Composition Kickstarters: 5 Ways to Inspire Your Students to Write Music

By Nicola Cantan | Creativity

Aug 09

Some piano students can be a bit reluctant to compose music. Perhaps they’re nervous, or feel under pressure to come up with something amazing. So much so that they just…can’t get started.

When this happens – don’t give up! These cautious composers usually just need a composition kickstarter to get the ball rolling.

If you’ve ever listened to interviews with composers you’ll know there are many different approaches to kicking off the composition process. There’s no right or wrong, only different ways to get inspired.

Try these five starting points and I bet you’ll convince even your most reluctant students to give composing a try.

1. Chords Up

One way to start a new piece is with a chord progression. The structure, melody, and rhythm can all be built up from there.

My favourite way to help a student find a chord progression to use is:

  • Pick a key (you or your student)
  • Get a blank circle of fifths and highlight this key
  • Colour the chords either side (dominant and subdominant) and the relative minors in a different colour
  • Encourage your student to pick and choose at random from this “palette” of chords until they find something they like

If you want more detailed steps, try this post about Garageband on the Colourful Keys blog.

This method is simple enough for a beginner, it’s fun, and it teaches your student some undercover theory at the same time. Awesome.

2. Melody Down

What about the opposite? If we can work from the ground up can we work from the top down?

Absolutely! In fact, I think this is the most common way students expect to approach composing a piece.

I like to start melody composition with some improvisation to get the juices flowing. This way students are free to explore without the pressure of coming up with the “right” answer straight away.

Here’s how that might work:

  • Choose a scale or pentascale. I recommend being strategic and picking one your student will need soon or needs more practice with for a current piece.
  • Play some kind of simple accompaniment pattern or throw on a backing track (Musiclock is great for this) and ask your student to experiment with the scale
  • Take a mental note of any cool riffs as they go and help them to notate these

A melody will start to emerge from this process. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a few bars – that can be all you need for a really catchy pop piano piece.

3. Get Wordy

Most kids and teens are used to composing poems as part of their school work. Bringing these two arts together is a great thing to encourage and inspire your students in a new way.

Student composition with words

  • Pick a topic and ask your student to write a few lines (3-4 is enough to get you going)
  • Help your student to match a rhythm to these lyrics
  • Experiment together to find a good melody for this new rhythm
  • Build out the harmonies underneath the song and expand the structure from there adding more verses, chorus, etc.

Extra tip: If you have a student that is just too shy to compose the lyrics, ask them to pick out a favourite poem or quote instead – this works just as well.

4. Rhythm Riffing

Do you do clap back exercises with your students? Well, this composition kickstarter is a play on that, but so much more fun.

  • Clap a rhythm and ask your student to echo it back
  • Flip roles, asking your student to clap a rhythm for you to echo
  • Continue until your student comes up with an interesting idea – then help them to notate this rhythm
  • Once you have this rhythm, take it to the piano, playing first on one note then instructing them to experiment with different notes and mixtures until they find something they like

Rhythm first compositions are often some of the best. When students start with the rhythm, they tend not to be so tempted to overcomplicate things. And simple is usually best when we’re learning to compose.

If you want to take this further, you can find more rhythm kickstarters in this podcast episode with Katie Wardrobe. 

5. Steal Something

When all else fails – beg, borrow and steal!

Don’t worry, we’re not going to break any copyrights here. But the best composers imitate until they find their own style. This is how you learn what works, what doesn’t, and the tools of the trade.

unlocking student creativity

So take any little snippet from a piece your student loves, and help them to expand it into something completely different.

This could be anything from a left-hand pattern to a chord progression to an interesting scale. Whatever it is, make sure your student chooses it (not you) and that they love it.

Conclusion

Kickstart your students’ creativity today!

Whichever of these ideas you choose to try first, your students will be better off for it.

Students who get to inject their own personality and identity into their music are more likely to stick with piano and become lifelong musicians. And it’s not as hard as they (or you) might think.

What do you think of these ideas? Are there any other techniques you use to help your students start composing? Please continue the discussion in the comments section below.

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About the Author

Nicola Cantan is a piano teacher, blogger, author and creator of teaching resources. She loves getting piano students learning through laughter, and exploring the diverse world of music making. You can find lots of creative teaching freebies and ideas on her blog Colourful Keys, and her book 'The Piano Practice Physican's Handbook' on Amazon and other bookstores.

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