Composing for Learning

Composing for Learning is all about encouraging students to learn through composing. Teaching a new concept in a music lesson can be enhanced through composition. Experimenting with chords, melodies, rhythms and instruments can help to unlock music and secure knowledge. In this blog I want to encourage you to use Composing for Learning.

Why do we compose in schools?

Now I know what the wrong answer is – because students have to for GCSE. This is of course not the reason to embark on any kind of composition. Yes, we need to send off coursework, but composition is so much more than a box ticking exercise for the exam board.

We compose in schools to allow students to explore music, create music and ultimately understand it. Teaching a concept such as harmony, or melody, will be greatly enhanced through a composition exercise. This will give students a chance to take an idea and work with it to see that they understand. They will get to create ideas that will lead to a piece of music.

We compose in schools not because we have to, but because it is a vital part of musical development. Concepts and key terms when taught in isolation are often misunderstood. But when they are used, manipulated and explored, students truly grasp the elements of music. Composition is one of the dimensions of music that can be linked to “theory” but also practical performance. When I teach I like students to listen to concepts, play them on an instrument and then use them in a compositional setting.

I appreciate that this question of why we compose in schools is quite a big one, and we could discuss it at length. But for the purpose of this blog can I put forward the notion that we compose to learn. We use composition to help students develop knowledge about music. And when we combine this with listening and performing we might just hit the sweet spot. I guess in essence, we compose in schools so that students get to compose!

Composing for learning

Let me explain this approach a little more.

This half term I have been teaching Year 9 about Harmony. I wanted them to understand key signatures, chords and progressions. I wanted to give them a good base of knowledge so that they can begin to explore melody next half term. This half term we have listened to a piece of music every lesson. We have played chords on guitar and piano, and we have sequenced chords on computers. We have looked at progressions and started to understand how we can use roman numerals to help us.

Composition has been a the heart of this as students have had a chance to use triads and chords to create progressions. They have then explored adding a bass-line and altering the inversions to make the progressions “work”. This compositional approach, when linked to guitars, has given them an insight into creating a chord progression. They are also using their ears to listen and they are working with notation, MIDI and instruments.

This is just a quick overview I know, but hopefully you can see that I am using compositional approaches and techniques to help students understand chords, keys and harmony. We have worked in C, D and G major and we are building on work from last term on structure.

What I am encouraging you to consider is – How can I use a compositional approach tin my teaching. I am sure you do this already, but it is certainly worth considering if you do enough. And the great thing is that you can use cloud based software such as Soundtrap, Flat.io or NoteFlight to allow students to continue this work at home. Composition work no longer needs to be restricted to the classroom!

Next Steps

We all work in different settings and circumstances, and I don’t know where you are at with your curriculum. You may have a rigid approach to composition or maybe you don’t do it enough. You may currently think of composition as just “Writing a song” or maybe you do explore concepts through short exercises. Wherever you are at, I encourage you to think about changes that you could make to bring your curriculum to life with composition. You might like to look at some topics you currently teach to see how you could get your students creating short musical extracts that explore a key concept. If you have access to computers, then you can use technology to help you. But you might like to also use instruments to compose ideas, or a piece of paper and a pencil.

I am possibly teaching you to suck eggs here, but I know I always like to challenge myself and consider what I teach. One thing I realised a few years ago is that my Key Stage 3 curriculum wasn’t encouraging enough compositional understanding. Students were “creating” but I am not sure that they understood how to actually write a melody, craft a chord progression or orchestrate ideas created at the piano. I am now focussing much more on building understanding of the building blocks of music so that they can use them to create.

How to Encourage Composition?

A few years ago I realised that too often I found myself asking students what instrument they played. I would then use this as a way of judging whether or not they were suitable for GCSE music. A response of “I am grade 5 French horn” was great, but could they create music? Asking students if they are composers is therefore quite a powerful way of establishing a culture of composition. 30% of most GCSE courses is focussed on composition, so we need to know where they are at. But also, if we are going to use composition for learning, then we need them to think of themselves as composers.

The point I am trying to make is that we need to see music for what it is and not think of just the performing. Some students might be incredible on an instrument, but not able to create much. Some students learn by ear or using YouTube and then can’t string together a chord progression or harmonise a melody. The more we make composition “a thing” the more we will encourage students to pursue it.

We can also encourage composition by giving students the tools to be creative. I advocate having as much available in terms of software, but also instruments that they can use. If they want to write pop songs, then using a piano or a guitar is a great way to do this. I make sure that I have these available. It is good to also encourage students to record ideas that they create on their instruments, and the Soundtrap mobile app is great for that.

Can I also point you to some great online resources for composing:

I Can Compose

Passing Notes Education

Extra Curricular Composition

Extra curricular music is a massive part of any school music department. We will all have choirs and ensembles working every week, but what about composition? Do you have a composition, music technology or podcasting club? Have you ever thought of running song-writing sessions? Bringing composition into our extra-curricular work will help students to see composition as an everyday activity and not just something linked to coursework.

If you are looking for a starting point for extra curricular composition then you might consider running a composition competition, or ask students to create music for an event. Aim to get them creating for fun and pleasure, rather than for lessons and coursework.

I recently noticed that Music First are running a creative musician festival and that might be a good thing to aim for. It looks like a great opportunity and there are some fantastic prizes. When you register, if you’re not already a Soundtrap user, you’ll get free trial access to Soundtrap for three months for your students and the winners for each category will join Yolanda Brown OBE in a masterclass and receive a personalised video message from her. The school will also receive a 50-seat license for Soundtrap for 1 year as a bonus!

This could be the very thing that kicks starts a passion for composition and a fresh culture of composing in your school. This is not just for students who know how to compose, but can be for all your students!

Changing the Composing Narrative

I hope that you agree that composing in schools is a vital part of any music curriculum. When used well, composing opportunities can help students develop as musicians, building their understanding of the building blocks of music. Not everything needs to become a full piece of music – whatever that means! But it can be a small task that gives students a chance to create something and learn through composing. I hope that these ideas have got you thinking about composition in your school, and if you do enter the competition with Music First, all the best!

Let’s get our students loving composition and building it in to their everyday lives.

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