Composing In Class

Why does it matter?

What’s the difference between a sophomore English student reading an Ernest Hemingway novel and a sophomore Music student learning a piece by Duke Ellington?

Both Hemingway and Ellington were American artists born only a few months apart in 1899, and both of their careers were deeply affected by the culture of the World Wars and the Depression. Does knowing this biographical information affect the way the piece is read or understood?

In English class, it should.  Students can appreciate that Hemingway’s experience as a journalist contributes to his sentence structure and tone, and can understand how his military service affected his life. Having these things in mind might provide context and meaning to colloquialisms or expressions used for effect and help students decode some otherwise confusing vocabulary.

In Music class, it should. The fact that Duke Ellington was an experienced classical pianist and the fact that he led one of the most successful dance bands of the 1920’s and 30’s both have significant influence on the style in which his music should be performed. Even knowing the context and era from which the Ellington piece was chosen from could affect the length or style of articulations or kinds of musical gestures that are used for effect.

One major difference is that students in English class have to write about the story they are reading. They have to answer questions and have conversations in language they are learning. They study grammar, style, and form while they study an author who was a master of all three. Students typically learn the music without engaging in that same process. We can get away with teaching notes and rhythms without really studying and analyzing the style of the music or providing context for musical gestures to be decoded by students.  If they don’t engage in the same kinds compositional exercises in the “language” they are studying, it’s more difficult for them to have an experiential connection to the style and culture of the music.

Students don’t need to compose to be composers, just as students don’t need to engage in writing exercises to become authors. Students need to compose to develop music literacy and for creating a basis of understanding for form, harmony, melody, texture, musical gestures, key signatures, and instrument range.

Beyond that, composing and performing original compositions can create a sense of ownership in music skills and provide students with the ability to create their own music beyond their terminal performance experience.

So what does an effective composition exercise look like?

The best-fit exercise for a class depends very much on the level of the class, but should contextualize skills that students need either to be successful in preparing music at a high level or or to develop a comprehensive understanding of a musical gesture. Ideally, the exercise would also include the least amount of extra music theory information so it doesn’t become too complex or for the intended learning outcome to be too unclear.

Let’s say that students are having trouble understanding phrasing in music.

One very important component in understanding a phrase resolution is having an understanding of how the notes of the melody are related to the harmony. When a note is a non-chord tone, it’s probably evoking some kind of tension or anticipation, and when it resolves to a chord tone, there is likely a feeling of resolution.

As teachers, we all recognize these sounds and can identify them on the score, but most students lack the experiential learning to independently label a “tension and release” moment that are so essential to an expressive performance.

Do we need to have the students learn 14 chapters of “Tonal Harmony” to go through voice leading and diatonic harmonies? Probably not. Actually, that would probably have quite the opposite effect and only appeal to a very small group of students in the class.

Instead, ask students to compose an 8 bar melody made up of at least two clear phrases. Have the students perform the phrases while a partner drones “Do”. Then, introduce a tonic triad in the key signature of the piece. In the second composition, ask that the piece starts on “Do”, the composition moves mostly in stepwise motion, the first phrase ends on either “Mi” or “Sol”, and the second phrase ends on “Do”. Then, repeat the performance where a second student drones “Do” and the composer performs it.

Inevitably, the second composition will have a more clear phrase structure and at least one moment where the tension and release relationship is clear. Also, this exercise will likely encourage students to listen more to the relationship of their note to the tonic (which could positively influence their ability to play in tune in a chord) and their awareness of micro and macro phrases in music (the initial intent of the exercise).

Rather than a conductor always making decisions about phrasing for the student, the student now has experiential knowledge and a very basic understanding of harmony and melody. Also, the exercise really only required 8 measures worth of composing, which doesn’t have to take up an entire class period.


Sometimes, I think we need to demystify music composition so it’s not so intimidating for students to try. Understanding tonic triads and scale chord relationships are easy enough for first grade piano students to understand, but we either don’t ask our students to engage in these concepts during band or we take them to these very simple conclusions through a path of excessive theory and music information.

Writing an eight measure phrase under specific guidelines can teach you a lot about music. It doesn’t make you the next Duke Ellington, but it also doesn’t require you to be the next Duke Ellington to be successful.

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