Image Map

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

simple ideas for teaching composition in lower elementary

I've been focusing lately on sharing ideas for addressing the area of the new National Core Arts Standards that seems to be producing the most hand-wringing from music teachers: the "Creating" process standards. Teaching improvisation and composition is nothing new, but it is certainly more heavily emphasized and delineated in the new standards, and I've been hearing a lot of concern and confusion from music teachers over how exactly to go about incorporating these skills into their classrooms in meaningful ways. Today I want to share some of my ideas for teaching composition in the lower elementary grades (K-3rd grade-ish). I hope these ideas help spark your own thoughts and ideas to implement in your own teaching in the upcoming school year! If you're looking for more ideas for the creating process standards, be sure to check out links to more posts on the topic at the end of this post.

The number one key to teaching composition in lower elementary is to KEEP IT SIMPLE- composition doesn't have to mean writing out a 16-measure melody in standard notation! Here are some of my tips for keeping it simple while engaging younger students and developing their composition skills in meaningful and effective ways.

1. Keep It Short

There is no reason why, in order to practice or assess a student's ability to create musical ideas using half notes, they need to compose an 8-measure melody and perform it on the xylophone. Focus on the skill you are actually targeting, give them enough context to make something musical (and not just a fragment), and see how short you can make the activity/ assignment. Most of the composition activities I do with my younger students are 4-8 beats! Think about the kinds of "essays" students are writing at this age (and they've probably been working on writing in English a lot longer than they've been working on writing in music!).

One way to make something musical out of a shorter composition is to have students compose an ostinato, or repeated accompaniment pattern. This is probably my most-used composition activity in lower elementary because it's so easy to incorporate into a lesson! After learning a song, whether through singing, playing a game, playing instruments, or listening, I have students compose a 1 or 2 measure pattern using the rhythmic, pitch, or other musical element I am aiming to develop.

2. Develop The Idea

Once they've created something, take some time to have them develop and refine their ideas. I don't do this every time but I do it often, and it takes less time than you might think (and stimulates some wonderful thinking). The example of creating an ostinato accompaniment is a good example of this as well. Obviously the meter will be whatever the meter of the song is that they are accompanying, but this is a great chance to have students "make musical choices and give reasons for their choices", as the new standards stress. I often have them choose a percussion instrument on which to perform their ostinato accompaniment and ask them to choose a timbre that will match the song, or I ask a student to think about how loudly or quietly they should perform it to "match the music".

3. Use Small Groups

I only do a handful of individual composition activities in lower elementary- most of the work is in small groups. I find I learn just as much about their ability to use a musical element in composition through watching their group work as I do through their individual products, and I don't have to tell you that the students learn a lot from being forced to cooperate and work together in a small group! Working in small groups also makes the work less intimidating and shortens the time needed to complete a task (usually!), which means I can incorporate it more often without having it take over the entire lesson.

4. Less Writing, More Making

A lot of people associate composition with writing, but there is, I think, a reason that the National Core Arts standards use the term "creating". Certainly writing in standard notation is another important skill, but just as we need to learn to talk before we write, we need to learn to create music before we write it. A big part of developing skills in composition is helping students be able to improvise as well- you can read about my tips for teaching improvisation in this post- but for now we're sticking to composition.

There are lots of ways to get students "composing" without writing in standard notation. The most effective method I've found is using manipulatives. This is a big topic all on its own- you can read my tips for getting and using manipulatives for lower elementary composition in this post:

Another way to create without writing is to have students plan out, rehearse, and perform their composition without notating it at all! This works especially well in small groups, and I use it the most when I am first introducing a new musical concept (like half notes, or the pitch la, or a new instrument). I think of it like tinkering or playing with the new concept- the students get a chance to try using it without the pressure of knowing and understanding everything about it perfectly, and it helps them become much more comfortable with the concept.

One more way to have students compose without writing is to incorporate technology. Google's Chrome Music Lab, the San Francisco Symphony's SFS Kids website (both the old and the new ones), and the iPad app Loopimal are just a few examples of the many options to get kids creating music with technology.

5. When They Write, Write BIG

This may seem like a small thing, but when you are having them actually write out a composition, make sure they have plenty of room on the page to write large music notes. Think about the space they have both vertically and horizontally, and allow about 50% more room in either direction than you think they will reasonably need. Something about running out of room on the staff or page gives a lot of students anxiety- I don't know what it is but I've seen it happen over and over again! If you want to see the worksheets and templates I use, you'll find them in this Music Composition Worksheet set.

6. Less Time, More Frequency

Have you noticed that a lot of my tips have to do with ways to cut down on the time it takes to complete a task or activity? That's because, as with most any other skill we learn in life, frequency is the key to developing mastery. A lot of people treat composition as a culminating project that you do intensely as an assessment after you've done all the other musicking stuff like singing and playing instruments. But if they only do it once every few months, and then they suddenly have a humongous task thrown at them, students will not only fail but be completely miserable doing it! The key is targeted, short, fun, and frequent opportunities to create their own music.

7. Celebrate Creations

Have you ever noticed that for most of us, the older we get, the harder it is to compose? My daughters are currently 4 years old, and they make their own music all the time (although most of it is improvised and not planned out or recorded for posterity!). Why does it get harder? I'm sure there are a lot of reasons but I think one of the main ones is because we become more and more critical of our creations. Lower elementary is the perfect time to get students composing because they still have some of that ability for uninhibited creation that toddlers and preschoolers have in such abundance, and they can now apply that to COMPOSING REAL STUFF. I make a huge deal about this with my students, and I always am positive about their creations (I'm not always positive about their process if their behavior is off- you know what I'm saying here...). The first time my first graders compose an 4-beat ostinato, notate it on a 1-line staff, and perform it for the class is a BIG DEAL. They seriously feel so cool doing it, and I remind them over and over that THEY MADE THAT!

Those of you who do some sort of "composer of the month" study: have you ever thought of making your students the composer of the month? I've done it in March as a part of our Music In Our Schools Month celebration, and I've also done it at the end of the year, but either way it is a pretty awesome way to help students to think of themselves as following in the footsteps of the great composers they have studied. I have them compose something that expresses who they are- with lower elementary I will have them make a list of their favorite things and rap it, or draw a picture of something they love and use instruments to "play the picture"- and they always are so proud of their creations.

I feel like I have still just barely scratched the surface of composition in lower elementary, but I hope you have found some helpful ideas here! I would love to hear more ideas from you as well. Please leave your favorite ideas in the comments! If you're a blogger, I'd love for you to add your blog posts to the link up below with any ideas relating to teaching the "creating" process (composing and/or improvising), for any grade level. I'll be posting again soon with ideas for upper elementary, and I've already added some of my previous posts on creating below as well. Have fun composing with your students!

Sign up for my newsletter to stay up to date on all things Organized Chaos, and get exclusive free access to an overview of my K-6 general music lesson plans each month!


  1. This post has so many great ideas to use in the classroom! Your mention of the new national standards, and the "make musical choices and give reasons for their choices" has been a topic of discussion in many groups. Most of the time the reactions to this language have been negative. You have presented a very simple and repeatable way to allow students to make musical choices. Excellent advice!

  2. So much great info here, Elizabeth! I love the advice on groups, short ostinati, and using manipulatives. Creating doesnt always mean "written" bit for our kiddos often means using iconic (images, not actual) rhythmic and melodic creation. So important to allow time for these things to happen!!