Easy activities to get primary school students composing
Sound and Music, which is a national charity for new music in the UK, have conducted a survey and discovered that music composition and creativity are generally overlooked in schools in the UK. You can find information about Sound and Music and their initiative here where you can also download the report here as well. Composition or music creativity is often overlooked during a music lesson.
I’ve put together some activities and overall thoughts about teaching music composition in primary schools, for children between 5-11 years old and about 30 children in each classroom. Always assess your group of children and tailor to your teaching style. Everything is open to interpretation.
My overall view on composition in primary schools aims to defy the rigid boundaries of classical music and concentrate on putting sounds together. I think one of our goals as educators is to set the bare foundations where students can later build on. Movement is an important aspect of music learning because it enhances the learning and it makes everything fun. Use the activities in a way that will serve your and your classroom’s purposes.
I know, time is a major factor that determines what and how a lesson will take place. Focusing on performance, to read and play notes, is measurable by students, parents and the heads that determine if music is needed in the school. So it becomes risky to introduce this abstract concept called music composition. But I do believe it is worth it!
Ask the children to write on a piece of paper a note and give it a duration between a crochet, minim or semibreve. Display the papers on the board and arrange them in bars and perform it. The children will enjoy seeing that their own note is on the board and anticipate to hear it being played, while you check they know their theory. For more advanced children, ask them to write an entire bar.
I’d suggest keeping a simple time signature, like 4/4 or ¾ and for the more adventurous 5/4 might work as well. Not using any time signature is always an option and children will learn something different.
You may go full avant-garde and instead of writing notes, write down sounds you can produce using objects in the room, your body or voice. The sound can be as short as 1 bang and as long as 4 seconds, for instance. Shuffle the papers and each student picks one out randomly. Arrange the students to their positions and listen to the beautiful specific randomness. You can introduce the idea of a conductor leaving it up to them to decide how the music will unfold. For this activity it might be good to call on being sensible.
Link music history, discover new composers and musical styles with what the students are learning in other subjects such as English, Geography, Arts, History… I find that 20th century music is the easiest to experiment with. You would be looking at minimalism, serialism, atonal, aleatoric music, and the list goes on. I define the style in the broadest sense so the children don’t get confused or discouraged. Each time we talk about that style I add another small element to the definition.
You can link serialism with the World Wars history. Ask the children to come up with a series of 7 different sounds or notes and number each individual sound from 1 to 7. Perform the series twice, the first time as is and the second time perform it in reverse, from 7 to 1.
Use the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to introduce to the children the idea of form in music, ABA structure, and invite them to come up with body movements to indicate each section. An example could be to wave your arms for A sections and bend and stretch your knees for the B section. Ask the children to work in groups and write their own set of moves on a piece of paper. Then exchange the papers with other groups and always finish with the performances.
Take Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, write the last 4 bars of the song on the board. Ask the children to write their own piece using all the notes on the board, so use each note twice, in any order they like but keeping the first and last note as is.
Invite the children to think of their morning routine and pick just one action, such as getting out of bed, brushing teeth etc… Ask them to try and mimic the movement using sounds from ordinary objects or musical instruments. Note it down using conventional or unconventional notation, and perform it. They can think about what they are feeling while they would do the movement, what they hear, see. This activity is comes ready with a beginning, a middle and an end, it’s very concise and can be approached from many different angles. I wouldn’t try and guess what each composition is based on as it would subtract from the purpose of creating music, art.
Always sing, improvise, and listen to anything including folk music, which is very important. Ask the children regularly if they wrote a song they would like to share. This way they you are showing them that writing music is an ordinary thing and you are interested in their work.
I encourage you to check the Orff Method if you’re not familiar with it. It promotes a similar thinking and ethos. You can take part in day seminars or their incredible one-week summer school in York where they go into more detail about music education. You can find lesson plans online from other teachers incorporating this method and music creativity. Make these activities your own and have fun with them!