Composition Part 1

For me, composition needs to be a creative and enjoyable experience for students. There is a big difference between a compositional task and an actual composition. This is the topic for this blog.

Compositional tasks

I love to get students learning about a piece of theory or concept using composition. But I guess what I mean by that is that I like to teach using Sibelius. I like to get students hearing and seeing what I am trying to teach them. I love Sibelius, but you can of course use other software and Dorico is looking like it might become a new favourite. Anyway. Let me give you some ideas:

  1. One note composition. This involves them only using one note and therefore forces them to focus on everything except melody – rhythm is the key!
  2. Pedal note – pick a note and experiment with changing chords over the top. Now try and inverted pedal.
  3. Cycle or Fifths – create one and then see how  you can change the bass- line or write a melody over the top
  4. Classical melody – create an 8 bar melody that is highly classical. I use the old style grade 5 theory task as a starting point
  5. Create a round or canon and look at how harmony evolves as layers are added

Compositional tasks are great for learning and I would encourage you to get students creating musical ideas, a little bit like a sketchbook in an art lesson.

Composition

But when it comes to creating a composition I personally thing that students need more freedom and room for creativity. So I want you to forget ground bass, blues, ternary form and sonata form. I want you to throw out of your mind the idea that students all have the same starting point. I want you to view composition as a chance for students to create a mood, emotion or atmosphere.

But I want you to also give your students some rules. I use TWO simple ones to start with:

NOT in C Major

NOT 100 bpm 

So now what you need to do is get students creating some music. The simple way in to this, and do remember my students have done lots of tasks already, is to just get them to create some atmosphere. Whilst they are opening up Sibelius encourage them to pick a certain type of mood, atmosphere or emotion that they want to work with. Feel free to show them ideas and play them examples but also they can do this at home. Lesson one on this is all about getting something down and then going home to do research.

When they come to the next lesson they need ideas and focus. They need to have listened to maybe some film music to get ideas and they might now be able to tell you what genre they are going for. If they can’t, then help them. Give them a mood.

The thing is now they are going to open their work and start to put some flesh to their original little sketch of an idea. Your job as the teacher is to now direct them:

How could your piece start? – melody, long note, pedal note, rhythm, snare drum rolls, cymbal roll

What is your melodic instrument? Have you listened to that instrument? Do you know its range?

Melody – how are you creating your melody? Are you going to start with a leap, step or repetition? What direction are you going to go?

Ultimately you want to get them thinking and fleshing out their piece. Some will write a melody quickly, some won’t. The risky or tricky part is that you are having to support the individual but also not actually do any work for them. Instead of whole class composition teaching you are differentiating for every student.

I am not against getting everyone to do say a Theme & Variations but I do find you end up with lots of generic pieces. Truly interesting music is unique and creative. Yes they will all need to think about harmony, texture, structure etc. But if each piece has its own unique mood and atmosphere then you will go a long way with our students. They will also enjoy it a great deal more.

All of this is fine if they know enough to use Sibelius and also add chords, melody, rhythm etc. But just work with them individually if they need support.

I will continue this composition blog series and include some example of student work that has developed in this way. I do very much go down a programme music or cinematic music route, but it works well for me. Obviously every year I also have students who latch on to say a classical ternary form or minimalist piece. But that is their choice and I like variety.

I welcome questions, so fire away. I love teaching composition but I like it to be all about what the students want to create and so I teach them and support them individually. And ultimately it works for me. It might not for you, but maybe go in to a lesson with atmosphere as the goal and see how you feel!

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