Listen Imagine Compose

Written by Kirsty Devaney, PhD Student, School of Education – Music

Listen, Imagine, Compose (LIC) is a project designed to investigate pedagogies of composing in secondary schools. It was funded by the Esmée Fairbairn foundation and organised by Sound and Music (SAM), Birmilisten-imagine-compose-ngham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), with Birmingham City University as the lead academic partner. The Listen Imagine Compose report, written by Professor Martin Fautley of Birmingham City University, is based on six action research projects designed to investigate how composing is taught and learned.  The results of the first phase can be found  on the SAM website. The second phase of the research includes delivering CPD to secondary school music teachers. I have written about some of the observations and comments witnessed from the CDP days in Birmingham.

The most recent session was led by Martin Fautley and composer David Horne along with intentionally renowned BCMG saxophonist Kyle Horch. The aim of the session was to explore and evaluate compositional pedagogy techniques for creating music for a specific instrument, in this case the alto saxophone.

Composition Consequences
The first task presented was a type of composition ‘consequences’ game. Every participant had 1 minute to compose one very short section of music (a bar). They could use any type of musical notation (graphic, standard western notation, text). This was then passed around to the person on the right and they had to add a new bar whilst you had to add a new bar to the music from the person on the right. This continued until 8 pieces of music had been created collaboratively by a group complete with dynamics, performance details and titles. These were then performed by Kyle on the saxophone and recorded.

Score 1Performace 1

What was fantastic about this activity was that it avoided any sense of worry about the ‘great’ musical idea as it focused on what you DO with an musical idea. Due to history heralding the ‘great‘ composers and their ‘great‘ musical masterworks there can be a perceived view that a ‘great‘ musical composition is something that can just magically appear, whether it be in a dream or in a spurt of creative inspiration. The truth is composing is a lot of hard work that involves revisions, deleting sections, starting again, reworking ideas, trying aspects out with musicians…The consequences activity did not allow the participants to have the time to worry about the ‘greatness’ of their musical idea. They had to rely on instinct!

Along with notational aspect being developed in the task, the inner ear has an important role to play. The 2009 Ofsted report Making More of Music (Ofsted, 2009) highlighted weaknesses in  ‘internalising sound as a basis for creative thinking’ in secondary school music. Gordan (1993) stressed the importance of developing the inner ear for music students, a term he phrased as ‘audition’. Composer David Horne required the participants to ‘half squint’ at the music and look at the shape to get an idea of the music. David told participants not worrying about the exact rhythms or intervals of the music, but rather to be able to imagine the general feel and understand the outline of the music. It was only after this were they then asked to try to develop the music further. The task integrated both the idea of ‘thinking in sound’ and how it directly related to the ‘symbol.’

‘Thinking in sound, imagining sound, constructing possible sounds in the head and improvising music all have to be established as skills before the symbols for these things to be learnt. When we eventually use the symbols we have already to know how they will sound.’ (Odam, 1995, p.4)

A question was raised about if composers write exactly what they hear in their heads. There can be a misconception that composers have complete pieces of music stored in their heads. David commented that only a small percentage of composers have perfect pitch and that composers often compose in a variety of ways including: on paper, improvisation, on an instrument, starting with a chord or rhythm.

Score 10 Score 9 Score 8 Score 7

Reactions from Teachers and Composers on the activity:

  • It is like the game ‘chinese whispers’ – how others interpret your first bar is nothing like your original intention
  • Shape is important in music
  • Performance is an important part of the composing process
  • Anonymising the process (no names) so students will be less worried about what they produce
  • I liked how dynamics were not an afterthought but were there from the first bar
  • It would be interesting to start this in year 7 (with graphics) and see how they are when they reach year 10. If they were just used to coming up with material quickly.
  • The ‘composer’ is now a ‘collective composer’
  • Lot of different ideas developed in different ways
  • Titles are important
  • What would happen if you had the title at the beginning rather at the end of the task?
  • Employing peripatetic staff an extra for 30 minutes to perform the final composition at the end of a lesson

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