Getting grade 5/6 kids to compose using dissonance and consonance

Over the space of a term (ten weeks) Andrew Williamson and I work on a number of composition ideas with our grade 5 and 6 kid.

The ideas are both conceptual and practical

The first idea we look at is the notions of dissonance and consonance in a musical perspective.

As a listening exercise I play the kids two obvious examples such as Penderecki’s Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima to emphasis dissonance and Erik Saties Gymonpedie Number 1 to to look at consonance. These pieces can both be found on youtube  Penderecki . The Penderecki piece always starts great conversation with the kids on the role of music, why the sounds have to be so harsh, what is dissonance (clashing) when and where it is necessary, when it is to much, how does music effect our emotions, why do some sounds make us feel certain ways and others make us feel differently.

Following this I move the lesson into a class composition piece. It’s important to model this to the kids, how you want them to compose as the idea is for them to break into small groups and replicate the processes in the coming weeks.

On the electronic whiteboard I would bring up a picture of a haunted house that has the obvious connotations and leads well to a combination of dissonant and consonant sounds.

This picture has been taken from the Music Express Series

A discussion would take place about the intention of the picture. It is to scare the viewer or leave a dark feeling. How has this been achieved? Through the use of dark colors, through the various elements in the picture, where they are placed, at the front or at the back. These are all concepts that can be transported to a musical setting. Do the elements clash or flow freely.

Placing a number of instruments in front of the kids they would choose instruments that they think might match the various elements they would see in the picture. They would then be given a  short time to come up with a quick pattern that they could teach to a small group who would all be assigned to that instrument. Once five or six different parts had been composed and groups of 4 had been formed around those parts I would place those into some sort of visual arrangement on the whiteboard.

This is where the piece gets fun because the kids can now try and change the various arrangements to see if they were effectively achieving their original stated aims, to musically replicate the picture, to have some definite dissonant sounds involved. To get a sense of darkness in the music etc. When inventing the melody you will notice in the video the kids had a simple melody and each new part comes in mimicking the same melodic shape but moving it away by a semitone creating a fairly obvious and easy to hear dissonance.You will also notice there is a mixture of melody, rhythm as well as some textural elements to the piece. We also spoke of how tempo changes a piece, originally the bass  was quite fast but we found it was much more effective to slow the whole thing down. This class should take no longer than 2 lessons. Following this the children would have a class to compose their own piece in groups of no more than 5. Because we have worked on these ideas for an number of years with the kids they feel completely comfortable in their role as composers.

Finally we filmed the whoe class performance and here is an example.
http://fnps.fliggo.com/embed/gVxr6kO9

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