Reflective Questions for 5th Grade Music Composition

2011Symposium_1_2Today I am going to discuss questions students can use to reflect on their creative musical work. In Connecticut, these questions are part of the Common Core Assessments for music. Each question gets at an important musical aspect or concept, and helps focus students on more than just getting notes down on paper and singing or playing what they have written. These questions move a student’s musical thinking up to a higher level, and deepen musical understanding. You will see that the questions also go beyond what can be seen on paper, into the realm of what is heard and perceived in the composer’s mind.

The first question is, “what pitch is your tonal center?” An advanced composer will know immediately what the tonal center is, because they had it in mind the whole time they were composing. Even so, this question presents the opportunity to check if the intended tonal center is fact the tonal center a listener hears when the musical work is performed. For the novice composer who has perhaps not audiated what he or she has composed, this question demands that the piece be heard, either in physically present sound or through audiation, and the tonal center determined. After listening to a melody, a tonal center may be poorly established or not present at all, in which case revisions are called for that will establish or strengthen a tonal center. This question alone can bring out substantial learning.

The next two questions are follow ups to the first: “Where is the first time the tonal center pitch occurs in your composition?” and “where is the last time the tonal center pitch occurs in your composition?” These questions require that the student composer not only know what the tonal center is, but also where it occurs. It is relatively easy to recognize a tonal center when it is the last note of a melody; the closure that the tonic pitch brings is highly noticeable. But recognizing it in the midst of a melody, especially if it does not occur at the end of a phrase, is more challenging, especially for less experienced students. These questions make the student composer aware of where and how the tonal center has been used, and how the tonal center brings relaxation to a melody, between instances of relative tension from other tones. Although not included in the Connecticut set of questions, locating all occurrences of the tonal center can also be instructive, especially if there is too much or too little tension in the overall melody.

The next two questions address matters of rhythmic structure. First, “what rhythmic values did you use?” For this question, the student is to identify note values employed. As with the tonal center, these should have been audiated during the composing process, and should be recognizable by composer and audience alike upon hearing the work performed. Unless the rhythm is audiated, students will have difficulty in determining where the beats are, which in turn is needed for audiating the meter. Equally important is that the written symbols be correctly identified as representing the audiated durations. .After identifying the rhythmic values, the student is then asked, “How many beats are there in each measure of your composition?” In all likelihood, a number was determined as part of the assignment, but this still needs to be checked by the student as part of his or her reflection. This is also where identifying rhythmic values in the context of a beat is useful. Students must not mistake two eighth notes as two beats, or a half note for one beat. As students answer this question, the teacher can check for any misunderstandings of beat due to flawed audiation or understanding of the concept of beat itself.

Upon completing these reflective questions, students will have a well-grounded and thorough understanding of the musical elements of tonality, beat, rhythm, and meter, and will in many cases have been challenged to “think in music” to a much greater extent than they would have otherwise, even while and in response to composing music. Tomorrow, I will discuss reflective questions having to do with the actual performance of the composed musical work.

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