Music is often used to tell stories. During any time spent listening to popular music radio and/or YouTube streams, a listener will experience a torrent of stories set to music. Artists like Adele, the Beatles, and Kanye West, among many others, have relied upon music’s narrative qualities to reach their musical audiences and create works that deeply connect with and engage them. If not for music ability to aid in telling a story, there would be little need for the grandiose soundtracks of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Danny Elfman that accompany blockbuster movies.
Classical composers knew this very well as they created so-called “Programatic” pieces of music that sonically, with or without the use of lyrics, led listeners through vivid and intricate story lines filled with richly defined characters. Schubert’s Der Erlkönig, Wagner’s operatic works, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fatastique, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf remain relevant by still delighting musical audiences of all ages because of their strong reliance on narrative. Perhaps it is because of this that program music can make up the profusion of classical masterworks that are heard in general music classrooms.
Program music and music that express narratives are routinely the focus of music listening activities for elementary school students in and out of music class. However, it is the view of this author that music’s narrative qualities possess great potential for developing compositional abilities in a straight-forward and structured manner. Stories provide young composers with an entry point for them to transition plot elements and characters into sonic representations, truly beginning to think in sounds.
Likewise, poetry and music have a strong and time-tested connection. Since composers have been creating musical works for voice and lyrics, poetry and rhyme have been employed as a means of conveying emotional and/or narrative contexts. During the late Classical and throughout the Romantic periods, lieder was a dominate musical form in which composers like Schubert and Schumann, among others, took poetic works and set them to music. Often times, these musical settings can be perceived to be much more powerful than their source material alone.
In many lesson plans, picture books, short stories, and poems (Gromko, 2003; Kaschub & Smith, 2009) are not only used as a jumping off point for compositional activities, but also to help students understand what a composer does and assist them in developing their own compositional “toolbox.” Music educators need to find ways to demystify the compositional process for their students and develop strong compositional encounters that will challenge and build upon students’ creative musical thinking. Using stories or poems as inspirational starting points provide students with a scaffold to build upon that will not only allow the compositional outcome to be unique to them, but also organized in such a way that its form may yield a higher level of aesthetic appeal, as suggested by Hickey (2003).
The Intersection of Music Education and Literacy Development
Music can be found interwoven throughout the fabric of most “non-musical” areas of the school curriculum. Barrett, McCoy, and Veblen (1997) identify affective, social integration, subservient, and cognitive integration styles of music’s use in classrooms. Music is often used to provide for transitions between one activity to another as is the case in welcome songs, or as a RATHGEBER FREE CHOICE DOMAIN 3 social bonding agent in the form of school songs and music that support community traditions. Music is very often found in non-musical classrooms in a subservient style in which songs are used to reinforce curricular aims. These ways are all present within this author’s educational setting. However, in an attempt to reach out and create more cognitively integrative and interdisciplinary connections between music and non-musical curricula, music educators sometimes must reach beyond their personal comfort zones. As such, I began to seek new ways of integrating music with outside educational concepts.
While in a staff meeting that focused on the teaching and assessing of literacy targets, I began to discover the profound connections that literacy development has to music education, specifically in the areas of listening/responding to and creating music. Upon rereading Ruthmann’s (2007) article, “The Composer’s Workshop: An Approach to Composing in the Classroom,” and attending a presentation by Kelly-McHale (2011) regarding composing using an adaptation of the “Writer’s Workshop” model, I began to seek out information about the “Writer’s Workshop” and other literacy education methods that might be useful when helping structure activities that would help develop my students’ music composition skills. Upon consulting numerous literacy coaches within my district, I was led to the work of Calkins (2006) as well as Boushey and Moser (2006). As I read The Daily 5 (Boushey & Moser, 2006) and A Guide to the Writing Workshop (Calkins, 2006), my mind began to race with countless possibilities to integrate and build upon literacy development tools and concepts that my students were familiar with and could easily make use of in the area of music composition. As I toyed and experimented with “literacy-based” compositional activities, I noticed how much my students seemed relaxed when composing and fully engaged in their activities. I RATHGEBER FREE CHOICE DOMAIN 4 decided that throughout the following year, I would apply my energy towards developing a philosophically and research supported framework for using literacy education tools in composition as well as create a handful of succinct compositional activities with student examples that I could share with other music educators. By proposing and presenting a session entitled “Book-Based Compositions” at the Illinois Music Educator’s Conference of 2012, I found a way to share my findings with music teachers from all over the state of Illinois. The remainder of this domain paper will highlight the work that was done and the products created for this presentation.