How To Write Music Without Notation – Composition By Rote.

Composing music not only builds confidence and self-esteem in students, it’s also a lot of fun, for both student and teacher. But too often students wait till they can read and write musical notation or have a moderate knowledge of music theory before they start.

Actually, students can start composing music from as early as their first few lessons at the piano, without any of this prior knowledge.

All they need is a simple framework to get them actively creating their first compositions by rote. 

how to write music without notation

What Is Composing By Rote?

By now most of us teachers know all about teaching music by rote. It’s the method of teaching students patterns to play through watching and imitation, without any knowledge of the deeper concepts of the music such as rhythm, notation, or even piano key names. 

Students simply watch, imitate and memorise.

Composing by rote is a concept that I thought up which means students watch, imitate and memorise patterns that you play to them,  which they can then adapt to create their own patterns for their compositions. 

Another phrase for it could be composing by pattern.

What Are Musical Patterns?

Musical patterns appear everywhere in music. Patterns, as the word suggests, are ideas or musical fragments or cells that repeat. Patterns can be rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, structural, textural, instrumental : the list goes on…

Because patterns are repeatable they are generally highly memorable and easily learnt.

In a nutshell, all anyone needs to do is to create a pattern or several patterns and repeat them in different ways, and voila you have a piece of music. 

To help students along here’s a simple framework for students to create their own rote piece using melodic, rhythmic and structural patterns.

Step 1 – Introduction To Patterns

If you’ve already been teaching your student pieces by rote then they will be familiar with the idea of watching, imitating and memorising patterns.

However, if your student is brand new to the idea then introduce them to patterns with a few simple pattern recognition exercises.

For example:

  1. Give them a pitch set, say the group of 3 black notes and a simple rhythmic pattern say ta ta ta ta | ta – 2 ta – 2 (ta = crotchet/quarter note and ta-2 = minim/half note).
  2. Play them an example and ask them to imitate.
  3. Once they’ve got that down ask them to use the same rhythm pattern but change the order of the notes OR keep the order of the notes but change the rhythm,  whichever seems easier for them.
  4. And they’re off! They’ve created a new pattern from a set melodic or rhythmic parameter.

Step 2 – Creating Patterns

Start with simple ones, and keep the parameters narrow. 

#1. Create a rhythmic pattern

  • Give your student a choice of rhythm patterns (1 or 2 bar patterns) to start or if you’ve got rhythm cards they can choose 2 at random to create their pattern.
  • This first pattern will be the primary pattern
  • Now, ask them to create a secondary 1 or 2 bar pattern (more on this in a minute). 

#2. Create a melodic pattern

  • Choose a note/pitch set for your student depending on their level and ability. 
  • Parameters to consider:
    • Will it be hands together or hands separate?
    • Will it start high on the keyboard or low on the keyboard?
    • Will it be based on a scale, use all white notes, all black notes, or chromatic notes?
    • Will it be based on specific intervals say steps or skips or only 5ths?
  • Ask them to improvise a melodic pattern using the rhythm patterns already decided on above.

#3. Choose a structural pattern

Most beginner students won’t know anything about structure in music so it’s best to create one for them.

Here are a few structures that work really well for pieces played by rote. 

A A A B

In this structure, the first created pattern (A) is repeated 3 times but each repetition happens in a different place. 

For example:

  • The pattern is repeated exactly up/down an octave for each iteration.
  • The pattern is transposed exactly up/down a set interval say a 2nd or another interval.

A second contrasting melodic pattern will need to be created (B) using the secondary rhythm pattern decided on above. This pattern will end the piece. 

TIP: if there is a tonal centre for the piece be sure to encourage your student to end on it. This can be as simple as making sure the B pattern ends on the same note that the A pattern starts. 

A A B A

Works in a very similar way as A A A B just in a slightly different order.

A B1 A B2

As above there is an (A) pattern and a (B) pattern only the B pattern has some variation in it, where B2 is slightly different to B1 but still recognisably the same pattern.

Ideas for these variations are:

  • Create a melodic sequence, where the same rhythm, pitch direction and interval relationship is used but it is transposed up/down an interval (octave, 2nd, 3rd etc..)
  • Change some notes is a very minimal way – we’re talking 1 or 2 notes max
  • Change the rhythm in a very minimal way – again 1 or 2 notes
  • Change the pitch direction of the pattern. For example, if the melodic pattern is consecutive notes moving up in pitch, it could be altered to be moving down in pitch instead.

TIP: when creating a variation avoid changing both the melodic and rhythmic pattern too much and if changing the pitch direction keep the rhythmic pattern exactly the same.

A B1 A B2 A B3 C

In this structure, there is a third contrasting pattern that will need to be created (C)

Step #3 – Creating A Pattern Composition

How to hep students compose music without notation

Now that all the elements are worked out it’s just a matter of putting it all together like a puzzle. Even though much of the process is mapped out there is so much room for students to be creative. 

I like to call it guided creativity.

Once it’s all done the student should give their creation a name and you can record them playing their own creation. They’ll love it, and so will their families!!

Step 4 – Taking it further. 

Once the piece is written,  that doesn’t have to be the end of it’s journey. There are many further ways to exploit the piece for all its learning possibilities.

Here are some ideas:

  • Notate it down for the student or help them notate it as part of learning to read music. 
  • Teach their piece to other students ?
  • If you’re compositionally inclined you could compose a duet part for the piece.
  • Or older more experienced students in your studio could teach younger students how to play it or even compose a duet part.
  • The piece can be further developed into an improvisation activity which can lead to creating an even more detailed compositional piece.

Key Takeaways

Helping students to compose their own rote pieces is beneficial far beyond the innate creativity of the activity itself. It can not only be fun and confidence-building, but it can also help develop aural, memory, reading and technique skills, as well as developing the imagination.

Using a simple framework such as the one I’ve put forward here, students of any age or level can compose without the limitations of needing to notate it down.

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