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Why water flows down: how young students create new music

Can all young children – or only prodigies – compose music? Nick Oliver, CC BY-ND

I am a music educator. In facilitating students’ creative music making, I encourage an exploration of real-world contextual frameworks, often issues being explored in the classroom program.

On asking six-year-olds why water flows down a mountain, one of the responses I received was, “because then we don’t have to walk up the mountain to get it”. Children of this age often conceptualise the world’s physical attributes as being divined for the service of humans, or even just for them.

It is wondrous to watch the world gradually open up to include others beyond family and sights brought to us from afar through the power of invention. Gradually the world seems substantially bigger and individuals must negotiate their place in it. Some take on this challenge more readily than others, even into adulthood.

We create our world. We attempt to shape it to our needs – maybe a hangover from our child-like egoism.

When children are a little older I ask them to look around the room and let me know of anything in it which has not been invented by humans. After much conjecture, they usually get to dust, which is a fair call. I remind them that we wouldn’t have our planet without it.

Their other typical response is air. And then I point to the air-conditioning vents. So dust rules. But it leads to a discussion about the importance of creative activity to humans and also to accidental creative moments; the air-cooler also heats the planet.

Musical creativity provides a medium through which students can explore their aural sense of self and their environment. Music is pure abstraction, the sculpture of sound into some kind of meaningful form.

Growing into composition

I have learnt over time that children move through a range of processes in their composing. They don’t all move at the same pace or even in the same way, but one can guide them in their ability to imagine and use musical techniques and understandings of growing complexity, what music educators Jackie Wiggins and Magne I Espeland describe as “artful scaffolding”.

Very young children have not yet unlearnt the connection between their bodies, their senses and cognition (their embodied selves) and they love the feel, the sensation of an array of sounds.

Children in the preparatory years of school may still gravitate to a large drum even if the task is based on emulating the sound of gently flowing water. But they are encouraged to find ways of playing the drum to discover appropriate sounds for the topic being explored.

At this stage, children prefer to develop musical narratives or imitations of sounds. I encourage an awareness of the elements of music, by asking groups to work on contrasting features of the one theme.

We listen to music, or watch film with accompanying music so that students are further engaged by the subject and can pick up ideas about how composers make sound choices. We might look at contrasting environments, such as the desert and a rainforest, or musically compare smaller and larger animals.

We go through a process with which children become familiar. Mind maps are constructed and then groups formed to develop a plan. There is experimentation with ideas and instruments until consensus is reached in the formulation of a piece.

Students rehearse. Sounds or sections are altered. There is more rehearsal.

Compositions are recorded and advice, often on playing technique or balance between parts, is provided. After refinement, there is more taping and students reflect on their work. They become familiar with this routine and as a result, often ably scaffold their own learning.

Music and empathy

Philosopher Matthew Beard wrote last year on The Conversation about the required imaginative capacity for empathy. But imagination can be multi-faceted.

Musicians tend to have good spatial awareness. They might conceptualise the reconfiguration of a 3D object in space. This requires imagination – but not emotion. Empathy requires both.

Ultimately we want to experience music because it moves us as listeners, performers and composers. Composers must find ways of combining imaginative thought and the conveyance of feelings.

I present students in upper primary with more difficult musical challenges. How do we empathise with, and musically express, quiet, calm, sorrow, joy, hunger?

Strangely I find that this encouraged exploration of abstract concepts through an abstract medium develops in students the techniques to know how they can immerse the listener in the feeling of something.

They then become more able to employ these techniques when working on less abstract themes. They can depict the momentum of trains or the awe of the Pillars of Creation. They think like composers.

Composition engages students in creative thinking, identity-building, self-reflecting, empathising, connecting, negotiating, collaborating, expressing and communicating – all, I feel, important human qualities.

And I have yet to meet a student who does not fully engage in this process.

Read other articles in our creativity series here.

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