Tips for composing in the music room

27 May, 2014

Recently, I worked with fifth graders to have them compose their own piece based off a haiku they had written in class. It was such a great learning experience....for them AND for me! Here are some thoughts I had after completing the unit:

Tips for composing in the music room: Including ideas for pacing, other activities to help them be prepared for composing, and more!

  • Students need to work at their own pace. Just like anything else, some students will really get it. Some of my students--even though I hadn't told them to--added rhythm and other musical symbols to their compositions (see some examples below.) Many were totally ready to write their own haiku and create another composition. Some of my students pretty much got it, and needed a little assistance here and there. And some students struggled and needed more assistance. The great thing about this set-up is that it allowed me to work with each student where he/she was at, thus allowing me some intervention with those students who were struggling.
  • My students need more stem writing work. As I looked at their compositions, I saw how many of them still weren't comfortable with writing stems down and to the left above the third line of the staff. Ironically, I have materials to practice stem writing, but hadn't done it with those students, and it showed! When I explained to one student how the stems needed to be down and to the left, she did say, "Oh....yeah, yeah," but still, I realized I needed to have more deliberate experiences and activities before this.
  • Having students think both in solfa AND letter names helps them transfer their knowledge. Before I had them try playing their compositions on instruments, I wrote out solfa on the board, showing the steps and skips. I also had them figure out which letter names lined up with which solfa. This seemed to really help students understand the steps and skips, but also to help them check their staff work. It's like thinking in two languages at once!
  • It's good to have rules, but it's also good to let them compose without rules. I set up the composition so they had to have one of every solfa they knew in their compositions, which included the extended do pentatonic scale. I liked doing it this way, because it allowed me to see if they really understood where low la, low sol, and high do were. But my colleague Jenna mentioned that when she had her students compose, they first had to follow the rules, and then if they had extra time, they could compose with no rules! I loved this idea! Here is an example of a composition in which the student added some nice touches (I think he decided to modulate into the key of D for the second section...he just forgot to add the key signature!)

Tips for composing in the music room: Including ideas for pacing, other activities to help them be prepared for composing, and more!

And here's an example of a composition with no rules. This student wrote a second haiku with her small group and then composed another melody:
Tips for composing in the music room: Including ideas for pacing, other activities to help them be prepared for composing, and more!

  • This kind of work is good for them. I think because I haven't been to very many composition-themed workshops and was unsure how to approach composition, in the past I've almost hoped that my students have gotten compositonal skills through osmosis. Being more deliberate about composition has been good for them AND for me! The students really took ownership of their compositions and were proud...and so was I!
What are your thoughts and "a-ha" moments about composition? Please share below, and check out this blog post, also about composing!


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I've certainly learned more about teaching composition from my students than from any workshop. There are always lots of "ah-ha" moments. I have found that the less rules I put in place the more creative my students can be. I love how your students were able to connect solfege with letter pitches.

  2. That's great that you're reinforcing both solfege and letter pitches. Quick question though: do you often switch the key or do you stay in the same one for quite some time. Not sure if the kids would get confused if the solfege sounded different everytime

    1. Hi there! I use movable do, in which do could be F, could be G, etc., depending on the song. Students are able to transfer the knowledge to new keys very easily in my experience, as they often are listening for the solfege in relation to each other. :)


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