Over the course of my teaching career, I have had my students do a variety of things under the guise of creating or composing music. Too often, I have expected them to go further with composing than than I had prepared them to go. Part of the the problem for me was that I confused exploration, improvisation, and composing. While all three are ways of creating music, they are by no means all ways of composing music. So what exactly does it mean to compose music, and what skills are needed in order to compose music?
My working definition of composing is to create music with a conscious intent to convey something to an audience, and to generate, select, and give form and structure to patterns of sounds that have specified duration and sometimes also specified pitch, and which can be made more expressive through the use of other musical elements such as articulation, tempo, meter, dynamics, phrasing, and timbre. Although it is not always apparent to every listener, composed music has a logic and structure to it that could only be the product of human invention, and it is the development and fostering of that human invention that is the goal of teaching music composition.
Now let’s take some examples and see if they are of composing music. A child walks over to a toy piano or xylophone and begins banging on it. There is intentionality in what he or she is doing, and there are pauses that suggest the child is considering the sounds he or she just made, and perhaps also a conscious decision of what do to next. This activity is what Orff teachers would consider exploration. It is a valuable activity for very young children, and is certainly an example of creating music. It is not, however, an example of composing music, because it lacks an expressive intent. The child is just realizing they are able to produce these sounds by their own actions, and are experiencing them and manipulating them for the first time. They may like something they do and repeat it over and over again, but beyond liking it, it has not yet occurred to them to express something to others through the making of those sounds in the way they express unhappiness or hunger by crying. They are truly exploring.
Once our child has explored for a period of time, he or she has learned to produce certain sounds that they like enough to want to produce again and again. This might be evident by the child frequently using one toy instrument while ignoring others, or it may be evident by the child repeatedly doing the same thing, like playing the higher notes but not the lower notes, or by playing one note at a time or a whole fist full of them. The child is now accumulating musical ideas that can be used to improvise. When the child selects some sounds above others, he or she is beginning to have an expressive intent, though for now it is for an audience of him or herself. Every time a sound is remembered and used again, the child is selecting a musical idea from their memory, and placing into an improvisation. There is not any conscious form or structure yet, but the foundations of music composing are being laid.
Before a child can truly compose music, he or she must have a working vocabulary of musical patterns to draw on. Think of musical ideas operating the same way words do. First we hear words spoken by others, then we imitate what we hear and speak those words before we understand what they mean, and then, once we can speak, we begin to associate words with the people, objects, feelings or ideas that they represent. Communicating through language requires a level of aural literacy and eventually written and read literacy as well. Now let’s go back to music. Instead of words, we have patterns of sound. These patterns can be two or three tones such as mi sol, or fa la do. Or, they can be rhythm patterns such as four quarter notes, or quarter , two eighths, two eighths, quarter. A child learns these patterns from rote, chanted to them on a neutral syllable, and then repeated back. When these patterns have become familiar, they are learned by rote all over again, but this time with rhythm syllables. This allows the child to associate the sounds with a label by which to remember, identify, and for now perform specific patterns. After that, patterns are chanted to the students on a neutral syllable, but repeated back by the student with rhythm syllables, or solfege if it is a tonal pattern. This is first done with familiar patterns, then with unfamiliar patterns. Feierabend calls this “decoding.” The teacher might also play the rhythm on an instrument and have the child sing it back with syllables.
After all of this, the child is still not ready to truly compose, because they are not yet musically literate in being able to read and write music. The rote process must be started again, but this time for reading. First, students copy music and receive instruction on correct music notational techniques. Even with all the music notation software possibilities, it is most effective for students to write notes themselves on music paper, because it connects the form and placement of the note with the motor and cognitive activity of writing it down, all of which is missing from entering it on a computer or tablet. Once students can copy music, the process of teaching patterns resumes. This time, the patterns are notated on the board or screen, the teacher sings the patterns for the class and the class repeats them back as before, but this time while looking at each note. This is first done with familiar patterns, and then with unfamiliar patterns. The students are now becoming music readers. To become music writers, they can write down from dictation first familiar and then unfamiliar patterns the teacher performs for them.
At last, the student will have acquired the literacy to compose music. They also, of course must learn how to use musical elements to convey an expressive intent, and how to convey an expressive intent by generating and selecting musical ideas that are best suited for that purpose. By now, it is clear that composing music is much more sophisticated that randomly playing notes from a pentatonic scale to produce a dissonant-free composition. True musical composition involves the exercising of an array of literacy skills that must be taught and developed before composing can take place. This is not to say that creating music must wait for literacy training to be completed. Exploring and improvisation can and should take place any time, but both should be viewed as not only fun, enriching and creative activities, but also the earliest stepping stones music literacy and to becoming able to compose music.