Score Sheet: Music Composition in the Classroom
A couple of years ago, some music educators held a Twitter chat to discuss which topics they felt were important to teach students in the music classroom. Many of the teachers mentioned that music composition was given short shrift, and that it should be taught much more widely, and given much more prominence, in the music curriculum.
At first blush, that seems like a tall order – and rather daunting. Music composition seems like a mysterious, highly sophisticated, and serious art that may be beyond the scope of all students but musical prodigies (and their teachers as well). Music teachers who are, however, intrigued by the thought of introducing music composition to their curriculum, take heart – there are many freely available lesson plans and activities aimed at the general music classroom. We have many such resources in the Gateway, and you don’t have to be Leonard Bernstein to teach them.
Too often, teachers are stuck on the endless gerbil wheel of testing, prepping for testing, and then testing some more. It’s an inevitable situation, given the current mania to quantitatively measure student progress. One of the frustrating byproducts of the emphasis on testing scores and measures, however, is that the concept of creativity is pushed aside. While most teachers want to nurture creativity in their students, very few have the luxury of time to actually be able to do so. Music teachers, too, are not immune from the prep-test-prep cycle: many find themselves having to focus primarily on preparing students for concerts or other performances, with little time for actual teaching or guiding students in different musical explorations. In these situations, a lesson or two on something like music composition can make a big difference to students, and perhaps inspire them to seek out more information on their own.
One of the beauties of music composition is that students get to create a product from start to finish. They get to completely own their projects. In order to shepherd their musical visions into being, students must explore how music makes them feel, and how they want others to feel when their music is heard. Students need to consider which tempos, rhythms, and instruments best “fit” with their objectives for their pieces, and how to best convey the mood and emotions that they want to instill in their audience. It’s increasingly rare that these types of skills are promoted in school, and that’s a shame; they are valuable, lifelong skills that deserve to be nurtured and encouraged. A book on music composition for the classroom called Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking by Michele Kaschub and Janice Smith offers suggestions for teaching music composition at various grade levels, including:
- For elementary students, focus on exploring sounds and the relationship between sounds and emotions, and how powerful that relationship can be.
- For middle school students, guide them in finding their personal style and “compositional voice.”
- For high school students, discuss how music is a powerful tool for reflecting, shaping, and inspiring meaning on both a personal level and for society. Explore how composition can allow students to “voice” their viewpoints as a way to enact social change, promote cultural literacy, or otherwise convey messages.
This week I’ve selected three music composition resources for various ages. We’ll also be featuring many more resources on this topic throughout the week on our Twitter and Facebook pages, so be sure to give those a look. Also, please read my colleague Peggy’s companion column, as she further explores the topic of music composition in the classroom from a teacher’s perspective.
Students explore the range of sounds on a selected percussion instrument (tuned or untuned) and compose a short piece to display the instrument tonal versatility. One of the things that I like about this lesson is that it prompts students to really think critically about sounds: they must think about, and draw a symbol, that reflects their chosen sounds. The teacher then draws them on the board, and students try to vocalize the sound sequence. This lesson was produced by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, which offers lesson plans, assessment instruments, and Arizona district arts curriculum.
Subjects: Music composition, Advertising
Students create thirty-second commercials to specifications given by local business owners, who “hire them.” The commercials must reflect the information and mood requested, and must include a sung “jingle,” background music and spoken text, all notated and recorded. Commercials are given on disk or tape to business owner who gives feedback to the composer. This project provides the young composers with experience writing music for a commercial purpose, according to guidelines given them by an employer. I love the cross-curricular appeal of this lesson, which blends business concepts such as marketing and advertising with the art of music composition. This lesson was written by Anne K. Hamilton for the Vermont MIDI Project, which supports student effort in composing and arranging music. Vermont MIDI will be changing its name to Music-COMP (Music Composition Online Mentoring Program) later this year.
Subjects: Earth science, Music
Can earthquakes write music? Using seismograms and music score sheets, students record the earth’s movements to create Earthquake Symphonies. Students listen to and analyze the music of Beethoven’s Eroica and how it relates to the movement of the earth. This lesson is a neat melding of science and art: students learn about plate tectonics, continental drift, and how to compose a musical score in one fell swoop. This lesson was produced by Keeping Score, an educational outreach site of the San Francisco Symphony.