How and why I coach kids to write their own music
Updated: Mar 10
We all often write music as soon as we go to the piano, or warm up our instrument. Or maybe when we start to sing in the shower, or hum in the car.
But we don't often write the melody down.
Sometimes that's because we recognise that it's not (yet) our own original music (I often sing an eccentric combination of Secret Love by Doris Day and Silent Night in the shower when I first get going, or I start my piano improvisations with a unique cocktail of Bach and Stand by Me!)
Sometimes we don't write it down because we don't remember it (please see my Songwriting Diaries blogs about this). The best way is to record it on your phone or tablet right away. Disclaimer- do not bring your device into the shower or use whilst driving!
And sometimes we don't write it down because we're not sure how to.
This is just the barrier that my 7 year old student Isla faced in our lesson yesterday. She said "I can't write music."
As anyone who has ever told me that they "can't sing" (you absolutely can!), sentences that start with "I can't" are as irresistible to me to dig into as any food with coconuts in, or any book written by Kate Atkinson. So I explored Isla's statement a bit deeper.
My current Kate Atkinson delight!
I use questioning skills to dig into language all the time. I've got a highly logical brain, which is why, like many of my younger students, I love the maths side of music. She simply meant that she didn't yet know how to write it down, because we hadn't started to learn how to notate music in the conventional way yet.
Well that's not a problem at all! All we need is a pen and paper, or an ipad and a stylus.
I'm a pen and paper girl, because I think that the action of physically rubbing things out or screwing things up and launching them at the bin is a much more powerful way of exercising creative freedom (which includes the power to stick to our guns, change our mind, or to not make it up in the first place!)
Pencils and paper are all you need to write down your music
I asked Isla to play the melody a few times so that it stayed in her brain. Her brain is only 7 years old, so this is enough to keep it in there until we finished writing it down. My 36 year old brain much prefers recording melodies on my phone, or my new electric piano.
I practice my memory when I'm remembering groceries or post codes for the sat nav, not when I'm writing songs- they're too important!
My glorious new Yamaha piano
Isla's melody had some repeated rhythms and then finished on a long note. So the first thing we did was count how many bits of repeated music there were - there were 5. So I asked Isla to draw 6 boxes for us to put all the different bits in. This is a simple way to start thinking about the music in what music readers know as bars.
I sometimes use the analogy of a fruit bowl to teach the concept of bars too, and give each fruit a different note lengths. For example, melons are quite big, you can only fit one in my fruit bowl, so they are a long note, eg. a semibreve (4 beats). But you could have quite a lot of grapes, so they are shorter notes, eg. quavers (half a beat). Food is always fun to talk about!
One melon per fruit bowl please!
- Counted how many notes there were in each section (there were 5 or 6)
- Spotted which notes were the same/different
- Recognised which ones were higher and which were lower
We then used all this information to draw them in each box as patterns and join the notes together. All this can be done without traditional notation, whilst getting very close to it and making it an easy step to progress to.
This is what my copy looked like- I used numbered sections of my lined paper for each bar rather than drawing boxes.
Extract from 'This and That', by Isla.
We then used various different ways to work out the names of the notes:
- Using what we knew about the general layout of the keyboard
- Counting the gaps between notes (Intervals)
- Playing our C scale and saying the note names out loud
- Using the alphabet to work out what note came next
We then simply wrote the letter names under the note dots, with simple instructions about which octave to play the lower notes in (eg. 9 notes away).
Little hands stretching over the notes
Isla is just stating to learn her arpeggios, which, spanning an octave (8 notes) are very stretchy for little hands.
So the intervals of ninths and tenths (nine and ten notes apart from each other) that feature in Isla's fantastic composition wouldn't be introduced from performing repertoire pieces for several years, but composition introduces them now, without any restrictions based on her small size rather than her enormous imagination.
So, basically what I'm saying is that composition is completely brilliant! And I'm not just saying that because I'm a composer (you can find out more about my composition work here.)
There are lots of different ways of writing down music without using the stave (the 5 parallel lines on which music is traditionally written). They're called 'Graphic Scores'.
I like to encourage young students to draw pictures featuring middle C as the 'sea' line, a choppy line that separates the water from the sky. All the notes above middle C go in the sky (they can be birds, clouds etc), and all the ones below middle C are in the sea (these can be fish with various letter names, which is a fun game in itself!)
These Goldfish could be used to represent the note 'G'
Isla has an older sister called Chloe, and they often like to do the same themes in their lessons, which happen on the same evening. This works well as Chloe is further on with her learning than Isla, who is then motivated to learn more about the subject to catch up with Chloe, who then wants to be even more advanced, and they make great progress together.
You can find out more about group lessons with me and meet some of my students here.
Chloe, like Isla, wanted to write down an improvisation. This one was brand new (Isla had been playing a version of her piece in lessons for a few weeks).
It was based on the one that Isla had written, showing her good listening skills. Chloe opted for similar repeated phrases, but varied the melody by making the gaps between the notes smaller.
She used a pattern of 8 bars of music to create a nicely structured piece. 3 bars of a repeated rhythm followed by a contrasting bar, then a repeat of the first 3 bars followed by a contrasting ending.
So we made a grid of 8 boxes and started adding what we knew about the melody. I used arrows to show which bars were repeated (I'm a big advocate of anything that saves time!)
Work in progress diagram for Chloe's composition
Chloe also consciously brought in some intentional ideas for the piece. She enjoyed learning her first minor scale recently, and wanted to end the piece in the key of A minor.
The piece was in C major (or so it seemed, until Chloe added some completely awesome minor chords in the left hand), so this inspired a conversation about how A minor is the relative minor scale of C major (they have the same key signature, with no sharps or flats in it), and modulation (changing) between the two.
Chloe is working towards her Grade 1 exam, and the conversations inspired by her composing are already reaching well beyond that level. Writing her own music encourages Chloe to approach her performance of other pieces from a rounded and well informed musical perspective.
There's a brilliant short video called 'What's the point of Music Theory'? on the theory page of the ABRSM website that illustrates the importance of this
Chloe knew the names of the notes to her melody straight away, and started by simply writing the letter names down in the order they were played, and then added in the names of the left hand chords. We have just started learning chords so this was a great way to practice them.
Next, I asked her to think about what else music tells us other than pitch. Chloe then identified the rhythm of her piece and put it into patterns of quavers, crotchets and minims (half beat, full beat and 2 beats respectively).
Chloe started notating the first bar, and has with some help from me about how to group the notes, notate the left hand rhythm and stack your right hand melody on top of your left, so she can finish off the rest this week.
Extract from "Absolutely no idea!" by Chloe
What a fun evening of music making!
Honestly, the more I coach, I more I feel that composition is the richest, most engaging and most natural way to teach lots of musical concepts.
To find out more about learning with me, please visit the coaching section of this website.
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