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Development Strategies

Arts Tasks in This Report

Grade 8
A Music Performing Task

The following excerpt from a Grade 8 music task illustrates some of the important ways NAEP created context and guidance for students during the arts assessment. In this task, students were asked to engage in several creative musical activities based on rock music idioms. Students were guided through the task with a script read to them by an assessment administrator. Apart from guiding students, such scripts also ensured standardized administrations. (Without such standardization, NAEP cannot ensure that all students are assessed under the same conditions. This is unfair for students and can damage NAEP's ability to report on what students know and can do.)

As you read the task script shown below, notice that

  • students are invited into the task by being told exactly what they will be doing;
  • language is intended to increase student comfort with the task;
  • an example is supplied to define improvisation;
  • time is allowed for warm-up and preparation;
  • the task is broken down into sections, so students are not asked to do too much at once; and
  • breaking the task into sections that increase in complexity allows less able students an entry point, and supplies abler students with a challenge.

Text in bold capitals is intended for assessment administrators.

The Rock Improv Task

In this part of the project, we are interested in finding out what students like you have learned about improvising music. To improvise music means to make something up as one goes along. Improvising is one way that musicians discover melodies, which they can repeat or put together in order to create music. What I will ask you to do today is to listen to some music that was improvised, and then do some creating yourself.

We'll start by using the MIDI keyboard. You shouldn't worry if you don't know how to play the piano--what we are interested in is to hear what kinds of melodies and patterns you can create. You can use just one finger to play your patterns if that is easiest for you. We are going to use only the black notes on the keyboard today.


Why don't you take about 30 seconds to play a few notes on the keyboard in order to see how it sounds?


AFTER 30 SECONDS: OK, let's go on. Before you begin to improvise, let's listen to the music on the tape. It is introduced with two measures of drums, followed by four measures of chords. Then you will hear a chord progression that is repeated. As you listen, pay special attention to the chord changes and the style of the music, and think about what kinds of melodies will sound good with the music.

First Rock Improvisation Sample (QuickTime audio, 0:32, 1,404K). You may also download this audio clip as a compressed file as either a ZIP file (for PC's) (1,165K) or as a SIT file (for Mac's) (1,405K) to extract and play later. See player instructions.


Here is an example of a saxophone player who is performing an improvisation to this music. This is just one example of how one person improvised. Your improvisation can be different in any way that you would like.

Second Rock Improvisation Sample (QuickTime audio, 0:42, 1,588K). You may also download this audio clip as a compressed file as either a ZIP file (for PC's) (1,596K) or as a SIT file (for Mac's) (1,871K) to extract and play later. See player instructions.


Now it's your turn to improvise! We are not worried about how well you can play the piano; we are interested in hearing what kinds of interesting patterns you can come up with, so just be creative and have fun! Your goals for the improvisation are to create music that sounds interesting and appealing, and to find a melody that you like and can play back for me. The melody that you create should be something that you think people would enjoy hearing. You may play any rhythms or combinations of patterns that match the style of the music. Remember to use just the black keys on the keyboard.

The music will play for about 90 seconds, during which a chord progression will be repeated several times. This gives you a chance to try many different things and to create something you like. You will probably notice that some patterns you play will sound better to you than others. Go with what sounds best to you and what fits the music on the background tape. Try to experiment with the ideas you like and remember the things you liked best. Keep your melody short enough so that you can remember it and play it back for me. At the end of your improvisation time I will ask you to play the melody without the background music on the tape. Are you ready? You may start when the music begins.


[Student performs improvisation.]



Now that you've had a chance to improvise, I would like you to play the final melody from your improvisation.

I'll give you 30 seconds to practice your melody and then I'll ask you to play it for me two times without the music on the tape. Practice your melody one final time.


AFTER 30 SECONDS: Let's go on. Play your melody for me the first time, and then tell me when you are finished.

[Student plays melody for first time.]

OK, now play your melody for the last time. Make sure to play it just as you did before.

[Student plays melody for second time.]

Thank you very much!

Scoring Guide


  • Has several relatively more advanced pitch or rhythmic patterns, uses a variety of simple patterns effectively, or manipulates patterns effectively.
  • Matches the style of the music throughout, with slight deviations.
  • Fits the structure (form) of the music throughout, with slight deviations.
  • Is very appealing.
    • Has a strong sense of originality/creativity
[Sample Response]

Notes: Scorers should consider the length of the student's improvisation when scoring for interest/appeal. Students who play very short improvisations that fail to show any variety or development should be penalized accordingly. Students who play less than half of the improvisation generally will score no higher than a two.


  • Has relatively more advanced pitch or rhythmic patterns, or uses simple patterns effectively.
  • Generally matches the style of the music on the tape, with some deviations.
  • Generally fits the structure (form) of the music, with some deviations.
  • Is generally appealing (consider the overall proportions of what the student played).
    • Has some sense of originality/creativity.
    • May use elements such as skips, syncopation, pick-up notes.
    • May have more than two good ideas.
    • May have a variety of subdivisions.
    • Performs for most of the improvisation time.
[Sample Response]


  • Has some successful rudimentary or repetitive pitch or rhythmic patterns, such as all quarter notes.
  • Matches the style of the music on the tape in some places.
  • Fits the structure (form) of the music in some places. For example:
    • starting or ending with four-bar phrases.
  • Has some, but not many, appealing elements or characteristics.
    • May have one or two brief, good ideas, but fails to do anything with them (such as creating variants, or manipulating elements of the music).
  • Generally fails to sustain listener interest, may have somewhat distracting elements.

Limited Level Notes:

Limited improvisations include those with such characteristics as

  • a (clearly defined) good idea played completely out of sync (must be stylistically appropriate)
  • constant eighth notes (such as a drumbeat) on one or two notes throughout, played in syncopation
  • all quarter notes in rhythm going up and down the pentatonic scale without any substantial pitch patterns or other rhythmic motives present
[Sample Response]


  • Almost no organized rhythmic or tonal patterning.
  • Does not match the style of the music.
  • Does not fit the structure (form) of the music.
    • For example:
    • does not play in four-bar phrases.
    • does not know when beat one is in individual measures.
  • Is not appealing
    • May have a sense of randomness throughout.
    • May be too simple.
    • May be too complex.
    • Rhythm problems (without any good ideas) may severely detract from the overall impression.
    • Pitch problems may severely detract from the overall impression.
      • For example:
      • the student may play the same note over and over.
    • Student may play in very few measures.
    • Student may randomly perform patterns that contain merely inadvertent motives.
    • Student may play a familiar (not original) song or melody.


Musical Interest and Appeal

Acceptable improvisations may have contained several of the following elements:

  • short or extended rhythmic or melodic motives repeated at several pitch levels or occurring between different notes.
  • alternate versions (variations) of a small idea.
  • a sense of directionality (movement towards a goal--can be achieved either by selection of rhythms or pitches, or in combination).
  • pitches performed in small group units comprising perceivable melodies or fragments.
  • individual melodies contained in relatively restricted ranges.
  • a sense of tension and release within parts of the improvisation (created by building expectations in the listener's mind, establishing question/answer phrases, creating complexity in the use of an element of music and then contrasting it with simplicity, or vice versa).
  • appropriate variety in several musical elements, including:
    • articulations (use of staccato, legato, accents, sforzandos).
    • dynamics (forte-piano, crescendos, decrescendos).
    • melodic contours (upward-downward motion, stepwise-skips within a line).
    • texture (several notes played at one time, contrasted with a single line).
    • rhythm (use of triplets; eighth, sixteenth, quarter, and dotted notes; and rests).

Unacceptable improvisations may contain several of the following elements:

  • too few notes
  • too much repetition of the same pitch
  • too much repetition of the same idea (rhythmically or melodically)
  • random selection of seemingly isolated notes that are not joined together in any perceivable pattern
  • no unity of rhythmic or melodic ideas or restriction of the use of tones to a manageable range
  • inappropriate variety within the improvisation (includes use of melodic contour, texture, dynamics, articulations)
  • no sense of form, either with regard to the four-beat harmonic rhythm of the chord progression, the four-measure length of the chord progression, or the length of the background music as a whole

Last updated 29 May 2003 (HM)