It never ceases to amaze me how my students, no matter what their experience with music, all have a desire to make music. It’s something innate within them, seemingly engrained in their social being, that tells them ‘I need to create something that I and my friends will enjoy.’ For some students or musicians, they are able to pick up an instrument they have been playing for years and readily compose and improvise wondrous original, rhythmic or flowing melodies and chord progressions. But for many students who do not have that experience (yet) the reality is that it will take a lot of work until they will be able to do likewise with skill and purpose.
Music Technology developments have done a lot to bridge the gap. Apps like GarageBand and other free/low cost sequencing programs and software such as Soundation and Acid give these students a boost, but as a result, the creative process can sometimes become divisive and lonely, especially for middle school students.
Like many other teachers who see the benefits or songwriting opportunities in the classroom, I have my own perspectives and favourite units of work on the subject in which I painstakingly mapped out the scaffolding of notation, theory and song analysis activities so students would have all the prior knowledge they needed when it came to writing their own songs independently. I love teaching it, but, for me, my approach has always reflected songwriting as being an individual pursuit, mainly because that’s what it has been for me personally and what is easiest when it comes to assessing student understanding, but a recent workshop I attended helped me turn a corner in my approach to songwriting in my classroom and already it’s already making a big difference for students.
The workshop I attended was the ‘Songwriting Workshop for Teachers‘ held at Fremont-Elizabeth High School for free by the Music Council of Australia in conjunction with Musical Futures Australia. The group attending was quite an eclectic mix of teachers ranging from primary to secondary, music and general classroom teachers, some with a focus on ESL, and even another professional songwriter. While we all came to the workshop with different intentions for future incorporation of songwriting into classroom practice, through out the day, under the tutelage of veteran professional songwriter Dave Norton and Musical Futures Australia guru, Ken Owen, we all collaborated and found common ground and new insights into the songwriting process.
There were many inventive techniques and starting points for songwriting that Dave and Ken presented through out the day but one activity that stood out was the use of ‘Germs.’ No, not the sickness causing kind, but rather infectious ideas as starting points. The group was divided up into lyricists and musicians. For lyricists, the ‘germs’ were unfinished sentences or strange combinations of words upon which a song could be formulated based on what ideas they evoked for each individual. For the musicians, they were given 4 or 5 randomly drawn chords from a hat which they could use in any combination but were limited to, or a common four chord progression (other than I-V-vi-IV).
After each group had written on their own for 30 minutes, lyric and music groups were randomly paired up and asked to combine the two into a song that could be performed for the whole group. The results were wide and varying in style and meaning but all thoroughly enjoyable because they communicated something seemingly personal.
What I have taken away and how I am beginning to integrate it
Returning to my classes after the songwriting workshop, I have endeavoured to integrate more opportunities for collaborative songwriting. I have already used the ‘germ’ activity as collaborative task for my year 10 music students to write a song as a class, as an introduction to independent songwriting strategies and I’ve been very pleased with the results so far. The process of integrating a collaborative approach has emphasised, for me, the importance of social connection through music and I can really see that the learning going on, no matter how haphazard it may seem at times, really is meaningful to each student in the group. You could put that down to being just what happens when students are given the freedom to express themselves on their own terms, but I haven’t given them all that much freedom in the end really.
By restricting the range of chords musicians could use, meant (somewhat) forcing them to think outside the box when it came to constructing chord progressions (for the record, the randomly drawn chords from a hat they ended up with were D, E, Em, G and Ab). I encouraged them to come up with at least 3 possible chord patterns they could play in both 4/4 and 6/8, but no more than that, and no instruction to ‘write a riff/chorus/verse/etc’ until the groups were joined back together.
In the lyrics group, the first thing we did was simply empty our minds of anything and everything we were thinking at the time by putting it down on paper in a 2 minute free-writing exercise (I also did the same along side them). After which, some shared their random thoughts before we went back through our own ramblings on paper and underlined words, combinations of words or phrases that could represent a song theme or song title. There were some really interesting ideas, but one struck a chord with the group most, so it was chosen as the theme for the class song. What followed was a brainstorm of relational themes, words, ideas, events, situations around the theme and a debate about whether it should rhyme or not – “no, it doesn’t have to rhyme,” I said, “but it’s a creative decision for you to make as a team.” They decided that making it rhyme would be easier. Together they constructed a rough poem like sketch of what lyrics for a verse or chorus might look like.
When the groups came back together to share what they had, each group was impressed by the others creative products but they were acutely unaware of how they were going to combine them into something cohesive. I stepped in at this point as a mediator to help the two groups begin to find their common ground through asking the lyricists what progressions they liked best and what time signature the musicians though the lyrics would work best with. Once it was decided which progression belonged to which lyric section and how fast it should go, they found it a lot easier to ask each other’s ideas and opinions and the song took on a life of its own. After about 4 lessons, the song is nearing completion and the whole class can play the chords and say the lyrics along with the rhythm they have created for them. At this point, it is still lacking a definitive melody or riff, but considering the leaps and bounds so far, I know it will come with patience and perhaps a session on improvisation in the next couple of lessons. I’ll try and update this post when they have finished and recorded the result.
It’s been a real eye opening experience to consider songwriting from a collaborative perspective. As I mentioned before, this process, to me, has often been an independent endeavour, but being able to collaborate with others on the same level in the workshop like my students really helped me. Maybe I needn’t have been so personal about my own songwriting in the past after all.
There’s certainly a few questions I’m asking myself about my previous learning plan on this topic, since I’ve more or less been drastically turning some of my own preconceptions on this topic on their heads in this change of approach
- Why did I always teach the theory first before the songwriting? The students are quite capable of making creative decisions about the sound of chords in sequence without knowing the cyclic progression of chords in a diatonic key.
- Why don’t I teach songwriting on this scale to my year 7s, 8s and 9s? For what reason did I decide long ago that Year 10 was the year to do songwriting?
- Where will we go from here? When so much of the process thus far has been based on randomness and collaborative thought, how will the students go when they have greater individual responsibility?
My main point is…
I was half way through this article when, on the stereo in the background, the song ‘Bloom’ by The Paper Kites came on. At the end of the first verse my ears perked up at the lyric
“you fill my head with pieces of a song I can’t get out.”
It seemed to sum up perfectly the point I wanted to make with this post. Students have a lot of ideas for making their own music and I believe they should be empowered to explore them and I guess, in the reality of things, studying AMEB theory to a certain level as a pre-requisite for any form of composition is a formality that need not apply in all circumstances. Given the pieces of a puzzle, kids will make them fit however they want. Perhaps music teaching and learning design doesn’t always have to focus on reconstructing the same picture in order to arrive at the same overarching conclusion? But rather, learning design lies in the careful design of interchangeable ‘tabs’ and ‘blanks’ that give every student a level of supported freedom? Let them get their ideas out, help them find the pieces they need, then let them put the puzzle together themselves.
Ideas and tips for songwriting in the music classroom
So, here are the best ideas and tips I took away from the workshop on the day as well as the things I have learnt (so far) along the way in teaching my updated songwriting unit are:
- Collaboration on songwriting tasks can be just as important as independent composition. In being thrown together with others with a need to find common ground, students develop communication skills in being able, even willing, to stand by and justify the musical merit of their ideas and to let things go and compromise. They also experience the need to articulate clearly what they want musically from another member of the group.
- Compose a song as a class to model different songwriting strategies.
- Divide into groups of musicians and lyricists so that students can play to their strengths in the initial stages of composing a song. When they think they have a handle on something worth while, mix the two groups together and get them to combine their ideas into a song or section of a song.
- No matter the age or musical ability of your students, there are an entry point to songwriting for every learner. Some differentiated approaches to songwriting can include:
- writing parody songs or re-writing lyrics for existing songs
- using pre-recorded, original backing tracks for students to support experimentation with lyrics and melodies
- using music technology to construct accompaniment parts or play chord progressions with limited musical skill
- setting defined parameters for a song such as it’s overall form or using flash cards of popular chord progressions that need to be integrated.
- Start with a song title or ‘working title’ to give songwriting activities a theme. It could be something with personal meaning or a combination of words drawn from brainstorming or free-writing sessions
- Add an element of surprise such as limiting musicians to use only 4-5 chords chosen at random our of a hat or certain incomplete sentences or combinations of words that have to be incorporated into the song some how.
- Student choice = student voice, but that doesn’t mean you have to give them free-reign. Students genuinely want to make music that matters to them and others, they just need the opportunity and the tools to help them overcome the learning curves that are sometimes in the way. Free choice can be overwhelming, but creating boundaries and frameworks in and with which students can make creative decisions can support learning and success at all levels.
- Be a manager rather than a teacher. Show interest in student ideas and invite other students to appreciate and/or share in those ideas. When groups need to make a decision and maintain productivity, have them articulate what the options are and mediate a group vote on how to proceed. If something doesn’t quite sound right, ask students to explain why they chose that particular sound or combination of sounds. Use open ended questions rather than explicit correction, as a last resort, use “What if…” questioning, eg. “What is you played that chord like this instead? Which sound would you prefer?”
- Encourage collaboratives problem solving. If students need or want to know about how to do something specific or achieve a particular sound, try using the ‘Ask 3 Before Me’ rule to see if collaborative problem solving gives them the answer they need before approaching you directly.
Where to get stuff
The resources from the ‘Songwriting Workshop for Teachers’ along with videos of the activity sessions, pre-recorded original backing tracks for students to use, worksheets and lesson plans for a 6 week unit on song writing will be made available via the Musical Futures Australia website following the final workshops currently being presented on a nationwide tour. Rest assured, I’ll be reporting and tweeting links to the FREE resources left right and centre, including via the ASME SA Facebook page.
If your students are interested in taking their songwriting a step further, there are some amazing opportunities available for young Australian songwriters. Why not encourage them to submit their work in to competitions such as the ASME Young Composers awards , The ACMF National Songwriting Competition, Triple J Unearthed High or the Music Count Us In songwriting competition at the beginning of each school year?
***Apologies for the long post, It just seems to be my style at the moment, feel free to have your say or give editing tips in the comments, thanks!***