Composition (again)

Is the following an act of composition?

  • Painting by numbers?
  • Following a recipe?
  • Putting up an IKEA wardrobe?
  • Playing a series of notes written down by some else on an instrument?

There is certainly a difference between following instructions and creating something. But is all creation composition? And can a composition be uncreative?

In music, composition is normally termed to be “making up music” but would a child who just repeatedly hits a drum be composing? Is an elephant composing when it hits his trunk on a piano or a cat walks all over the keys? If I gave a child a piece of paper saying “hit the cowbell ten times” that would be termed as a performance as they are following instructions. However, if a child said “I am going to play the cowbell ten times” and then plays it, that would be an act of composition. If I said to a child you need to make a composition on the cowbell. Decide how many times you are going to play it and then play it”, this too would be an act of composition as it requires thought and the requirement to make a choice or choices. This suggests that composition can only be composition if there is prior thought put into the activity by the individual(s) and there is an element of choice. But then would improvisation be composition? Improvisation is making up music as you go along, so isn’t this just performance? However, a good improviser is someone who creates music on the spot but who has put a lot of prior thought into it beforehand, often over many years. As any good jazz improviser will tell you, you need to know your scales in every key to improvise well.

From this line of thinking, it seems that composition is music that is made up with prior thought where choices need to be made. It therefore stands to reason that people with more knowledge of music should be better at composition as they know more and people with more experience of playing an instrument should also be better. However, this is not the case as there are many elite musicologists and performers who say, often with sadness, that they are “useless at composition” or simply “can’t compose”. This is probably because what they think of as composition is a lot more complicated. Given eight bars starting on C and ending on C they could probably make up something in the middle but they are also equating the activity of composition within the constraints of harmony – usually Western tonal harmony. So when does composition require knowledge of harmony? Does it need to? And why if it doesn’t do so many musicians think that it should?

If knowledge of tonal harmony is considered important in the act of composition, is a note row a composition? A note row is a technique often attributed to Arnold Schoenberg in the early twentieth century where each tone has equal importance negating the whole need for tonal harmony. This basically is the equivalent of painting by numbers if you substitute colour for pitch. Some knowledge of rhythm of course is important unless your note row is simply a series of different notes of uniform or undefined duration. Also, a mathematician could probably create an excellent tone row – is it a musical composition if anyone could do it? If a computer generates it, is it a composition? Boulez composed his “Structure 1a” as a serialized piece, mathematically serializing each musical element. This could be programmed as a mathematical algorithm. We could even program in randomization into the algorithm. Does this mean you don’t have to be human or even alive to be a composer?

Also, what is the difference between composition and plagiarism? Did Mahler compose his 1st Symphony or did he just take “Frere Jacques”, turn it into a minor key and orchestrate it? If you took any existing major tune and flatten the 3rd would this be a new composition? Where is the gap between creation and plagiarism? This goes way back to the beginning of what we know from music history – some of the first written-down compositions that we can find plagiarized or incorporated a cantus firmus melody originally chanted by monks.

It is for these reasons that we can make sense of the changes in attainment targets for the National Curriculum for Music in England and Wales. To start with there were three – performance, composition and listening. These were along the lines promoted by Keith Swanwick when the original curriculum was devised although he talks about “audition” rather than “listening”. This is why so many music lessons divided each lesson into three so each attainment target was met. Many music teachers in the 1990’s would spend 30% of their lesson listening to music, 30% performing and 30% composing and leave 10% for tidying up. This was almost impossible considering time restraints in a music lesson and led to singing being marginalized as that was something that could be covered in whole school assemblies. This was one of the reasons why the National Curriculum was changed to two attainment targets “performing and composing” and “listening and appraising”. This makes sense because, as we have seen, performance and composition are interlinked in many ways and it is a greyer area than many people think. Finally music ended up with one attainment target “music” and this is the one that is currently used. The general idea is that performing, composing and listening happen in lessons but are not split up into their components.

The fundamental problem is that it assumes that performance, composition and listening are all the same level of difficulty. They are not. Another is an assumption made that these elements should all be delivered together every lesson. This is a mistake. To understand this we need to think about Bloom’s taxonomy and its ranking system. Bloom’s is not gospel and there are many things in the model that we can disagree with. However, as a general principle it is fair to say that “creating” is a more complex intellectual skill than “remembering”. Some educators say that in a good lesson we should start each lesson at the bottom of the pyramid and end with the top. In music’s case, that would mean we should start with listening, go to performing and then end with composition. Unfortunately, this is a complete misunderstanding of the taxonomy. The whole point is that each level builds on the foundations of the levels before. So to get good creative work, what we should be doing is building very strong prior foundations. This takes time and requires a solid knowledge base. In music lessons, this would suggest that we should be focused more with listening, aural and performance skills in the younger years and creation should be the priority in the senior years. I am not advocating that there should be no composition in the youngest years, but there should be less of it than later on when children have more musical experience. This stands to reason – a good chef has good knowledge of recipes but understands that a certain ingredient will make something new and delicious. Without that knowledge it is a matter of trial and error to discover a new recipe. Sometimes by luck this could happen but most of the time it would be a culinary disaster. The same goes for music – if we build the creation of music on the firm foundations of aural, listening and performing work with a good theoretical knowledge then we have more chance of it being successful.

What I believe should be happening in music education is a gradual transition. The youngest children should be doing a predominately aural and performance based curriculum whereas the oldest should be predominately creating music. However, this is not the case as many children struggle with composition, not because they haven’t been doing it, but because they are building on sand as not enough listening, aural, performance and theoretical skills have been emphasized when they were younger. This is not because teachers have concentrated on composition but because composition takes so much time to set up – getting the instruments ready, allocating groups, setting parameters before any composition work has actually begun. And composition requires thought and there is so little time to actually think in a fifty minute class where you have to produce some sort of quality end product. Finally, all lessons are zero-sum games as they are based in time – if you work on composition, something else has to give and normally that will be to the detriment of aural and performing work.

Sadly, many children come out of their musical education at the age of fourteen and can barely play an instrument, have little to no musical literacy skills, know next to nothing about musical history and when asked say “we just played the keyboards” or “messed around in groups”. This is not because music teachers are terrible, it is because the curriculum has been inadequately organized and composition overtly or unconsciously emphasized. There is also a lack of joined-up thinking as secondary colleagues can sometimes know nothing about the musical accomplishments of the children they are inheriting. I have worked in schools where the secondary music teacher says “we start from scratch as they haven’t learned anything in primary”. There is also a lack of awareness of educational psychology and how children learn, especially when concerned with cognitive load theory and its implications.

Fourteen should be the age when the majority of composition starts. By this age, all children should have good aural skills, can sing in tune with a repertoire of hundreds of songs, can play at least a dozen pieces of music to a good standard on an instrument, can understand standard Western notation and basic harmony and have some insight into some of the best music that has been composed and played around the world. And then with good instruction, as composition still needs to be taught well, children will have a better chance of creating music they can be proud of.

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