Composing in a piano class: Why and how?

composing Feb 21, 2020

In every KeyNotes workbook we have a theme or a story, we learn pieces based around that theme or story and then we end the workbook by taking everything we have learnt and putting it into a composition.

So here in this video, we have been learning about Mussorsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition". We have listened to some of the movements whilst looking at the pictures they accompany, students have played some original pieces and drawn pictures that they think are suitable for their piano pieces, and this is where we ended. Students drew their own pictures to compose about.

So why do we think composing is an important part of our lessons?

Well there are several reasons:

  • Composing for a purpose helps children to think about musical elements and how they can be used to depict mood, feelings, character traits, even story lines. KeyNotes learners are fantastic at not only listening to music and describing the elements (pitch, tempo, dynamics, melody, instrumentation etc), but they are also wonderfully creative when it comes to varying those elements for a purpose.
  • Composing helps students to understand music in a deeper and more meaningful way than simply learning pieces does. I talk to my students about phrasing, ending on the tonic, moving by step or small leap, having singable and repeated motifs, all of which wouldn't necessarily be considered in this way when learning to play a piece.
  • (Most) children love it! I say most because you do get a few that fear the freedom and lack of being told what to do. But then this is so good for those children, right?! They can't be wrong! Being able to create in this way will help them to develop so many crucial parts of their approach to learning, to thinking! And when they love it, they are expressing their whole selves with such joy! After I modelled the Duck Train in this video (excuse my apparent lack of knowledge that baby ducks are called ducklings, not chicks!), I modelled someone else's composition who had drawn a scene from a video game with a battle! This is his passion and the sparkle in his eyes when I was representing the battle scene on the piano was magical!
  • It's great for us teachers to see the development in their understanding of music and how it is put together. And we can give them some invaluable feedback that will help them to take that understanding even further.

So how should one approach composition in a piano class?

Well it helps to have a theme or a topic. Or for them to be composing for a part of a story. Even when I was teaching 16-year olds for their GCSE (exams syllabus in the UK) composition, I always told them to think of a story, to structure their music around different parts of the story. If they were composing theme and variations for example, I would suggest they have a different season for each variation, something that could help illustrate different moods and therefore vary their musical elements. I would never ask anyone to compose a piece of music without intention. So that should be your first consideration.

Next, you need to make sure that your students are aware of the musical elements. We use this table to make sure we are considering all of the elements both in our composing tasks, but also in our listening tasks.

It will take time for your students to build their understanding of these elements and how they can be used for various means (although some are more straightforward than others!), but these form a great basis for children to think about their music.

What is essential to carrying out composition tasks, is the teacher modelling. We should attempt a composition ourselves with the children, talking them through our decisions, encouraging them to offer their views and ideas, and showing the nature of the fact that it is a work in progress!

I also take them through some "rules" (although the more expressive the thing that they are composing for is, the less strict the rules are!). I alluded to some of these rules above but they generally outline the rudiments of music - using the home note/tonic, having short repeated patterns/motifs that have a question and answer phrasing (I talk to them about finished and unfinished motifs which they can identify correctly 100% of the time. I also talk about a comma and a full stop). Moving melodies by step or small leap and making sure that we can sing it back easily. As they get more experienced I will talk to them about chords, notes of the chord and passing notes etc. But on the whole I don't like them to get too bogged down in technicalities.

I actually don't often encourage them to write their compositions down (either letter names, or notation) because this often tends to stilt their creativity and particularly their performance of the composition. Instead I get them to think in elements and motifs. To think about how they are going to play the chick (duckling!) motif high, and then higher, faster, louder as the ducks get more and more excited!

Most of all, they should enjoy the process and feel proud of what they have created.

Have you ever used composition in your piano lessons?

If you would like to use this Pictures at an Exhibition composition sheet as seen in this video, you can download it from our free printables site - join here.


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