Informed Musical Understanding through Composition


Informed Musical Understanding through Composition 

Creating, Performing, Responding in the Large Ensemble

By NAfME Member Dr. Ruth Debrot, Boston University

“Imagine a society that taught children to read, but not how to create stories or poems of their own. A music education that does not value children’s potentials in sound—their ability to create songs and pieces uniquely their own—is similarly less than complete.” (Kaschub and Smith, 2009)

Middle school students playing and singing an original song: “Home.” Photo from Sharon Community Television in Sharon MA. Camera: Patrick Ryan, Production Coordinator.


Why Teach Composition? 

English teachers teach students to read and write English. Why don’t music teachers teach students to read and write music? Although music educators expect students in choral ensembles to be able to read and perform the music of others, we do not typically encourage students to compose and perform original music. Yet, as humans, every culture in the world demonstrates an innate impulse to use the language of music to express original thoughts, feelings, and ideas. In the context of 21st Century learning, students should be able to create and share music that reflects their personal interests and empowers them to become life-long musickers.

The problem with composing in the choral ensemble appears to be related to the fact that music educators, especially those who have been trained in the Western tradition, have not been trained to create or compose music. Most teachers tend to teach their ensembles the way they themselves have been taught. I have noticed that many ensemble directors are defensive about losing rehearsal time because of external pressure to prepare for festivals and public performances. Although choral directors understand the importance of creativity, they have the knowledge, inclination, or the time to devote to composition in the classroom.


Informed Musical Understanding 

The primary reason for teaching composition within the music curriculum is that it cultivates informed musical understanding. Composing is student-centered; it requires listening, critical thinking skills, and it motivates students to participate more fully during rehearsals. Music composition necessitates that students apply and demonstrate what they know about:

  • Phrasing (antecedent-consequent)
  • Form (introduction, verse-chorus-bridge, coda)
  • Harmony (accompaniments, background vocals)
  • Orchestration (timbre, texture, vocal harmony)
  • Musical expression (dynamics, interpretation)

Integrating simple activities such as creating lyrics for a given melody or creating melodies using step-wise notation to a set of lyrics can be a way to introduce composition and reinforce literacy skills without losing rehearsal time.


Achieving Broad Curricular Goals 

Students should be able to understand music within a broad range of contexts. According to Wiggins (2001), musical understanding means “knowing enough about music to function with a certain amount of independence–and knowing enough about it to value it in one’s life” (p. 3). Research has indicated that it is through direct engagement—manipulation and exploration—that students develop informed musical understanding.

Composition affords divergent (differentiated) ways to engage students in the artistic processes of creating, performing, and responding, set forth in the national standards (NAfME, 2014). School choirs can provide young composers with opportunities to create, collaborate, perform, and revise musical ideas based on helpful feedback from their peers (Kaschub & Smith, 2013). In addition, students are afforded musical independence and ownership of the creative process (Clennon, 2009). As a result, students will be able to:

  • Describe how melody and text are related
  • Manipulate melodic and textual elements in order to convey a musical message
  • Create and perform original music
  • Analyze and revise musical works in order to understand the artistic process
  • Respond to the musical work of others


Composition as Creative Process 

Teachers can integrate music composition in the choral classroom by following three basic steps to scaffold students through the process.

  1. Students learn and perform a “model” composition (Teacher directed).
  2. Students create and original text for a melody (Teacher guided).
  3. Students engage in an independent songwriting project (Student directed).


Performing and Responding

When students write and perform original songs, they demonstrate informed musical understanding. This is when performance assessments take on significance. Assessments can be formalized, using a rubric, or simply be a student reflection and discussion. I believe it is important for the students to watch themselves perform on video and then articulate what they have learned. I have used the following questions to generate thoughtful classroom discussion:

  • How has composing and performing an original song changed how you think about choral singing?
  • How has composing and performing an original song helped you grow as a musician?
A student introduces the song, “Life is a Change Worth Taking.” Photo from Sharon Community Television in Sharon MA. Camera: Patrick Ryan, Production Coordinator.



All that is needed to compose in the choral classroom is teacher flexibility and willingness. Research has suggested there is a “need for composition to be about the need for expression rather than offering any direct how-to” (Hickey, 2013, p. 48). Happily, just as there is no one right way to compose, there is no one right way to teach composition. The only real requirement for teaching composition is having an open mindset and the ability to stand back and watch the students’ creative juices and enthusiasm flow.

To learn more, view Ruth Debrot’s NAfME Academy webinar, “Composing in Middle School Chorus: A Three-Step Process.”



Clennon, O.D. (2009). Facilitating musical composition as “contract learning.” The development and application of a teaching resource for primary school teachers in the UK. International Journal of Music Education, (27)4, 300-313.

Hickey, M. (2013). What pre-service teachers can learn from composition research. In M. Kaschub & J. P. Smith (Eds.), Composing our future: Preparing music educators to teach composition (pp. 33-56), Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kaschub, M. & Smith, J. P. (2009). Minds on music: Composition for critical and creative thinking. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.

Kaschub, M., & Smith, J. P. (2013). Embracing composition in music teacher education. In M. Kaschub & J. P. Smith (Eds.), Composing our future: Preparing music educators to teach composition (pp. 3-18), Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

National Association for Music Education. (2014). 2014 music standards. Retrieved from

Wiggins, J. (2001). Teaching for musical understanding. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


About the author:

choral directorNAfME member Dr. Ruth Debrot is a faculty member at Boston University. For the past twenty-five years, Debrot has demonstrated a joyful approach to working with middle school students at Sharon Middle School in Massachusetts. She has presented numerous workshops for the American Orff Schulwerk Association and has conducted choral workshops at AOSA, CTMEA, and MMEA All-State conferences. You can reach her at:, or her website:


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