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CSR Music Outreach Program 2014: Composing for the young beginner (Part 2)

In Part 1, we have explored notes from a major scale to begin composing your melody. Next is to consider what happens after the first bar. Your melody has to flow continuously and sound good. While some of you can be inspired and continue after composing your first bar of melody, some others may not know how to continue.

Let's go back to my earlier blog posting where I was getting students to begin by creating a one bar rhythmic motif and developing the motif in the second bar. Here is the link:

Once the first bar motif is determined, I had the students clap the rhythm to feel what the continuation should be in the second bar. They had to keep clapping and 'feeling' the groove of the motif quite a few times before it impressed upon some students. Soon enough, some were able to clap a continuing rhythm right after the original motif. This was the development that I was waiting for.

At the next lesson, we worked on developing a motif up till four bars. I started the first bar in Simple Triple time as shown below and got the students to suggest the rhythm for the continuing bars.

After which, we began another in Simple Quadruple time and below were the four bars that the we came up with.   

Then came an interesting observation by the students as they clapped the rhythm. They commented that the first four bars were not that interesting as it was repetitious and monotonous. This is when they were made to understand that though the rhythmic phrase is repetitious and sounds uninteresting, it is because no musical pitches/tones were attached to them yet. It began to make musical sense when we began converting the notes into sounds from a scale to turn it into a melody. A few examples were demonstrated for the students to understand the process.

Once musical pitches/tones are attached to these notes, it will definitely not be monotonous or uninteresting anymore. It will be music, as music should be. Of course, the right choices of musical pitch/tone will decide if the melody sounds pleasant or not. As a further illustration, consider the two songs (from the Piano Lessons Made Easy publications) that we are familiar with since our kindergarten days. 

I can safely say that most of us are familiar with the tune of the above pieces. If we remove the musical pitch of the notes in the opening four bars of both songs, you will notice that the types of notes are exactly the same, as shown below. Clap the rhythm of the notes in these four bars and you will feel that it is exactly the same until you hear the music.

The approach to composing for these young students is to begin with a rhythmic motif, developing it to four bars and assigning a music pitch/tone to each note of the rhythm. Of course, there are other ways to begin composing but when these students learn music strictly from a theoretical approach without instrumental studies, it is a lot more tricky. Obviously, composing with instrumental support is most ideal. We hope the process will encourage all the students to take up learning a musical instrument of their choice.

CSR Music Outreach Program 2014: Composing for the young beginner (Part 1)

Young students generally get stumped and find it difficult to start composing. It is always the very first bar that poses numerous problems; what to write, which notes to use, what sounds good, etc. In short, considering too much.

Furthermore, our students are young primary school students who do not have years of formal music learning and music training. In fact, not many even after having learned music for a few years, are really capable of composing music on their own. Those who do are either prompted and carefully guided, or impressed upon.

Firstly, we have to understand what is required in a composition. A composition basically requires a melody (the tune of the song) supported by chords. Chords provide the harmony to support and accompany the melody. One cannot imagine a song today comprising of only melody without chords. 

Our focus here is on melody writing. Chords require much training to understand. To assist the young students to begin composing, here are some pointers to consider. Let's begin by paying attention to the sounds of a scale. In this case, we take the C major scale that most piano methods and theory books begin with. This about getting the very first bar of a composition started.

Normally, the first bar of a composition uses the Chord I of the scale, which is C chord. Let's explore the sounds of notes from the C major scale with C major chord.

Take a look at the C major scale shown below. Notice that the C chord ( C E G) is in the Bass Clef. Play and hold the chord while playing the scale up and down (ascending and descending) . Notice that all the notes sound fine when played in this manner.

However, when taking each note individually and playing it with the chord will produce different results. Let's consider which of the notes individually suit the C chord. Obviously, the notes C, E and G that form the C chord sounds the best, as shown below. Play the chord and the three notes individually. The sound of all three notes match the chord perfectly. These notes belong to the C chord and are called chord tones.

Next, let's look at the other notes in the scale. The three notes D, A, B played with the C chord may not sound that ideal. The sound of these three notes do not really match with the C chord. But it does not mean that they create a bad sound. They just have to be used with caution. These notes are termed as non-chord tones as they are not the same notes used in C chord.

The only other note left is F note. I left this note till the end here to demonstrate what is considered a 'bad clash' when playing this F note with the C chord. Try it and you will understand what I mean.

Obviously, F note is to be avoided as the starting note with C chord.

Going back to the chord tones, you would not want to compose your opening bar using just chord tones. It will be quite uninteresting. You should mix chord tones with non-chord tones as in the examples below.  Notice that between the chord tone notes are the non-chord tones. Play these examples and feel how they sound to your ears. Notice that none of the examples begin with the F note.

Below are more examples using a mix of chord tones and non-chord tones.

Let's experiment if using just the non-chord tones to compose your first bar of music would work. Play the examples and you will feel that none of them create a good opening melody. As mentioned above, you would want to use a mix of chord tones and non-chord tones.

Again, leaving the use of the F note till here is to demonstrate the musical pitch of F note that does not suit C chord if you compose your opening bar of melody in the manner below.

To compose music is to create music.

Learning music and learning to play a musical instrument is to study the language of music, to know music, to develop the musical mind and bring forth one's musical creativity. However, learning music is not only about being able to read and play music well.

Composing is one of the most creative processes in music. Some of us can achieve this quite easily while it can be a struggle for others. There are many musically inclined people who never studied music formally but can easily compose music. They do this simply by using their musical mind. They can 'hear' music in their head. Majority of us have musical minds. It is only through personal interest in music or through learning music that we begin to develop our musical mind.

For music students though, to begin composing is not to sit thinking or staring at a piece of manuscript paper hoping that some idea will kick in. I am rather amused when I see students trying to 'think' when attempting to compose music. The idea of 'thinking' in such a situation will be quite unproductive.

In fact, the process should be as simple as 'singing' a short musical idea (motif). Most music students seem to find this method impossible because they are always trying to 'think'. Instead, try to 'hear' a musical line (idea) in your head and hum it out vocally. Everything begins from an idea. Likewise with music. There has to be an opening phrase to get things going. Just go ahead and try out as many musical ideas as you can.

To create the opening phrase may require some effort. Hum out a musical phrase and you may have to do it a few times. Listen intently to it and decide if you like it. If not, try another musical idea until you chance upon one that you like better. Once you have found the opening phrase you prefer, try it a few more times so that you can remember it and to let it inspire you to create a continuing second phrase from this. From here, it goes on in the same manner until you have a complete song.

Listening to lots of music from diverse musical styles is a stimulation to start getting musical ideas. From listening, we get a better appreciation and understanding of musical tones. We also begin to get a 'feel' for phrasings and rhythm in the melody. The rhythm part means using a mixture of music notes (minims, crotchets, quavers, etc) to make our melody interesting.

The opening phrase is not to be a continuous long melody. Everyone who listens to popular music whether it is an instrumental or vocal piece (with lyrics) will note that every song opens with a short to medium phrase. Only classical pieces tend to have much longer and quicker lines, though not all.

A complete song does not have to be a long piece. It can be as little as 12 bars of music up to 48 bars, or even more.

Here are some points to consider:
  • Create a 'catchy' melody that is memorable.
  • Avoid too many repeated notes as it can sound monotonous.
  • Requires a mix of different note types of different note values.
  • Ingenious use of chords can greatly improve the composition.
  • Be adventurous with the range of notes.
  • Be sure that the melody is singable.

CSR Music Outreach Program 2014 Part 7: The Sound Of Music

Yes, the hills are alive with the sound of music, and music is alive everywhere.This blog posting is not about the musical of the same namesake but has more to do with introducing the young students to a musical instrument and hearing musical tones.

Although our program is conducted in a large group comprising young students of different ages and does not focus on any instrumental learning, we encourage the students to learn a musical instrument of their choice privately. Learning music is not about learning music theory alone. A musical instrument must be involved, otherwise, learning music will be dull and uninspiring. The only musical activity we do is for me to play on the keyboard and have students accompany using an assortment of percussion instruments. However, one can only go so far with this activity before boredom sets in. There needs to be variety.

For the purpose of our program, the ideal instruments that are affordable and portable would be the recorder and the pianica (also known as the melodica) as seen in the photos here.

Once any student begins learning to play a musical instrument, the appreciation of and interest in music should automatically catch on. From here on, how fast and how committed the student would be will depend
very much on his/her personal interest.

Playing the pianica is a lot more easy than the recorder, which is much more difficult to control. Blow too hard and the pitch will squeal on the recorder. Learning to control the amount of air requires practice and the students were advised to stand in front of a mirror and observe that they cover all the finger holes. Otherwise, they will take a much longer time to master this basic technique.

For these young chargers, getting them to play the instruments in unison produces quite a commotion. Hearing off pitches makes them holler out and clasping their ears, obviously in protest of hearing something not very musical. At least, they can differentiate between 'bad off pitched noise' and good musical tones. Hopefully, it will be off to a good start for them. I will looking forward to 'an experiment' that I wish to conduct during their next lesson and hope to report some success in the next blog posting.

It just so happens that the school has a 'roll up keyboard' that the students find fascinating when I was unfolding it to be plugged in.

Everyone was eager to try playing this keyboard, so I just let them have a go at it towards the end of the lesson. Of course, it's more of a toy than a real musical instrument.