Composing is a vital ingredient in the process of learning. It is concerned essentially with developing the children's creativity within the framework of their thinking in music. As they compose they become increasingly aware of the sounds they are making as well as the sounds of others. In this respect the process of composing engages the children in learning that requires both co-operation and collaboration. Creating a piece of music for a particular purpose also involves children in organising, decision-making and problem-solving, and therefore it extends them beyond the task of simply making rhythmic or melodic patterns.
Most children come to school with a wealth of musical experiences behind them. They have been exposed to a range of music in their everyday lives -- through listening to background music, musical mobiles or toys, songs sung to them, children's programmes on television or radio (as well as jingles and signature tunes, popular, traditional or classical music and videos) and various song recordings on cassette or CD. Many children will also have played with simple instruments such as xylophones, shakers or drums, creating their own music and establishing their personal taste.
Children naturally play with and explore rhythmic melodic features through singing and through simple instruments, varying tempo and dynamics instinctively. In the classroom this spirit of discovery is built upon in each strand of the curriculum and at all levels. In the Listening and performing strand the child is given structured opportunities for exploring sound, for singing simple songs and playing instruments in the Performing strand and for improvising, discussing, evaluating and recording in the Composing strand.
Composing for a range of purposes
The curriculum outlines a progressive range of purposes in composing activities, although it should be acknowledged that development in this area is spiral rather than linear, and progress may not always be predictable or clearly evident in every activity. The range of purposes for composing includes music
- to accompany a nursery rhyme, chant, song or game
- to accompany a story or a poem, creating simple sound effects
- to explore musical elements such as pulse, rhythm, melody, dynamics, tempo, structure, timbre and texture
- to create a rhythmic or melodic ostinato (a repeated pattern) to accompany a song or a chant
- to experiment with sound (chance music)
- to represent a character, e.g. a 'baddie' or a 'good fairy'
- to represent a mood, e.g. 'sad' music, 'happy' music
- to illustrate a sequence of events, e.g. the gingerbread man running away from the little old woman, the old man, the boy, the girl, the cat, etc.
- to convey an atmosphere, e.g. outer space, the circus
- to illustrate an abstract concept, e.g. confusion, joy, awakening
- to illustrate a line or an extract from a text in poetry or prose, e.g. 'Where the pools are bright and deep/Where the grey trout lies asleep ...'
'Sruthán beag mé, sruthán beag mé
Ó thaobh an chnoic a thagaim;
Is bím ag léimneach is ag rith
Is am ar bith ní stadaim.'
Gradually, with added experience of various techniques and styles, the children will arrive at unique and individual approaches to composing. However, they will require guidance and support at all class levels, especially in the early stages.
Organising composing activity
Most composing work will begin with a warm-up activity, such as a simple rhythm game, a vocal improvisation or a singing conversation. As the improvisations unfold, the teacher will need to help the children to find ways of giving structure and shape to their work. The simplest way of introducing structure is through establishing clear start and stop signals, and the children should be encouraged to work towards responding to these cues. While they will be exposed to a wide variety of sound-making materials, the teacher may need to limit the choice of sounds available to them in the early stages, otherwise their composition may lack clarity and shape. Also, thirty children improvising at once can result in quite a cacophony in the classroom! It is important that children listen closely to the sounds they are producing as they make them, varying and modifying as necessary. Therefore, the children will require time and space, individually or in small groups, to make their discoveries. Drawing up a few basic rules in conjunction with the children will facilitate smooth organisation and ensure quality learning experiences for all children. These may cover
- starting and stopping signals
- the handling of instruments
- sound levels
- time spent at each activity
- movement to and from the music area
- the maximum number of children who may work in the music area at any time.
The teacher should focus the children's attention on the effective use of a few ideas, rather than overstimulating them with a huge variety of sound-making materials. This applies to children at all stages and levels of ability. While this may appear teacher-directed, the opposite is true: children need a narrow focus in order to ignite their capacity for divergent thinking.
Limits may be decided on the basis of
- available instruments
- musical elements
- a range of musical purposes.
They may be combined and arranged individually, in groups or as a whole class.
These include the use of vocal sounds, body percussion, home-made instruments or 'found' sounds, tuned and untuned percussion instruments, simple melodic instruments and any other instruments available in the school -- a piano, guitar, keyboard or accordion -- as well as the range of playing techniques that may be employed.
The musical elements include those stated in the curriculum (pulse, duration, tempo, pitch, dynamics, structure, timbre, texture and style) as well as any additional emphasis that the teacher may wish to introduce. They may be approached singly, for example 'Can you make a rhythm pattern to answer this one?' or in combination, for example 'Can you make a melody that begins loudly and ends softly?' Thus, the boundaries in which the children work may gradually be widened. The following pages outline a number of possible approaches to composing as a guide for getting started.
EXEMPLAR 20 - Accompanying a story, song or game
EXEMPLAR 22 - Using musical elements
EXEMPLAR 23 - Composing with rhythmic elements
EXEMPLAR 24 - Composing using melodic elements
Open singing conversations are more difficult to notate but they provide a gateway for more advanced exploration of melody, dynamics, mood and structure. They provide links with operatic structures such as duet, aria and recitative and they can also be integrated with other curricular areas, for instance 'getting into character' as part of a unit in history. An example of this can be found in the Great Famine (see Teacher Guidelines: History), where two types of landlords one caring and one irresponsible, could be contrasted.
Musical questions for the children when composing melodies for these characters could be:
- What kinds of voices will they have -- high or low?
- Will they both sing the same tune?
- Will they both sing in the same way or will one be loud and rough and the other softer and more gentle?
- Will they sing quickly or slowly?
- How many lines should they sing?
- How will the song be organised?
- Will there be a repeated section?
- Will they sing any lines at the same time?
- What words should receive special emphasis?
- How should words be emphasised?
As a project such as this will involve many musical choices and decisions, several composing sessions may be required. The process of discovery and decision-making should be recorded in whatever way the children can manage, indicating the words of the melody, the notes of the tune and the rhythm pattern as well as their own reflections on the task. The process may involve several drafts, which could form part of an extended performance project. All stages of the process should be retained in a portfolio for future review. A recording mechanism such as a taperecorder or camcorder can add an extra dimension to both the drafting and the review stages.
Talking about and recording compositions
Talking about and reflecting on what has been done in the composing class is an important aspect of the composing process. While the teacher will facilitate and nurture the child's inventions and discoveries, he/she will also encourage the child to review the composition to ensure that the child has realised his/her intentions. In the same way, the child should recognise that revision is a natural part of the composing and performing process and that all performers and composers in the 'real world' constantly review and revise their own work. Talking about the process and evaluating it can take place at various points in the process, but a useful time is when the child has completed his/her 'first draft'. The experience of listening objectively to his/her own recorded composition can stimulate both verbal and non-verbal thinking at a high level. The interplay of teacher observation and pupil selfassessment in this area will contribute enormously to the teacher's understanding of the child's growth and development as a musician. In addition, discussions in the Listening and responding strand, where the child is allowed to express his/her preferences and give reasons for them, will provide a model for his/her self-evaluation in composing at a later stage.
Notation -- either standard or invented -- is not an essential component of composing, but it can help the process of thinking and planning if children write down or record their musical ideas. In the early stages, when children start inventing music, they will find no need to write it down. Later on, as they are trying to recall, they will recognise the need to invent a system of reminders that can be understood by themselves and others. If the children are encouraged to present their musical ideas with personal symbols or pictures, and subsequently to interpret them for others, musical notation of all kinds will be given meaning and reality for them. Skills developed in the strand unit 'Literacy' will also acquire greater relevance for the children. Also, work in this area can be integrated successfully with work in mathematics (pictograms, 2D shapes), in visual art (drawing, developing a personal schema) and later in geography (understanding the key in map reading).
Involving professional composers
The involvement of professional composers and musicians with schools, through various schemes, can create a considerable catalyst for a synthesis of composing and performing skills with creative stimuli. The experience of hearing a professional musician or ensemble perform either the child's music or music from other sources can change the life of a young composer, and the opportunity to sing or play alongside such musicians can greatly influence the young performer. The interest generated among children, parents and teachers by such occasions is inestimable.