Why do we need composition?

Since I started working for Dabbledoo about a year ago I have been writing a lot of the articles for this blog. It’s something I really enjoy and I feel like I’m slowly getting better at it. Alongside working for Dabbledoo, I’ve also continued to play music and in the last few years I have got more and more into composing. I mostly compose for my own enjoyment but it's also a great creative outlet.

Two of the things composing has taught me over the past while is that firstly, it's about telling a story and secondly, it’s about keeping it simple and not overcomplicating things. What I’ve come to realise is that both of these are also essential to writing: there should always be a narrative running throughout and, often times, it’s more important to take words out than add words in. So while I don’t know how much my engagement with composing music has helped improve my writing, the point is it feels like it has.

This is the impact that getting children composing music in school can have not only on their performance in other subjects but on their general ability to think creatively and to develop these transferable skills.

Teaching composition in the Irish Primary Music Curriculum

Earlier this year we asked over 200 primary school teachers what their biggest challenge with teaching music in primary school was. There was a wide variety of answers including: time, resources and lack of prior musical experience. However, the most common response was teachers have difficulty with teaching composition.

It seems, most teachers are able to manage teaching both the listening and performance strands but often the third area of composition can be a bit of an unknown. Part of the challenge I think is that when people think of the word composition they think of composers like Mozart and Beethoven. In reality, composition doesn’t have to mean you need to create symphonies or concertos. It could be as simple as creating basic rhythms or sounds.

In this blog, we break down 5 easy ways you can bring composition into your classroom music lessons:

1. Compose sounds and relate them to symbols

We use a lot of different images to represent sounds in our curriculum for schools. We find that children are able to quite easily look at a certain shapes and imagine what it could sound like. Once they get to grips with this as a concept, we can ask them to draw their own shapes and come up with their own unique sounds for it.

Dabbledoo Music Notation

A good way to organise this exercise is to develop a theme they have to stick to. This could be Christmas sounds, sounds at a football match or sounds in the garden.

Here’s an example from our curriculum where we get the kids to come up with morning sounds:

Dabbledoo Music Notation - Morning Sounds

In my example above, here are the associated sounds I would give to each of the images:

  • Kettle - ‘gurgle gurgle gurgle’
  • Shower - ‘SHHHHHHHH’
  • Bird - ‘tweet tweet tweet’
  • Toaster - ‘........POP’

Try and get your class to come up with their own symbols and associated sounds and ask them to explain why they came up with the ideas they did.

As a further step you could ask one of the children to point to the symbols they’ve created in sequence and the rest of the class have to make the corresponding sound. This way the class will have to respond to different symbols and the different orders they may be presented in.

2.) Composing rhythms

A really simple place to start with understanding different rhythms is from words. Words have a natural beat to them based on their structure and the number of syllables they have. An easy way to introduce this concept is to think about place names that the children will know.

Here’s an example of 4 Irish counties broken down and notated in the natural rhythms of each of the words:

Ask your class to come up with other words on a particular theme and get them to notate the rhythms, as above. Once notated you can ask them to clap and speak the rhythms of the words they’ve come up with.

Beyond using words, getting children to come up with their own clapping patterns is a great next step to help them with composing rhythms.

A good exercise would be a call and response where one child is chosen to come up with a simple 4 beat rhythm and the other children have to copy that rhythm.

Rhythm is one of those things that there really is no limit to how far and complex you can make it so get creative!

3.) Composing Melody

Like the exercise of call and response for rhythm, you can also do this in your classroom with melody. Here’s a great example of Freddie Mercury doing exactly that at Live Aid.

The important thing with any of these exercises is to set the parameters that you want the children to follow. For composing melody, we suggest to teachers to scale it up as follows (literally):

a) Compose with the first 3 notes of the scale

The first three notes of the scale ‘Do, Re, Mi’ is the best place to start for composing a melody in the classroom.

A melody like ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ uses only these three notes. Get the class to sing through a song like this so that notes will get into their heads and then make it easier for them to compose their own melody.

Dabbledoo do re mi

b) Compose using the pentatonic scale

After ‘Do, Re, Mi’ we can add two more notes of ‘So and La’ giving us a 5 note scale or the pentatonic scale. Remember we skip the 4th note of the full scale ‘Fa’ for the pentatonic.

An example of a song using the pentatonic scale is ‘Amazing Grace’. A good first step would be to sing through a song like this so that again the scale becomes familiar to the children.

Dabbledoo pentatonic scale

c) Compose using the full major scale

The final stage is composing with all 8 notes of the major scale.

An example of a piece that uses the full major scale quite closely is ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. Like before, a good way to get children to understand the parameters of the scale is to get them to sing along to a piece like this.

Dabbledoo - full major scale

When starting off teaching composition, I would suggest keeping it simple and only use one beat notes for a new melody. Once you've mastered this, you can start to add more complex rhythms into the melody.

4.) Song writing

Song writing is where we compose using words, rhythm and melody. A great place to start in the classroom is to ask the children to come up with a melody to sing along to a poem they have either read or written themselves. Poems often have a defined pulse and rhythm to them and so taking it a step further and adding a melody to the lyrics is an easy way for children to create a song.

You can also compose a song all together as a class or in smaller groups. Again, by setting a theme (winter, summer, being happy, being sad etc.) you can set the parameters within which the class need to come up with a song.

The first step could be getting each group to write a verse of a song. Once you have 3 or 4 verses, you can then ask them to come up with a melody for their verse based around the notes of the major scale.

Once that's complete you can then put together each verse and the whole class can learn the full song (perhaps after some stylistic tweaks).

Why not try and record your class performing their new composition so you can play it back to them at a later date.

5.) Composing with instruments

Composition can be done using just the voice and the body to create percussive sounds. We don’t need to have instruments but the benefit of using them is that they give a much wider range of different sounds both played individually and in combination with others.

At any stage of the previous steps discussed you can introduce instruments to the classroom. For example, once the class has come up with a newly composed rhythm, why not try and get them to replicate that rhythm on different instruments.

Dabbledoo Classroom Instruments

You can use both tuned instruments like tin whistles and untuned instruments like shakers to create very different kinds of compositions.

A step further of this idea is using instruments to narrate a story. The ultimate example of this is ‘Peter and the Wolf’ by Prokofiev which uses the different instruments of the orchestra to represent different animals in the story.

If, for instance, you had 4 different types of instruments each of these could be played to represent 4 different characters of a story you are reading in the class or perhaps a story the children have made up themselves.

In conclusion, teaching composition can seem like a daunting subject but it doesn't have to be. By starting with simple things like creating sounds and building towards melodies and rhythms, composition can become one of the most enjoyable elements of teaching music in the classroom.

If you’d like to learn more tips for teaching composition in the classroom we strongly recommend checking the teaching guidelines sections of the music curriculum.

If you would like some more resources to teach composition and the other music strands in your classroom, why not get in touch with us about our full school curriculum below:

Dabbledoo Music Primary Music Currciulum

If you have any questions, please email Chris at [email protected]