music composition

Composition in the Traditional Piano Lesson

by Kimberly Arnold


Teaching composition in the traditional piano lesson setting has been a struggle for many teachers over the years. Oftentimes our schedules during the school year do not allow for “extra” work other than preparation for recitals and contests. However, composition plays an important role for many students in piano lessons. By allowing a student the freedom to create his or her own personal expression of music, we are fostering the student’s ability to be creative and allowing them to expand their knowledge in a different format.

Composition is helpful for many students:

-the dreamer student with ADD

-the student that is struggling emotionally and needs to find an expression of the emotions inside them

-the student that only plays classical music and needs to become more comfortable with ear-training

It has been my experience that students enjoy writing their own music, but they need direction and a catalyst to get them started. Here are some tips that I have found to be helpful in my own studio:

-discuss major and minor keys (do they want their song to sound happy or spooky?)

-write 1-4 measures together and then have them continue on their own either through variation form, repetition, sequencing, or through-composed

-Utilize a series of piano composition books such as Wynn-Anne Rossi’s “Creative Composition Toolbox”

Beginner students will not know how to write in notation form, so it is typically best to give them a piece of notebook paper and turn it sideways. Draw a horizontal line across the length of the paper which will denote Middle C. Then the student can compose based on mapping rather than notation. It would look something like this:

                ----                                       ---------                                                            ----      ----

---       ----        ---                    ----------                                                 --------     -----

C___--_________-----------------_____________------___________________________----_____                                                             ---------                                    ------------

                                                                                    ----------                                               ---------

When they bring their composition to their next lesson, you can help by quickly charting it on staff paper to help them to keep consistency in their practice and performance.

Elementary students can use basic notation form with some reminders from you along the way. They typically need reminders of writing clefs, brackets, key signatures, etc. but usually have success in writing in standard notation form. Elementary students tend to do well with descriptive songs, so guiding them to write about personal experiences such as nature hikes, airplane rides, vacations, or any other adventures that they enjoyed is always a good place to start. Elementary students may find it difficult to write for both hands, so I often allow them to write a melody and if they want any accompaniment, I will help them. We will add whole notes or chords and keep the accompaniment simple.

Intermediate students that have never composed before may find it awkward to begin composing at first, but typically they settle into it and enjoy expressing their ideas on paper. Intermediate students have more success with writing for both hands, and they can even add other instruments from their experience in other music settings.

Once your students have composed a piece, allow them a venue in which they can perform their masterpiece. Having a recital dedicated solely to original compositions can help alleviate any insecurities about performing their piece for others. Everyone will be in the same boat...and what an exciting recital it will be!


 Check it out: Creative Composition Notebook



Kimberly Arnold has taught private piano for over eighteen years and has taught in the music classroom from preschool through college. She currently resides in Oklahoma City where she teaches privately and at Mid-America Christian University. Kimberly holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Piano Performance from Southern Nazarene University and Master of Music in Music History from the University of Oklahoma. She can be reached at