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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Distance Music Lesson Ideas: Composition

Composition is one of those areas that actually lends itself to distance learning in many ways. Students can explore individually and take as much time as they want to work on their compositions, they can express themselves more freely if they're hesitant to share with classmates, and if they have technology access, they have so many more tools at their fingertips than they would have in most general music classrooms. Whether you're sending home packets, putting lessons online, or teaching live virtual classes, here are some of my favorite lesson ideas for teaching music composition.

1. Online Teaching

With online teaching there are so many options for composition! If you're able, I recommend creating a video demonstrating how to use whatever online tool you're asking students to use by showing your screen (with something like zoom or screencastify). Give students a clear but simple direction for their composition and set them loose!

My top recommendation by far is chrome music lab song maker. It is so easy to use even for the youngest students, the notes are color-coded to match boomwhacker colors, and students can save and send their compositions to their teacher very easily! There are a million ways to use this tool for assignments, but my favorite use is to give students a specific set of solfege notes to use to create a melody (which varies depending on the grade). I show them which colors they can and cannot use in their melody and then send them on their way. It's the perfect way to experiment with composing using the specific solfege notes that they've been working on this year!

My other favorite online composition tool is mario paint music composer. I love that it has lots of different timbres to choose from represented by different icons, and it has you put the notes on the actual staff (including treble and bass clef)! This one is perfect for upper elementary and middle school to practice using specific letter names in both clefs, compose in specific time signatures (there are several choices in the program), or write music for a video game (more on that below). It's also easy to save songs with this program, and there are several choices including saving to a url or as a file download.

One of my favorite units for upper elementary / middle school is actually perfect for distance learning: music of the movies! Students can watch YouTube videos to learn about movie music composers, explore how music affects a film, and learn about Foley artists (who create live sound effects), then they can choose music to go with a specific scene of a silent film, or create music to go with the scene themselves (using one of the online tools above) and practice adding their own sound effects using objects around their house. I have all the materials and plans for this unit here.

Another of my favorites from brick and mortar teaching that translates well to distance learning: video game music composition. Students create the concept for a video game and then add music to go with each scene. In the lessons I do (resources linked above) I also have them explore video game composing and learn about some famous composers for video games. It's a great way to get students thinking about communicating a clear image through their music, and it definitely sparks their imaginations.

2. Packets / No Tech

If you're sending home packets or hard copy assignments that don't require any technology, composition is still a great way to go. Send home one or two very simple composition worksheets (you can see some examples of what I use here) that include clear directions and a rhythm/ pitch bank so they can practice notating independently. You can also encourage creativity with a choice board like this one (feel free to copy the image below for your own use!):

3. Virtual Teaching

If you're teaching live classes virtually, you can of course use any of the ideas above by explaining and showing the assignment and then sending them off on their own to work on their compositions, but there are other fun things you can do as well, like having share sessions where students share the compositions they've created before your class session, or improv sessions where students take turns improvising. It's impossible to perform things simultaneously but taking turns will work even over video calls!

I hope this gives you some ideas to use, regardless of your situation, to get students composing. If you've come up with more great composition lesson ideas for distance learning, please share them in the comments below. Don't forget, I'm compiling all of my posts for school closures into one page for easy access- head to that page for more ideas:


  1. Do you have any sample videos of the video game compositions? I'm doing it with my students, and we got through one day of in person before going virtual for two weeks.

    1. Unfortunately no. But I ended up in a similar situation where we went virtual in the middle of the video game project last spring- if you have any questions please email me any time at caldwellorganizedchaos at gmail dot com!