Structures and composing

Structuring a music session

A good structure to a session is invaluable in the planning process. The pupils know what is going on and the teacher keeps track of time and can evaluate the efficacy of the session. Of course each session can have its own individual structure but as a basic template what I would suggest is:

  1. Get comfortable. This can be listening, chatting or just about whatever you like but music can feel uncomfortable as it can expose you psychologically in a group however well you know the situation. A bit of arrival time, or maybe even a lot of arrival time can be very useful. In a 1 hour session, just listening to a 5 minute piece of music at the beginning might be an ideal way to get a common sense of purpose.
  2. Learn something. This is the technique moment. It could be to do with getting to know a new instrument, a new way of making music or learning a new song. The crunch is that this new idea should provide a springboard for the next stage.
  3. Creative work. The previous activity should have ensured that pupils have a tool to create with so here is the moment where, either in groups or individually, the new stuff is done. Composing a whole piece or just a tune. Writing lyrics for a song. Making a storyboard to go with a piece of music that the pupils are listening to. This is the real meat of the session.
  4. Pulling together. If people have been working individually or in small groups, this is the time to pool ideas and listen to each others work. Maybe pupils have been developing different ingredients to fit together to make a larger piece…
  5. Listening/Discussion/Listening. You might want to chat then listen or listen then chat. The order of this phase depends very much on the particular group and the material that you are working with. The only direct suggestion would be to end a session with music rather than with words.

Structuring a music project

There are a number of key decisions that will help you to give a lot of shape to work that you carry out over a few weeks or even a term.

  • What musical aims do you have for your project?
  • What cross-curricular benefits can you gain from your project?
  • How does the project fit with individual needs and learning plans of your pupils?
  • How does your project end? This could be a recording, a performance to friends and family, sharing the work with another class…
  • How much time do you need to prepare for a final event, if you are having one? Ideally your event should come as a natural part of your work without too much need for rehearsal.
  • How is the musical content going to develop over the project? The building blocks and composing pages will give you a lot of guidance here.
  • What do you want to achieve in each session that you will be running? An overall plan helps to keep things on schedule for any kind of performance. If you fall behind the schedule there is no need to worry as you can simply adjust what the content of the final outcome will be.
  • How is your first session structured? Get the detail of this one right and the rest of the project tends to fall easily into place.


Making a piece of music

Here is how to compose a piece, in 5 steps. Do the first 4 as simply as possible and spend time on step 5 editing what you and your pupils have devised.

1. Decide if your piece has a title.

2. From this decision, plan an overall structure for the sections of your piece using plenty of repetition.

The three most common structures are:
a. Section 1 / Section 2 / Section 1
b. Section 1 / Section 2 / Section 1 / Section 3 / Section 1….
c. Section 1 / Section 2 / Section 3 / Section 4….

3. Choose a musical technique that underpins each section. These could include conversations, pentatonic scales, riffs, improvisation….

4. Use the technique you have chosen to make each section in turn. As a rough guide, sections should last no more than a minute.

5. Run your sections together and make any alterations you or your pupils think will help your music.

Music for stories and plays

The only difference here is in the first two steps. You already know your title and the pattern of sections will be dictated to you by the story. The extra things to consider are:

  • Be careful not to mix up music with sound effects. Sound effects may be best avoided.
  • Don’t let the music be too long and take over your story.
  • Be careful that your music is not too loud if people are trying to tell the story at the same time.
  • You may want to use the technique of leitmotif that is normally used for film music (see below).

Music for film

Taking a short piece of film and composing for it can be enormous fun and it is great to work with classic or home-made silent movies. Possible sources of footage are:

  • Footage on the web, for example make your own space odyssey from images from the Hubble telescope.
  • A short sequence from a well-known film can be great.
  • Make a short film about your school or neighbourhood.
  • Make a short picture that relates to topic material that you are covering in class.

Now you are in to leitmotif territory. This is just a fancy word for each character or idea having its own musical theme. Going step by step:

1. Watch the film and plan out the ideas and/or characters you want to give their own themes. Keep this to around 6.
2. Take down the timings for the film and see how you want to fit it all together.
3. Devise your themes. They should be no more than 10 seconds long.
4. Fit the themes together and add in any background ideas.
5. Run your sections together and make any alterations you or your pupils think will help your music.

To watch an excerpt of a film with music created on one of our Soundtracks projects, please click here.

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