Category Archives: Music

Composing the Blues…with tech!


As a music teacher, I think two of the most challenging standards to teach are composing and improvising, so I was excited when I came up with a way to incorporate them into my blues unit.  This unit combines the history of the blues, the music theory behind the blues, and learning to play the ukulele.  This year I decided to deepen student learning (I hope) by extending the unit to include composing and improvising.  This post will discuss my approach to teaching composing.  I’ll address improvising next time.

I’ve taught composing before but it’s difficult to make it meaningful for students if they don’t have a way to immediately hear what they are writing.  This year I have access to chromebooks and student accounts on Noteflight making it possible for students to hear what they compose every step of the way.  They can create, evaluate, edit, and even experiment with changing instruments and tempo.  This is a huge plus for general music students – many of whom may not have a firm grasp on note and rhythm reading or the skills to play what they write.  What better way to learn what a half note is than to use it consistently in music?  Or to learn what a flat does to a pitch than to hear the change when you apply it to a note?


So how do you teach kids to compose the blues?

First, we started with the 12 bar blues chord progression.  This was a natural place to start because my students were learning to play this on their ukuleles.  We went from sound (playing the chords) to symbol (writing the chords).  Students created a “new score” in Noteflight and copied the 12 bar blues chord progression in C that I provided for them.  If you have time, you could also teach students to build a chord on the root provided.  I had students repeat the chord progression so that when they were done they had 24 measures.

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Students were also encouraged to create rhythmic interest by using different note values for the chords (while still filling the whole measure with the correct chord).

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Next, students created a melody by using the pitches in the blues scale (in C).  I provided them with the notes of the scale and told them they could use the pitches in any order and any note value.


I reminded them of the AAB form of blues lyrics (learned earlier) and how that could be applied to their blues melody, too.  I also mentioned that if they are struggling for their melody to sound like it has a solid beginning and ending, it can be helpful to start and finish on C.  After that, it was all up to their creativity.

Overall, I was very pleased with their compositions – and so were many of the students.  Yes, there were a few who wrote their chord progressions using all whole notes and copied the blues scale in order, in whole notes.  But even those kids were able to listen to what they wrote – seeing the notes being played as they heard them.  Many kids, however, spent a lot of time editing and finding exactly the sound they wanted.

Here are a couple of examples –


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I graded these using a very simple standards-based rubric.  If students demonstrated they understood the chord progression and blues scale (those boring but correct whole note compositions), they earned a B. Adding more creativity and decision making earned an A.  Mistakes in either the chord progression or blues scale rated a C, while compositions that lacked evidence of understanding the chord progression or scale fell to a D. Only a lack of work received an F.  Of course, you can grade this based on your own philosophy and administrative requirements.

Finally, here are a couple of students sharing their compositions. We post these on our class youTube channel so everyone can see what’s going on in our class!










Teaching Music Elements with “Pandora’s Puzzle”

Teaching Music Elements with “Pandora’s Puzzle”

What characteristics describe YOU?

This is the question students in Music+STEM started with this past week.  Students created lists of physical and personality traits in their journals. They used words like tall, athletic, friendly, helpful, freckled, blonde, strong- and a multitude of others.

This activity not only gets students into the mindset of describing characteristics, it also gives insight into how students see themselves.

After this journal exercise, we talked about where these and some other traits come from – your genes.  We spent a very short time on DNA, genes, chromosomes, and genomes – just enough to understand their relationship to each other and to remember that characteristics reside in genes and these genes string together into chromosomes. The chromosomes then group into genomes. (There are certainly much more scientific explanations but these basics provide the basis for our lesson.)


Then the big question:

What does this have to do with music??

Enter Pandora’s Music Genome Project.  This is the name of the technology music streaming services like Pandora use to create playlists.  It equates a piece of music with a genome – that collection of chromosomes that contain the trait-filled genes.  Just as a genome contains traits of a human, a piece of music contains many “traits” – or elements – that can be described.  (Pandora describes up to 450 traits for a piece of music.  We narrowed that down for our work in class.) Streaming services look at the characteristics of the music you like and find other music that has the same traits to put in your playlist.  When you “like” a song, it continues to collect information about traits to make more informed choices.

Students brainstormed the traits that might be used to find music for a playlist.  As they shared their lists, we categorized them into most of the elements of music – tempo, dynamics, rhythm, melody, timbre, form, tonality, and texture.  We also added categories like style/genre and place/time of origin.  We listened to a variety of examples to practice identifying these characteristics.

Then came another big question:

Have you ever been listening to a playlist when a song comes on that doesn’t seem to fit?

How can this happen?  Most likely, there is a characteristic that matches something you liked, but it’s buried in other traits that don’t match your usual playlist.  It’s almost like a puzzle – what is the hidden trait in this one “oddball” song that matches the other songs I like.

I created “Pandora’s Puzzle” to see if students could figure this out. We listened to three very different pieces of music and completed descriptions of their traits. When we were done students worked in groups to figure out the one common trait – or the hidden link – between all three.

Take a listen to see if you can figure it out ….

Did you figure it out? All three use string instruments!

To wrap this project up, students created their own puzzle.  Groups of 3 or 4 students decided on the hidden link they would find in a set of otherwise very different pieces of music.  (The one characteristic students couldn’t use was style as that would end up making the music too similar.)  Students were reminded to find music from different styles and time periods – and they were reminded many times that the music needed to sound like it didn’t fit together – except for that one hidden link. Most groups started with a song they knew and then faced the challenge of finding music they didn’t know.  Students used chromebooks for research on youTube and Google.

Every group completed a “genome”, or description of the traits in each piece of music, and a google slide with links to each song.  We’ll be using these slides in the future to see if the class can solve each group’s Pandora’s Puzzle.

Groups researching music for Pandora's Puzzle

Groups researching music for Pandora’s Puzzle

This lesson is a great way for students to practice using appropriate vocabulary to describe a variety of music and to tie in current technology in music.  It also incorporates higher order thinking skills as they have to discriminate and synthesize information to create their puzzle.

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

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This student added some extra elements to hers …

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This student not only changed the register but added a reprise

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

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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 🙂