Student Composition 101

Composition is such a beneficial activity for our students. It helps students create and explore music in an exciting and personal way. Composition is also a wonderful tool for assessing student knowledge and understanding. The problem is, it can take a lot of time – and time is often running short in lessons as it is.

To combat this problem, I modified a composition unit I taught when I was teaching general music. It is especially good for students – and teachers – who are unsure about how to go about the whole composition process. Best of all, it doesn’t take up much time during the lesson. I just do one segment at a time over several weeks. This is not the only way I teach composition, but it is a good place to start.

  1. Tell the student that they are going to write a composition. Many a student has given me a “deer in the headlights” type look. I assure them that I will guide them through every step, and it will be no harder than learning that piece of music that once looked so hard.
  2. To begin the composition, have students write rhythms for 8 (or more) measures. This comprises of the A section. Have them write rhythms for 4 (or more) measures for the B section.
  3. Next, we add notes to the rhythm. For beginning students, I tell them to use the notes in the middle C position, or a particular pentascale. If the students have learned the primary triads, or even simply the concept the of tonic, dominant, and subdominant notes of the scale, I have them write a melody in the treble clef using notes within either a pentascale of full scale depending on their ability. I usually do not have students write the notes on the staff at this point. They simply write the letter in next to the note. The A section must end on the tonic, and the B section must end on the dominant.
  4. At this point, I have the student write the music on staff paper. Go to for free, customizable staff paper.
  5. If the student split the melody line between hands, they are almost done. I simple have them repeat the A section to finish off the piece. I often show them how they can vary the section a bit, perhaps by playing an octave higher, adding staccatos, legatos, etc. We also add dynamics if they haven’t already.
  6. For students who wrote a melody in the treble clef, I have them add primary chords to the melody. I have students pencil them in as blocked chords.  If they haven’t reached the point of the full chords, I will have them simple use the tonic, dominant, and subdominant of the scale for the bass clef.
  7. Next, I show the student several accompaniment patters. They discover how different bass patterns change the mood of the piece. They decide what they like, and write it in.
  8. Have them repeat the A section to finish the piece. Sometime students like to change the accompaniment pattern the second time around, or make some other changes as mentioned in #5.
  9. Add dynamics, phrasing, articulations, etc.
  10. Either have the student hand write a final copy of the piece, or have them enter it into a notation program to print. Finale’s Notepad is a free program that works great for this. It is basic, but does the job nicely for beginning compositions. I encourage all parents to download this to their home computers for their children to use.
  11. If you really want to be impressive, have students draw a picture to illustrate their composition, and make a cover for “real” looking sheet music. See this post for more detailed directions on how to do that. I usually print off a copy of all my students’ compositions and hang them on a wall in my studio. They look great, and the students love seeing what others have done.

That’s all there is to it! It is a lot of work, but broken down into small chunks it is quite manageable. Happy Composing!


4 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for writing this up! Now I have a guideline about how to go about teaching composition.


  2. Lydia, I’m glad that it helps. I have some more ideas that I will write in a later post, but this is a good start.


  3. I’m a new visiter to your blog, and I must say I’m terribly impressed! Thanks for all the free resources you provide. I am greatly inspired to integrate some of your ideas into my piano teaching. 🙂

    I see you haven’t written anything about composition lately…but I’m curious what you have done now that Finale Notepad is no longer free (it’s now $10 to download!). Have you found an alternative? I have heard that MuseScore is a good, free alternative, but haven’t had much time to try it out.

    • I use Noteflight. It’s free and provides a lot of features which you don’t have to download. You can pay more to download “Crescendo,” which is a premium version offered by Noteflight but I don’t see the need to. You should check it out.

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