Composition: Notating Tips

Should students notate their pieces? If so, which is best—by hand or by computer? NAfME member Daniel Deutsch reviews the pros and cons:

“Notating too early in the composition process often stifles the creative musical flow,” Deutsch says. He suggests having students invent their own notation system as a memory aid or make an audio recording.

For students who know how to read music, try introducing notation once students have composed a few phrases. Along with traditional methods, Deutsch suggests a “whole language” approach: show the student the notated first phrase, and most students can extrapolate for the others, making rhythmic errors from time to time.

Deutsch sees benefits in having students notate music by hand.

  • They learn proper notation because the computer is not automatically correcting every error.
  • They take ownership of every single note.
  • They increase their music-reading ability.

For more advanced students, Deutsch allows the use of notation software but recommends students compose the music before using the software.

  • Composing with notation software can cause musical problems.
  • It’s too easy to click on notes without “hearing” or feeling them.
  • Students tend to cut and paste too much.
  • Pieces with more than one voice often have a sedimentary feeling—the lines are deposited above each other, but don’t interact responsively with each other.

Publish a book of students’ compositions.

  • Notation can be very tedious, so a published book of compositions is strongly motivating.
  • Students all want their written pieces to be included in the book
  • The book creates an exciting sense of community—students are eager to play their fellow students’ compositions.

Posting podcasts online and gathering and sharing student work on the Web also foster a sense of community in the class.


Teach Your Students about Copyright:

  • Creativity in the Classroom—a program designed to encourage students to respect intellectual property and develop greater awareness of the value of their creative work. Lessons demonstrate how students can label their creative work with the copyright symbol, the year, and their name.
  • The Copyright Society of the USA presents Copyright Awareness Week every March to encourage students to have a greater appreciation of the efforts of creative people and the protections the law affords them. Teacher curriculum materials are available.

Daniel Deutsch is the Composition/Improvisation Chairperson of the New York State School Music Association ( and National Chair of the NAfME 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, March 10, 2010, © National Association for Music Education