Teaching our students the basics of music theory is a necessity in a holistic training of a well-rounded musician. It serves to help them understand ideas and symbols behind the notation they are reading and playing. We may have them complete written assignments in theory books and other supplemental material, and even quiz them with flash cards that focus on notations and terms. That is all fine and well; however, having them actually compose their own original songs and pieces offers a more comprehensive and practical test of their grasp on music theory. Here are a few guidelines that will help with beginning composition sessions with your students:
First, have the student start off by composing a simple melody. You may want to limit them to a familiar note range and simpler note values and rhythms they can use. For example, a beginner might only be aware of “C Position” notes: C, D, E, F, and G; and only knows rhythms that involve quarter, half, and whole notes. Inform the student that the best melodies move mostly by steps and skips, with very few leaps, and encourage them to be creative (most students try to write TONS of repeated pitches and note values—or line up notes step by step!). Also limit them to maybe 8-12 bars, something close to the length they are used to seeing in their method books, so they do not feel overwhelmed.
Second, they need to concentrate on adding the “accompaniment” or “harmony.” Depending on the method book’s approach, the student will either focus on a single line, or chordal progressions. If it’s the latter, then give a basic rule for when to choose chords (In the key of C Major, the Tonic chord sounds great with C, E, and G; Dominant is better with B, D, F, and G). If it’s the former, have the student stick to C or G and go through the same rules as chords. You may also want to play a melody with chords that purposely clash, followed up with chords that harmonize with the same melody in order to demonstrate to the student that listening skills can filter which chords are better suited at a give point in the music.
Third, have them experiment with dynamics and articulation. At first this can be random, much like a young aspiring painter would splatter many different colors on an easel. As our students mature musically, however, they should come up with logical patterns, such as 2-measure slurs/phrases, or crescendos on ascending-note passages. Have your students think of a basic story they want to tell and have them communicate their ideas through these essential “color palettes.” For example, a “rainy” piece might use soft, staccato notes throughout. An intervening “thunderclap” might be accented, lower notes with some damper pedal.
So as we can see, teaching our students how to compose their own little works can be simple, as long as we break it up into easier, more manageable steps. First start with the all-important melody, layer in the supporting harmony, and add expressive details through dynamics and articulation. Of course, as our students learn more symbols and terms, we can have them add these in to their creations. Pretty soon they will be little Mozarts!