A Composition Sequence for the Elementary Music Classroom

There is no better way to find out how your students have truly processed information than by asking them to create something with it. By asking students to create with rhythmic and melodic concepts, you can take a teeny tiny peek inside their brains, and make a call on whether or not they own the process or need to take another lap. One of the most effective ways to assess is to provide opportunities for melodic composition. But what does that look like in the elementary music classroom?

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Improvisation & Composition.

Two big, long, scary words.  Admit it, do these two little words wrapt their arms around you like a great big hug, or sneak attack like a ninja? If you’re anything like I am, it’s the second. Or at least I used to feel that way. But guess what, y’all. I’ve figured out a super simple way to get your kids to leave the station and get to their destination on time when it comes to the creativity train. Success with these two tricksters has everything to do with sequencing.

I’m sure you’re shocked to hear the “s” word from me. But all joking and sarcasm aside, isn’t sequencing and appropriate scaffolds the key to #allthethings?

Improvisation and composition are no different. As a matter of fact, in my music classroom, improvisation is a scaffold to composition; they exist on a continuum. Improvisation really functions as brainstorming or playing with information to see what feels and sounds good. Improvisation is spontaneously inspired. Composition is where we formalize the play and make decisions about what felt and sounded the best. You could say that composition comes from being inspired to do the same thing more than once, and then writing it down and sharing it.

Curious to know more? Here are the steps I use in my music classroom to facilitate melodic composition, through exploration and improvisation.

Step 1: Start With a Familiar Folk Song

Just like any other concept you would practice in the music room, start with a song & game! Choose one of your favs that has an extractable pattern for whatever concept you’re about to practice, that your kiddos can notate.

For example, the song “Apple Tree” is perfect for manipulating quarter note and two eighth notes. There are about a million others, but for this post, I’m going to go ahead and stick with one of my favs. The only rhythms in the entire song are quarter notes and two eighth notes. Also, the opening line uses the text “Apple Tree,” which is the perfect extractable pattern for the next step!

Click here to get these manipulatives!

Step 2: Improvise Speech Patterns

A simple way to get kids moving and grooving with improvisation is through speech. It’s a much more accessible entry point compared with formal notation or rhythm syllables, and jumping right into improvising rhythms with melody right off the bat is like skipping from the first floor to the thirteenth—bad news bears.

“Apple Tree” has the perfect two words built right into the song for quarter notes and eighth notes. But say you wanted to add another rhythm that students could improvise with. What other words go with “apple” and “pie”? How about cinnamon? Just remember, if you are planning on taking this sequence all the way to the composition phase, make sure students will be able to derive whatever text you choose to make word chains with. For example, my second graders probably wouldn’t use “cinnamon” because I don’t teach eighth and sixteenth note combinations until later on in third grade.

Step 3: Set Rhythmic Content 

Rhythms provide framework for melodic content. Unless you are embarking on the wonderful world of melodic composition in free time (which I don’t recommend with elementary students), it’s essential to create rhythmic (or speech) parameters before turning to melodic improvisation. Have students use manipulatives or pencil and paper to establish which speech pattern they liked well enough to do twice and then write down. To move even further along the composition continuum, have students write down their most favorite rhythm patterns in formal notation. Once they have made these rhythmic decisions, it’s time to move on to the melody!

(*NOTE: This doesn’t necessarily mean the rhythms are completely set and unchangeable, but the following steps are more accessible for students if they have a rhythm or speech pattern with which to manipulate melodically.)

Click here to get these dictation staffs!!

Step 4: Improvise within Tonal Parameters

Creating melodies is a much different process than improvising rhythmic patterns. With my younger students, we spend lots of time moving manipulatives up and down on staff lines and singing what they would sound like to make melodic decisions.

With older students, who likely know the complete pentatone (do re mi so la), I like to give them the opportunity to play on barred instruments. If they have their speech patterns, and the instruments are set up in a pentatonic scale, they are usually good to go. I often tell students they can find the notes they like that go along with their speech pattern, as long as the final note is the home note “do.”

I usually provide them some visual aids to make sure this happens, which lucky for you are in the resource library! Click here to get them!!

Step 5: Compose the Melody

After students have found the melodic combinations they like best (and after I’ve reiterated that repeated patterns and elemental forms, i.e. ABAB are their friends), I ask them to commit to their favorite patterns. This means that they like it and can remember it well enough to play several times in a row. If they take away the speech patterns used to create the melody, and decide they want to change the rhythm, that’s a-ok—just as long as they can still notate it.

Step 6: Write It Down and Share It!

Once students have finished their compositions, give them the opportunity to both perform for their peers, but also have students perform each other’s compositions. This is such an invaluable process for all of the students. Yes, a musical composition is much like a journal—it is very personal and students should feel ownership over what they have created. However, it is also important to remind our kids that music is really truly meant to be shared!


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