Teaching musical composition

Teaching musical composition is likely to continue to be something of a conundrum and certainly when it is framed by the requirements of a public examination; for example, the UK General Certificate of Secondary Education. A good number of teachers opt for what they consider to be a reliable formulaeic approach even if it means all students produce near identical waltzes. It gets the grade. That’s justification enough they say.

On the other hand there are those teachers who remain intrigued by how we learn to compose and even compose themselves to better understand the process which their students are being asked to engage with. I am one of those teachers. I have been composing quite a lot lately and thinking about the nature of musical ideas, where they come from, how they are ‘sculpted’ and made to mean, what happens to them and how they work to make a whole where there is some sense of completion and a musical work. This of course is a pretty traditional view of composing music. The goal is to find closure, completion and quite likely some sense of organic unity rather than making what is infinitely open and incomplete, another way of thinking about composing. I am sure there are many more.

Some teachers, I am one, are interested in the student’s impulse to compose, what gets them started, what is it that draws them on, what is it that needs to be expressed? In all this it is the musical idea that holds most fascination, where it comes from, what’s it for? Without idea there is nothing. Without some concept of what the work is there is nothing. The impressive LIC report (1) thinks of this as being related to the idea of ‘intentionality’, one of the ten themes emerging from the research.(2)

So, it was with great interest that I entered a year 10 GCSE composing classroom to talk with a group of embryonic composers and to find out what kind of musical ideas they were having and what they were doing with them. They had worked on a composition using the stimulus of images from a graffiti exhibition. The choice was theirs. I knew nothing else about the teaching process they had been part of and I was reminded of the view that composition teaching only begins when the pupil has created something, only then is the composer’s thinking made available.

What struck me about the work of these beginning composers was the originality of their ideas. I encountered no musical idea that wasn’t fresh, imaginative. No derivations, no plagarisms, nothing ordinary. Every musical idea had a character of its own, a sensuous particularity, and the more I listened to each the more I wanted to hear it again to better understand its particularity and to see in it what I had previously failed to see/hear.(3) Sharing this process with its maker was how I was being a teacher of composition. These conversations can rightly be thought of as assessment, not assessment as measuring but as dialogue where interpretation, judgement and discrimination are at work. (4)

I should explain that the music had been made through the programme pro-tools and that may have assisted in creating musical ideas that were refined and seemingly well-intentioned. But, and it was a big but: why so many ideas? In each case, weren’t there more than enough ideas, enough ideas for quite a few compositions? And as I listened even more closely it wasn’t that the ideas were being thrown away without any kind of development. It was unusual for this to be the case. The question became one about time span and what kind of time span did the material need to do the material justice? Was all the material needed?

What I felt to be most important as a teacher of composition was to affirm what was being presented to me (5) and to sharpen each composer’s perception of what they had made, and together review the innumerable compositional techniques at work, many unbeknown to the composer. Thus analysis conversed with intuition.(6) Indeed, I moved steadily towards an analytical orientation. I wanted to help the composers make visual schemes of their compositions in order to objectify what was there as a way of thinking about the work as pieces of architecture and to create talking points: whys, hows and what ifs? I wanted to draw in what other composers had done and think about why they had done this or that, and why not that. How did they manage material within their time spans?(7)

As a teacher I was being both facilitator and mediator, mediating knowledge and culture, a pretty basic call upon being a teacher through which the teacher, the pupil and what is being learnt at best find a poetic unity.

(1) See Listen Imagine Compose (LIC) Report (2014) Martin Fautley, http://www.soundandmusic.org/projects/listen-imagine-compose
(2) See Witkin (1974) ‘The intelligence of Feeling’ for depth attention to ‘intentionality’ within the creative process.
(3) You may recall from a previous blog (May 5th, 2014, Teaching Music website) I dealt with the concept of ‘identity violence’ which reduces the scope of perception and experience. In this instance I am working to counter it.
(4) See LIC theme 4.
(5) Judgement, discrimination, interpretation at the heart of musical-artistic-aesthetic hermeneutic understanding ie. assessment with an epistemological basis.
(6) The interplay between intuition and analyis- see Swanwick, K. (1994) Musical Knowledge: Intution, Analysis and Music Education, Routledge.
(7) LIC theme 7.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching musical composition

  1. jonathan barnes

    a lovely and thought-provoking piece John. I am encouraged to read such a testament to the survival of the creative spirit and action despite all current efforts to quash it. Also good to read a reaffirmation of teacher as facilitator, mediator and challenger. I see and hear it too in primary schools, but oh so seldom. What you describe seems a long way from education department rhetoric and yet I can see how referral back to the ‘canon’ and more formal aspects of music can, in good hands, be highly appropriate – why are we so often accused of causing standards to fall? No one was able to do this kind of stuff in my school days or in my first twenty years of teaching!

  2. I have been thinking since writing this blog about one student in the class working differently from the rest. She is a song writer. I wrote in my blog that what I was describing was a traditional way of thinking about composing. I doubt whether this is a helpful way of thinking about popular song writing.

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