Make October Music Composition Month!!!

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    Hello my name is J.Peter Hansen. It is my pleasure to be the Music Composition Mentor for the Month of October!
    I currently teach 7th/8th Grade Chorus, Band lessons, a Guitar class and AP Music, besides Electronic Music Composition on the collegiate level. In future days i would like to discuss how Music Composition can be included in all my type of classes.

    But first – tell me what you are teaching – and what are some of your ideas to get Music Composition involved in your classes?


    Ok so let me kick it off
    Here’s a fun, John Cage style idea for an Electronic Music Course.

    Only 1 multi-timbral sequencer needed that has the ability to Step-Record.

    Have each student step-record/enter one part – a step recorded 4 measure phrase in any style/key/atonal/etc.
    Each track should be muted so only the student that is recording hears the track.
    When all students are finished, do an ‘open air’ mix of volumes, panning, effects, etc…
    Try different mixes, or have each student do their own mix. The mix is a big part of the composition process here.


    Today we’re in a dodecaphonic state of mind…
    How about a glance at what Arnold Schoenberg was thinking:
    He wanted a “pantonal” system, where no one note had any more importance than any other note. The best way he found to achieve this was to use Dodecaphonic Tone Rows. The result would of course be “atonality” (though he preferred the term pantonality which means “all tonal” instead of “non tonal”).

    Many composers have achieved this in many different ways and Schoenberg’s was just one way. However, his was one of the (if not the) earliest and he took the trouble to codify what he was doing. He also had students who learned from him and modified the system for their own purposes. As such, Schoenberg’s system is widely studied and emulated.

    A Tone Row is a series of 12 notes (it’s also called a 12 Tone Series or 12 Tone Row, etc.). It has one, and only one of each of the 12 chromatic notes: A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#

    Since part of what S wanted to do was avoid the “cliches of tonality”, he ordered the notes in the row so that traditional tonal elements were avoided – scalar segments, outlining of triads or diminished 7th chords, etc.

    This led to a series of tones, or a Tone Row that would be the basis for an entire piece, or movement, or large section of a piece, etc.

    His method of implementing the Tone Row was that each note in the series need to be sounded in order and be heard only once until the completion of the entire Row. He did allow immediate repetitions (reiterations) like C-C-C-A but after that, you wouldn’t hear the C again until the Row was completed. He also allowed for simultaneous occurrences like a chord could be made out of the first 4 notes of the series – and even though you can’t tell which of the 4 was first, the remaining 8 notes had to sound before any of those first 4 were heard again.

    By doing this, S felt that the lack of repetition would prevent any one tone or harmonic combination from getting undue emphasis.

    One issue is though that using a single row can get quite boring after a while. It’s a little more complex than simply “hearing the same notes in the same order over and over” but essentially, that’s what happens.

    So, just like Tonal composers might write a piece in the key of C Major then modulate to G Major and back, S would used either different Tone Rows or “transformations” of a Tone Row.

    Obviously, when you write a piece of music that throws out all of the conventions of traditional tonal music, what is left to tie it together? S felt that if he used Tone Rows that were “related”, there’d be much more internal cohesion in the piece. So just like C Major and A minor are related, he found “related” versions of his “primary” Tone Row to use.

    So think about this – C Major is relative to A minor. In fact, they have the same notes, just starting on a different one. So even though the notes are the same, the “focus” is on a different note. Now S didn’t want to focus on any particular note, but the idea of two Tone Rows being related sort of gave each transformation a “reason for being in the piece”.

    You can transform a Tone Row in four ways: Transpose it, Retrograde it, Invert it, and Invert AND Retrograde it (and of course you can transpose the inversions and retrogrades, etc.).

    By putting the Tone Row (the original being called the Prime) in a 12×12 grid called a Matrix, one could calculate all of the related row forms.

    Some Tone Rows will produce 48 distinct forms. All those fancy letter/numbers just refer to where it is in the grid.

    P0 is the Prime Row. P2 would be the Prime Row transposed up 2 semitones. R0 would be the Retrograded Row, and R5 would be the Retrograded Row transposed up 5 semitones. Etc.

    However, many composers became interested in Row forms the produced shared elements, or even a limited number of Row Forms. A simple example is that if your Row is a chromatic scale, then the Retrograde Inversion is also just a chromatic scale. So there are really only 24 forms of this scale (P with 12 transpositions, and I with 12 transpositions).

    So sometimes a Row might be chosen for a piece because of a particular characteristic – they all end with the same 3 notes for example.

    So it’s rare for a composer to use all 48 forms – more typically they use 3 or 4 (and to some degree transpositions are often treated like a modulation, rather than change of mode for example).

    You can download a 12 Tone Matrix Generator at


    Being that this was posted on the 3rd day of the month, consider analyzing sections of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony. Beethoven’s 3rd is a perfect model to construct phrases – direct your students’ attention to emulating Beethoven at first, and gradually progressing toward their own original variations.


    Students love to write imaginary Movie Soundtracks, or even supply background music to a good short (very short works better…?) story. Take a minute to read how Mark Warner uses Garage Band in his classroom (ages 7-11) to make a Movie Soundtrack.


    Try writing Canons on the front board with your AP class.
    Start with a harmonic progression first. (1 -2 chords per measure)
    Compose one long 16 measure melody, spread out over 4 staves. Make sure the melody fits with the harmony.
    Assign entrance numbers at measures 1, 5, 9, and 13.
    Either write lyrics, or use solfege or a neutral syllable.
    Divide the class into 4 groups, count it off and have fun.


    Most students enjoy putting their thoughts on paper in the form of the written word. To get students involved in Chorus let them nurture a pure melody for a little while, and then have them attempt writing lyrics, or even descriptive words to tell their emotions from hearing the melody. Sometimes you will only get single words from them, but other times you might get entire Verses!


    I address the following question? How can you include composition in your Guitar class?

    Ideas are certainly welcome here!

    A quick idea is to show them a ‘set’ of all the different chords they know, and have them arrange them into 4 – 8 measure chord progressions on a piece of paper or on the front board. You will find some unusual and unique chord progressions which make for novel song writing ideas, Many of the students are not well versed in theory, and are creating by ear – the best way!!!


    Turn your students onto the FREE ‘backing tracks’ that are available on the web. Simply type in ‘backing tracks’ on a search engine and find many results. PS – don’t pay $ unless committing to an Organization.


    Let’s continue with the idea of ‘backing tracks’ as palettes for music composition. Since the backing tracks usually feature the rhythm section only, it is the perfect avenue for composing melodic materials. The chords are usually supplied with the backing track, so the harmony can be broken down, and students can compose melodies. The students can take it to the next level and play the melody on a chosen band instrument, or anything else – including voice, keyboard, guitar, etc.


    With Halloween coming up this Thursday it’s a great opportunity to create some downright ‘spooky’ and scary music. It is a great time to explore dissonance and even dodecaphonic music. Or just use your recording APP on your phone and have the students create scary ‘sound collages’. They will love listening back to it (good audio equipment a must!!!), and will want to do it over and over to ‘improve’ it.


    Peter, thank you for sharing you amazing ideas for creating music in the classroom1 I have developed many of these ideas into lesson plans for my AP and Comprehensive Music Theory classes. Thanks!!

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