Ten Tips for Integrating Composition into Elementary General Music

As a K-5 general music teacher, I noticed my students yearned to create and document music. I wondered how I could provide students with meaningful opportunities to compose in our limited time together—I met with each class once a week for 45 minutes. I decided to start small and build upon listening, performing, improvising, reading, and notating skills my students were already developing.

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Here are strategies I found most helpful:

Prioritize composition in your life. Inspire students by composing and performing your own music. Share your compositions to help students understand that composing is not reserved for an elite few. Answer student questions about your composition process.

Compose as a group. Provide opportunities for students to observe and practice composing as a large group. Begin by modeling a think-aloud (The Source for Learning, 2012)—create a song and talk through your composition process. Next, guide students in composing a piece as a group. Invite students to name, arrange, and perform the composition.

Improvise melodies over familiar harmonic progressions. Use this tip to scaffold students’ composition learning processes. Choose a familiar song and invite students to improvise over the harmonic progression. You may begin by improvising antecedent and consequent phrases, rhythms on the bass line and inner voices, and chord tones (Azzara & Grunow, 2006).

Notate compositions. To build music literacy skills, notate compositions in front of students. Use large staff paper, a whiteboard, a SMART Board, or AirServer (with an iPad) to make notation visible. Invite students to notate compositions. Younger students may trace and color in notated compositions, while older students may notate using staff paper or notation software.

Give compositions the Does it Make Sense Test (Calkins, 2008). Invite students to test their compositions’ tonal, rhythmic, harmonic, and stylistic cohesiveness. For example, prompt students to ask questions like, “Does the melody make sense with the harmonic progression?” and “Does the composer reuse rhythmic ideas?” Younger students will intuitively tell you if a composition makes sense. Use composition checklists and rubrics with older students.

Provide opportunities for student feedback. Reserve the last five minutes of instruction for students to share in- and out-of-class compositions. Encourage students to provide feedback using the T.A.G. method (The Source for Learning, 2012): tell one thing they liked about the composition, ask one question, and give one suggestion to the composer. Model T.A.G. several times before asking students to use the method.

Promote composer collaboration. Ask older students to read and perform younger students’ compositions. Encourage younger students to learn older students’ compositions. Ask students to share compositions with others, such as family members, classroom teachers, and elementary instrumental teachers. Multi-age collaboration extends the music environment beyond your music classroom.

Connect compositions with other repertoire. Guide students in comparing their compositions to other repertoire. Highlight music elements like meter, rhythm, tonality, harmonic progression, phrasing, tempo, and expression. Students build compositional awareness and analysis skills through making song-to-song connections.

Incorporate compositions into music activities. Include student compositions in your general music repertoire. Engage students in performing, arranging, reading, notating, analyzing, and evaluating those compositions.

Post compositions on classroom walls. Create a Composers’ Wall of Fame in your classroom. Post student compositions on your classroom walls alongside your personal compositions, class songs, and works by famous composers. Inevitably, younger students will walk into class and ask, “Can you read me this song?” Older students will pass by and sing posted songs. A Wall of Fame board sparks music learning and creativity.

Examples of student work:

composeSecond graders Andrew and Janine composed “A. J.” During class, Andrew created the antecedent phrase and Janine created the consequent phrase. Their peers helped name the song and the entire class notated copies to take home. I posted a copy on our Composers’ Wall of Fame. Andrew and Janine later solicited the help of their string teacher and fourth grade string students to arrange and perform the song on violin, viola, and harp.     

compositionFourth grader Luke composed “The Inner Core of the Saints.” Luke chose to improvise a melody over the harmonic progression of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” He decided to extend the composition by creating a bridge with a related harmonic progression. He asked fifth grade peers to arrange and perform the piece for trumpet, alto saxophone, clarinet, and percussion. I find incorporating composition into daily instruction helps students understand that composing is an important part of being a musician. To guide K-5 students in learning to compose, you can easily embed the aforementioned ten tips into existing general music settings.


Azzara, C. D., & Grunow, R. F.  (2006). Developing musicianship through improvisation. Book 1. Chicago, IL: GIA. Calkins, L. (2008).

Sample video of Lucy conferring with first grade student [Video file]. Retrieved from http://books.heinemann.com/Shared/onlineresources/E0064/Lucy Video.asp

The Source for Learning (2012). Writers workshop [Online resource]. Retrieved from http://www.teachersfirst.com/lessons/writers/index.php  

– Kerry Filsinger, Temple University