What did the researcher want to know?
How do elementary music teachers define composition, what relationships exist between their beliefs about the importance of composition and their use of composition, why do they believe composing is valuable, and what prevents them from incorporating more composition in their classrooms?
What did the researcher do?
Shouldice surveyed 176 elementary general music teachers from across Michigan via an online questionnaire, which included items such as the following:
- Please describe the characteristics of music composition. (e.g., What is composition? What does it entail?)
- Why do you feel composition is or isn’t important for elementary music students?
- What influences your decision to NOT incorporate composition in elementary general music? (OR what influences you to not incorporate composition more frequently?)
What did the researcher find?
Definitions of Composition:
Many teachers agreed that composition involves creating, self-expression, and replication. However, they differed in their beliefs about the complexity of composition and/or whether it requires notation. While some teachers believed that composition involves the creation of a complete piece of music, others believed it could be as simple as creating a melody or an ostinato pattern. Similarly, while some believed that composition by nature involves the notating of musical ideas, others believed it could be strictly aural/by ear.
Use and Importance/Value of Composition:
Teachers’ use of composition increased with grade level.
There was a positive correlation between teachers’ beliefs about the importance of composition and their use of composition. Teachers who believed composition was more important were more likely to include it in their teaching and to do so more frequently than teachers who believed composition was less important. Many teachers expressed beliefs that composition is valuable because it helps students develop, demonstrate, and apply their understanding of musical concepts and skills; develops creativity; allows self-expression; and lets students take ownership of their music-making.
Impediments to Composition:
When asked what keeps them from doing more composing with their students, many teachers mentioned time (amount of contact time with students and/or feeling that composition takes too long). Another common struggle cited was logistics, including large class sizes and a lack of resources (e.g., instruments, technology).
What does this mean for my classroom?
Elementary music teachers who don’t believe composition is important may be less likely to provide their students with composing experiences. Therefore, helping teachers see the value of composing may increase the likelihood they will teach it! Click below to view a presentation slide deck for this study, which includes direct quotes from teachers who participated about why they believe composition is important:
Teachers’ conceptions of composition likely influence whether, when, and/or how they teach it. Given that more teachers in this study incorporated composing into later grade levels than early grade levels, it might be because many believe composition must be complex and/or notated, whereas teachers who incorporate composing in early grade levels may be more likely to do so in simple, aural/ear-based ways.
Broadening teachers’ conceptions of composition may help alleviate perceived impediments. How might elementary music teachers incorporate composing in ways that are simple, quick, don’t involve notation, and don’t require instruments/technology?
Ideas for Aural Composition:
Composing a Melody for a Familiar Chant:
- Review a familiar chant, such as “Engine, Engine” while moving to big/little beats.
- Choose and establish tonality and sing several tonal patterns for the class to echo. Then invite students to improvise a tonal pattern that is different from yours. Repeat several times to “get the musical juices flowing.”
- Invite students to improvise tonal patterns to use in the song, practicing each phrase as it is created. (Tip: I find it helpful to notate/dictate students’ ideas on the board as they create them so that I can help them retain/replicate their melody.)
Composing a Melody for a Poem:
- Choose a simple poem (like “The Mule” below). Have the class try chanting the chosen poem in duple meter while moving to big/little beats. Then try chanting the poem in triple meter while moving to big/little beats. Invite the class to vote to choose meter.
- After deciding the meter, try chanting the poem while teacher accompanies with I/V chords in major tonality. Then try chanting while teacher accompanies with I/V chords in minor tonality. Invite the class to vote to choose tonality.
- Optional: Sing a few tonic/dominant tonal patterns in the chosen tonality for the class to echo. Then ask the class to sing back a few patterns that are different from yours. (I find that this step helps prepare the students to improvise melodically in the next step.)
- Invite the class to try improvising pitches for “Voice of the mule” as a group. Invite an individual student to share their idea, and have the class echo. Have class sing again and then add on a group improvisation for “bray.” Invite another individual student to share an idea, and have the class try echoing. Continue adding on new improvisations until you have an entire composed melody! (Tip: I find it helpful to notate/dictate students’ ideas on the board as they create them so that I can help them retain/replicate their melody.)
“The Mule” by Douglas Florian
Voice of the mule: bray.
Hue of the mule: bay.
Fuel of the mule: hay.
Rule of the mule: stay.
Shout-out to Jennifer Bailey, music teacher in the Farmington (MI) Public Schools, for this idea! Visit Jennifer’s website (www.singtokids.com) for more great teaching ideas.
Any children’s poem can work for this composition project, but Jennifer shared with me the poems of Douglas Florian, featured in books such as Beast Feast, Mammalabilia (which includes “The Mule”), and Insectlopedia. After composing a few as a class, I would then let the students work in small groups to choose a poem and create a melody for it using the same process. I would give the students this checklist I created as a guide:
Once each group decided on their poem, I highlighted the text using two colors to indicate a harmonic progression. One color represented tonic and the other represented dominant. The groups would use the color-coding to play chords (on a Q-chord, iPad in Garage Band, etc.) when choosing their tonality and composing their melody. Here is an example of a color-coded poem:
Because this project took several days to complete, the groups would record their progress with an audio-recording device (e.g., small digital audio recorder, voice memos, etc.) at the end of each class and then listen to their recording at the beginning of the next class to get their melodies back in their heads. When the groups were done, they recorded a final version of their melody, which I uploaded to our music program website and also burned onto CDs for each student, titling the album “John Doe Elementary School’s Carnival of the Animals.” Here is a video of one group practicing their composition:
Here is their finished audio recording:
Here is another group’s version of the same poem (Douglas Florian’s “The Tiger”):
And here is one more final version of another poem (Douglas Florian’s “The Whale”):
Other Simple Composing Ideas?
- Have students create a four-beat rhythm (chant on “bah” or play on an unpitched percussion instrument) to perform as a rhythmic ostinato to accompany a song/chant. (For more challenge/extension, have students add rhythm syllables to their ostinato and/or notate it.)
- Combine a created rhythm with the bassline/chord roots to a familiar song to create a harmonic accompaniment. (For more on basslines/chord roots and teaching them, see this post.)
- Create a variation of a familiar song by improvising a new tonal pattern to replace a repeated pattern in a song.
For many more ideas as well as how to help better prepare your elementary students for composing, see my book chapter:
Shouldice, H. N. (2018). Audiation-based improvisation and composition in elementary general music. In S. Burton & A. Reynolds (Eds.), Engaging musical practices: A sourcebook for elementary general music (pp. 113-134). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.