‘I Can’t Compose’

Written by Kirsty Devaney, PhD student, School of Education

Composing is a part of the current GCSE and A level examinations. Although composing is a part of the national curriculum not all student have significant experience of composing before they reach GCSE if they decide to take a GCSE in music. The word ‘composing’ to many GCSE and A level music students can be associated with fear a lack of confidence and not knowing where to start.

The Young Composers Project was set up by Birmingham Conservatoire for students aged 14-19 to help overcome these issues and allow students experience professional composing practice and work with current Conservatoire students.

“I want them to have the experience of being a musician: creating, interpreting and responding to music…feeling musical.(Mills, 2002)

The scheme has been an action research project over 16 months with a total of 22 students. Data was collected from:

  • Semi-structured interviews
  • Online open blog
  • Video interviews
  • Student self-evaluation forms & graffiti walls
  • Interviews with classroom teacher

YCP [session 2] -23

Kayla Findings:

Three main contributing factors relating to student confidence are:

  1. Preconceptions of composing
  2. Assessment of composition in school
  3. Sharing their music with others


“That you have to be Mozart to compose” (Mills, 2002)

Students pre-perceptions were that the workshops would focus on notation and that other students would be ‘better’ than them.The mixture of students working alongside Conservatoire composers & young professionals helped demystify composing, diminish stereotypes and show a clear progression route.


We created a safe environment & community for them to experiment with their music without fear of assessment or getting it ‘wrong’.

“I like the way that nothing is deemed as ‘bad’. It’s really great to be in an environment where you can compose whatever you like without fear of people not liking it.” (YCP Student 2014)

Sharing music with others:

At the start of the project students scored very low in confidence for sharing their ideas and said they had received negative remarks in the past. Informal sharing of ideas and works in progress, with positive feedback from peers and tutors, was done in every session.

“All composition pupils feel desperately exposed in bringing their first efforts for scrutiny. A chance negative remark, however, can send them plummeting down…” (Odam, 1995)

The best thing about the group is the mixture of backgrounds…There’s a really good atmosphere.” (YCP Student 2014)

YCP [session 3] -6

Action points:

  • Ensure composing reflects real composing practice (commissions)
  • Combination of open and closed composition tasks
  • Encourage live performances of the music where possible
  • Plan for a mixture of whole group, pair and individual composing work at all stages
  • Allow the opportunity for students share their ideas with the group
  • Give regular positive and constructive feedback without the mention marks or grades
  • Allow students to find their own process of composing
  • Create a safe environment to try out new ideas without fear
  • The need for notation must come from them
  • Introduce living composers & songwriters new music into the lessons
  • Signpost other composing opportunities in the area

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *