Music teachers often fall into two camps. Ones who teach composition through writing it down, using melodic development and harmonic progressions etc and others who believe in the ‘go wild’ approach where students run off and create. Each team seems to be highly scathing of the other, mostly I find because the other method is usually a bit scary I think. Of course both are absolutely necessary for a well-rounded composer to understand.

If forced to pick, then I would be more in the ‘be free and create’ camp but I also think that composition is one of the best teaching tools I have. I believe in students composing from day one of music class, using a variety of methods and I like to integrate it into every new concept that I teach.

For example:

  • Day one learning to play 5 notes – create a composition using 5 notes
  • Learning about musical forms – create group compositions in those new forms
  • Dotted rhythms – create compositions using dotted rhythms
  • Eras of music – create a baroque suite, create a 20th century aleatoric composition
  • Cadences – create a composition including at least 3 (name them and say why each was appropriate)
  • Students are only allowed 5 minutes to create a composition demonstrating a concept.
  • Right through to demonstrating the use of tritone substitutions in Jazz composition

Compositions ‘In the style of’ create some hilarious classroom moments but can also demonstrate in-depth knowledge. These can also be fabulous for student driven independent learning. Students pick the composer and do research about the life, style, era and then produce a composition ‘in the style of’ their particular composer.

Every composition task is also automatically a differentiated learning task. There is no need to set the task up differently. Some will write it down, some will write chords, some will not do that bit at all, some will be super creative and some will stick to what they know.  I always make sure I always give at least two separate marks for composition exercises right from day one if there is an element of notation involved. This rule came about as I discovered that often some of the most creative pieces were composed by students who had no ability to write the music down, and vice versa. Without two separate marks they all ended up with average grades!!!

One of the best things about composition is that it encourages students to want to notate. Once they have created their own work then it is natural that they also want to share that. This makes theory concepts a lot easier to teach as students can immediately apply theoretical concepts to their own work.

Composition also excellent if your school is experimenting with full school themes where every department has to ‘teach’ using the theme for the term. These themes are supposed to make connections in students’ heads. Personally I find they just get bored faster – but that’s just me. Having a composition task based around the theme ticks this box nicely. I remember once the head of Oxfam was visiting my classroom and we only had half a periods notice. The class created group compositions about goats to present to him. He was chuffed!

Compositions are also wonderful assessment tasks. What better way is there to demonstrate knowledge a skill or technique than to compose using it?
Ideas for composition assessment rubrics:

  • Effectiveness
  • Response to task
  • Notation (if applicable)
  • Structure
  • Melody (You may have to actually state this as a requirement – especially for chord players)

Teaching composition should be fun for teachers and students. Making it part of every new concept we teach immediately makes it real for students and satisfies their creative urges!

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