Teacher’s Guide to Music and Composition

Music and Composition

Types of Instruments

 Instruments primarily fall into one of four main categories. These four families of instruments are brass, woodwind, string and percussion. Each family is comprised of instruments with similar methods of sound generation, and similar sounding timbre, although each instrument has its own unique timbre.

Brass instruments- the player produces sound by vibration of the lips to cause the vibration of an air column. Players vibrate their lips by holding them in a shape called an embouchure and forcing air between them into a mouthpiece connected to their instrument.

Wind instruments- the player produces sound by blowing across an opening to vibrate an air column. Several wind instruments also have mouthpieces with reeds that are vibrated by blowing into them.

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String instruments- the player vibrates a string to produce sound- further categorized by how the string is set to vibrate such as plucking (guitar), bowing (violin), or striking (piano)

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Percussion instruments- a player generates sound by striking the instrument with a beater, hand or another instrument- further categorized by whether they produce identifiable notes (xylophone) or unidentifiable notes (snare drum) 

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Writing it Down

In order for different people to play the same piece of music, someone has to write down the order of the notes and how long to play each of them. There are many ways of writing down music, but one of the simplest forms is called tablature, which refers to instructions on how to play the correct notes on a specific instrument. For example, tablature for a harmonica would tell you which hole to play (each number refers to a hole) and whether to breathe in or out (an up arrow means blow and a down arrow means draw in air). For a guitar, each line of the tab corresponds to a different string, and the numbers tell the player which fret to push on to get the correct pitches.

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When composing a song for the instruments they designed, students can invent their own type of tablature to write it down! The only requirement is that it can be read by their classmates and teach them to play a song on their instrument. In this example, students drew the same number of lines as there are notes on their instrument, explained which line corresponded with which note to play, and wrote dots on the line to show when to play the note that corresponds to that line.

Modern Staff Notation

Throughout the history of music, certain standards were adopted so that anyone anywhere could play any piece of written music. The form of music notation we currently use is called modern staff notation and originated during the period of European classical music.

The major components of this form of notation are a five-line staff, a clef, a key signature, a time signature and musical notes or rests. Other symbols indicating tempo or dynamics may be included by the composer or interpreted and included by the player for purposes of expression.

The staff is comprised of five horizontal, evenly spaced lines. Each line or space indicates a different musical pitch/note.

Musical staff

Different instruments have different ranges that require the staff to change to encompass the notes they will be playing. A clef is added to the beginning of each staff to indicate which notes the staff represents. The treble clef (or G-clef) is used for instruments with higher ranges of notes and the bass clef is used for lower instruments.


Treble Clef, or G-clef^                                              Bass Clef, or F-Clef ^


There are many types of notes that are all fractional values of a whole note.

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The time signature of the measure indicates how many beats there are per measure and which note get a full beat. A very common time signature is 4/4, in which there are 4 beats per measure and a quarter note gets a beat.

Each line of the staff is divided into measures. Measures contain as many beats as the time signature allows for. For example, if the time signature is 4/4 and there are 4 quarter notes in a row, the measure must end after the last quarter note because that is as many beats as there can be in one measure.

In this video, there are 20 different rhythms all created from different types of notes and rests and they all fill up 4 beats per measure. If you notice, the time signature says C instead of 4/4. Sometimes people write the C instead of 4/4 because it is called “common time”.



The main musical notes have the names A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Every note has a corresponding frequency. For example, middle A is 440Hz and middle B is 494Hz. There are also half steps between notes called sharps and flats. A-sharp would be one half step up from A and A-flat would be one half step down from A. The 7 notes of the scale repeat themselves in octaves, and the frequency for the same note in the next octave is doubled. For example, middle A is 440Hz and the next frequency of A would be 880Hz.


Scales and Chords

Scales are comprised of 8 sequential notes and the beginning and ending note depends on the key of the scale. For example, a C scale begins on C and ends with the next C an octave up. Different types of scales are major, minor, diminished and augmented.

Chords are 3 or more notes played together that are typically related by a certain interval and are used frequently to convey emotion or mood in music. For example, major chords would be “happy”, minor chords would be “sad”, diminished chords would be “depressed” and augmented chords would be “excited.”


Ideas for Composition

When students realize that music composition can be a form of self expression similar to the visual arts, they are able to create impressive pieces that represent their complex ideas through music or simply sound beautiful to them. Musician, teacher, and composer, Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee had her students, ranging in age from 5 to 18, annually compose original pieces to be played at their recitals. The compositions varied in complexity and length, but each child was able to apply what they had been learning throughout the year and create a piece that was meaningful to them. Here are a few examples of their work.


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One way to introduce composition to your students could be to show them a type of music or musical component and ask them to imitate it. In the following video a music teacher introduces her students to a type of song called a “fanfare,” used to announce the arrival of royalty during the Tudor period of England. In this way, she is able to combine history and music into the same lesson.


Another way to inspire your students to compose is to show them how music can be used to express emotions and have them attempt to represent an emotion through song. In this video, a music teacher instructs her students to play the same general pattern of notes using different tempos and dynamics to express different moods such as shyness, boldness, sadness, and happiness.

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