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Abstract

Building on an apposition of the theories of neurobiologist Antonio Damasio and music theorist Heinrich Schenker, we posit a new model for developing composition instruction based upon the organic connections between humans and music. Parallels are drawn between Damasio’s theory of consciousness in which meaning arises from the relationships between body, emotion, and feeling; and Schenker’s theory of musical structure in which opportunities for meaning making are revealed between the ursatz (background), mittelgrund (middleground), and vordergrund (foreground) layers of a musical work. The resulting principles-based approach to instruction reprioritizes the roles of elements and compositional techniques to foster greater expressivity in children’s compositions.

Angelina swings her teddy bear through the air singing a little tune “teddy bear, teddy bear, flying way up, up, up.” She continues to play wrapping her bear in a fluffy blanket and stuffing it into a small toy swing. She sings her melody again with some small changes, “teddy bear, teddy bear, swing up high, fly up high.” Angelina is three.

Carlos races through the yard waving a spaceship through the air. His spaceship is of his own creation, built with small plastic blocks. He stops to explain how it transforms from spaceship to underwater ship to car and then returns to his play. As his ship transforms he makes a variety of mechanical sound effects and then a traditional blasting off sound. As he continues to play he hums and sings interchangeably making a soundtrack for his play full of characteristically heroic motives. Carlos is five.

Third graders Susanna, Ariuaj and Chang enter the front of the classroom carrying metallophones, maracas, triangles and hand drums. As his partners set up the instruments, Ariuaj turns to the audience of classmates, parents and siblings to offer a brief introduction for the piece entitled, “Rainy Saturday.” Ariuaj then rejoins Susanna and Chang to perform their composition paralleling the onset, tempest, and conclusion of a southwestern rainstorm. Appreciative applause follows and the third graders grin their satisfaction. Susanna, Ariuaj and Chang are eight.

Micah sits in the school computer lab in front of a screen exhibiting a sequencing program. He is clicking on the mouse and dragging sound samples onto a grid. After a few minutes of work, he plays his piece. A Jamaican-inspired drum line underpins the piece with guitar swirling above. Micah pauses, cuts the guitar lick in half, merges it with a short piano motive and plays the entire piece again. Micah then opens another program that reveals a short movie that he has filmed and edited himself. He drops the music onto the film and waits as the computer processes the information. After a few moments, he plays his movie and soundtrack nodding his satisfaction. Micah is 11.

Denim and sequin clad Larkin plops down on a furry hot pink butterfly chair in her room. She plugs in her electric guitar, adjusts a few dials and begins to strum. She sings a quietly reflective song of heartbreak. After singing through the refrain, Larkin pauses to scribble some words in a notebook of her own poetry. Each page is covered with arrows, scribbled out text, chord symbols and other notations. Larkin glances again at the flyer announcing the school district’s “Songwriter’s Contest” and the concert night for winning songs. She adds a few words to her notebook page and starts searching for a verse. Larkin is 16.

These vignettes reveal only a small portion of the rich landscape that can be the musical life of children who compose. We see through their work that the act of assembling sounds meaningfully is both a natural and desirable activity for children. But what is it about the act of composing music that is so desirable and even necessary for human beings? And how does it contribute to comprehensive musicianship?

We regularly engage in three dimensions of musicality—creation, performance and reception—but the creation aspect that is so easily observed in children’s daily activities is often overlooked in educational settings. Yet, it is in the act of creating, or making something completely new and original to ourselves, that we evidence our capacity to shape, manipulate, and reveal our musical understandings. In order to fully explore why we are drawn to music—and specifically to the creation of music—we must consider what music composition is, why we seek to create music, and who can be a composer. It is the answers to these questions that will reveal why music composition is an artistic engagement worthy of time, study and financial support within our school music programs.

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