Unlock Teen Creativity: Compose!

“My middle school general music classes are one of my last chances to help students discover the musician inside themselves,” says NAfME member Elizabeth Ann McAnally. “Giving students the opportunity to express themselves by creating their own music is an important way to accomplish that goal.”

Composition activities can boost learning. McAnally stresses the benefits in conquering the challenges:

  • Composing is time consuming. Creating a melody of even four or eight measures, requires time to improvise, develop, and revise musical ideas. However, composing further develops other musical skills—improvising, listening, and notating.
  • Students need to know the basics of notating rhythm, meter, and pitch to notate a finished piece. They then discover the importance of notation, especially when they play each other’s compositions.
  • Distributing, collecting, storing, and maintaining instruments for students to play their songs can be unwieldy. (Most general music students can’t look at notation and “hear” the melody.) Take advantage of your students’ budding leadership skills and enlist their help.
  • Composing can be chaotic. However, after a day of more structured activities, many adolescents thrive on a change of pace.
  • Grading musical creativity is difficult. McAnally recommends grading rubrics that are clearly explained to the students beforehand.

Keyboard labs are great for composing:

  • Students can use headphones, and the teacher can listen in through the networked controller.
  • MIDI-compatible keyboards and notation software automatically convert student work to standard notation.

Keyboard lab workshops and classes help with design and maximizing use. This technology is highly motivating but can be too expensive for some districts.

McAnally often has students compose in groups of three or four, using written directions and a grading rubric. She designs projects to enhance a unit of study:

  • After listening to a set of Mozart piano variations, students create variations for a simple melody that they’ve learned on the piano.
  • To support a unit about musical form, students create a rhythm rondo with each section in a different meter.


Lesson plans for secondary general music in My Music Class. Search on “middle-level general music” and “high school general music.”

NAfME Books and Articles:

Strategies for Teaching Middle-Level General Music, compiled and edited by June Hinckley and Suzanne M. Shull.

Spotlight on General Music: Teaching Toward the Standards has sections on Secondary General Music and General Music, Generally.

Music at the Middle Level: Building Strong Programs, edited by June Hinckley,  has a section on General Music, Related Arts, Technology, Interdisciplinary Instruction, and Assessment

“Composing and Arranging in Middle School General Music” by Jeffrey E. Bush in General Music Today, October 2007

Elizabeth Ann McAnally teaches at Wilson Middle School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In addition to writing “Motivating Urban Music Students” in Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom: A Guide to Survival, Success, and Reform, she wrote Middle School General Music: The Best Part of Your Day!

–Linda C. Brown, May 13, 2009, © National Association for Music Education