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A Very Short History of Composing with Children

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.

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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 Composing Process

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.

The Composing Process

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Being a Composer

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:

  • Choosing sounds/musical ideas with intention using listening and aural imagination
  • Understanding the effect of changing music elements within a composition
  • Understanding the effect on the listener of their music
  • Having a clear musical intention for the piece or developing one
  • Knowing and understanding sound resource(s) available - instrument(s), voices, other sound makers - and using them effectively
  • Understanding how to build and release tension through musical elements and pace of change

Doing like a composer:

  • Being playful with and having many strategies for developing a musical idea e.g. back to front, upside-down, inside out, stretching, shrinking, extending, reducing, etc.
  • Understanding how and having a repertoire of ways to structure small ideas into larger musical shapes
  • Thinking about, imagining and planning the overall structure of a piece (vertically and horizontally) rather putting one thing after another

Identifying as a composer:

  • Articulating ideas and describing music in detail
  • Critically reflecting on one’s own music and the process of creating it
  • Using oral, aural, verbal and graphic (pictorial) ways to communicate ideas to others
  • Thinking about and imagining music outside of ‘music time’
  • Wanting to compose outside of sessions

These ideas are designed to support the adults leading the activities to reflect on the young people’s composing and their progress as composers.

 

 

 

Composing with large groups and whole classes

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 age of the children – older children will be more able to work in larger groups without adult supervision. Younger children working in groups of 4 or more will need more support from an adult unless very used to working in this way.
  • How many adults there are to support the children – more adults means that you can have larger groups as they can help facilitate the discussion between children.
  • Wanting to make sure all children are engaged in the activity – i.e. the larger the group the easy it is for children to not contribute.
  • The activity – i.e. creating a texture or more complex piece of music is more effective with more children, but, creating a simple melody can be better achieved through working alone or in pairs.

The make-up of groups is influenced by:

  • Whether to have the children working in friendship groups or not 
  • Whether to have mixed ability or ‘streamed’ groups – this will depend on the activity and whether extra adults can give extra support to particular children.

 

 

Managing the process with large groups, limited space and resources

  • Establish clear signals for stopping and starting from the start
  • Establish rules for listening to each other's ideas in small group activity i.e. no one should play an instrument in small group work while another child is explaining their ideas
  • Give praise for effective group working
  • Try to use the school hall whenever possible (and use the classroom for some groups to work in)
  • Give children thinking/planning time without instruments before and throughout the process 
  • Use simple body percussion and voices to work out initial ideas before moving onto instruments
  • Be as organised as you can with instruments: don't give them out until the children need them, organise into sets for small group work in advance, think ahead about what’s needed for what bit – i.e. try to avoid to much swapping of instruments
  • Think about ways to rotate composing and other activity so that only some of the children are using instruments at one time
  • Think carefully about group size – in pairs and threes children tend to be able to work together better.
  • When you divide the class into small groups give each group a different composing task towards a whole group composition.
  • Create collections of musical ideas as a class and then ask all children to plan a composition even if you are only able to try out some of them.
  • Use graphic and other notation to record ideas which can be then used for planning compositions quietly
  • Encourage quality and engaged listening to each other’s work – give questions to focus listening – what did you like? What sounds did you find interesting? What ways could you suggest to the group to develop their ideas?
  • Give simple manageable tasks with clear parameters rather than just ‘open briefs’
  • Give children who can’t help fidgeting and fiddling bluetak or something else to quietly fiddle with when listening.
  • If you have any budget for instruments buy good quality tuned percussion. Drums, shakers etc. can be made from buckets etc.
  • Ensure you have good quality beaters
  • Don’t assume the ‘best’ instrumentalists will necessarily be your best composers
  • Allow for the unexpected! Embrace and incorporate ideas that you weren’t expecting.

Listening, Giving Feedback and Other Pedagogies

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.

Giving feedback:

  • Sometimes it is enough to just describe what you hear. This supports the children to develop their own vocabulary for talking about their composing/compositions.
  • Give specific feedback e.g. ‘I like how you did xyz because……’
  • Use musical terminology making sure to explain any unfamiliar words, but also be imaginative with language and use the young people’s own descriptions/words.
  • Labelling specific techniques, compositional devices etc. helps the children internalise them and makes them more likely them to use them in new situations and with future composing.
  • Invite the children to tell you (and other children) what they have done, how they did it, the choices they made etc. In this way all the children in the group benefit from each other’s ideas and collective knowledge is built within the group. Document this as well as the final compositions.

Modelling:

Don’t forget you are a composer too. Model composing to the children and make clear the thought processes and thinking behind your choices.

Differentiation:

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.

 

 

Questioning:

An important part of the pedagogy of composing is asking questions. Simple guidelines would be to:

  • Ask open not closed questions
  • Give young people time to think on their own, in pairs or threes before answering.
  • This way the children will have time to think of an answer, benefit from discussing their ideas before sharing them and consequently feel more confident.
  • Welcome ‘wrong’ answers as well and ‘right’ answers. Sometimes there is interesting thinking to unpick in wrong answers.
  • To ensure that it is not the same children answering all the time, choose children randomly. This also encourages every child to think of an answer.

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.

Other Resources

  1. Children Composing 4-14. Joanna Glover. Routledge (2000)
  2. Music Creatively Teaching. Pam Burnard & Regina Murphy. Routledge (2013)
  3. Why and How to Teach Music Composition: A New Horizon for Music Education. Maud Hickey (Ed.) R&L Education (2003)
  4. Sound and Silence: Classroom Projects in Creative Music. John Paynter and Peter Aston. CUP (1970)
  5. Experimental Music in Schools: Towards a New World of Sound. Brian Dennis. OUP (1 Feb 1970)
  6. Creative Music Education: A Handbook for the Modern Music Teacher. Murray Schafer. Macmilllan Publishing Co (April 1976)
  7. The Sounding Symbol - Music Education in Action. George Self. Nelson Thornes (Sept 1995)
  8. Composing our Future: Preparing Music Educators to Teach Composition. Kashub and Smith. OUP USA (Jan 2013)
  9. Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking. Kaschub and Smith. Rowman & Littlefield Education (Jun 2009)
  10. Creativity: Getting it right in a week. Victoria Kinsella, Martin Fautley. Critical Publishing (2017)
  11. Lesson Planning for Effective Learning. Fautley, M and Savage, J. (2014), (Abingdon: Open University Press).
  12. ISM Primary Toolkit. Ally Daubney  
  13. Ears2. Motje Wolf. Creative composing using computers and sound

An A-Z of Musical Terms

Accidental: these are flats and sharps (the black notes on the piano)

Articulation: this is the way you play a note e.g. short (staccato), smooth (legato)

Canon/round: where the same melody is started one after the other i.e. London’s Burning

Crescendo: getting louder 

Diatonic: using the notes that are not flats or sharps i.e. the white notes on the piano

Decrescendo:  getting quieter

Drone: a single pitch that is used as an accompaniment - either as a long note or repeating note

Duration: the length of a note

Dynamics: how loud or quiet a note is

Harmony: how the music is organised vertically i.e. the sound created when one or more notes/sounds are layered. Most obvious example is a chord.

Heterophonic: a texture where there is simultaneous versions of a single melodic line

Improvising: making up music on the spot – sometimes freely, sometimes with rules

Melody: the organisation of a series of notes in a line, making a tune with pitch and rhythm

Orchestrate: deciding which instrument plays which bit

Ostinato: a repeating pattern

Pitch: how high or low a note is

Pitch contour: the shape of a melody or groups of notes

Polyphonic: more than one sound or melody at the same time doing their own thing

Rhythm: the pattern of a series of durations

Score: a written version of the music in notes or other images

Structure: how the music is organised

Tempo: how fast or slow the music is

Texture: the overall feel of the music. This could be in terms of the width between the lowest and highest pitches, the number of voices/parts or the relationship between these voices/parts. A piece's texture may be changed by the number and character of parts playing at the same time, the timbre of the instruments/voices playing these parts and the harmony, tempo, and rhythms used.

Tuned percussion: percussion instruments that play notes of a specific pitch

Unison: everyone plays together

Variation: a musical idea that is repeated but with some alterations e.g. to pitch, rhythm, harmony etc.

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