Music composition can be one of the most inspirational and enjoyable activities to teach, but it is often neglected in music classes. With the pressure of preparing students for performances, those standards that aren’t on display to the public can become a lower priority. Personally, I also struggle with feeling less qualified to teach composition than the other standards. I’ve taken countless instrument lessons, I perform regularly, and I’ve taken classes to learn the history of the music that I play and how to analyze it. Yet, like most of us who chose any musical path other than a composition major, I managed to get through my many years of music education writing almost no music myself. Despite and because of this flaw in my own training, I’m doing what I can to make composition accessible to even my youngest students. Here is some of what I’ve learned through teaching my elementary students to write music.
Composing at All Levels
Composition can and should be taught at all levels. Even students who haven’t started reading yet can use graphic notation to communicate their musical ideas. Primary students’ compositions might include only a single musical element, such as a curving line to indicate pitch, while older students with more extensive training could write music in standard notation that includes pitch, rhythm, and expression markings.
Exploring Composition Tools
Guide students to explore the tools of composition — pitch, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, etc. — through improvisation before they start writing down their ideas. For example, my third graders have been improvising on bells to familiarize themselves with a pentatonic scale before using it in their compositions. Students can quickly begin to hear the relationships between notes and identify what sounds “good.” The same kind of exploration can be used to gain familiarity with rhythms, chord progressions, etc.
Composing in Many Ways
When I’ve asked composer friends what they would recommend to my young music students, they give a variety of answers. Many stress the importance of learning harmonic progressions to drive composition. Others recommend starting with a melody. When teaching composition in standard notation, I often have students begin with a rhythm as a simple way to start writing. I find it useful to guide young first-time composers by using a step-by-step method that adds only one or two musical elements at a time, building their confidence by not overwhelming them. The wider the variety of approaches to composition that we can teach, the better.
Making Meaningful Musical Decisions
It’s not hard to write a bunch of notes and rhythms on a staff, but students need to be taught to make purposeful and musical decisions in their composing. They need to have an understanding of what melody notes sound good with a V chord, why the tonic makes a good ending note, where it’s appropriate to add a crescendo. A technical understanding of music and notation is useful for a composer, but the musical understanding is what makes creative expression possible.
Writing Small Compositions
Small compositions can be used to enrich content being taught in any music curriculum. Using short composition exercises focusing on the specific concepts being studied can ease students into writing music. If students are using composition to show their understanding of concepts, it won’t be difficult to move to using those concepts to write compositions.
Learning about Composers
It takes years of practice and study to build a repertoire of compositional tools. In the meantime, young students can learn about more complex composition by studying a variety of composers. My students have been studying a few composers in depth this school year. After learning about these composers’ works, students are able to reflect on specific compositional techniques, their purposes, and their effectiveness. Students are also able to form their own opinions about what they like and dislike in the music music they’ve studied, helping them make their own compositional decisions.
Be sure to remind students that not all composers are dead! I find opportunities to invite composers to be a part of my music classes, through commissioning new pieces for my students to perform, emailing students’ questions to composers, or inviting composers to visit our classroom. It’s easy to think of writing music as something elite, unattainable, and in the past if kids only see composers who wear powdered wigs and funny, old-fashioned clothes. It’s important for students to meet composers who are regular, living people of all different backgrounds, just like them.
Just like performance, composition is a skill that should be accessible to all students, no matter what their age, level, or background. Writing music can enrich any music curriculum and might be the spark that motivates students to continue creating music outside of our classrooms.