Creating Music

Opening the door to creative musical expression

Stepping into musical composition: the limited tone row

Posted by Pamela Szalay on December 8, 2012

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Looking for a way to introduce composition into music lessons? Creating a melody using a limited set of pitches is a great way to start. While the label “tone row” often suggests using 12 tones, this activity is focused on a smaller set of 4 to 7 tones which are arranged in a sequence and used to compose a melody, guided by just a few rules. This activity encourages creativity within constraints and works for beginners and more experienced musicians. As a matter of fact, it can even be used with students who do not yet read music.

For music-readers:

Materials:

manuscript paper, pencil, music notation flashcards (optional)

Activity:

1. Select four to seven flashcards and arrange them in a sequence (the teacher can do this ahead of time, or the student can select the cards randomly). Write the desired sequence on paper.

2. The student composes a melody using the sequence, using whatever rhythm, expression or style is desired.The composition should be committed to paper, but written in pencil for easy editing.

3. Each tone must be used in order, although a tone can be repeated before moving on to the next tone. When the end of the sequence is reached, the sequence beings again with the first note.

4. The sequence can be repeated multiple times, and can be treated differently each time.

5. The sequence should have a definite ending.

Depending on the outcome and the needs of the student, the melody could be further developed, harmonized, etc. Also, for additional mileage with this activity, start by using pitches that reinforce a recent note-reading or theory lesson

Alternate approach for non-music readers:Image

If the student is quite young and not yet reading music, use letter names instead of music notation. The focus should be selecting the sequence itself, rather than composing from a sequence. This will develop the ear while also introducing them to the compositional process. When the student is satisfied with the sequence, have the student write down the sequence on paper to preserve it.

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