Creativity in Music Teaching and Learning

  • Clint RandlesEmail author
  • Peter Webster
Living reference work entry


Key Concepts and Definition of Terms


Creativity in music refers to the divergent and convergent thought processes, enacted both in solo and in ensemble, which lead to musical products that are both novel and useful, within specific sociocultural contexts, manifested by way of specific modes of musicianship or combinations of modes that can include but are not limited to the following: improvisation, composition, performance, analysis, and listening.

Theoretical Background

Creativity in music teaching and learning is perhaps the most important area of study for both researchers and practitioners alike in the field of music education at the start of this new millennium. These sentiments can be felt in the area of the general study of creativity as well (Sawyer 2006/2012). Creative thinking in music is at the heart of creativity in music education, as all of the many ways that humans can be creative with music start and end with creative thinking. Researchers have explored this very complex construct in the field of music and music education research over the past 40 years. There are patterns in the foci of such research efforts over that time period that are important to note as this topic will likely continue to be studied in the coming decades. Adding to the complexity of creativity in this domain is the surge of new technologies that are sure to transform both research and practice as they relate to the multiple ways that creativity is manifest in music teaching and learning.

Creative Thinking in Music

Historically, music teachers have considered the word “creativity” to relate to a constellation of abilities of students to produce products related to composition or, in more limited ways, improvisation. Some of the earliest research on creativeness can be traced back to observational research by Pond in 1940s (1981) that noted the ability of children to improvise and to early work by Paynter and Aston (1970) and Schafer that featured ideas about music composition in the schools. The study of children’s creative ability with composition and improvisation continues today (Kaschub and Smith 2009) and remains a major part of the National Standards for Arts Education movement in the United States.

Newer conceptions of creativity in music teaching and learning are emerging, inspired in part by a belief that creative thinking in music occurs in many ways in music, not just in composition and improvisation (Reimer 2003). One way to think about learning activities in music that involve creative thinking as defined above is to consider two broad dimensions. There are creating learning activity types that (1) deal directly with the making of music itself. There are four subgroupings: (a) playing the composed music of others (performing), (b) improvising (either using a style or in free form), (c) composing original music and/or arranging music, and (d) music listening. Each of these four involve an active role in the creation of music as art and involve creative thinking in complex ways that extend traditional views of creativity in relation to just composition and improvisation as defined historically. To this we add a large second dimension: (2) the study of music as art in terms of nonmusical dimensions. This dimension is rarely considered to involve creative thinking, yet there are rich possibilities for researchers and practitioners in considering this dimension in coming years. There are three parts to this: (a) music’s technical construction (music theory, aural skills, physical representation in the air) (b) music’s relation to other art forms, (c) music’s relation to the context in which it is created.

As a conceptual frame for this broader view of creativity, consider the model by Webster in Fig. 1. This descriptive model is based on a view that “creativity” in music education is best approached by considering the notion of creative thinking in music. This model begins with product intentions and ends with a demonstrated product. It has music listening, composition, and improvisation as important parts of the model and accounts for the role of social context.
Fig. 1

Conceptual model of creative thinking in music

Finally, an emphasis on the role of collaboration in creativity has emerged in recent years in the general literature on explaining creativity. Individualist theories of creativity that have dominated the popular thinking about creativeness are now tempered with careful consideration for the role of society in framing creative output. This effects how music teachers might address the teaching of creative thinking in classrooms, rehearsal halls, and studios. Such an emphasis works well with constructivist views of music learning (Webster 2011) – an approach that has not been prevalent in music teaching behaviors to date but is growing in interest among younger practitioners. An important part of this developing pedagogy is the use of technology in the music-making enterprise in schools as noted in the Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning elsewhere online (Webster 2012).

Modes of Musicianship

Theorists in music education have explored the notion that musicality is manifested in multiple ways. Just as there are numerous ways to be intelligent (Gardner 1983/1993/2011), there are numerous ways to be musical. Reimer, based on the work of Gardner, named the different divisions of musicality, “musical intelligences” (2003, p. 219). By aligning his theory closely to Gardner’s, Reimer called for a balanced music education curriculum, one that provided students’ opportunities to be musical in all of the musical intelligence areas. To not offer adequate instruction in any of the “musical intelligences” would be to underserve some members of society who might thrive if given the opportunity to exercise their specific musical intelligence strength. These divisions might also be named “modes of musicianship.” This designation places musicianship as the beginning, middle, and end of the matter, something that can be grouped, regrouped, and transformed to account for any “mode” or “modes” that exist or might exist in the future.

Just as there are numerous ways to be musical, there must therefore be numerous ways to be musically creative. Since being creative with music begins at the level of creative thinking, any individual could be musically creative by way of any of the modes of musicianship previously mentioned. Listening, performing, singing, analyzing, improvising, composing, arranging, and describing are all modes of musicianship. Each mode of musicianship involves doers (people who would like to be musical – the person), some sort of doing (the act of being musical – the process), something done (the result of the musical exchange – the product), and the context in which all of this takes place (some authors call this “press” to keep with the “p” theme). One might think of all of these previously mentioned components of music making as being mediated by the rationale for doing – a philosophy of sorts – that both feeds the desire to make music and is fed by that same desire (see Fig. 2). One’s philosophy of music is wrapped up in inter-sonic (musical) as well as delineated (nonmusical) meanings. And, of course, philosophies of music naturally lead to philosophies of music education.
Fig. 2

Conceptual model of creative music making

Burnard suggests that the music education profession conceive of musical creativity differently, not as the lone composer, working on creating a masterwork in isolation, as many of the myths surrounding creativity would assume. Rather, she suggests that there are multiple creativities in music that must exist in real-world contexts, in specific practices. The particular creativities that she proposes are (1) individual creativity, (2) collaborative (or group) creativity, (3) communal creativity, (4) empathic creativity, (5) intercultural creativity, (6) performance creativity in music, (7) symbolic creativity in music, (8) computational creativity, and (9) collective creativity (pp. 15–16). She has written a book, titled, Musical Creativities in Real World Practice, that details what she means by each of these musical creativities as they exist in the “real world” (2012).

So, be it different modes of musicianship, or the notion of multiple creativities in music, the domain of music education seems to acknowledge that there must be multiple ways of operationalizing the act of music making, and therefore, there must be multiple ways of being musically creative.

Theoretical Background and Open-Ended Issues

Past, Present, and Future: Research on Creativity in Music Teaching and Learning

Multiple lenses have been employed by researchers in psychology to try to understand the complex construct of creativity. Guilford’s Structure of Intellect Model seemed to open the door for researchers to study creativity as a multidimensional construct. In order to better understand this topic, researchers have used multiple methodological lenses to go about their business. In recent years, some methodologies have been used more than others. In order to better understand this topic, researchers have contributed to three primary areas of understanding; these areas are, according to Webster, theoretical, practical application, and empirical (2009). It is possible to think of these three areas as being articulated by way of specific methodologies: psychometric, experimental, biographical, psychodynamic, biological, computational, and contextual. A brief review of the major accomplishments of researchers in music and music education in some of these areas is helpful. The specific areas of psychometric, experimental, biographical, and contextual are detailed here.


Humankind has been exploring the assessment of individual differences from as early as 2200 B.C. (China). This long history must reflect a basic human desire to sort people by differences. Researchers in general psychology in the twentieth century helped to lay the groundwork for all of the research that would follow in music education, by assessing various creative “traits” and personality characteristics of creative individuals. The push, of course, following Guilford’s 1950 address to the American Psychological Association (APA), was to identify gifted and talented students so that they could be channeled into careers in math and science, as a way of keeping the United States even with the Soviets in the space race. The major accomplishment of this early psychometric work, however, was the exploration of the notion that there are individual differences, traits, or personality qualities, among all who would desire to be creative. These personal differences were considered independent of context and culture and were realized to be unique to all individuals. This strand of thought is the “nature” side of the “nature versus nurture” dichotomy. Both contribute to one’s potential to be a successful human.

Torrance explored this idea with his Tests of Creative Thinking (1974), a measure of general creativity, specifically divergent thinking. Test takers took both a verbal and figural portion of the test and were measured on their ability to generate responses to open-ended tasks that demonstrated fluency, flexibility, and originality. The Torrance tests are still widely used today, although some question the construct validity of such assessments. If one takes the position that it is possible to discover benefits to using each of the lenses available to the researcher, then there are potential utilities for such tests as tools for identifying differences in individuals with regard to creativity for the purpose of research.

Personality tests are another manifestation of the psychometric movement to better understand the creative person. These tests have been devised to measure both personality traits and personality types or “temperaments.” Traits can be viewed as the “smallest units of individual variation that are consistent, reliable, and valid”. Certain personality traits are more or less associated with creative individuals.

Donald MacKinnon founded the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at the University of California at Berkeley in 1949. MacKinnon (1978) reported that researchers at Berkeley found that various personality traits were common to most highly creative individuals. These traits included the following:
  • Above-average intelligence

  • Discernment, observance, and alertness

  • Openness to experience

  • Balanced personalities

  • A relative absence of repression and suppression mechanisms that control impulse and imagery

  • Pleasant and materially comfortable childhoods, although they recall their childhoods as being not particularly happy

  • A preference for complexity

From the beginning, researchers have observed that tests of this nature cannot account for all that influences personality or creativity. MacKinnon writes that creativity must be a “multifaceted phenomenon” (1978, p. 46). There is not a test, neither the ones that MacKinnon and his colleagues at IPAR developed nor any of the other tests mentioned in this text that get it “all right” that fully describe all that makes a person creative. The construct is simply too complex to be examined via one particular lens.

Personality types or temperaments, somewhat different constructs than personality traits, are proposed to be a finite number of possible categories that can be used to sort people. The idea of temperaments can be traced back to Hippocrates as early as 370 B.C. and most notably to the work of Carl Jung and his development of archetypes. Jung coined the term “function types” and “psychological types” to describe his idea regarding fundamental differences in people. The two most widely used personality type indicators are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R). The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator consists of items that have test takers choose from four pairs of alternatives, including: (1) E-Extroverted or I-Introverted, (2) S-Sensory or N-Intuitive, (3) T-Thinking or F-Feeling, and (4) J-Judging or P-Perceiving. In the end, every test taker has a combination of four letters that represent their “personality type” according to the measure. There are a total of 16 different combinations of the letters that comprise the various “personality types.” The Revised NEO Personality Inventory measured qualities of neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Scores on the NEO-PI-R were shown to remain constant over a period of 6 years. Developers of the NEO-PI-R believe that it is the only measure of its kind to address all five of the factors identified as contributing to personality.

Vaughan can be attributed to taking the first step toward developing a musical measure of creative thinking. Vaughan, during the time period of 1969–1976, asked children to improvise the following: rhythm patterns in response to both a stimulus and an ostinato, melody patterns in a similar manner, and a musical selection based on how the subject might feel during a thunderstorm. Criterion measures were (1) fluency, (2) rhythmic security, (3) ideation, (4) synthesis, and (5) total. Scoring was based largely on the Torrance tests, which is a strategy that both Gorder and Webster (1977, 1994) would also utilize in the development of their measures.

Gorder in his Measure of Musical Divergent Production (MMDP) (1976, 1980) asked subjects, junior and high school band students, to improvise in four tasks either using their primary instruments, their voice, or by whistling. They were given skeletal versions of melodies to improvise around. Their improvisations were evaluated by using a music content checklist that included identifying qualities of melody, rhythm, tempo, style, dynamics, timbre, expressive devices, and form. Then, the four tasks were scored based on fluency, flexibility, elaboration, originality, and quality. Gorder interpreted the areas of divergent thinking in student improvised phrases as follows: (1) fluency, number of phrases produced; (2) flexibility, the number of shifts of content character employed; (3) elaboration, the extent of the use of content character over that which was necessary to produce a varied phrase; (4) originality, the use of rarely used content items as determined by frequency count; (5) and musical quality (Gorder 1980, p. 36).

Wang’s Measure of Creativity in Sound and Music has been used by researchers in the tradition of using measures of divergent thinking in music to assess musical creativity. Four musical tasks provided researchers with data regarding musical fluency and musical imagination. Except for the work of Baltzer, the measure has received little attention in the decades since being developed.

Webster’s Measure of Creative Thinking in Music II (MCTM-II) marks the most significant attempt to measure divergent thinking in music (1994). Similar to Gorder (1980), Webster’s measure was built, in part, on the work of Guilford, Torrance (1974), Vaughan (1977), and on his dissertation (Webster 1977). The measure was developed for use with children ages 6–10 and includes tasks that involve three sets of instruments: a roundball, approximately 4″ in diameter, which is used for playing tone clusters on a piano, a microphone that is attached to an amplifier and speaker, and a set of five wooden resonator blocks. After a period of warm-up, participants are asked to complete 10 tasks that represent three divisions: (1) exploration, (2) application, and (3) synthesis. All tasks take approximately 25 min to complete and are scored at a later time on four individual factors: (1) musical extensiveness, (2) musical flexibility, (3) musical originality, and (4) musical syntax. Exploration tasks include the musical parameters of high and low, loud and soft, and fast and slow and involve images of rain in a water bucket, magical elevators, and the sounds of trucks. These parameters are then employed in the application section, where students engage with the tester in a musical dialogue through the use of each instrument individually. They make “frog” music with the ball on the piano and make the sounds of a robot singing in the shower. In the synthesis section, students are asked to engage all of the instruments in more open-ended tasks that include creating a space story told in sounds and creating a composition that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Psychometric studies of creativity in music education seem to have declined in the decades following the development of these measures. This trend seems to have coincided with a shift in the general focus of research in musical creativity from individual perspectives to more sociocultural perspectives. In the decades following this publication, the profession might benefit from a more balanced approach to the study of musical creativity in music and music education that accounts for both individual and sociocultural perspectives.


While it is known that musical creativity can be manifest by way of multiple modes of musicianship, compositional and improvisational creativity have received the most attention. These experimental studies in music and music education can be categorized into research on processes and products. Webster’s dissertation (1977) was a seminal start to the movement of examining musical creativity empirically in music education. His work led other researchers in music education to take up the cause. The work of Swanwick and Tillman (1986) and Kratus marked the continuation of a period of about 15 years, where the study of children’s compositional processes and products seemed to intensify (Hickey 2001; Kratus 1989).

Future work in this area might explore younger ages as they interact with improvisation and older ages as they interact with both composition and improvisation. Furthermore, the strategies for measuring the various components of compositional processes and products (Kratus 1989; Hickey 2001) might be explored with all of the other various modes of musicianship. For example, music listening on a mobile listening device might be measured over a period of 10 min, as Kratus did in his 1989 study, to explore how students interact creatively with their music. Practicing musicians might be examined over a period of time to determine qualities of their divergent and convergent thinking processes. Musical products might be assessed by way of Amabile’s Consensual Assessment Technique (1996), as Hickey (2001) did in her work. The future is promising for work that addresses other modes of musicianship from the perspective of musical creativity as it has been defined in the previous literature in music education.


Pam Burnard’s latest book, Musical Creativities in Practice, includes short biographies of 19 musicians whose creative work exemplifies Burnard’s notion of how musical creativities are expressed in the everyday modern world. This work is sure to become important to the music education profession in the next few decades of the twenty-first century.


Since this research paradigm started to gain momentum in the 1980s and 1990s, some researchers have chosen to focus more on the study of creativity in real-world educational contexts (Barrett 2006; Burnard 2000, 2002) and specifically on the sociology of musical creativity. This movement seems to have coincided with Csikszentmihalyi’s detailing of his Systems Perspective for the Study of Creativity, where creativity he says should not be viewed “exclusively as a mental process” but rather as an interplay of psychological and sociological factors (1999, p. 313). Csikszentmihalyi asserts that the momentum for a shift in the research paradigm to include sociological components has been building in the past few decades. There seems to be a growing concern for examining the cultures, including parents, peer groups, and teachers, the individuals that surround students and facilitate their creative work. Ruthmann discovered through qualitative case study evidence for the existence of a complex interplay among teacher feedback, learner agency, and students’ compositional intent and suggested that teachers take these factors into account when they design opportunities for students to compose. In a related study, Randles (2009) discovered some evidence to suggest that teachers who compose or arrange music for their ensembles may foster creative cultures where students desire to pursue composition and arranging themselves. In another study, where the creative cultures of participants of an Honors Composition Competition in Michigan, United States, were examined, Randles found that teachers played the largest role in students’ development of a creative identity, more than parents or peer groups.

At the same time that Ruthmann and Randles were doing their work in the United States, researchers in England and Spain were examining teachers’ perceptions of creativity as a way of understanding how to foster creativity in their countries’ national curricula (Odena et al. 2005). The results of this work suggest that teachers must have experiences composing and improvising, and engaging with multiple musical genres, if they are to be successful teaching musical creativity in their jobs as future music teachers.

Although much of the work related to the sociocultural side of musical creativity in music education has primarily been qualitative, Randles, in conjunction with Smith and Muhonen, has employed various quantitative techniques to compare what he calls creative identity among preservice music teachers in the United States and England (Randles and Smith 2012) and the United States and Finland (Randles and Muhonen 2015). He discovered that future music teachers in England report being able to compose their own original music to a greater extent than their counterparts in the United States and report significantly higher perceptions of their ability to teach music composition in the schools than future music teachers in the United States (in press). Randles cites primary and secondary socialization as a possible cause for the differences. In another study, Randles used exploratory factor analysis to uncover four latent variables that contribute to what he called “creative identity” (in press). The factors were (1) creative music self-efficacy, (2) value of creative music making in the context of the school curriculum, (3) willingness to allow time for creativity in the curriculum, and (4) value of popular music performing and listening in the school curriculum. He found significant differences favoring the Finnish future music teachers with all factors except Factor 3 (willingness to allow time for creativity in the curriculum). These results suggest that teachers in the United States were willing to include activities that included improvisation and composition, if they were allowed to develop these skills in their socialization as a music teacher, in their experiences in the school music system, as well as in their experiences in music teacher preparation. These findings are supported by the work of Odena and Welch. This branch of the literature is still emerging. Future work in this area is certainly warranted.

Implications for Theory, Policy, and Practice

Conceptions of creativity in music teaching and learning are changing as music, social contexts, and the students themselves change. Teacher education programs are changing, albeit very slowly, to embrace experiences that better prepare young professionals to teach a wider varieties of music and to do so in ways that engage a more comprehensive set of musical activities. We predict that the older notions of a “general music” teacher that only engages primary school children in singing and movement activities will give way to more specialized music experiences that will engage children at greater depth with performance, composition, improvisation, and music listening using a wider range of traditional and nontraditional musical instruments and with a wider variety of musics. We also predict that the older models of “band,” “choral,” or “orchestra teacher” will give way in secondary schools to a much richer selection of ensembles drawn from all sorts of musical cultures. What is certainly going to change is that music teachers will be held accountable for a wider music audience at the secondary level and that students will be expected to be far more creative in their exploration of music as an art form that holds deep personal meaning. Our understanding of creativeness will certainly evolve through research and practice, and our overall understanding of creative music education will improve as we take advantage of new technologies and new paradigms for learning.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Music Education Research, School of Music, MUS 317 College of the ArtUniversity of South FloridaTampaUSA
  2. 2.Scholarly and Professional Studies, Scholar-in-ResidenceUniversity of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marta Peris Ortiz
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Business OrganizationPolytechnic University of ValenciaValenciaSpain