in the proper sequence—audiation skills preceding executive skills. In essence, students learn two instruments—the audiation instrument and the executive skills instrument.  

Not surprising, instrumental music instruction based on music learning theory is a significant departure from typical instrumental music instruction wherein teachers introduce students immediately to notation regardless of their ability to sing in tune or move their bodies in a consistent tempo. Even when those students are able to sing and move, the immediate introduction of notation and the accompanying unmusical tempos and uncharacteristic rhythms associated with typical beginning instrumental instruction place little demand on their senses of tonality, meter, style, and overall musicianship. To meet the demands of the concert, those teachers focus almost exclusively on performing ensembles. If their students have not learned to sing and move, their instrumental performances are limited to decoding notation—associating fingerings with note names, counting rhythm based on note values, and imitating what they hear. Performance will almost certainly lack acceptable intonation and rhythm. And because students often lack the ability to read with comprehension—to draw from tonal and rhythm audiation skills—they must rely on direction from others for much of their music experience. 

Unlike typical beginning instrumental instruction, teachers who use JRI: TIS focus instruction on musical context: tonality, meter, and style. Students learn to (a) sing and play songs (whole) and (b) sing and play tonal patterns and chant and play rhythm patterns (parts) in familiar tonalities (major and minor), familiar meters (duple and triple), and numerous styles, e.g., classical, folk, jazz. They also learn (a) tonal syllables and note names and (b) rhythm syllables and note values in the proper sequence—tonal syllables preceding note names and rhythm syllables preceding note values.  Music notation is not withheld from students using JRI: TIS; however, the formal reading and writing of music are introduced after students’ audiation skills have developed sufficiently to enable them to associate notation with music they are audiating. In many instances, the “First Concert” may actually occur before the formal introduction of notation. 

Music learning theory is not a method; however, JRI: TIS is a comprehensive music curriculum comprising many possible methods, all based on the logic of music learning theory. Instrumental teachers who use JRI: TIS develop unique methods. In doing so, they make use of Lesson Plans and Teaching Procedures based on sequential objectives and content that are appropriate for specific students and teaching situations.

 In addition to an extensive Teachers Guide, JRI: TIS includes Audio Files online that include (a) songs and harmony parts, (b) tonal patterns, (c) rhythm patterns, and (d) melodic patterns.  The series also features over 300 instrumental recordings of folk songs and classical melodies comprising a variety of tonalities and meters from a broad range of cultures. Performances are by artist faculty and students at the Eastman School of Music, members of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and members of Rhythm & Brass. 


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 improvisers are often introduced simultaneously to several new processes. Instrumentalists’ difficulties are sometimes compounded when they try to improvise without having first mastered the essential readiness of playing familiar songs by ear.

Following are 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 key.

Learn lots of songs by ear.

Learning a large repertoire of songs is at the heart of improvisation. The objective is for students to learn so many melodies and bass lines that they begin to hear harmonic progressions (“the changes”) and generate their own melodic lines.

Learn songs thoroughly.

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

Learn bass lines.

Capable improvisors audiate in at least three separate “tracks” simultaneously. As they create improvisations, they also have an ongoing awareness of both the melody and bass line of the songs to which they are improvising. Knowing the bass line, otherwise known as root melody, is a foundation for understanding the harmony of a song. Students should learn to sing the bass line just as they would any other song.

Use familiar songs of appropriate difficulty.

Beginning improvisers are often asked to improvise to repertoire that are harmonically complex and stylistically unfamiliar. A better practice is to start simply, for example, major and minor songs with tonic and dominant tonal functions. As skill grows, songs with new tonalities and new tonal functions can be added to the student’s repertoire.

Focus on the ears.

Beginning improvisers 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 song, however, students can do little more than explore aimlessly what they see on the page. 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 learn to improvise in the context of audiation.

Try to make up your own melodies.

After learning many songs, 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 tonal patterns and rhythm patterns in the context of songs helps students develop the tonal and rhythmic vocabulary necessary for successful improvisation. By improvising tonal patterns and rhythm patterns, students build a foundation for combining tonal and rhythm elements successfully when improvising to a song.

Having built foundational skills with familiar songs, students are ready to learn a variety of additional repertoire, harmonies, tonalities, meters, and styles.

Developing Musicianship through Improvisation (DMTI), by Christopher Azzara and Richard Grunow, is an improvisation method that is based on the learning principles described here. It comes with professional recordings containing familiar songs, bass lines, accompaniments, and examples of improvised performances. Also included are tracks for practicing tonal and rhythm patterns in various tonalities and meters and Seven Skills for learning to improvise.