Musings on teaching composition

By dan

“I want you to compose a piece of music. It must be around 3 minutes in length and the title must be ‘Spring Morning’, Go.” These were the words of my music teacher upon giving me my first composition lesson. I remember the looks of astonishment and fear from the majority of the class, but also the look of blissful excitement from the gifted few. I remember my teacher rolling her eyes when I told her that I had no idea where to start or what to do. At this stage in my music career I had had very little musical training per se. I had done ABRSM examinations but no theory exams, so the concept of composing my own music was a terrifying one. It appeared to me that composing to my teachers was a “let them get on with it” topic. Critically however, I do not know yet whether this was necessarily the outrageous attitude that I consider it to be. Surely there are a plethora of educational and inspirational methods that a teacher can employ to ignite the embers of compositional genius that dwell in all young musicians?

“Teaching composing requires not only practice of technical devices but also building up a store of tonal and structural knowledge. Students must be taught how to problem-solve, as well as what effective solutions to composing problems might be.” (Berkley, 2001, 122)

I agree with the above statement that tonal and structural knowledge are an integral part of composing but when does this knowledge cease to be a guide to a student and instead the teachers ideas in the students composition. I feel this exact knowledge is part of the dilemma when teaching students composition. When a student hits a creative barrier, the emphasis needs to be upon the problem solving element of composition. But then this retracts away from composition being a creative task and instead one akin to a “problem solving” exercise. However, with a solid grounding in this specific musical area it becomes possible to suggest directions in which way the piece may travel. I feel that this was not the case with my own education. I remember a specific case of my teacher “filling in the blanks” in order to meet the deadline. I feel this was not an appropriate learning curve for me as a student and in effect stole a vital opportunity for problem solving.

This was also the case in a school I visited last year. I observed the teacher writing large chunks of compositions for students. I later discovered that this was common practice and that the teacher would send samples of less favourable students for moderation. While this in itself is poor at best in my humble opinion I thought the teacher was very engaging, highly respected and really got the most out of his students. This was justified by him asking a group of ‘A level’ students to treat me to an outstanding ad hoc recital of Allegri’s Miserere Mei in the staircase. It does make one wonder why an obviously good teacher feels it necessary to jeopardise his and his students’ results by plagiarism. Incidentally, the head of music that I observed also has outstanding teacher status from Ofsted. If an outstanding teacher can’t teach composition to the point at which they don’t need to interfere, then how is a good Good or Satisfactory music teacher going to cope?

“Differentiation is the art of tailoring work to suit students of different abilities, ages

and learning styles, by using different equipment, resources and teaching styles.” (Berkley, 2001, 123)

It could be said that the knowledge of a GCSE music teacher needs to be almost non exhaustive. Every student is different and every composition will be based upon different influences. A difficult issue that teachers face is that students may want to compose anything from a string quartet to a piece for a death metal group. The teacher is unlikely to have the expertise in both genres that they need in order to provide positive input into a students work when things go awry. The sheer amount of technology that a teacher must understand is also vast. Sibelius, Cubase, Logic, Garage Band to name but a few could be an unnecessary evil or the greatest inspiration to different students. This is time a teacher must invest in not only their own continuing education but also an option that they must offer to every student. This is time consuming and sometimes a pointless endeavour for certain students. I remember that when I was at school the music department had one copy of Sibelius that the teachers did not know how to use. In my own personal composition I find myself lost without Sibelius now. This just reiterates the need for a broad understanding of the various learning styles in a classroom environment.

During the long journey a student takes to become a fully-fledged music teacher, there are certain pre-requisites that I am yet to find missing from courses. A university student must be able to analyse music, read and write standard notation and be able to perform to a suitable degree on his or her instrument. After the years of studying the academic side of music including contemporary composition the trainee teacher is faced with students such as Berkley’s X:

“Observation revealed that far from struggling, X was a proficient rock guitarist with an impressive portfolio of pieces on tape, created on multi-track recorder and live performances with friends, as well as many draft pieces and improvisations[…]`You don’t have chord I on a guitar’, X remarked acerbically, `I don’t think of keys, I work in scales’.” (Berkley, 2001, 132)

After years of studying music critically at university the teacher is then thrust in a completely different direction to which they are unfamiliar. It seems to me that it would be highly beneficial for prospective music teachers to be indulged in both the standard notation and the more free form creative styles of composition during their education. The modern education system is built upon ‘Every Child Matters’ principles and accepting that all pupils will work in different ways. This should also be addressed in composition and with this in mind students like X should be praised for their creativity rather than being dismissed as struggling.

This may be the case when a prospective teacher has taken composition as part of their training. Composition, however, is not a compulsory part of all university music courses to a substantial degree. Students often take modules that interest them or what they think they will achieve the best marks in. Composition appears to be somewhat of a “marmite subject” and as education is one of the only more “concrete” career options for a music graduate, it is highly probable that many students becoming teachers have little or no training, desire or experience in composition, let alone be able to teach it effectively. Berkeley states:

“Apart from a handful of in-service training courses, the vast majority of teachers have not studied teaching composing in either undergraduate or teacher training courses and comment that they were obliged to work it out for themselves.” (Berkley, 2001, 128)

The current Edexcel syllabus states that candidates must present either a full score of the piece or a “written commentary”. At first glance this appears to be an insightful solution to the young gifted musicians who lack the appropriate notation skills although their imagination and creativity are clearly worthy of greatness.

A main problem faced by all teachers when trying to teach composition is the subjectivity and individuality that composition entails. Teaching a student to write their own feelings and emotions on a piece of manuscript is neigh impossible. Composing in general has many difficulties, relating back to the earlier requirements of both structural and tonal knowledge but specifically the ability to form an idea in your head and allow this to move unobtrusively to notation. Teaching someone how to be individual is somewhat of a paradox, instead it must become the teachers’ task to highlight certain methodologies while at the same time remaining abstract yet inspirational.

Subjectivity is a problem when teaching composition in schools. All students are individuals and therefore have their own opinions and ideas as to what sounds good or bad. The teacher is no different. When assessing a piece of coursework a teacher must be objective about something that is entirely subjective.

This is a sample from the Edexcel GCSE in Music exam board:


For a student to get 5 marks in this small segment of their composition it must make imaginative use of ideas and conventions. I believe further study needs to be done as whether this is an appropriate marking scheme for teachers to be using. I could hypothesise that 10 teachers rating the same composition would give totally different marks based upon their opinion of what “imaginative use” may or may not be. More importantly, does the tuition and preparation for this exam focus on the students’ imagination or the teachers’ concept of how a student should use their imagination? I personally find this extremely vague and unhelpful.

In Jonathon Savage and Marin Fautleys’ study “The organisation and assessment of composing at Key Stage 4 in English secondary schools” done in 2011, 24% of the 94 classroom teachers surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘What I teach, in composition, is heavily influenced by the criteria I know the students’ compositions will eventually be subject to.” Savage and Fautley also found that the current syllabus could be said to “alienate” students, with one teacher having said:

“But now, all of a sudden they’re saying, you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to do a waltz. My kids go ‘Why have I got to waltz? I don’t want to do a waltz.’ And I don’t know why they’ve got to waltz either. (Female teacher, in interview)”

It could be said that the current syllabus covers too much of a shallow spectrum of styles and forcing students to compose under restrictive criterion has a negative effect on overall creativity and learning. I believe that forcing pupils to try out different styles will have a positive affect and introduce them to new ways of composing, perhaps unlocking previously unknown pathways. It is important, however, to make sure that the pupil “sees the point” in a given task, because the moment a pupil no longer understands why they have to do a task is the moment at which they become disengaged. I feel that this methodology is far superior to the one used in my first composition lesson that I previously referred to.

I feel that school funding plays an important role in the blight of teachers when it comes to teaching composition. Heads of department, especially the music department, are in a constant battle for funding and I think that teachers are fully aware of the consequences that poor exam results will bring. This could be in the form of a slacking of the departments funding or a rebuke from senior staff. It is, therefore, important to consider that when composition is being taught, it is not necessarily in a way that best benefits the child’s creativity and compositional enthusiasm, but rather the number of marks that the child will attain for their piece come results day.

These concerns were raised in the article “Under-pressure teachers admit to faking pupils’ test results or risking ‘cuts to funding’” by Louise Boyle (2011) where she states “The teachers questioned also revealed that that they faced consequences if their pupils failed to perform, including less funding for their department and being told off by senior staff.” Although not all teachers will fall victim to the pressure of teaching towards results rather than teaching toward compositional individuality it stands to reason that this remains an issue for school music teachers.

Over the course of this essay and my preparation beforehand, I have found very little in the way of instruction for teaching composition. The syllabus highlights marking schemes and assessment briefs but gives little instruction as to how to teach the subject. There is much complaint from teachers in regards to the ambiguity surrounding teaching composition. Berkley found that: “As more than one teacher pointed out, how well students are taught `depends on the teacher, the teacher makes the course’.”.

The much praised resource website for teachers from the “TES” found at has many resources for all subjects and key stages. However, it must be said that many of the resources found for composition are also lacking in depth. The best rated resources are merely explanations of compositional forms, styles and suggest possible step by step guides to composing. The resource “GCSE MUSIC COMPOSITION BOOKLET” (2011) contains a teacher’s guide to an exam driven composition. He states “Select your time and key signatures. Remember, if you are wanting to gain top marks, being able to demonstrate a key change in your composition will allow you do gain more marks.” This statement leads one to believe that students need to change key whether it would be appropriate or not, else they will not get the extra marks available. This does, however, encourage the students to use modulation as a device, but on the other hand, takes away choice and influences their composition. It must be debated whether a step by step method to composition is really effective for all students or merely a desperate effort to approach a creative task in a methodical and structured way.

William Russo (1980) introduced what he considered to be, at the time, a new approach to composition. In this book he introduces a practical approach to composition. He states that “It [the book] is not a book about composition. It is a book that requires your participation; you will actually begin composing in the first chapter.” This approach is now implemented widely in classrooms; ensemble composition and small tasks are used to give the students a taster of compositional options. Russo goes further and sets very strict rules and tries to instil good compositional technique. He claims that “restrictions are a way of not having to pay attention to anything except what is deep inside of you”. (Russo, 1980, p .4)

To conclude, it stands to reason that teaching composition effectively is extremely challenging. A teacher can teach the students about notation, styles, genre, devices and all the surrounding components of creating a successful composition. However, a teacher cannot tell the student what to compose. They can merely give guidance as to what the student might explore or where a composition may move to next. A teacher can show student effective compositions, they can analyse the why, the how and the what of solid compositions in various styles but even at this simplistic level, opinion becomes a factor. Teachers face a struggle from the outset of teaching composition. The subject is so broad and the technology pool is now becoming so inexhaustible that teachers face an uphill struggle when trying to stay “ahead of the game”. The likelihood of a music teacher knowing enough about each style of music to guide a student effectively is slim without heavily compromising the students ideas and flow.

Although the current syllabus encourages some diversity in composition, it has been argued that this is still too shallow and alienates some students (Savage and Fautley, 2011). Teachers then face the dilemma of teaching for the good of the student as a composer or for the good of the student as an exam statistic. The current syllabus appears at face value to be one of the most engaging and comprehensive to date. However, the same challenges are faced by teachers and composition remains the most taxing part of a teacher’s career. With the current desire in government to scrap the current modular system perhaps with it the temptation of teaching a student how to fit as many marks into composition. Perhaps then the focus will be on injecting ingenuity and creativity with guidance from a less result driven teacher.

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