Compositional Tinkering in the Music Room

In this article, I explore if a music educator can and should think of composition as tinkering. Traditional compositional pedagogy may miss valuable and enjoyable learning experiences the tinkering process can provide. The playful, fun, and investigational approaches of tinkering enable learners to constantly reassess ideas, paths, and goals. Through personal compositional tinkering and observations of students, I believe music educators can and should think of composition as tinkering. If used correctly, it could serve as a powerful and fun stepping-stone (or in some instances substitute) for more traditional compositional pedagogies.

I have taught many students in musical ensembles that add their own interpretations to a piece. They enact some form of creative license and insert appoggiaturas and mini-melisma’s into lines, add thirds or fifths for harmony, and experiment with how they can add complexity to the fabric of a song. In some instances, I have had students who enjoy taking this creative flare further and begin creating their own pieces of music. I have always encouraged this enterprise, as I believe playing the music was only part of what those dots and squiggles on the page could represent; other items to consider include how those notes fit into the grander themes of the piece and how the particular instrument playing those notes fit into the ensemble.  I believe all of these elements, once realized, would make a more thoughtful and mindful musician. However, how I typically encourage composition is by saying, “here are the instructions for writing a piece of music. Ensure the intervals between each musical line meet the instructions. You will be evaluated on how your piece sounds.” To my chagrin, many students would be less enthusiastic about composition after hearing these rules. And no wonder, I had imposed strict guidelines on their creativity and interest in creating music.

A typical Rock Choir rehearsal. In this image, students are learning the main melody of a popular song while the others provide accompaniment. Photo by Lakefield College School.

In my structured example above, the students were composing, but the way in which they were doing so caused them to miss out on some valuable learning experiences. Therefore, I wanted to find a different approach to engage with composition – one that could be fun, collaborative, and playful. As such, I turned to the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, which I believe is one of the best places to find resources for encouraging play in teaching. Headed by Dr. Mitch Resnick, this group of researchers and educators works to develop technologies and activities that promote creative and fun learning experiences. When considering composition, Resnick & Rosenbaum outlined the approach I found most thought-provoking: tinkering. [1] They explained that the tinkering process can be lively and investigational, in which learners constantly reassess ideas, paths, and goals. They argue that this style of adaptive and creative problem solving is not only fun to undertake, but may be crucial in a rapidly changing and complex world. So I wondered: wouldn’t it be great if composition could be more like this? Can and should one think of composition as tinkering?

To begin my exploration, I reviewed and read about the integral components of tinkering and how they could relate to composition. Through this process, it became clear that music making and tinkering has not been discussed frequently, but has been discussed in depth by E. Rosenbaum through his Ph.D. thesis [2]. I used it to guide my exploration and interaction with this topic.

First, to design for ‘tinkerability’, immediate feedback is needed. The rapid succession of mini-experiments drives further experimentation. [1] To have immediate feedback, the tinkerer must be able to see (or hear) the results of their experiment and then make adjustments as they progress. In composition, this is analogous to when the composer hears the music. Second, in tinkering the feedback process must encourage modification as more information is collected. [1] In composing, this is the messy fumbling-about where the musician uses feedback to find what sounds good, revises their ideas, and builds on what they know. Finally, in addition to immediate feedback and modification, tinkering needs to promote open exploration. [1] For composers, this would be exploring new styles, genres, instruments, and ideas as they gain more feedback and modify their sound.

I was curious about the outcomes of tinkering in music composition and decided to try it myself. In 2016, I spent time composing a piece of music on my piano and then converting it to notation while keeping the tinkering edifices in the forefront of my mind.  The composition, titled G minor, can be found in Figure 1. This free-form composing, devoid of worry and a strict structure was an enjoyable experience, especially when done with friends and family. Whether I was fine-tuning the melody line, adjusting the chord structure, or picking a different harmonic inversion I was dependent on the immediate feedback, modifications, and open exploration to expand and solidify my piece of music. What frustrated me the most was putting the “tinkered” piece in a musical score. This represented a major hurdle in my composition exploration: the background knowledge needed for notation requires a lot of prior musical experience, something not all music students may have. One potential solution I found was the many software programs available that contain a self-notating function. These programs allow a person to plug an instrument into a computer and then play it with the notation being produced. It allowed me (the tinkerer) to observe the process and carry out more fluid experimentation.

Confident that tinkering and composition produced a fun and meaningful learning experience, I wanted to see musical tinkering in action with students. To do this, I closely examined and spoke with members of the Lakefield College School Rock Choir. As one of the directors of the group, while I was teaching there, my familiarity with the students allowed the Rock Choir to became a happy arena for musical experimentation. In this group, students from all musical backgrounds came to “jam”. They chose their instrument (from voice to drums) and began to slowly play the song or chords that were chosen for that week. Singers of the Rock Choir started by singing melody lines of popular songs. As their comfort level rose, they were encouraged to add harmony lines or different melodies where they or the leader of the song saw fit. Members who were playing a more traditional instrument (guitar, bass, piano, etc.) were encouraged to solo on chord progressions and make up their own musical lines as the song progressed. It was in this iterative, experimental environment that students that may have never sung in public before began to sing openly and compose small pieces of music. In these instances, all the central components of tinkering were present. What’s more, the students were having fun tinkering with composition, and showcasing many reflective, action-oriented, and enthusiastic learning moments more traditional compositional pedagogy may have missed.

students on more traditional instruments learning the chord progression of a song.  Photo by Lakefield College School.

The caveat for what I witnessed in Rock Choir, as well as in my own experience, was notating the composition. This was almost never done and therefore did not address many compositional music theory elements essential to musical curricula like voicing, melody transcription, and transposition. I have already mentioned one solution to this problem above, and there are many more (e.g., Rosenbaum’s Ph.D. thesis has many examples) [2], but for now, that is outside the scope of this article. Instead, I would point out that this type of musical tinkering might be able to inspire students to write their creations down. Indeed, for many of my students in the Rock Choir, being able to read, replay, interpret, and create more music in a tinkering fashion necessitated the knowledge of musical theory elements (from notating to chord analysis). In essence, the students wanted to write down what they had created, to share it and therefore began to inquire and research composition procedures and rules on their own.

After tinkering with composition, perform!  Photo by Lakefield College School.

In analyzing this topic, I feel that music educators can and should think of composition as tinkering. What remains is how to do this most effectively. The activity below is presented as one possible way to promote tinkering with music and composition in a school environment. It does not include assessment techniques for composition or curriculum standards. However, I believe it could be used as a springboard to explore composition more deeply and promote music making in schools. It follows the same process the Rock Choir I was a member of followed. The remaining questions I have are: How could I design composition activities for tinkerability with the curriculum in mind? How can I do so being cognizant of the need for background knowledge?

Compositional Tinkering Activity

Goal: The goal of the activity is to allow students to explore composition in a more experimental and fluid manner while highlighting the tinkering process.

Basic Process

  • The leader will introduce a well-known song chosen by members of the group. For my time in Rock Choir, these included: Young Volcanoes by Fallout Boy, Renegades by X Ambassadors, I Will Wait by Mumford and Sons, and Change of Seasons by Sweet Thing. The point is to have a fun and popular song the students want to sing.
  • The main melody of the song is played/sung with students while other members on instruments learn the chord progression of the song. Relating to tinkering, the singing and playing of the piece is immediate feedback and depending on how it sounds promotes modification.
  • As the song solidifies through practice, a harmony line or solo section is proposed by the leader or a student.
  • As the new musical line is incorporated into the song, students are actively encouraged to switch from the main melody to a harmony or make up their own depending on comfort level. This promotes open exploration.
  • This process continues, and more and more harmonies or solo sections or tempo changes, etc. are added. Remember, this is promoting open exploration
  • Once the song has taken on a new shape, and members are happy with it, the new version is notated by the students for sharing, replaying, and to iterate with for the next session.

Extensions

  • Have a student lead the initial melody learning experience as they become more comfortable with the process.
  • Have the new work performed (at an assembly, meeting, impromptu concert, etc.). This gives the work meaning and allows sharing with friends and families.
  • Invite local artists and community members to a session to enrich the tinkering process both musically and culturally.
  • Compose a novel piece of music with the group taking some of the favorite elements of past pieces.

Acknowledgment: I am indebted to the founder and current director of the Rock Choir at Lakefield College School where I began to think about this topic. Thank you to Geoff Bemrose for his guidance, voice, guitar skills, and opportunity to rock.  Special thank you also to Rachel Bemrose and Pam Birrell for their constant support in all things musical while I was teaching at Lakefield College School.

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