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Composing, improvising and doodling

Unpacking the terminology

If you thought about the word ‘composer’, what image would come to mind? Glover (2000)1 carried out a study with children aged 7-8 where she asked them to draw a composer. Most drew an adult sitting at a piano or conducting. Perhaps, then, this is an indication that children do not consider their actions when manipulating sounds to be aligned with those of a ‘composer’.

Terminology is crucial – the way in which we introduce ideas sends messages to children about what we want them to do and our expectations. The term ‘composing’ sounds very formal. ‘Improvising’ – sometimes referred to in music lessons as ‘making something up off the top of your head’ can, understandably, seem scary and risks being ‘wrong’. We need to constantly reiterate that there are no wrongs. Perhaps the term ‘doodling’ seems less scary – after all, children readily visually doodle with a variety of art materials. How about inviting children to ‘make up their own music’? ‘Try out two ideas’ or ‘fiddle around until you find a short tune you like’ sound more achievable and accessible openings than ‘composing’ and ‘improvising’.

1Glover, J. (2000) Children Composing 4–14. London: RoutledgeFalmer