Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 6

Table of Contents

Incorporating Model Composition and Improvisation into the Theory Curriculum: Further Reflections on Benefits and Challenges

Gilad Rabinovitch and Martin Norgaard, Georgia State University


This essay reports on the use of model composition and improvisation activities in two Theory II sections taught by Gilad Rabinovitch in the School of Music at Georgia State University, an urban research (R1) university in Atlanta, GA. We bring to this project complementary research interests and expertise in music theory, improvisation studies, cognition, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. By looking at student compositions and improvisations, we can gain a sense of some of the benefits and challenges of these activities in the core curriculum. Previous studies have reported on implementation of model improvisation activities at different schools (Callahan 2015, Rabinovitch and Slominski 2015), yet there is much room to keep experimenting with pedagogical design and assessing the effectiveness of these activities in different contexts. While we believe that thinking in music should precede thinking about music (Schubert 2011, Graybill 2014; see also Larson 2012), we recognize that common-practice-based composition and improvisation pose challenges to 21st-century learners, who are often enculturated in other tonal styles. The potential learning goals of these activities include increased stylistic fluency, enhanced musicianship, and bridging theory and musicianship skills.

The degree to which our intervention contributed to students’ idiomatic fluency is unclear, and we reflect on it below. However, we are confident that it forged connections between theory and musicianship skills. Creative exercises give students the opportunity to experience the musical implications of their decisions. They bridge the gap between theory, musicianship skills, and musical experiences. They engage theoretical notions such as chordal arpeggiation and embellishing tones musically. Creative assignments also give students a vivid sense of common-practice grammatical constraints like parallel fifths and octaves. As instructors, they give us a glimpse into the students’ evolving musicianship skills and stylistic competencies, which are somewhat harder to gage through written assignments in part-writing and analysis. We discuss selected student work below, assessing some advantages and problems in implementation.

Activities Implemented

Two sections of Theory II received improvisation exercises or composition exercises for half of the semester, with a switch in mid-semester. The activities at home and in class included:

  1. Homework assignments in composition or improvisation based on part-writing and analysis exercises that the students had completed prior to composing or improvising. This was intended to bridge the gap between the written skills necessary to progress to the next unit in the theory curriculum (i.e., part-writing and analysis) and musicianship skills.
  2. In-class rounds of improvising vocally on a given bass in which students performed variations successively on the same bass played by the instructor. There were two modes for this activity: non-stop (students improvised successive variations one after another), or with stopping (students echoed each other’s variations or reflected on them).
  3. In-class composition workshops in which selected students’ written work was shared and peer-critiqued, with students pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the excerpt workshopped, and students and instructor making musical suggestions.

Improvisations as part of homework assignments were done as sing-and-plays in which the students played the bass on a piano or keyboard (sometimes guitar) and sang a melodic line. This connects playing, listening, and audiation (see Chenette 2016, Schubert 2017). Submission of play-and-sing exercises through email is a realistic solution, since virtually all students can now record at an acceptable quality on their own devices. As in Callahan’s (2015) implementation, students were asked on good faith not to notate anything but were encouraged to practice and submit a “good take.” In-class rounds of ungraded improvisation (activity #2 above) are a useful scaffolding for this task, since they provide a quick succession of versions and encourage reluctant students to participate. They also require that students listen carefully and come up with variations that their classmates had not tried. Similar exercises have been suggested for use with younger student populations by Brophy (2005) and Norgaard (2017b), and we believe that they are effective with college-age learners as well.


A major challenge in incorporating common-practice composition and improvisation exercises is that many of our students are enculturated as listeners in some form of western tonality, yet common-practice music is not necessarily their native “dialect.” Gjerdingen (2003) questions the comprehensibility of Mozart to listeners enculturated in hip hop, say, which he compares to the difference in competencies of speakers of German and Vietnamese. A more apt question might be whether the distance between common-practice and vernacular tonal styles is similar to that between Spanish and Portuguese, or rather Romanian and French; in other words, are different tonal dialects or languages mutually intelligible? Of course, gaining active fluency in composition or improvisation requires more than passive enculturation or appreciation as a listener. Rogers (2013, 72–73) frames the pedagogical problem in provocative terms in her appeal for modernizing a model-composition project: she suggests turning to college fight-song choruses instead of menuets, since fight songs have common-practice grammatical constraints and at the same time are more familiar to our students. Rogers is correct to point out that if students are not familiar with a style, providing step-by-step instructions for composition cannot compensate for a lack of stylistic fluency. This is a challenge for our project and we reflect on it further below. Note, however, that we did not provide explicit step-by-step instructions, only asking students to project underlying harmonic models in musically satisfactory ways.

Reflections on Samples of Students’ Performances in Composition and Improvisation

Example 1 provides a musical prompt and seven sample student model compositions created during a written diagnostic exam at the beginning of the semester, before composition or improvisation assignments were undertaken. Students were asked to “complete the upper line: create a melody that would convey the underlying chords and that you find musically satisfactory.” The output shows that students were generally able to project chords correctly through arpeggiations and passing tones without receiving prior instruction. The excerpts here include awkward contours (participant #2), monotony and parallels (#18), a harsh deviation from the chord (#8, beat 3 of m. 1 with parallels into the next beat), and additional problems. However, the students’ fine initial output clearly shows that they were well-prepared to experiment with this activity, which enlivens a part-writing framework through a musical activity in a two-voice texture. (This is a more manageable texture than the traditional 4-part texture for part-writing, and it is easier to perform or audiate). Of course, the test-taking situation is equivalent to the written-homework “syndrome” that Callahan (2015) bemoans: paper exercises that the students complete in the hallway just before class without playing.

Example 2 collates a harmonic model that the students were asked to complete as a part-writing exercise first, then use the results as a basis for improvisations. Six student performances are transcribed and included as audio examples at the following links: participants 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 8. Listening to the recordings can give us a sense of the musicality and effort that were put into this task (despite some intonation issues). Even if the students completed the part-writing version on paper only, the improvisation task allowed them (or forced them) to articulate the model musically, sometimes with the grammatical “sin” of parallels. Moreover, the students’ performances are not entirely idiomatic—perhaps participants 6 and 7 come closest. Participant 7 makes a very nice and elegant use of a motif, despite her parallels.

Beyond pointing out parallels, it is difficult to articulate suggestions for improvement for someone like participant 7. A comment like “explore more chordal arpeggiation rather than just steps” fails to capture the idiomatic knowledge needed to realize the model. Example 2A shows participant 7’s solution followed by our suggestion. A cadential melodic formula such as ------- for the concluding two measures may represent stylistic knowledge about co-occurrences of surface formulas and underlying progressions that are beyond what we normally teach. Gjerdingen and Bourne (2015) adopt the notion of linguistic “collostructions” to music. Briefly, musical collostructions are common associations between surface details and underlying skeletal patterns. These are types of knowledge that we do not typically pay much attention to in the core curriculum. It is easier to impart correct part-writing than stylistic fluency, which raises questions about our curricular goals to be discussed briefly at the conclusion of this essay.

Impressive student improvisations on an additional model (participant 22, participant 28) are transcribed in Examples 3A and 3B respectively—they are based on the opening of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 142/ii. These performances demonstrate the extent to which the students were able to audiate the chords, experiment with different melodic combinations, and create a successful result—even if it reflects prior acquaintance with the idiom rather than the effects of our intervention. However, the improvisation unit afforded these students an opportunity to connect their stylistic knowledge with theory and musicianship. Less successful versions—such as those by participants 16 and 27 (not transcribed), demonstrate some of the musicianship challenges. In a fourteen-week implementation rather than our 7-week implementation, it would have been easier to identify problems and offer individual coaching earlier on. Spending a few weeks on sung tonal species (cf. Schubert 2017), to be followed by more advanced models, could be a path to improvement in longer implementations in the future.

As stated, we share Rogers’s (2013) skepticism that highly prescribed creative exercises actually provide evidence of students’ stylistic knowledge. We have generally given students musical examples and harmonic models but not step-by-step instructions for creating their own versions. The intervention may have led only to a nascent idiomatic fluency in some cases. However, the range of part-writing and analysis activities and creative ones bridged the theory-musicianship gap. Crucially, no type of activity remained disconnected from music making, even though some assignments were done only on paper, while others were recast as creative exercises. By listening, improvising, playing through exercises, and workshopping in class, students were exposed to the musical implications of their choices, giving them a more holistic learning experience. Working through these musicianship challenges seems to us beneficial for the students’ training, as it gives opportunities both to acquire skills and to acquire elements of style.

Research in the development of improvisational skill in the jazz idiom shows the essential role of immersion through extended periods of time (Berliner 1994, Norgaard 2017a). The outcome of this learning ideally leads to idiomatic use of rules and patterns in a partly automatic cognitive process (Beaty et al 2016, Norgaard et al 2016). Though elite-expert skills take years to acquire, improvisation activities seem to us helpful for our students’ musical growth and musicianship skills.


Like many recent commentators, we are concerned about the central role of European art music in the curriculum, which may stand in the way of developing critical sensibilities (e.g.,Scherbenske 2015), a topic that is well beyond the scope of this brief essay. In order to mitigate both the issue of idiomatic fluency as well as the common-practice-centric nature of our intervention, an alternative for the future might be to model two small corpora—e.g., a selection of classic blues recordings and classic-period menuets—which would develop musicianship skills as well as work with creative models through two distinct styles. The current intervention required students to create on given frameworks, with listening and exposure having a less central role than they should have had. More extensive and focused listening may promote a deeper understanding of the corpora modeled, which may contribute to more successful model compositions or improvisations. Perhaps students should be instructed to analyze the models in great details as well prior to creating their own versions.

An interesting underlying issue in our discussion is the fact that musicality or “grammatical” correctness are not always accompanied by idiomatic competence. This raises questions about the goals of theory and musicianship, which will have to remain largely open here: Why do we part-write, analyze, listen, reflect, compose, and improvise in the core curriculum? Are we trying to create more learned musicians and scholars, more skilled musicians, more fluent “speakers” of some tonal style or styles (perhaps depending on the type of institution in which we teach)? Are we successful at forging connections between theory and the learning that is happening in other parts of music curricula or general undergraduate studies? The position that we subscribe to—that thinking in music should precede thinking about music—is not a consensus position, and it is useful for us to keep engaging in productive conversations about both goals and effective ways of achieving them. It might well be the case the present-day learners require more thorough explicit analytical knowledge before we can hope to guide them through composition and improvisation (cf. Rabinovitch 2017, paragraph 17 and sources discussed there)—challenging our position and qualifying our conclusions. However, we believe that creative assignments engage the students musically in a highly productive way. As instructors, they also give us a glimpse into our students’ evolving musical learning, skills, and stylistic competence, which might be somewhat harder to assess through paper-based exercises.

Contributors and Funding Sources

This project was supported by a mini-grant from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Georgia State University to the authors.


Beaty, Roger E., Mathias Benedek, Paul J. Silvia, & Daniel L. Schachter. 2016. “Creative Cognition and Brain Network Dynamics.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20/2: 87-95.

Berliner, Paul F. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brophy, Timothy S. 2005. “A Longitudinal Study of Selected Characteristics of Children’s Melodic Improvisation.” Journal of Research in Music Education 53/2: 120-33.

Callahan, Michael R. 2015. “Teaching and Learning Undergraduate Music Theory at the Keyboard: Challenges, Solutions, and Impacts.” Music Theory Online 21.3

Chenette, Timothy. 2016. “Bringing Jazz Repertoire, Improvisation, and Active Thinking into the Study of Motives.Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy 4.

de Clercq, Trevor. 2013 “Towards a Flipped Aural Skills Classroom: Harnessing Recording Technology for Performance-Based Homework.” Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy 1.

Gjerdingen, Robert O. 2003. “Review of What to Listen for in Rock: A Stylistic Analysis by Ken Stephenson.” Music Perception 20/4: 491-97.

Gjerdingen, Robert, and Janet Bourne. 2015. “Schema Theory as a Construction Grammar.” Music Theory Online 21.2.

Graybill, Roger. 2014. “Thinking ‘in’ and ‘about’ Music: Implications for the Theory Curriculum.” Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy 2.

Kulma, David, and Meghan Naxer. 2014. “Beyond Part Writing: Modernizing the Curriculum.” Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy 2.

Larson, Steve. 2012. Musical Forces: Motion, Metaphor, and Meaning in Music. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Norgaard, Martin. 2017a. “Descriptions of Improvisational Thinking by Developing Jazz Improvisers.” International Journal of Music Education 35/2: 259-71.

———. 2017b. “Developing Musical Creativity through Improvisation in the Large Performance Classroom.” Music Educators Journal 103/3: 34-39.

Norgaard, Martin, Samantha N. Emerson, Kimberly Dawn, and James D. Fidlon. 2016. “Creating under Pressure: Effects of Divided Attention on the Improvised Output of Skilled Jazz Pianists.” Music Perception 33/5: 561-70.

Rabinovitch, Gilad, and Johnandrew Slominski. 2015. “Towards a Galant Pedagogy: Partimenti and Galant Schemata as Tools in the Pedagogy of Eighteenth-Century Style Improvisation.” Music Theory Online 21.3.

Rabinovitch, Gilad. 2017. “Review of Massimiliano Guido (ed.), Studies in Historical Improvisation from Cantare super Librum to Partimenti (Ashgate, 2017).” Music Theory Online 23.4

Rogers, Nancy. 2013. “Modernizing the Minuet Composition Project.” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 27: 71-110.

Schebenseke, Amanda. 2015. “Student-Centered Learning Strategies for Teaching World and Popular Musics.” Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy 3.

Schubert, Peter. 2011. “Global Perspective on Music Theory Pedagogy: Thinking in Music.” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 25: 217-33.

Schubert, Peter. 2017. “Teaching Theory through Improvisation.” In Studies in Historical Improvisation from Cantare super Librum to Partimenti, edited by Massimiliano Guido, 175-184. Abingdon: Ashgate.

This work is copyright ⓒ2018 Gilad Rabinovitch and Martin Norgaard and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.