Composing, improvising and doodling

Musical starting points

As teachers, we should encourage a multitude of ways to help children flourish as musical creators, and hopefully even work with them as co-creators. Musical starting points can come from anywhere.  Visual imagery, shapes, phrases, colours, words, sounds, moods, characters – there are so many possible starting points.   We need to encourage experimentation – after all, they do this anyway. Small, manageable activities such as changing beaters and listening to different sounds they might consider selecting, adapting a line of a well-known song, trying out different voices and vocal tones when singing, making up their own short melodies based on 3 notes, selecting drum loops to accompany their poems and rap lyrics. The possibilities are literally endless. Experimentation and playfulness are key, so that children are confident to select, adapt, combine and manipulate sounds whether using their voices, instruments or technologies.  

Activities do not need to take a long time – you could, for example, just give a group a fragment of music, such as fingernails scraping on the table, a falling vocal ‘ooh’ or a word such as 'what' and give then 1 minute to develop their material in any way they wish. You could even take these miniature ‘snowballs’ and combine them, putting two groups together after this initial generation of ideas stage.

Some simple ideas to encourage children to make up their own music and explore instruments/sounds:

Pass one musical instrument (e.g. tambourine or guiro) around the circle. Everyone should play it in a different way. Stop occasionally and ask the class to close their eyes and guess how the sound was made. 

Pass one ‘magic’ beater around for a ‘soloist’ to make up a melody for 4 bars using a pentatonic scale (e.g. C,D,E, G and A) whilst the rest of the class play a drone of C and G every 4 beats, a repeating melody (ostinato) or sing (songs like Mr Rabbit, Mr Rabbit from the book Flying Around work well for this, especially when there aren’t enough instruments for all children to play at the same time).  

Listen to a piece of music, do a mark making activity on a very large sheet of paper with children, either with chalk or paint. Then turn this into a musical ‘score’ and invite them to play what they see.  

Encourage children to add ‘voices’ to characters in stories. Change these to demonstrate different moods/emotions at points in the story.  

Create a soundtrack for a short film clip.

Have a musical ‘conversation’ based initially on call and echo and then adapting/changing small parts. 

Take a fragment of music and try to move it in different directions.  

Add sound effects to a story as you read it out. 

Create storyboards. Bring them to life by creating music. 

Taking a large piece of paper folded up, create ‘wild things’ (based on the idea of Where the Wild Things Are) where someone draws a head, the next draws a neck, then body, arms and feet without seeing what the person before did. Create the texture. Think about the character. What would they look like? What would they sound like? What mood are they in? Create a short clip of music as a leitmotif for the character (like their theme tune). Adapt this for different situations – creeping out of a room, at a party, sad because their pet cat has died etc. 

Create new skipping games/clapping games.

In the middle of a song or piece the class are learning, allow 8 bars of ‘free time’ to try out their own creative ideas before all coming back together. This could be either vocal or instrumental. 

Take a famous melody and write new lyrics based on a theme or topic. 

Create a group soundscape using a picture as a stimulus (from a choice of pictures). Do not tell the other groups which picture you have chosen – they must guess! 

As a class, make a new arrangement of a song/piece of music. How will it start? Try ideas. What order will it be in? How could it end? How could the mood be changed?

Use a loop-based programme such as Garage Band to create a simple repeating backing track and then improvise a melody over the top. Maybe add words too.

Everyone write the opening line to a poem on a piece of paper. Screw it up, throw it in the middle of the group. Randomly choose one each and sing the line in any way you like doing this with a backing track of repeating chord loop is also very effective). 

Tell a story using instruments. Give the group the story and show them the instruments, asking them to only look and plan what they will do. This encourages talk and makes them think about how to use the instruments creatively.  

Conduct your way around a painting (e.g. by Kandinsky). Perhaps ask the children to have one colour in mind and only play when the conductor is pointing to their colour. How will they adjust the tone, volume etc. for different shades of the colour?

Ask a child to suggest a very small fragment of lyrics that could be taken from a song the class are singing and repeated over and over again (ostinato). Add layers to a song in this way.