Improvisation Part 2: Melody

Happy new school year! This is Jamie Parker. It’s been awhile since I last blogged, and I realized I never finished my series on improvisation. In my last blog post, I talked about rhythm improvisation. Today, I’ll go over some thoughts on melodic improvisation.

(Thanks to Sonya DeHartKelly Benefield, and Melonheadz for the graphics)

Melodic improvisation can be tricky! In my own classroom, I’ve experienced several situations in which my students did not feel completely comfortable with what I was asking of them, and the improvisation activity was a complete disaster. Ever had that happen to you?

More than anything, I’ve learned that creating a risk-free environment with relationships built on trust and respect helps students to create and improvise freely. When doing melodic improvisation activities in my classroom, I try to refine my presentation process so that students completely understand what I’m asking and understand that it’s ok to make a mistake.

Here are some of my favorite melodic improvisation activities:

I. Put Melody to Known Chants
When first starting melodic improvisation, I sometimes take a chant that is very well known to my students. One chant I’ve used for this activity is Bee, Bee Bumblebee:

Instead of performing the chant normally, I might perform it something like this:

Then, I ask these questions:
  • Is that how we normally perform Bee, Bee Bumblebee? (no)
  • How was it different? (you used a singing voice instead of a talking voice)

I might give the students one or two more examples of different ways to perform the song with a singing voice. Then, I ask a student to create his or her own way of singing the song.

When doing this activity, you could give the students a specific tone set to use or you could just allow them to explore with their voices.

II. Questions and Answers
For this activity, I have purchased flash cards like these:

You can purchase these from your local teacher or store from Amazon here.

When I first start with the cards, I take out several stuffed animals I have at school and give them each a card. Then, I perform questions and answers something like this:



I continue with a few more questions and answers, changing the melody each time. Then, I ask the students some questions:
  • What kind of voice did I use for those questions and answers? (singing voice)
  • Were all of the singing patterns the same? (no)
  • I wonder if you could create a question and answer.

I then pass out a card to each student. I start by asking a student a question (Ex: “Who has the butterfly?”). The student with the butterfly creates his or her own musical answer to “I have the butterfly.” Then, that student asks for a different object with a musical question (Ex: “Who has the fish?”). The game continues until all have had a turn to create a musical question and answer.

When doing this activity, you could give the students a specific tone set to use or you could just allow them to explore with their voices.

III. Improvise to Known Songs
When choosing known songs to use for melodic improvisation activities, I love to search for songs that have the same rhythm for each line but different melody patterns. One of my favorites is See the Rabbit Running. This is actually an exercise from Kodaly’s 333 Reading Exercises (#161) and the text is added by Molly McNamara:

For this activity, my students could read the original song in either staff notation or stick notation with solfege. Then, they could figure out the form of the song (a b a c). After they complete those tasks, I perform the song something like this:

Then, I ask the following questions:
  • Was the text of my version the same as the original? (yes)
  • Was the rhythm of my version the same as the original? (yes)
  • Was the form of my version the same as the original? (yes)
  • Was the melody of my version the same as the original? (no)
  • I wonder if you can create your own version that has different melody but the same text, rhythm, and form.

If students are creating individually with their own melody, I’ll often have them “babble” at the same time as the entire class. This allows them time to practice improvising and feel more comfortable. Then, I’ll have some students volunteer to share their improvisation with the class.

I’ve also done this activity in small groups. One student in the group is in charge of the “a” lines, another student is in charge of the “b” line, and a third student is in charge of the “c” line. The students put their song together and perform for the class.

For this activity, I have never had to specify a tone set for my students to use. Since the tone set of the song is (l, drm), my classes always seem to stay within a pentatonic tone set when improvising.

I hope your year is off to a great start!


  1. I've been struggling with ideas to help my students with improvisation. This gives me a good jumping off point. Thank you :)

  2. I love your ideas for question and answer improvisation. Thanks for sharing!

  3. These are great ideas, Jamie! Thanks for helping me get better at this! (and many other things...)


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