From Imagination to Notation: Keeping Composition Creative


From Imagination to Notation: Keeping Composition Creative

 By NAfME Members Janice Smith and Michele Kaschub


Like many music teachers working with young composers, we have found ourselves wondering how we can preserve their wonderfully creative and imaginative work once their compositions become too long for them to remember. 

Notation seems the obvious answer, but we have found that its introduction brings an abrupt halt to artistry. Young composers find it easier to simplify their musical ideas than to figure out the intricacies of our very complex notation system. How can we help them over this hurdle?

via Nikolay Kurkin / Hemera / Thinkstock


The Purpose of Notation

Notation is not a prerequisite for composition. Rather, it is tool for preserving the product that emerges when a composer organizes and manipulate sounds for expressive purposes. Beginning composers have no need for a written record of their work. Given their status as composer-performers, they know what they have created and how it should be performed. Should memory be insufficient over extended periods of time, recordings can be used to boost recall or even share work.

However, as composers continue to grow and develop, they eventually create music that is too lengthy to recall or which exceeds their personal performance capacities in some manner. It is at this point that the need for a system of notation becomes apparent to the composer.

This is our opportunity to provide guidance.

Transition Step 1: From Memory to Personal Systems of Notation

Asking young composers to abruptly switch from the comfort of memory to use of traditional notation is like throwing them into the deep end of the pool with heavy boots on before they know how to swim. Composers are most successful when they find ways to use simple tools to extend memory before adding other tools to achieve tougher goals. Composers should begin with a system that is easy to use and derived from personal associations. Iconographic and invented notations fit this bill.

Here is a simple activity to encourage the creation of invented notation:

Composition Task Guidelines for Grade 2

  1. Imagine something that moves upward and downward: a bird, a balloon, a kite, etc. For example, what would it feel like to be a kite as it rises into the sky and as it comes back down to the ground?
  2. Use a xylophone, metallophone or keyboard to create a piece that uses upward and downward motion to create those feelings in sound.
  3. Draw a musical map (score) of your composition. Other performers should be able to look at your score and figure out how to play your piece.


music composition
Image courtesy Michele Kaschub and Janice Smith


As reading notation and notating musical ideas are different skills, students who play wind band, orchestral or other instruments may also benefit from this exercise. Students freed from the constraint of using traditional notation will likely create original works that exceed their notational literacy and which reveal significant musical artistry. Teachers may notate these pieces as doing so will introduce notation and may present an opportunity to discuss how ideas can be represented in traditional notation.

Transition Step 2: From Invented to Traditional Notation

When iconographic and invented notations are no longer effective tools for preserving students’ compositional ideas, it is time to bring traditional notation into the mix. Projects that include both invented and traditional notation maintain musical creativity and artistic integrity while easing the development of new skills.

Compositional etudes—activities that focus on the development of a particular skill within the context of a composition—are one way to approach this. After teaching the basics of rhythmic notation, ask composers to notate just one aspect of their piece, such as a percussion part. Continue to use invented symbols for other parts. Do the same with pitch notation. With each project, invite students to use a more and more traditional notation until invented notation is no longer necessary.

But don’t push too fast. This will take time.

Below are some games to advance notational skills.

Games for Building Notation Skills

Ear Builder builds musical memory, exercises critical deciphering skills, and establishes a foundation for future notational work: One person models a rhythm, melody or chord progression. The class responds by echoing on counting syllables, solfege syllables, or Roman numerals as appropriate to the task.

Real Time Transcription is the musical equivalent of thinking in words while writing. It refines the ability to organize sound in time: One person performs a melody. The class then sings back the melody while notating. Start with a very slow tempo and just 4 beats. Gradually increase the tempo and extend the melody to 8, 12, and then 16 measures using both simple and compound meters.

Gotcha! for Divas and Critics builds comparative memory and variation skills in addition to notational skills. In this game, the “Diva” performs a musical idea that she has composed. She performs the idea a second time, but with one (and eventually more) change. The “Critics” notate the idea and identify the change. The first “Critic” to catch and correctly notate the answer becomes the next “Diva”.

music notes
via Dima Lomachevsky / Hemera / Thinkstock


Final Notes on the Use of Notation

  • Creativity and notation should not be inversely proportional. Adjust notational expectations to ensure musical artistry.
  • Include all types of preservation and notation tools (memory, recordings, and invented, iconographic, and traditional notation) in compositional work.
  • Identify transition points in notational development so that proper scaffolding can be provided.
  • Develop compositional activities that foster the development of notational skills while maintaining musical creativity and expressivity.
  • Enjoy the journey from music imagined to music realized.


We invite you to attend our presentation, “From Imagination to Notation: Keeping Composition Creative” at the upcoming NAfME National In-Service Conference in Nashville, TN, on Tuesday, October 27. We look forward to sharing these and other activities and strategies with you there. For more information or to get in touch, e-mail us at or

About the authors:

music teacher

Janice Smith is professo r of music education at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, City University of New York. Prior to coming to the Aaron Copland School of Music, Dr. Smith had a thirty-year career as a general music specialist in the public schools of Maine. Dr. Smith has presented sessions at state, divisional and national NAfME conferences. She is co-author with Michele Kaschub of the book Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking and co-editor with Kaschub of Composing Our Future: Preparing Music Educators to Teach Composition and Promising Practices in 21st Century Music Teacher Education.

music teacher

Michele Kaschub is Professor of Music and Coordinator of Music Teacher Education at the University of Southern Maine School of Music. She is a past president of the Maine Music Educators Association and a member of the Music Educators Journal Editorial Committee.

She has contributed chapters to several books and presented clinics, papers and at multiple state, national, and international conferences. She co-author with Janice Smith of the book Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking and co-editor with Smith, of Composing Our Future: Preparing Music educators to Teach Composition and Promising Practices in 21st Century Music Teacher Education.

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