How to Embed Composing in Your Lessons

Helping students to creatively apply what they’re learning reinforces and clarifies course content, says Lois V. Guderian. “Incorporating improvising and composing as a natural outgrowth of course content provides opportunities to reinforce and expand understanding and skills, while nurturing development of creative thinking in music.”

Guderian’s article in the April 2012 General Music Today, “Music Improvisation and Composition in the General Music Curriculum,” offers ways to get students improvising and composing.

Early Elementary Example

  • Teach students a new song, such as a lullaby.
  • Ask children to show you how the song should be sung to help a baby fall asleep. When children sing the song softly, add word associations for “soft” and visuals (e.g., a picture of a baby sleeping or a baby bunny).
  • Ask children to create soft music on a barred instrument to help a baby fall asleep.
  • Use different associations (e.g., thunderstorm, a giant walking) and instruments to teach “loud” in music and other dynamic levels. “Can you make some music that would sound like a parade that is far, far away coming closer and closer to us?”
  • Introduce the symbol p when age appropriate.

Middle to Upper Elementary Example

  • Students listen, sing, and/or play recorder pieces with the desired note values and rhythm patterns. Use listening examples that contain rhythmic or melodic (or both) motives familiar to students (e.g., Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, first movement).
  • Guide students in a listening/discussion activity to help them hear some of the ways Beethoven develops his 4-note motive. This helps build conceptual understanding of how composers explore and expand their ideas.
  • Ask students to sight-read, clap, and follow a rhythmic idea throughout a piece like Boléro or Adiemus by Karl Jenkins. This further clarifies and strengthens understanding and provides additional context for students’ applied creative work.
  • These experiences prime students’ thinking for creating their own pieces. Align the experiences with applied assignments based on curriculum goals:
    • Create a 2-4 bar rhythmic pattern for percussion instruments that contains 8th and 16th notes and the dotted-8th and 16th-note pattern.
    • Practice your pattern with your group, repeating the pattern 3 times or more.
    • Change the pattern twice by changing instrumentation.
    • Change the pattern a third time by notating and performing it in retrograde.

Find more ideas in “Music Improvisation and Composition in the General Music Curriculum” in the April 2012 issue of General Music Today, now online.

Adapted from “Music Improvisation and Composition in the General Music Curriculum,” by Lois Veenhoven Guderian, General Music Today, April 2012.

NAfME member Lois V. Guderian is assistant professor of music at the University of Wisconsin–Superior.


Lois V. Guderian’s book, Playing the Soprano Recorder: For School, Community, and the Private Studio, includes composition activities in every lesson.

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

My Music Class, NAfME’s lesson plan library, has lessons that incorporate composing activities.

—Linda C. Brown, originally posted March 14, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (