Instruments, Literature, Movement, Orff, Rhythm, Singing

Project Based Learning: Composition

Last week I presented at our Board of Education meeting about Project Based Learning in the music room.  I want to share with you what I shared with them.

I think that almost all of what I do in my Orff classroom is Project Based Learning, PBL.  I just had a discussion with a colleague of mine on our “definitions” of PBL and what our “2 minute elevator pitch” would be.  He suggested that PBL, Makerspaces, STEAM learning, are all kind of the same thing.  We agreed that PBL could be easily defined as: “Units of learning that incorporate discovery and application through the eyes and hands of the student; student-focused, student-driven, student-led.”

In my classroom, I try and do this a little bit everyday.  There are lots of times where it is me giving the students the song or activity and them doing it, but I want to incorporate as much student led activity as possible.  One way to do this is through student-led composition.  I use Children’s books as a jumping off point because my students can relate well to the character, themes, emotions, and story line well; then we can tie those to different aspects in the music.

I use the same basic process with each of my grade levels, but tailor it to fit their needs and learning.  Here is the basic overview of the process:

PBL – Music Style

Day 1: 5-10 minutes at end of class

  • Read through book
  • Identify different points in the book that you want to highlight, characters or events that you may want to include in your composition.

Day 2: Rhythmic Composition

  • Review different ideas found in book.  Allow the class to pick 1 idea to focus on.
  • Brainstorm ideas for ways to describe the idea/event.
  • Compose short rhythmic chant using some of the words students used to describe idea/event.
  • Students find the rhythms used in the chant,  Practice clapping and saying the chant with both lyrics and rhythmic words.
  • Extension:
    • Students can create multiple rhythmic chants, depending on their grade level.
    • For 2-3 grades have multiple groups try the rhythmic sentences together as ostinatos.  
    • Pick some Un-pitched percussion instruments to try the ostinatos out on.

Examples of rhythmic compositions

Day 3: Melodic Composition

  • Review the different ostinatos composed the previous day.  Discuss picking 1 for the melody “It needs to be the main idea, like the main idea of a story”.  Practice clapping and saying it multiple times.
  • Move to instruments and set up in desired pentatonic, or set up depending on age level.
  • Review some key ideas about composing:
    • Chose any notes you would like
    • Play rhythm given
    • Keep mallets “chasing” each other, like they are playing tag
    • End on Do or So
    • Make it easy enough you can repeat it
    • Try out all kinds of ideas
  • Allow students to experiment for a few moments with the given rhythm on the instruments, having them find a melody they like.  This will sound like mass chaos, but you know there are some real critical thinking things happening.
  • Ask for volunteers to play their melody.  Pick out 1-2 for whole class to try. Lead class towards picking a melody that will work well.  
  • Add a steady beat bordun or bass ostinato to accompany melodic motive.
  • Extension:
    • This can be done numerous times depending on the age level, just like with rhythmic ostinatos, students can layer different melodic ostinatos on top of each other as well.

Day 4: Final Performance

  • Review all rhythmic and melodic ostinatos.  
  • Pick un-pitched percussion instruments for rhythmic ostinatos.
  • Have students help develop the form of the piece, making sure that each part gets a “solo”.
  • Perform final piece, option to video tape and share later.

1st Grade:

I had 1st grade compose songs for Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Each class chose a different drawing Harold did and wrote rhythmic sentences for that drawing.  We did 2 rhythmic sentences and then turned one of them into a melodic ostinato that the students could play.  You can view the 2018 version here: Harold and the Purple Crayon

2nd Grade:

2nd grade’s process was very similar to 1st grade but just slightly more advanced.  We used the book The Day the Crayons Quit.  Each class chose a different color crayon to write their song about.  Each class created 2 rhythmic ostinatos to use un-pitched percussion instruments for, and also created melodies using the entire pentatonic scale.  You can view the 2018 version here:  The Day the Crayons Quit

3rd Grade + Beyond:

Things got a little more crazy in 3rd grade.  I gave a lot more control over to the kids, which was scary but it turned out really cool. We read Aesop’s Fables, and each class picked their favorite story.  I only read 3-4 for each class so that limited their choices and saved me some time in class as well.  After picking a Fable we talked about the emotion surrounding that story.  How did the characters act, what was the moral of the story, how did it make you feel?

We did not compose rhythm sentences first, we went straight to melodic composing.  I wanted to concentrate on composing in different modes for them so that’s why we skipped ahead.  As a class we set up our instruments in C pentatonic and then explore the different way each mode sounded, based on which notes we started and ended on.  I let the students improvise and see how it sounds ending on C, D, E and so on.  Then they decide which one they think matches the emotion we talked about for their story.

Once we decide on a “mode” (I don’t tell them the modes or anything, just that we don’t always have to start and end on Do, and that it makes the music sound different), we start narrowing down our melodic motives.

My only rules are; 1. Your melody has to be 4-8 beats long 2. You have to be able to remember it enough to teach the class 3. It needs to be simple enough everyone can play it.  By following those 3 rules we get some pretty good melodic ostinatos that we can repeat over and over.  Because they are 3rd graders we even try layering the ostinatos on top of each other. We add a bass part and even decide on a form for the song.  Sometimes the form helps to tell the story, sometimes it is just a basic form.  Here are some examples from 2018: Three Little Pigs  The Lion and the Mouse

We even did a Folk-Tale from Africa:  Anasi the Spider



It is so reward for me and the students to see the end result.  I don’t usually do this until the middle-end of the year because then we can incorporate all the things we have learned into our pieces.  It is great to see the students applying what they know!  These creations really are student led, I only supply some guidance of form and motives I know will work well together.





2 thoughts on “Project Based Learning: Composition”

  1. I like your ideas however I have a question. What is your driving question? PBL is all about inquiry. What you described I do things like this everyday . I am also ORFF trained. However PBL is hard for me to wrap my head around due to the “Solving the Problem” or “Driving Question”?


    1. I agree, which is why at the beginning I kind of talk about how I do this every day in my Orff classroom. For the purpose of this presentation and to have it make more sense to non-music teachers, I’ve tried to include some of these as my driving questions:
      “ if we wrote a soundtrack to this book what would it sound like”
      “ if this book turned into a movie what kind of sounds would we need to make to tell the story?”
      “ oh if we were making a performance, how would we tell the audience what happened in the story if they haven’t read the book?”
      Those loosely fit along the guidelines of driving questions and solving problems but are still very open ended for interpretation in the music classroom. This was quite a few years ago when PBL was a new concept, I would definitely probably do things differently nowadays. I’ve learned more about driving questions and how to incorporate them and it would look different in my classroom today.


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