By N. M. Weinberger
One of the emerging
themes in music research is that children's capabilities and knowledge
have been vastly underestimated. For example, infants are born with the
ability to perceive and process basic musical sounds and patterns ( MRN,
" The Musical Infant", Spring 1994). So it is with composing music. Studies
have shown not only that children do compose but that by the age of nine
they use the same processes as those employed by professional composers.
When we think about child composers Mozart usually springs to mind. While
not the only child prodigy in musical composition, he certainly is the
best known. But there are many other children who can compose music. Who
are they? Probably every child.
The coin of compositional fame has two sides. We all focus on the accomplishments
and products of composition; this engenders awe and wonderment. "How"
we ask ourselves "... can they do that?!!" Fine -- there is nothing wrong
with recognizing and appreciating the extraordinary, the products of true
creative mastery and genius. But the flip side of the coin is that we
implicitly draw a distinct line, indeed an unbroachable chasm, between
composers and the rest of us. They can do it, we can't.
But this deeply held, yet seldom voiced, belief is only true within limits.
It focuses on the product of composing, the end result, the "piece" we
hear and to which we react. But behind every compositional product, there
is the process of composing music. Because we know that each of us can't
write great music, we assume that we can't compose music. That's really
pretty strange because children routinely and spontaneously compose music.
An account of The Pillsbury Foundation School in Santa Barbara, California
yields an instructive and fascinating example. The school was actually
established to discover children's " ...natural forms of musical expression
and to determine means of developing their musical capacities, particularly
in the field of spontaneous creation." Gladys Moorhead and Donald Pond
have provided many details of children's explorations in music during
the period of approximately 1937 - 1940, in "Music of Young Children".(1)
A large variety of musical materials and instruments from various cultures
was freely available to the students, 1.5 to 8.5 years of age. Normal
toys also were present. Musical exploration and invention was abundantly
exhibited even in the absence of formal musical training. The authors
provide examples of musical behavior and counted their occurance, including
activities such as the composition of chants, the use of different instruments,
the types of rhythms employed, the verbal content of songs, the degree
of involvement of physical movement and the occasions during which various
degrees of composition occurred. Their naturalistic set of observations
certainly supports the view that children need little encouragement to
create music. But this is not quite composition.
A more systematic
series of investigations was carried out in 1941-42 by Dorothea Doig in
the Saturday Morning Music Classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art.(2)
The goal of these studies was to not to provide technical training in
music but rather "... to discover what elements children use before receiving
definite training in musical composition". In these studies, the students
in a class worked together to compose music at increasing levels of difficulty:
(a) composing music for a given text, (b) composing music on a given subject
and (c) composing music to illustrate given musical problems, e.g., original
compositions that illustrated a certain rhythmic or structural problem.
Various classes consisted of children six, eight, nine and twelve - sixteen
years of age. The teacher or an aid recorded the score as the composition
emerged because the students lacked the necessary skills.
The findings revealed a great interest and enthusiasm for composing as
well as excellent group cooperation and interactions at all ages. For
example, the children readily accepted the ideas of their peers, e.g.,
for a different or "more complete" ending to a piece. Some interesting
facts emerged. Students felt the need to sing the composition before judging
it completed. Compositions by older children and by many younger children
exhibited a definite feeling for cadence and for the use of repetition
and contrast. They also showed relationships among phrases and thus the
music produced had definite form. There was a preference for major keys.
Students could write original compositions based on a complicated rhythmic
figure, the dotted eighth and sixteenth note combination. They composed
marches and waltzes and had an excellent grasp of the defining characteristics,
although not the technical vocabulary. Ten year olds even decided to compose
a series of pieces to accompany a play. Overall, the children exhibited
developed concepts of tonality, melodic contour, rhythmic figure and meter.
After a long period of general neglect, there has been renewed interest
in compositional abilities of young children. For example, Rena Upitis
of Queen's University in Canada has been a leader in bringing compositional
activities into the classroom(3) and other have strongly advocated the
importance of actively engaging children in this highly creative activity(4)
(see also " Creating Creativity with Music", MRN, Spring 1998).
much has been known about the actual processes used by children in composing.
In 1989, John Kratus performed a quantitative study of individual composition
in children of seven, nine or eleven years of age.(5) Kratus analyzed
more formal aspects of composition, specifically its three stages: exploration,
development and repetition. Repetition was taken as an indication that
the musical idea was being retained and ultimately repetition of the entire
piece signified completion of the composition.
Each student was given 10 minutes to compose an original piece on a keyboard,
after having become familiar with the instrument. To simplify matters,
all compositions started on middle C and used only white keys. The students
in the sample had little or no formal music training but had received
general music classes as part of the standard grade school curriculum.
Judges rated tape recordings of the compositions at a later date. They
tallied the amount of time spent in exploration, development of musical
ideas and phrases, and in repetition of material (plus periods of silence).
There were no differences in sex but there were systematic differences
in age. Seven year olds spent most of the time in exploration but they
also showed some development of the material they produced and by the
end of ten minutes several were able to achieve repetition of a completed
composition. Nine year olds started out with a high level of exploration
also but this quickly dropped as they spent more time in development and
in repeating their musical ideas. This trend was even greater for eleven
year olds. The students showed great enthusiasm and pleasure in composing.
This study has both practical and theoretical importance. On the practical
side, Kratus suggests that seven year olds be encouraged to improvise
rather than to write complete compositions. On the theoretical side, the
author points out that nine and eleven year olds adequately use the three
process of exploration, development and repetition that are known to be
characteristic of professional, successful composers. Here then, we have
clear evidence of presumably mature compositional processes in children
as young as nine years old.
In a follow-up
study, Kratus investigated the relationship of audiation to the process
and quality of compositions in nine year olds.(6) Audition is hearing
and feeling music when no sound is actually present, i.e., "hearing it
in one's head". Forty children who were not musically trained were first
tested on the Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation test, which measures
how well they can mentally hold tonal or rhythmic information. Later,
they were given ten minutes to compose an original piece. The ability
to audiate was compared to the amount of time spent in exploration, development
and repetition. The quality of the compositions was also evaluated by
The relevance of audiation to creativity in musical composition is that
if children can mentally rehearse or develop musical ideas, then their
period of overt exploration would be shortened and more time could be
spent in development and repetition. Indeed, this was the result. Also,
importantly, the greater the ability to audiate, the higher was the quality
of the composition. Thus, practice in audiation might enhance creative
abilities in musical composition. Kratus concludes that "... 9-year-olds
can be regarded as genuine composers...".
In summary, studies of musical composition in schoolchildren reveal several
things. First, children like to compose and will do so enthusiastically
given a bit of guidance and opportunity. Second, by the age of nine, children
can produce original compositions, and they use the same processes as
do professional composers. Third, development of the ability to retain
sound patterns facilitates composition. Fourth, and most importantly,
musical composition is a truly creative process that is subject to study
Creativity is a commodity in short supply. It is and should be valued
by all segments of society. The composition of music by schoolchildren
has at least two major benefits. It provides a way to understand how children
create. At the same time, it enables them to develop their creative potential.
So, don't worry about whether or not your children, grandchildren or students
can be the next Mozart. They already have the basic ability to compose.
Just give them a chance to experience and enjoy creating music.