Category Archives: Music Units

Theme & Variation


This week in Music+STEM we learned what a Theme & Variation is.  dc7j9jMGi

Then we created one. Like a composer.

After listening to an example, students logged into Noteflight.  This is great web-based notation software that anyone can use for free. If you get a subscription you can create classes where students log into your “site”.  With this feature, the teacher can see all their work.

This was the first time my students used Noteflight, so part of this assignment was set up to teach them how to use it.  They started by transcribing the first four measures of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.  I limited it to the first four measures to keep the task manageable.  I walked them through entering the pitches and assigning rhythms as they worked on chromebooks and I projected my screen.  Some students caught on very quickly while others needed a bit more guidance. Many students were able to offer help to others – a great way to reinforce their learning.

After creating their “theme”, students created two variations. One in which they doubled the value of each note and another where they cut the value of each note in half.  Again, this was prescribed so students could learn to use the features of the software.  If they completed these tasks, they were able to create their own variation.

One of the great features of using Noteflight is that students can immediately hear what they are composing. I noticed that several students found mistakes in their notation first by listening, then went back and found the incorrect note.  Below you will see that one student even figured out the rest of the song on her own – just by listening to the notes as she entered them.

A note to teachers who might think they need to teach students note names and rhythms before using this – some of my students knew these but most did not.  Many, however, learned note values (and some pitch names) by the time we were done. What better way to learn the difference between a quarter note, half note, whole note, and eighth notes than by using them and immediately hearing them?  As my grad school professor continually preached, create a context and a need to know and students will learn.  This is the perfect example of that strategy.

So here are some of the results…

The basic assignment (with a not so basic title)

The basic assignment (with a not so basic title)

This student changed the register of hers by changing instruments

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 6.36.21 PM

This student added some extra elements to hers …

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 6.34.52 PM

This student not only changed the register but added a reprise

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 6.40.12 PM

This student harmonized AND figured out the rest of the song on her own

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 6.37.59 PM

I’m excited to continue to use this as a composing tool for students – their work the first time around was impressive!

Finally, we finished up the week with some bucket drumming. Students created a variation to a rhythm pattern and we did some fun ensemble playing.

Here’s a peak …

And what do you do in the last few minutes of Music+STEM? See if you can stack the buckets to the ceiling of course 🙂


Build An Instrument: Part 4 – Compose & Perform

Build An Instrument: Part 4 – Compose & Perform

Whew! Here we are at part 4 of the Build An Instrument unit posts! 20150910_120232-1

Let’s look back at what we’ve done so far …

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – The Science of Sound

Part 3 – Building

and finally Part 4 – Compose and Perform!

Our principal came in when we were in the midst of composing and asked, “How do you teach a kid to compose?”  Luckily, I had an answer, but the truth is I taught many years before I figured out an approach. When I was in my undergrad theory classes and had to compose, the only guidance I remember is knowing some traditional chord progressions – and I wasn’t very successful.  I’ve found the key to teaching students to compose is starting with a very limited structure – the fewer choices the better.

For our middle school students, this meant composing in a modified Rondo form (ABACA) with 8 beats in each phrase.  Every student wrote a solo following this form.  They used traditional or non-traditional notation to indicate rhythm and where each note was to be played on their instrument.  Since we had a wide variety of instruments there were a lot of different sounds.  Another challenge was that most instruments didn’t play consistent pitches – so students notated pitches by labeling strings or making “fret” marks on their instruments and notating them in their music.

Once students wrote their solo, they teamed up in groups of 2, 3, or 4.  The group “sampled” their solos to create a new piece for their group.  This new piece also followed the Rondo form by adding “D” and “E” sections for the groups of 3 and 4.  Everyone agreed on a phrase for the group to play together for each recurring “A” phrase.  Then, each student chose their favorite composed phrase to play as a solo in each alternating section.  In the end, it looked something like this….

A – group

B – student 1 solo

A – group

C – student 2 solo

A – group

After a day of practicing with their group to perfect their piece, we celebrated with a day of performances!  Here’s an example …

Overall, the results of this unit were outstanding.  Students applied the science of sound to the instruments they built and more importantly, learned from trial and error.  Most students did not end up with the exact instrument they first conceived – but many of the results were even better.  Composing and performing was new for most kids, but many had very successful first attempts!  We’re looking forward to see what else they can accomplish throughout the semester!

Create An Instrument: Part 3 – Building

Create An Instrument: Part 3 – Building


Create An Instrument: Part 3 – Building

Let’s face it – this is the fun part!

Everything we’ve done so far led up to this – build your instrument!

We gave students a day to research what they wanted to build and how to build it.  (We’re lucky enough to have Chromebook sets so each student could do their own research.)  Most students went to a search engine or youTube and searched for things like “build your own instrument”, “diy instrument”, or “homemade instrument”.  Once they chose what they wanted to build, they found instructions or videos giving specific directions.

Students had a Engineering Design log to guide them through the process.  Ours was based on this Engineering Notebook (p. 6). Each student’s instrument had to be sketched and labeled with all needed supplies before they could start building.

Supplies – this is probably the biggest challenge to this entire project.  Luckily, our STEM teacher had been collecting cardboard since the start of school so we had an enormous supply.  That said, we went through an enormous amount!      

Tip: the most useful types of cardboard were computer keyboard and ukulele boxes.

Hard at work

Hard at work

Here are some of the supplies we our amazing STEM teacher provided:

  • masking tape
  • small rubber bands
  • large rubber bands
  • duct tape
  • paper clips
  • fishing line
  • construction paper
  • beads
  • straws
  • toothpicks
  • string
  • popsicle sticks

We also had various workshop tools, hot glue guns, box cutters, and exacto knives. Obviously, we used these or supervised student use.

We also encouraged students to bring in supplies from home.  In the end, we had a few students who built their instruments at home and brought them in.  These were mostly students who wanted to use wood or other materials to build and had all the supplies and tools at home.

Note to teachers: Storage quickly became an issue with this project – especially when you combine classes! Make sure you think about where you can keep work in progress!


The results…

Were pretty amazing!! Students with about 3 days to build.  Some would have gone longer but we eventually had to put an official end to building.  Just like adults we definitely had some “tinkerers” who enjoyed making adjustment after adjustment.  Scroll down to see some proud kids and their instruments!








Next up – can we actually make music with these instruments??