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Research Resource:


Music Composition Processes by


Patricia Riley The revised United States’ National Core Music


Standards focus on the artistic processes students should engage in as they interact with music – creating, performing, responding, and connecting. The process components, or steps, for the creating process are imagine, plan and make, evaluate and refine, and present. This edition of Research Resource features a review of research regarding the processes students employ as they compose original music. Some of this research identifies processes very similar to the revised Standards creating process components (imagine, plan and make, evaluate and refine, and present). Six years ago, Research Resource featured a similar article on processes of student music composition, and this edition offers an updated and expanded version in response to the revised Standards. Ashby (1995), Fautley (2003), Kratus (1989), Levi


(1991), Perconti (1996), and Wiggins (1994) write that children progress through phases as they compose. Marsh (1995) writes of cycles, Swanwick and Tillman (1986) of stages, and van Ernst (1993) of steps. Levi (1991) describes a five-phase process that consists of exploring, focusing, rehearsing, composing, and editing. Kratus (1989) identified four phases. First, children prepare to explore problems and solutions; second, possible solutions are considered, and ideas developed; third, children arrive at tentative solutions; fourth, final compositions are evaluated and refined. He observed that children use different strategies for composing depending on their age. Seven-year-old children compose primarily through exploration. As children become older, they compose through development and repetition. He noted that 9- and 11-year-old children change processes as they compose. They start with exploration, progress to development, and end with repetition. Ashby (1995) reported that 8- and 10-year old children are able to replicate compositions that they have created. Similar to Kratus (1989), Ashby writes that while composing, children’s processes vary. Eight-year-old children use approximately the same amount of time exploring, developing, and repeating musical ideas, while 10-year-old children use substantially less time exploring and developing, and more time repeating musical ideas. Also similar to Kratus (1989), Ashby reported that during the composition process, children generally move from exploring, to developing, to repeating musical ideas. Also like Kratus (1989), Perconti (1996) observed that


children engage in a four-step process. First, they create music assimilating their knowledge of music and the composition task. Second, they notate their ideas; third, they practice and


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edit the ideas; and fourth, they perform their composition for others. Marsh (1995) reported that children progress through cycles, including experimenting, in which new ideas are invented and introduced, and then either saved, revised, or eliminated. Similarly, van Ernst (1993) writes that the music composition process is comprised of four steps. First, students are stimulated to compose; second, they organize sounds;


third, they rehearse their compositions; and forth, they perform them. Student behaviors during the stimulation step include accepting, negotiating, responding to, redefining, and believing in the task. As students organize sounds, their behaviors include exploring, imagining, selecting, rejecting, improvising, playing, developing, and sequencing. During the rehearsing step, student behaviors include repeating, evaluating, analyzing, and reorganizing. Finally, as students perform their compositions, they review and evaluate them. Similarly, Kennedy (2002) investigated the processes of adolescent composers, and reported the processes to be “idiosyncratic” (p. 94). Several components, however, emerged as important, including listening to music at several points during the process, and the need to make time for individual thinking. In the oldest of these types of studies, Swanwick and


Tillman (1986) found that children progress through seven sequential stages as they compose. They refer to these stages as: “sensory, manipulative, personal expression, vernacular, speculative, idiomatic, symbolic, and systematic” (p. 331). During the sensory stage, which generally occurs up to 3 years of age, children experiment with timbre and dynamic extremes. Four-year old children and 5-year-old children progress through the manipulative stage, and, during this time their interest shifts to producing a steady beat, scale-wise patterns, patterns based on intervals, and devices such as trills and glissandos. Compositions during this stage tend to be quite long, and lack direction. During the personal expressiveness stage, musical phrases begin to be developed, and dynamics and tempo changes are explored. The vernacular stage is characterized by the emergence of rhythmic and melodic patterns and sequences, increasingly regular meter, and two- measure, four-measure, or eight-measure phrases. This stage usually occurs between ages 5 and 8. The speculative stage generally occurs around the age of 10, and is characterized by greater experimentation, and a loosening of steady beat and regular phrases to accommodate the experimentation. During this stage, structural elements are explored. In the idiomatic stage, theme and variation, and call and response techniques are developed, and compositions are influenced by popular music. This stage usually continues until around the age of 13 or 14. During the symbolic stage, there is a “strong personal identification with particular pieces of music,” and a “growing sense of music’s affective power” (p. 333). This stage occurs at approximately age 15. The final stage is the systematic stage, and is characterized by reflection, and expansion of possible musical choices. Similar to some of the Kratus (1989) findings, Wilcox


(1994) studied creating processes in relation to exploring, developing, and repeating; and asserts that students investigate


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