Resources for Teaching Music Composition

In a recent Music Education Twitter Chat,which took place on April 20th, 2010 EST the question of “What the Most Important Topics to Teach in the Music Classroom” were discussed. I was surprised to find out that many music teachers who participated in the chat thought music composition was not taught enough in schools and was not treated with enough importance in the music classroom.

So this got me thinking why!

  • Why doesn’t it get taught in the music classroom?
  • Do you think it is an important subject for music teachers to teach?
  • Are there too many other things to teach first?
  • Is it hard to teach? Is it hard to mark?
  • What resources would you use to teach music composition in the classroom?

Personally, I am really passionate about the need for really inspiring, fun and solid ideas for teaching music in the classroom and I don’t think that sticking students on computer programs such as “Garage Band” or “I-Nudge” really does much for the creativity of our students. To me, programs like this feel more like a “time filler” than anything else. But I would be very interested to find out how music teachers are using these programs successfully especially in the music classroom. I would love for you to prove me wrong on this and feel free to share lesson plans, ideas and inspiring stories that you have found with using such tools.

There was also a website resource discussed briefly in the chat, called “Approach to Composition” which is a set of lesson plans designed to help with teaching music composition concepts.

I would love to know what you think of this site and if it’s something you’d find useful. Has anyone used these lesson plans in the music classroom? Do you think they need extra content added to them to make them successful for the classroom? The lesson plan that particularly caught my eye was one on writing a Commercial Jingle. Is this lesson plan useful to you?

Music Theory Fun Sheets


  • By Pam Norton Reply

    I teach music theory in my band class. I think it helps my students understand the music better and why songs sound the way they do, esp. the songs that are in a minor key. I think the reason it is not taught so much in most band classes is because between marching band, state competitions, and regular concerts/performances, there is just not enough time. I am lucky enough to teach at a Charter school where I don’t have a marching band (yet) and state competitions to worry about. So I have that little bit of extra time to focus on music theory.

    • By janice Reply

      Well said Pam! I definitely agree that time and competition for other things is an issue in teaching music and so subjects such as music composition unintentionally just gets left. Thanks for your words of experience and feedback.

  • By Creative Commons Music | Reply

    My opinion is everybody has to be taught the music only from the musical classroom.

  • By Doreen Fraccaro Reply

    I teach a composition unit to my band students in third term every year. To me, writing music is a culminating task that brings together all of the learning that took place over the year. I begin with having the students compose rhythmic lines to show that they have a deep understanding of the note values we have studied. From there, they move on to taking the rhythmic material and adding the pitches they are able to play. We talk about and use form and repetition to complete this portion. Once the melodies are completed, we move on to using the Finale program or My students write accompanying parts to go with the melody they will be playing. The parts are written to suit their group-mates who are required to tell each other which notes and rhythms they feel comfortable playing. When the technology works well, the results are usually quite wonderful!!

    • By janice Reply

      Thanks Doreen for outlining your plan to composition. Well said on the question of technology too- I agree using technology is great if it’s done at the right times for the right reasons too- Note Flight sounds very effective for you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • By Jim Tucci Reply

    I also think that composing is a fantastic tool that can inspire students even at a young age. It teaches students to be more than just listeners or performers. The creative process is a ball for most students.

    I use a simple original poem and the major scale on bells as a basis for my kindergarten students.

    In 3rd grade we do a unit on Musical Sequence that most students are thrilled with the result of following some basic guidelines to begin with.

    With older students, we get into harmony and create musical rounds. (Takes a couple weeks to develop this lesson.)

    • By janice Reply

      Thanks for adding these ideas and links to this discussion Jim. Much appreciated!

  • By Martin Fourie Reply

    Thanks for posting this thought-provoking article, Janice.

    I use a combination of approaches in teaching composition: not only through “traditional classroom music” such as classroom orchestra, where students are given the opportunity to perform short improvised solos or group composition using instruments and voices, but also using Garageband.

    I firmly believe that talented young musicians and casual enquirers can all benefit from both approaches. To illustrate how Garageband can benefit tkae the following lesson as an example:

    I teach a lesson to 12 year-olds where they get the opportunity to compose their own ringtone. Sure, some students only add samples together, but others (not only those who normally take their music seriously) are able to access music on a different (and exciting) level. Some of these students have even come back to me later on to show me what they had subsequently created outside of the classroom using only their phones.

    I feel that music technology enables students without the traditional musical skills to express themselves and their musicianship. Music technology should not be seen as merely a “time filler”, but as a useful tool.

    • By janice Reply

      I really appreciate your take on this Martin and can see that using Garage Band in the way that you teach, it’s extremely effective. The ringtone idea for kids is just brilliant! I hope that even this one idea will inspire teachers to use it in this relevant and fun way.

  • By run931alee Reply

    Most music education programs do not train teachers to be composers. Most of the emphasis on learning music is to learn to read the musical notation. Some of the most frequently used notation is not taught in the classroom either.

    I found in my 47 year of music training that it took almost 35 years to get someone to finally teach me theory and the structure of music.

    I did not understand how the music was put together in relation to melody and harmony. I was playing advanced solos for several different instruments and could not tell you how to spell a C major chord.

    It was embarrassing and my teachers prescribed emergency intervention music theory. I seem to have mastered music theory.

    It still didn’t really all come together until I started studying the blues. For some reason learning the concept of the 12 bar blues has clicked. A bass player, a drummer, a keyboard player, and several other instruments all playing the same harmony, and soloing melody and improvisation based from the melody and harmonic elements. It was so easy and evoked an a ha moment. It is easy 3 chords and a five not scale. You can teach the ostinato concept for the rhythm section in terms of styles of popular music.

    It is a building block that can be elaborated on to the advanced composition level. First learn some basic theory, apply it to basic exercise and then learn to improvise. Once you understand improvisation the door to original composition is open.

    The web site provided some great tools for young musicians. They may not be ready to study composition until they have understand some basic music theory. Not everyone starts musical training at the age of 2.

  • By Jim Reply

    Thanks for this discussion – it has prompted me to look further into this idea as part of my Master of Music Technology final project.

    For some time I have been battling with other educators over this point and I think one crucial factor has already been mentioned. All forms of music technology are merely tools in the same way that pen and paper were a tool to Mozart!

    I have written some GarageBand specific units that have students composing an arrangement for jazz quartet from scratch and one thing I avoid doing is have students use loops. There is a terrible pitfall with software such as this for it to be used as time fillers BUT there are amazing features to be found in these tools – it falls upon the imagination of the teacher to use them. Many people overlook the flexibility of having Garageband on a laptop in a classroom – you have at you fingertips a whole recording studio that can also provide some notation and creative flexibility. I love having it set up during pentatonic composition sessions on tuned percussion – we record ideas directly into it and then go on to manipulate these ideas further in the keyboard lab using the editing tools and software instruments.

    I do not have shares in Apple by the way! I think there are similar flaws to notation programs. Too often students are guilty of composing by cut and paste in Sibelius. I do agree that there is a reluctance to teach composition – and I have a real problem in the way that here in Australia at least there is a separation of the study of music into separate components – listening, composing, performance. It is pretty hard to do any of these individually without carrying out the other!! Certainly composition relies on all disciplines and students love composing their own works.

    When I have organised my resources better I would be happy to share some lesson plans – and please keep the discussion going!

    • By janice Reply

      Here Here jim! Thanks so much for the great advice on avoiding those loops and I agree that with separating the components of music study into listening, composing and performing, it’s all too easy to forget about the whole area of composition. I look forward to reading more about you Jim and thanks for contributing to this discussion.

  • By Nancy Reply

    Interesting discussion! I just finished my third level of Orff Schulwerk, which incorporates a good amount of improvisation which can turn to composition very quickly. This is where I’ve really become more comfortable improvising in a ‘safe’ environment. I, too, learned a great deal of my theory from the blues, and am still learning the more I listen to that style of music. It also helped that I played in a band for a short time and had to get away from the page and learn by ear.

    Last year, after Level II of Orff Schulwerk, I felt that my students were really learning so much more about music . . . form, pitch, rhythm, harmony, etc. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to take their teaching to the next level.

    • By janice Reply

      Great advice Nancy. Thanks for your input to this discussion

  • By John Bartels Reply

    I am 66 and have enjoyed playing chorded piano music for around 50 years. It has brought me great joy. I am greatly indebted to my late music teacher Mrs. Thora Hill. Thank you Thora. Is playing piano music using chords still being taught in the USA? Playing the melody with the right hand and the chords with the left opens up the whole world of music and allows endless opportunities for variation and simple composition (see the link to Charlotte’s waltz). I really hope that young people are still learning to play the piano this way. It would be a tragedy if this form of playing were lost. Thank you.
    Port Elizabeth
    South Africa

  • By Li-San Ting Reply

    There’s a great series of books called “Music By Me” (Levels 1-5), which is suitable for young and beginning pianists. It breaks up the tools of composition into manageable and fun units. I use these books when teaching partner lessons with my piano students. They’re great because they also have teacher/student duets and opportunities for improvisation, which is an important part of composition.

    I think one of the ways to increase lesson time to fit in composition is to teach it in a partner lesson (two people have their lesson at the same time). I find that partner lessons also give more time for aural skills, theory and sight reading games.

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