Music Composition in the Classroom

Easy activities to get primary school students composing

Photo by JFL on Unsplash

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!

Activity 1

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.

Activity 1b

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. 

Activity 2

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.

Activity 3

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. 

Activity 4

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. 

Activity 5

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.

Activity 6

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!


Path for bass flute appearing on the C.D. One Minute by Iwona Glinka (fl, pic), C.D. review by Ronald E. Grames Piano – saxophone, fusion on a Cypriot folk tune Αγάπησα την που καρκιάς Piano Improvisation Moon River arrangement for saxophone Chestnuts are roasting on the fire…   


Music and other Art Forms

A little long something I wrote years ago. The people I am referring to there have now changed their approach, and maybe I have as well… Anyway, based on true stories

Should a Musician explore and practice other art forms or must he/she only use music knowledge to interpret the notes on paper into music… or art?

Continue reading

Finding the way with Chopin

Even though I haven’t studied music therapy in depth, I have spent time in lectures, reading, researching and discussing about it. It’s undeniable that music therapy can heal a person. But how exactly does it do that? What does the therapist want to achieve by the end of a course of sessions? ”If the point is to make the patient express his inner thoughts (never said the word feelings), how can they talk through art? Unless they are writting down or saying actual words, noone knows what they are thinking so why go through that process?” someone asked me once and they were determined music therapy is just another trend. Well, what are your limits and how can you handle yourself?

When we get angry we don’t explode or errupt like a volcano. We are more like the cassaroles that grandmothers have (mine does) that you turn a nob and it lets steam out slowly, no destruction and you can eat lovely food later. I come to agree with this idea. (In simplistic terms) holding emotions in and then letting our selves explode in merely another bad habit. It doesn’t show power and that you are the voice of reason, like they do in the movies, on the contrary, it shows lack of characters  for not speaking up earlier and not to mention the destruction you might cause on the way to proving a point. I’m not arguing about the act of getting angry but the act of resorting to “volcanoing” as a safe place. So initial steps, detect the situation and trust yourself that you can be a better version of yourself.

Now what I had to do was opening up to the world and explaing my thoughts, anxieties and conserns. This had to be done soon before emotions pile up again.

I had gone through a phase where I loved Chopin and then I was bored of listening to his piano pieces, they would sound a little bit pretencious (this also came from my social surrounding at the time). I opened my book today and found one of his Valses. The brilliance of his writing was just laying there. A melodic phrase, repeated enough times to built a smooth lift off. The pianist announces the idea without having to move his hand, just relaxes the wrist on top of a key position and lets the fingers dance on the keys. The left hand does the dumb-pa-pa-dumb-pa-pa. Sink the fingers in the piano, don’t sit on each note, play the note and it’s gone, you will lock the harmony with the pedal. “Move on, don’t drag the piece, use rubato sensibly, don’t hold back the rhythm.” Right foot and left hand have to coordinate to trap the correct harmony so the right hand can ring out the melody. The music moves forward to come back to the same idea, the comfort zone. The dumb-pa-pa, is one bar and it’s in constant move. It’s there to project anything and everything the right hand says. Even that fleeting little passage you spent hours perfecting and unless you aim after the end of the passage you will never get it right. It is a fleeting melody and giving it more attention than what it needs then you loose momentum from the whole piece. Find the sense of “home” of the piece, that’s where all the melodies lead to. And, oh yes! when you find that feeling of “home” in the piece you know it’s half way there.

Well maybe it’s not all black and white. Take a step back and review the whole piece. You can see what melodies are repeated and how they bloom and blossom only to get repeated again (thankfull for the student player that will find it as an excuse to practice less). Maybe it’s a good time now to talk.

Second time playing the same piece. Ah, yes. I’ve played this before. Why does he use so many black keys? Well, it didn’t make it more difficult to read, did it? Let’s try it in an easier key signature. It’s horrible, it looses it’s character, and my fingers get tangled, they don’t slide so smoothly. Yes, maybe there is another way to look at a problem and the first step is to realise it as a situation and not as a problem. Talk about it again change your angle, there’s always more than meets the eye.

Third time. Playing the same piece. This melody is flying off my fingers. Okay, the left hand still sits on the notes, maybe I should read the harmony. I now can prepare the right hand to play G natural and the left to play Gb. Why didn’t I see it before? The G was running away from home. Gb is where it sould be. Someone is grounding you down. They don’t deserve to be in the dark so to fulfill the old habit of exploding to make a dramatic effect on others that don’t matter and be expected to pick up the remains. Have another talk. It’s alright. You are home, Frederic.

On traditional music

Pick a language you know completely nothing about. Imagine you are learning how to say a ‘bad word’ or a phrase like ‘I love you’ in that other language. You can also make it up.

We arrange letters in logical positions to form words. The letters are the body of the word. Every person, no matter what language they can speak, will see the same characters and will (generally) be able to reproduce them by copying the characters of the word and writing them down. Some might go as far as enunciating the letters to form the word and until then it is a reproduction of the sound of the word.

Later, we will find out about the meaning of the word. That’s the brain. If it’s a ‘bad word’ we might giggle knowing it’s a bad word in another language and in our language it doesn’t mean anything. This information will be stored in our brain, like any other piece of information and if we use it often we will remember it if not, it will be jumbled up in there.

Taking for instance a phrase like ‘I love you’. How do we feel if someone said it to us in our own language and how in the foreign, unknown language. The meaning is the same in both languages. But there’s a deeper connection to the phrase when it is said in the language we have be speaking throughout our lives. That connection to the meaning of the word or phrase I call: the mind. The higher understanding of the word that only repetition, practice and daily interaction with the language in various forms will eventually make us able to feel the words on that level. To realise when a word is being used correctly without having to go through grammar and syntax rules. It just “sounds” right. These rules are abstract and change according to the language and sometimes the region. Some languages may have the subject before the verb and some the other way round, some languages might not need to use a specific word to determine the person in a sentence (I, you, he, she…) and some languages do. Translating directly from one language to the other without thinking about these rules will sound like nonsense.

And now connecting it to Music. The letters are the individual notes or sounds, that we arrange in time and space to make a fragment. To form a musical phrase, we arrange these fragments into patterns, or motifs, and so on. Just like grammar and syntax rules, there is music theory that will help to better understand the needs of creating a musical passage, how to give the feeling that the phrase has finished but not the whole piece, manipulate rhythm and melody within one phrase. These rules, for me, are as important as the rules we use in our language. Just like language, these rules might have some alterations depending on the type of music; folk, eastern European, middle eastern, classical and the region of course. The special thing though is that music is universal. And no matter where or what kind kind of training someone has had, they will make sense of any kind of music much easier than someone that had no training. Wherever you are in the world, if you hear the music you are used to listening to (not necessarily the one you like) it will touch your emotions so deeply as if someone curses or says that they love you in your mother tongue.

In conclusion, learn your traditional music, practice, learn, enjoy learning and practising and prefer to defy the rules, rather than reinventing the (cart) wheel. It’s okay. Of course, some practises are straight forward and just a few interactions with the means will help you come to the same conclusions other people pay money to learn but it is a shame to see someone with such potential voluntarily stop their mind from progressing.

underground time Music and Mathematics

Imagine – Think – Reason

I was taking a course on how to teach music to adults (why?!) and when we would talk about lesson plans, the teacher emphasised that we had to incorporate language, maths and ICT concepts and activities in the lessons. We discussed about the connection on music and maths and everyone else agreed that it revolves around the topic of counting rhythms and dividing note values into bars. That’s not it! This is only one tiny granule of the whole concept of music and maths, it merely touches only the surface of it.

Music and Mathematics may also be the study of how sound is created and organised. The fundamentals of instrument tuning and creating a sound electronically involve mathematical equations, logarithms, frequencies, adding up sound waves, organising rations of the frequencies, and so on. And finding or coming up with the pattern of the sound wave, arranging the sound into patterns, adding or dividing, multiplying and subtracting from the basic formula of the sound wave and then arranging the new sounds into patterns, so eventually we could create the music (put in simplistic terms). I’ll call this the “physical study of music and maths” as one can almost touch the sound during the process. You can see the wave form, the equations, you can listen to the differences and how it finally becomes what you desire. Perhaps this talk, by Scott Rickard may give a small insight to this topic (Scott Rickard: The beautiful math behind the world’s ugliest music, filmed September 2011 at TEDxMIA)

How the philosophy of Music and Maths speaks to me is a little bit more abstract or intangible and Roger Antonsen‘s, (TEDtalk Roger Antonsen: Math is the hidden secret to understanding the world, filmed January 2015 at TedxOslo) talk explains it very well. It’s about understanding the world around us. The connection between maths and the world for me is music. The reason is because I can apply my knowledge of music in every day problems, tasks, philosophies, social interactions, learning, teaching and so on… As the video suggests, mathematics is a process of finding and creating patterns, music translates patterns into sound giving them another dimension.

Mathematics and Music (kindly) force people to always be thinking to find solutions or ways to avoid errors or undesired conclusions, study from the past and create something new. And that is my fundamental point. It’s easy to be given a formula and apply it on a specific task to come up with an answer, but how easy is it to come up with that formula relying on knowledge of the subject? Through both subjects the brain is trained to be consciously seeking information through past knowledge and apply it on new grounds. With music one can immediately listen to ‘it’ as well. When teaching music my primary goal is to assist the brain to create more connections as the brain usually keeps the connections it needs and “forgets” about others made in the past. There is extended research on this subject.

Mathematics is explained as an abstract science and I find Music to be an abstract science. The subjects are so abstract that give meaning to anything they are applied to. They are an idea, a concept. What breaks the walls and the boundaries of the brain. Something that can not be physically felt but exists because it is emotionally felt. Meant to elevate the soul and ground our existence. By knowing this, you can apply your knowledge to understanding the rest of your world. Not everyone will become mathematicians and not everyone will become musicians. What everyone should aim to become is rounded thinking adults capable of living in harmony, finding solutions, being adaptable and progressing as beings.

discipline IV

The habit of feeling comfortable

During physical exercise, there comes a point where we just want to stop because we decide that we had enough and we are tired. Then we look at the time and we see that we have been exercising for half the time we know we can. At some point we started a habit of stopping our exercise and now we are desperately seeking for that comfortable state of stopping. After that we decide that the only way to get back on track is by accepting that we need a bit of motivation and that will come through a training buddy. And it is true. Having someone motivating you is far more exiting than trying to motivate ourselves and also trying on our own might not work so there is no reason in trying.

When I was studying  at the university, my teacher spotted a habit I didn’t know I had. That was stopping half way though the piece I would be performing to “catch my breath” and continuing. I would play both halves of the piece perfectly and I would play the ending of the first part and the beginning of the next very well but for some reason I would stop at some point and then continue, and I would do that for every piece not matter its length. My teacher called that “a habit”, the brain, body and mind muscles needed training.

To get rid of the habit, I started by (probably) the obvious thing and practice playing just a little bit past my stopping point. and adding up and using different other practicing techniques that I shall talk more on later. What I had realised was that in my head the piece was divided into these two large chunks so whenever I would have the chance I would start singing it, in my head. Practice never stops.

What took a while for me to train was my mind accepting that it was ready to play the whole piece non stop and getting out of that comfort zone of stopping. I noticed that when we would play a duet with my teacher I needed more stopping points. It wasn’t lack of not knowing the piece, I just didn’t have a strong enough character to complete the piece. Playing the duets was actually a positive thing as it acted as a pressuring mechanism to carry on. Using that idea during my practice time was what made me get rid of the habit of stopping. It took a lot of personal strength, engaging my body, brain and mind fully while practicing and knowing when it is time to stop and when I should try a little bit more.

It’s a habit. It’s the muscles that for some reason they have learnt to do it, in this case, stop. When we play we don’t use only our body or only our brain or only our mind. It’s the combination of all three that makes us create and play music. All three of these factors are trained to work together, in combination and to work apart. Just sometimes, they need to work together a bit more, so we need to do some exercise in different levels.

The muscles of the brain need to be disciplined to accept the full length of a piece and its uniqueness, brain strength. The muscles of the body (not just the fingers but also the back and the core, the head, the neck, the lunges, diaphragm, legs…) need to be disciplined to learn a whole piece through any possible way, body strength. The mind needs to accept that we know the piece and sometimes that’s more difficult. Nevertheless, it is a sign of inner strength and it can be exercised.

Getting rid of a habit will happen best with a buddy, your friend, your teacher, your ensemble, your metronome. But the best person to help us get rid of our habit and take us out of that comfort zone is of course each one of us (and maybe the metronome used sensibly). So our musician friend, teacher, ensemble will play with us and just enjoy the act. It’s not just practicing the notes for this one, it’s practicing in ourselves, believing, visualising the piece, listening to the ending and reaching it. It’s a physical, mental, and emotional thing. It’s music!




discipline III

Fear – respect – being polite.

Fear of the authority is a physical and mental state no parent wishes his / her children every experience yet it is astonishing how this tool is being used. What is more horrific is how well people respond to intimidation even when it is used as the final resort. Did that happen because of lack of respect, poor demonstrations of strength and power, it was a habit? Teaching discipline and respect through fear and expecting it back through fear is a typical way to keep a herd of sheep. Not to inspire and raise children, not to have a band and not to be a person. But is that too idealistic???

One of the lessons I got from music from my early years was to be respectful. Be respectful of the score and the composer. Be respectful of the era and the historical facts. Be respectful of Tradition and Customs and those who came and played before you and those who are older and have progressed and your teachers of course. And most of the times or until you are older, no one truly explains why and what is this respect that we ought to show. My memory of how my peers and I showed this respect was by sitting quietly, not asking too many questions, being a bit passive with a positiv-ish more neutral attitude. But that kept us out of trouble (not an excuse).

This more passive way of receiving the gift of music later evoked another issue. Asking, researching and creating with confidence are skills that become harder with age. The fear of knowing something wrong is sometimes worse than not knowing that at all. Which might make sense as it’s easier to learn something than to unlearn and learn something different. Intimidation will make the student study, sometimes it might lit a spark but scaring people to get them inspired is a bit of a paradox. Fear keeps people in the dark. Love and passion move people forward.

I think it’s less likely to ignore the feeling of fear than the feeling of love. Essentially, an artist wants to evoke a feeling in the audience. Whether that audience is sitting in the hall, in front of a TV or a viedo-game console, or in a classroom, the performance should be excellent. And to keep the audience intrigued and concentrated offering fear a safe solution. I think it would be better though if at least in the classroom, during a lesson the feeling we want to evoke is love, passion and determination first of all on a personal level and people that are around us and then to music. Respect should come out naturally and discipline will be the internal power that makes us move forward. And know and teach why!


discipline II

To value and devote time to recap. Go through what you have learnt so far and practice them on a beginners level. Practice slow. Playing or reading about what you already know as long as the intention is to move forward. You might realise something new, build muscle memory and brain memory, and my favourite, to make new brain connections to understand something else entirely different to music (if there is such a thing!).

Recapping, revisiting something already known shows a disciplined character. Do it with full purpose and intention, be humble to your knowledge and expertise and allow to your body, brain and mind time for digestion time for digestion.

When I was at university I studied saxophone. My teacher would start my lesson with tenuti, so I had to practice them. I felt embarrassed at first, it didn’t sound interesting. I was doing this when I first started saxophone and my family would leave the house for the time I was practicing. Then this exercise progressed to “dropping the harmonics” as he called it. Something I wouldn’t be able to do as a beginner. I continued studying as my teacher guided: “slowly, take your time, challenge yourself for longer, listen, go again, be mindful”. My sound was comparable to the teacher’s in just 6 months.

Patience. Be patient with yourself. Be firm. Listen. Think. Organise. Take time and give time.

discipline I

Wondering if it can be taught. I guess it’s one of those things where the subject needs to want it, or it will be forced and then… What is discipline if it is forced? Some reinforcement should be fine but I don’t want someone to respect me because of fear and neither should anyone do or want that. This isn’t about age. Children as well as adults, lack discipline or have selective discipline.

Music teaches discipline, as long as the students wants it. The teacher can find little pathways in the student’s idiosyncrasy and invite the person to be discipline.

The arts and sports teach you discipline.

To be discipline is to feel your whole body and mind are present in the moment when you are doing music, sports, arts. It’s when you want to learn more, do more and be the better you that there is.