Engaging students with composition

pedagogy corner May 18, 2020

We are always looking for new ideas to engage our students and what better way than to bring their own creativity into the mix by teaching them musical composition?

by Cynthia Kinnunen, a Music Educator from Guelph, Ontario who's part of Team Uketropolis, offering online ukulele lessons! 

Last month, music educator Angela Dwyer gave us some great ideas about introducing improvisation and composition to your students, especially while we are working through teaching in online environments more regularly.

Much like improvisation, composing is also an opportunity for students to flex those creative muscles.

Composition is another opportunity to engage your students, whether they are in person with you or in a virtual classroom. It builds on skills and fundamentals that you have already been teaching or want to dive more deeply into. Much like improvisation, composing is also an opportunity for students to flex those creative muscles. You can cater composition activities to the levels of your students, whether you’d like them to work on basic notes and rhythms to create a melody, or develop a song with interesting chord progressions and lyrical lines.

And all of this can be done with our favourite instrument: the ‘ukulele!

Using the pentatonic scale

The pentatonic scale might be the hardest-working scale in music! It’s such a useful foundational tool and it’s perfect for getting students started on melody work in composition. Creating boundaries for students, just like we might do in improvisation (jam on just one note, or two, or more), is an approach that can work well in composition, too. A time-tested method for teaching the pentatonic scale can be found in Ukulele in the Classroom.

An exercise like My Pentatonic Composition can get students creating basic melodies using only the pentatonic notes and choosing from a limited group of note values. This is a rewarding exercise for students in the early stages of picking notes and building comfort with that scale.

Related Reading: Music Notation Software For Ukulele Teachers


More experienced students can venture into songwriting using chords they know. This can allow for more exploration into emotions and meaningful themes expressed through their music using chord choices and progressions, melodic lines and more. It can lead to storytelling through music, which is a powerful tool for personal expression.

Why not use some of the repertoire you’ve been teaching from Ukulele in the Classroom to dissect as examples to get them started? You can investigate: 

  • Typical song structures, exploring the sequence and purpose of verses and choruses
  • The story that is told and how it emerges
  • What the melody line looks like and how it aligns with the lyrics
  • What key in the song in and what does that choice do for the story? (e.g. minor vs. major)
  • What chords are used and how they progress through the song

As another warm-up to the songwriting process or as a creative activity in itself if you don’t go the songwriting route you can ask students to re-write the lyrics to an existing song that they know, which is not only fun but also gets them into the habit of linking lyrics with melody lines and rhythms.

Set boundaries for a songwriting activity. It can help students focus and not feel like they’ve waded into the vast depths of the musical ocean without a life jacket. 

Creativity within boundaries 

With all of these things in mind, you can again set boundaries for the songwriting activity, which can help students focus and not feel like they’ve waded into the vast depths of the musical ocean without a life jacket. Some choices/criteria you could include in the assignment:

  • Choose from a designated set of keys that students already have comfort playing in (e.g. C, G, F or Am)
  • Limit the number of chords they may use in their piece (3, 4 or 5)
  • Must use a standard form, e.g. ABABCB
  • Story could be on a particular theme, possibly something timely in news, culture or history, or something they feel passionate about.
  • What other creative ideas could they employ? Dynamics? Vocal harmonies? Instrumental solo? Key change? Rhythmic interest? Articulations?

Students could be asked to submit the song in written format (handwritten or using music software programs) as well as an audio recording. You could allow them to work with others in bringing their song to life or independently. In online settings, you could host an open mic and students can share their songs with classmates. In live classrooms, the same could be offered in-person. These are all great opportunities for students to explore their creativity and build confidence.

For teachers in schools, songwriting can be a wonderful mid- or late-term activity, once you’ve been working with students on fundamentals for some time and you are looking to shake things up. Especially when we are unable to gather in person, finding ways to keep your students engaged is challenging. Composition can be one way to reignite their musical interest!

Cynthia Kinnunen is a Music Educator from Guelph, Ontario and is part of Team Uketropolis, offering online ukulele lessons! www.cynthiakmusic.com


Stay in the Uke Loop!

Subscribe to the Uketropolis Gazette. Free arrangements, tips, interviews and more delivered to your inbox.


Stay in the Uke Loop!

Get monthly teaching tips, learning strategies and interesting interviews delivered right to your inbox.