In my previous two posts, I discussed reflective questions for student composers that dealt with the musical work, and with the performance of the musical work. Today I will discuss questions about musical form and about a composer’s opinion of his or her own work.
The most basic aspect of musical form is the balance of unity and variety. Unity produces in the listener a familiarity and comfort that comes from returning to something recognized. Variety interrupts unity, and provides interest and the excitement of something new. Too much variety creates confusion, and too much unity creates boredom. Achieving the proper balance is essential for every composer, and is the hallmark of great musical works. With this in mind, we begin with questions that probe the student composer’s awareness and knowledge of how he or she commanded unity. We simply ask, how did you create unity in your piece? What musical ideas hold your piece together?
To answer these questions, the composer explains what musical elements were used to create unity, and how those elements were utilized in the work to create unity. The response might include reference to a rhythmic ostinato, a rhythm pattern, a tonal pattern, or even a chord or sonority that recurs such as a leitmotif. The student composer uses music vocabulary to describe the devices and musical ideas that he or she employed to create unity, and cites the measure by number in which the device or musical idea occurs. Because coming up with an effective way to create unity was part of the planning process for the musical work, the student composer can compare what he or she planned to do with what he or she actually did as a kind of self assessment while answering this question. The student composer can also comment on any variance between the plan and the execution, and give reasons for why changes were deemed necessary, and how the changes improved the creation of unity in the work.
We continue with the next question, similar to the first, but related to variety: How did you create variety in your piece? What musical ideas did you change to keep your piece interesting? For the first of these two questions, the response is much the same as for unity. The composer explains what musical devices and ideas were written to create variety. The wording of the second question suggests that variations of the unity building ideas is meant, and certainly that is one way to create variety. Making subtle changes to a musical idea and exploring its transformational possibilities is a worthwhile skill for any composer to acquire and practice. But it is also possible to create variety with the composing of entirely new ideas, creating “A” and “B” sections in the overall form. Indeed, much of our music is composed in ABA form. For this reason, these two questions can be treated separately if the student had the liberty to compose two contrasting themes, or the second question can be considered a clarifying question where the student was constrained to only write variations or variants of a single theme.
The self-reflection on a composition ends with the question, what is your favorite part of this piece? What makes it work so well? The second question somewhat constrains the first, suggesting that the chosen favorite part also be the part that works the best. This makes the question a bit sophisticated, because it requires that the student know what works well and what doesn’t, and that the student has some criteria for making that judgment. This in turn implies that prior teaching and learning has prepared the student to have the criteria available, that he or she understand it, and can be ready to use it in this situation. An alternative approach could be to ask, what makes this part your favorite? Or, the class could answer the question, was this your favorite part too, and if so, why? This gets at how well the part worked, and also leaves the option of students giving other reasons for why it is their favorite part, though this method takes us out of the realm of self-reflection and into the area of peer reflection.
By the time a student composer has reflected on and responded to all of the questions I have discussed in this and the previous two posts, he or she will have a solid grasp of what he or she composed, and how he or she arrived at the musical work that was created. When student composers know they will be reflecting on their work in this way, it also reduces the likelihood that they will compose randomly, or give insufficient thought to what they put down on paper. Knowing that reflection is coming is a kind of accountability that sets students up for more thoughtful, meaningful and successful composing.