How to Get Your Students Writing Their Own Songs

Lately, at MCS we have been working on learning the guitar. Before this, we had done recorder and many of the students learned what C major scale and G major scales are. We were able to use words like “key” and “pitches,” and “steps.” Guitar started in January and students were working at their own pace but we all at least got comfortable with the chords Em, C, and G. They were introduced to or had some experience with the chords D, Am, and F. As well, most learned the first 3 to 5 notes of the C major scale. They had played a few chord progressions, and a few melodies. Near the end of the guitar unit, I showed them this video:


I explained that most songs only use 4 chords. I used this chart to help them understand what a I-V-vi-IV progression was and how we can transpose it to other keys and the pattern still stays the same. (see “Major Scale Chords”)Figure 1

My plan since December was to have students begin to write their own songs for the Spring Concert in June this year. Our spring concert includes students in grades 4 through 6. So, after they learned a few chords and already understood what ‘key’ meant, I thought it was a perfect time to begin writing their own songs to be performed in the spring concert. If all goes well, the concert will be at least 50% original music. The rock bands have already written their own songs and will likely be adding them to the show. If you sit down and think about it, what other art form presents a show with 100% reproduced works? I can’t think of any. Music is creative, but many times it is not being taught in a way that stimulates this creative aspect.

My Process

Chord Progressions

As you can tell from the Major Scale Chords chart, and what I have already presented, the students were already familiar with the I, iii, IV, V, and vi chords in the key of C and the I, ii, IV, V, vi and flat VII chords in the key of G. Also, knowing from watching 4 Chords that most songs in the world use only 4 chords, students possess the knowledge and skills they need to write a chord progression of their own in either C or G. I thought since we were just on the tail end of our guitar unit that chord progressions would be the best place to start since those concepts are the freshest in their minds. We began by writing our own chord progression as a class using the Major Scale Chords chart. I asked the students to pick a key between C and G explaining that we know most of the chords in those keys. I also touched on the concept of the flat VII chords. Once key was established I told them that if we are in C, we must have a C chord in it somewhere. The root chord is usually at the beginning or the end of the progression but I never told them where it had to be because I wanted them to get their creative juices flowing. We would pick 3 or 4 chords and put them in order, then I would play it for them and they would listen to see if they needed to change something or keep it. Here is an example of how we wrote it on the board and how I taught them to write theirs:

Many would be able to tell if something was off about the progression and want to change something. They know more than we think because they are constantly listening to music on the radio or other places. It is engrained in their DNA. My words of wisdom as they were composing were: If it sounds good, it’s probably good. Adversely, if it sounds bad it’s probably… you guessed it – bad! Or from the words of pop music instructors at the Rottertam Academyt for Music Education, “Everything that you think sounds good is good. Your own ears are the
only essential criteria. There are no other musical rules” (Frits, 2006, p.180, emphasis in original). After our mini lesson, I sent them on their way to find a chord progression of their own. They were also told to write everything down. I gave them the Major Scale Chords chart and some blank staff paper. Some of the more advanced students knew enough chords or had enough work ethic to try other keys and experiment with altered chords.

The Map

I used this map (see “The Simple Map”) to help students find ideas for their chord progressions if they were completely stuck. I did one mini-lesson on it.
To use this map, you first need to decide if your progression starts on I or another chord. If it starts on I, then begin with that and then jump anywhere else on the map. After this, follow the arrows. If you don’t want it to start on I, then start wherever you would like and then follow the arrows.

For a couple of groups, as a way to help with writer’s block, I introduced them to chord extensions. I showed them an example of what I meant. I started with a standard progression of C, Am, F, G and then added extensions to a couple of them to change the feel to something like CM7, Am7, F, G7. Some students really liked the change while others were unimpressed! I showed them a couple of books that have all the extensions possible on guitar in case they wanted to try a few.

Melodies

After I felt that students had a handle on chord progressions and what they look like, we started to experiment with melodies to go along with our chord progression. Many knew that if their song was in G, that they needed an F# instead of an F. Also, I found,  many were confused about what a melody actually was. I had done an entire lesson on composing a melody and assumed they knew what I meant. They had even played tonnes of melodies on recorder and on guitar earlier and many were still confused. The next class I had to take a step back and rework how I presented it. I asked them “How would you explain what a melody is to someone who knew absolutely nothing about music?” I got a range of answers from “It is how the song goes” to “melodies are one note at a time.” Clearly, those students understood but had a hard time really putting it to words. We eventually agreed that melody was the part of the song that is sung or the tune of the song. After that was established, I had a volunteer come up to the front of the class with an Orff mallet instrument. I asked another student in the class if we could use their chord progression. They gave me a chord progression that was in the key of C, we wrote it on the board and I instructed the student on the Orff instrument to play along with me. They, right away, began playing the root notes of the chords. Many couldn’t seem to separate the chords from the melody even though we have done plenty of jamming in this fashion on recorder. I told them to ignore the chords on the board and to make something up. We started to get somewhere. Then I told the class and the volunteer to pick 3 to 5 notes from the scale and repeat them in a pattern. When they tried this, the student began to compose a really catchy song. This seemed to ‘click’ with many students in the class  so I told them that they were able to use one of the following instruments to come up with a melody for their song: Their voice, an Orff mallet instrument, a guitar, a recorder (since many could already play in C and G on it) and a piano or keyboard. Many times during these melody writing sessions, I would go around with my guitar and play chord progressions for students so they could hear their melodies with their chords.

After a couple of sessions writing melodies some students were migrating into their own groups and writing songs together. By the third time, I told them that if if they wanted, they could get into groups to start composing together. I told them that they didn’t need to start writing a new song if they decided to go with a partner now, they could simply help their partner with a new part of their song. I found that many would help and then settle on a song between them that they wanted to take to the next level.

Lyrics

When it comes to lyrics, I never know where to start. I find it difficult to come up with the right words in a poetic way. Many students seem to have a bit of a knack with words and can write lyrics to songs quite easily. For those who don’t have this seemingly magical skill, there are word webs.

I did a mini-lesson using a word web to write a verse of a song to show how to use it. The word web that I used had the topic box at the top and then two boxes extending from that. One was a feeling associated with the topic and the other was a fact. From there, we came up with words or small phrases that would come from the word before it until we felt we had enough or filled the page. Somehow, depending on the group, our songs ranged from being about how much we hate transformers to having a best friend who can’t dance and finding out later that it’s Sponge Bob.

Having lyrics first can sometimes help with writing a melody. Some students had a bit of a melody before writing their lyrics but when they started coming up with lyrics, their melody changed drastically to fit the words of the song. There is nothing wrong with this.

End Goal

Right now, students seem to be forming into groups and some are wanting to write a song as a whole class. There might be a mix of that with some smaller groups and some larger groups. What I envision is that if we end up going with the whole class approach that there will be groups or individuals with many different snippets of a song already composed. Many of these will be in the same key as most could only choose between 2 different keys making it relatively easy to combine snippets into one larger piece of music. Some tunes may have lyrics to go with it while others may not. This week, I am going to be showing students a ‘mentor text’ of sorts to show how songs are constructed and the different parts of a song so that we can construct a song from parts that are already written among the class. This is a project that I have never tried to do before, especially for a concert. I am really excited to see what comes of it. After all, shouldn’t all of our concerts in school have at least some original student material? I mean, we are always talking about how creative music is, so why not get students creating instead of recreating?

Happy musicking!

References:

Evelein, F. (2006). Pop and world music in Dutch music education: Two cases of authentic learning in music teacher education and secondary music education. International Journal of Music Education, 24(2), 178-187. doi:10.1177/0255761406065479

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