Composing has been part of the UK National Curriculum since 1987. However, there have been notable initiatives/projects exploring composing with children in the UK since the 1940s starting with Carl Orff's Schulwerk (or the Orff Aproach) and including: Peter Maxwell Davies' innovations at Cirencester Grammar School in the late 50s - early 60s; the John Paynter-led Schools Council Project, Music in the Secondary School Curriculum; Jeanne Bamberger’s research into children’s invented notations in the 70s; and, the work of the Canadian composer and educator Murray Schafer.
Today the UK National Curriculum states that at Key Stage 1 children should ‘experiment with, create, select and combine sounds using the interrelated dimensions of music’ and at Key Stage 2 ‘improvise and compose music for a range of purposes using the interrelated dimensions of music’.
Composing can be a scary word conjuring up images of dead white men in ivory towers furiously scribbling on reams of manuscript paper. It can be seen as an elitist activity that only ‘specially gifted’ people can do.
However, research shows that musical creativity is something we all have the potential for. This resource is designed to demystify the composing process and support teachers and other music educators to lead meaningful composing activity with their children and classes.
The diagram on the following page is a simplified representation of the composing process. It suggests that the composing process is a linear one but the reality is much more complex and messy. Encourage children to think of composing more as a process of a collage that is being assembled rather than one where they start at the beginning and work through until the end.
Frequently children, and the adults that work with them, get stuck on the generating stage of the process. It is important to support the children to be confident with the music ideas they have and close down generating new stuff. Support them to find many potential ways of developing an idea – more than they might need in their piece. Show them how much musical possibility there is in a simple idea and how that can create coherence in a piece of music rather than sequencing lots of different unrelated ideas – unless, of course, that is exactly what their intention is.
Important too is giving time to think about structuring ideas. Again, children are very good at generating ideas but find it harder/are given less opportunity to organise their musical ideas into larger musical structures.
It is helpful to model this by making your choices clear and thinking outloud. Try out different ways of organising the same musical material as suggested by the children. Give the children time for listening to and refining their music. Don’t always accept the children's first offering. Challenge them to make it better.
As with professional composers, some children respond better to being given tight parameters for composing whereas others thrive by being given a very open brief. It is important to offer both these possibilities to the groups you work with. It is easy to think in binaries of tight parameters being restrictive and open ones, creative. This is not necessarily the case. With very open briefs the possibilities are endless and children can get lost. Tight parameters can offer the opportunity to be very creative within a small space. Tight parameters can also be a good way of teaching a particular composing skill or introducing a particular composing device.
It is easy to think of composing as a series of techniques to be mastered - the ‘doing’ of composing. This guidance encourages the exploration of techniques and processes but also explores what it is to think like a composer and even to encourage children to identify themselves as composers just as they might think of themselves as trumpeters or violinists. During a recent research project we thought about what might be some of the characteristics of composers and came up with this growing list:
Thinking like a composer:
Doing like a composer:
Identifying as a composer:
These ideas are designed to support the adults leading the activities to reflect on the young people’s composing and their progress as composers.
Much of the composing activity that happens in UK schools takes place in small classrooms with limited resources and large numbers of children. This is far away from the ideal conditions for composing and presents unique challenges to the teacher/music educator, in particular, how to manage noise levels and ensure learning for all. Frequently, whole classes are broken down into smaller groups for composing activity. Careful thought needs to be given to the group size and make up. This will vary from context to context and by how well you know the children you are working with.
Choices about group size are influenced by:
The make-up of groups is influenced by:
Listening and valuing:
It is important to realise that just listening and giving your full attention to music young people create can be powerful. Whereas with visual art we are full of praise and interest in children’s early drawing, in music, early musical ‘scribblings’ can go unnoticed and in some cases dismissed as irritating noise. With visual art, the child often has something to show and take home, but with their music, it goes unrecorded and is not shared. This is improving with new and accessible technology for recording.
Don’t forget you are a composer too. Model composing to the children and make clear the thought processes and thinking behind your choices.
Within any group of young people there will be a wide range of abilities and experience. Simplifying and extending activities needs to be part of planning. Simplifying might be done by giving the child fewer pitches to work with; learning part of a rhythm rather than all of it; creating a shorter melody/rhythm. With a child that needs stretching you might: ask for more variations of an idea; ask them to notate the idea; or, ask them to create a contrasting section.
An important part of the pedagogy of composing is asking questions. Simple guidelines would be to:
Below is a useful set of question stems adapted and edited from Fautley, M and Savage, J. (2014), Lesson Planning for Effective Learning (Abingdon: Open University Press) that can be used to support children's composing.
Describe what you are doing . . .
Show me what you are doing . . .
Can you remember how to . . .
What is the idea behind this . .
In what ways is this different…
What is going on at this point …
Can you demonstrate . . .
Explain . . .
How will you go about . . .
What will you do to . . .
How might it have been different if . . .
What happens in the bit when you . . .
Compare that with . . .
What would happen if you were to put your ideas together with hers . . .
What would happen if you changed that bit where . . .
How could you do this differently..
What was successful . . .
What changes might you make ..
How do you feel about . . .
Why do you think that . . .
Can you come up with a solution..
How about a different idea. . .
What would that sound like . . .
How would that be made up . . .
Can you produce . . .