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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

DIY Composition Manipulatives

Composition can be a daunting task for elementary students, but manipulatives can make the task a lot less intimidating and also help students better comprehend what they're doing visually, kinesthetically, and spatially. Today I wanted to share a relatively simple composition manipulative that I use primarily with my upper elementary students that I've found very successful.

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I've talked extensively about the power of manipulatives in a previous post- you can click here to read more about that topic and get more ideas for different things you can use as manipulatives- but the 2 biggest advantages in my mind are that you can 1) visually represent musical concepts more clearly, and 2) you are taking out the writing process altogether, allowing students to focus on the process of creating music itself. Many young students struggle to write down a rhythm or melody on a piece of paper because their brain has to focus on the actual writing itself, hindering their thinking about creating, or because the plain black and white lines and dots all start to become a blur and they get lost and confused. Manipulatives ease both of those common struggles.

I'm a huge fan of manipulatives in general, but this has got to be one of the simplest: I happened to find these foam sheets at Walmart a little over a year ago and thought, "For that price on that amount of sturdy material in that many colors, surely I can do something useful with it!" and into my cart it went. I paid under $5 for this set of 50 sheets (here is the same thing on Amazon, but not nearly as cheap):

Eventually I decided I could use them for rhythm composition. First I cut each sheet in half long-ways to make two longer rectangles. I assigned one color to be whole notes and made those full rectangles each 1 whole note, writing the note on each card with a permanent marker. From there, I cut the rectangles into different sizes to correspond with the number of beats- for quarter notes I cut each one into 4, for half notes I cut them in half etc- with each different note being a different color. I also made cards for the rests in the appropriate lengths, but kept them all the same color:

It may seem like a simple idea but the results have been pretty powerful: I use these for a wide range of games and composition tasks with lots of ages, because they're easy to pull out whenever I need them, but I particularly spent focused time using these with my 4th graders last year, who I found were really struggling with understanding how to properly fill a measure with the correct number of beats. This year as 5th graders, I was shocked at how easily they were able to write out a rhythm, including all different lengths of notes, even in September. I really think these cards made a difference! 

Of course with my older students especially, I will have them transfer their compositions to a piece of paper after working with the manipulatives. That allows them to focus on one thing at a time- first creating, then writing- and makes the whole thing much smoother. When we're working with multiple measures, I hand out popsicle sticks to use as bar lines. Easy!

The great thing about these, compared to printed cards, is that they are colorful, they are durable, and they are fun for the kids to touch (they're a little bit squishy!). I used these heavily last year and they still look almost brand new. And I have plenty more foam sheets I can quickly cut up if I ever need to replace some or add to my collection ;)

Do you use manipulatives like these for composition in your classroom? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below! And if you want to stay in the loop with timely and helpful ideas and resources from me, be sure to sign up for the newsletter. Click here to sign up!


  1. Great! Will make a set for my class in Hungary.

    1. I think you'll find them helpful- I still use them all the time with a wide range of grades and it really helps!

    2. When we got a new math curriculum, for some reason, my school was throwing out the manipulatives. I snagged them and used the fraction bars for composition bars! Bonus!

    3. I have finally made these manipulatives rhythm foam sheets. I have been wanting to make them since before covid -19 hit!
      I'm planning on using with my 4th graders. I have 35 students in each class! Can you help me get started? I thought I could have the students work in pairs putting them in order first to see the break down. But then what? I need to know how many cards to you give each pair? do you arrange yours in sets and put in baggies for each team or do you just place a bunch in a box? Looking for ideas from anyone that has worked to save me time explaining, and time for class. We only have 30 minutes. Sometimes I feel like it takes that much time just to get the kids in my room and settled! lol! Thanks for any help you can give!

    4. Yay! I know how it goes when you have a project in mind for so long but you just can't seem to get around to it! :)

      For most activities with these, I give a set to each of my 6 color teams (3-4 students per group). For storage, I have little plastic drawers that I keep them in, with the different notes separated in different drawers. Depending on which notes they need, I pull out enough of each kind for the specific activity and put them in those plastic photo boxes for each group. Then I can just hand each group a box. It takes a little prep work on my end ahead of time but it definitely makes things move more smoothly in class!

  2. I have been struggling to think of activities for my 4th graders. We usually do recorder so since that's out for now this might be an engaging way to get them excited about composing. Plus I just had a GREAT idea.

    1. Yes! If you can make enough for each student to have their own set (to avoid sharing) this would be great- my students have loved using these and they hold up really well.

  3. Replies
    1. Great to hear! I'm glad you can use them, my students love these.