Composition: Dreaming the Language of Music

“When we teach students to compose, we invite them into the inner world of music,” says NAfME member Daniel Deutsch. They

  • begin to understand more deeply the intentionality of music, the idea that composers mean something.
  • add a new, deeper dimension to their musical understanding when they’ve used music to express their own ideas, emotions, and imaginations.
  • enhance their critical listening skills and performance ability.

Deutsch says, “Composition should be part of the music curriculum at every developmental stage. All students can compose. Even students facing extraordinary physical, mental, and other learning challenges can compose.”

If students learn from the beginning to play their own permutations and combinations of pitches and to experiment with music, “The instrument is not merely a device to reproduce other people’s music, but also a tool for creative self-expression.” When performing their own compositions, students don’t merely decode written symbols; as a result, they play with better intonation and tone quality. “This feeling of authenticity and intention usually transfers to other performance settings,” Deutsch says.

Creating a Safe Environment

Deutsch likes the small-group lesson for coaching students in composition.

  • It provides opportunity for individual coaching and for peer interaction and social support.
  • Students learn from their classmates and inspire each other.
  • Students can compose collaboratively.

He stresses creating a supportive, tolerant, and nurturing environment. Composition includes improvisation, experimentation, and just fooling around on an instrument—all risky endeavors. Making wrong notes and correcting themselves are essential to learning to compose, just like a baby’s babbling. Also, when composing, students share their emotions, ideas, and inner lives. “An atmosphere of trust and acceptance is essential.” By modeling improvisational risk-taking, the teacher can help the class overcome their fear of risk.

How to Begin

  • Tailor the curriculum to each student’s specific needs to inspire creativity. “The teacher’s role is to enter each student’s musical world and to help make it a bigger world,” says Deutsch.
  • Avoid assignments like “Compose an 8-bar melody in C major. Begin and end on middle C, using only half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes.” In creative writing, students begin with events, characters, and motivation rather than grammar, nouns, and adjectives. Similarly, Deutsch’s students begin with ideas, emotions, and meaning. He tells them, “Now we get to express our own ideas, feelings, emotions, and imaginations in music that can be created only by you!”
  • To prepare students for their first composing assignment, ask them to select particular emotions, and improvise phrases to illustrate them. Deutsch’s students suggest common emotions like sad, happy, and angry but also more complex ones like confused, isolated, and triumphant. If students are ready, introduce how specific musical elements combine to produce given emotions.

The First Assignment

“Now it’s your turn,” Deutsch tells his students. “Come back next week with some music that expresses your emotion or idea. Don’t write it down; just play or sing it to us next time.” This broad assignment encourages students to rise to their own highest level. Deutsch reports a wide array of responses.

  • Some students return with a first phrase, some a theme or motive, some just a couple of notes they like.
  • All students share one thing: They’re attached to their musical ideas.
  • The ideas are authentic, real, musical expression.

And Deutsch takes his students seriously and respects them as true composers who just happen to be less experienced.

 Resources–NAfME Books

Why and How to Teach Music Composition: A New Horizon for Music Education, by Maud Hickey

Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking, by Michele Kaschub and Janice Smith

Composition in the Classroom: A Tool for Teaching, by Jackie Wiggins


Daniel Deutsch is the Composition/Improvisation Chairperson of the New York State School Music Association and National Chair of the MENC Student Composers Competition.

This article is adapted from “Mentoring Young Composers: The Small-Group, Individualized Approach,” by Daniel Deutsch, in the Fall 2009 issue of the Kansas Music Review. Used with permission.

—Linda C. Brown, February 17, 2010, © National Association for Music Education