Text: Heidi Partti
Musical composition is for everyone
“Isn’t music-making always creative, whether playing, singing or composing? Why should composing be singled out as creative music-making?”
This question from the audience took me by surprise. I had just completed a one-hour lecture on the importance of composition in music education where I had used the phrase creative music-making multiple times.
I had been talking about the new music curriculum that, among other things, advised music teachers at Finnish schools to offer regular opportunities for engaging students in musical composition. I had spent time encouraging music educators in various duties and at various levels in the education system to boldly integrate creative music-making practices into their teaching.
For the audience at my lecture, the message had not been entirely clear. This is hardly surprising, considering that Finnish music education, rooted as it is in the ethos of versatility (Muukkonen 2010), is very rich and creative by a variety of indicators. Students are encouraged to embrace the joy of music in innumerable ways: by playing instruments, singing, listening to music and moving to it. So how was it that I was claiming that only composing is ‘creative’?
The question of the relationship between composing and creativity is an important one. Both ‘composing’ and ‘creativity’ seem on closer examination to be vague and woolly concepts, and as such difficult to discuss. Both terms also have a lot of historical baggage attached.
What is it that we talk about when we talk about musical composition?
Bach, Beethoven… and me!
What does the word ‘composing’ make you think of? The rugged profile of Ludwig van Beethoven or an extract from Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik?
Many Finns have learned at an early age that the works of music from the pens of great figures such as Jean Sibelius, Finland’s best-known composer, are the result of a process requiring a very special talent, musical composition. Understood in this way, composing is the prerogative of the professional, an activity whose end result is a musical product.
Finland’s new National Core Curricula, which entered into force in 2016 and 2018, offered a very different perspective on composition in music education. Teachers at both schools and special music institutes are now encouraged to offer all students opportunities for creating their own musical ideas and solutions.
Musical composition as outlined in the curriculum may be approached individually or in groups, using modern music technology and/or traditional instruments. The activities undertaken may result in musical products, improvised or written down, but this is neither necessary nor an end in itself.
The focus here is not so much on the end product as on the process of exploring the potential of sounds and music. Because of this, it would be more accurate, in describing the principles and practices of how to teach and coach musical composition, to talk about the pedagogy of composing rather than composition pedagogy. The difference seems a niggling one, but the latter brings to mind the end product – a composition – while ‘pedagogy of composing’, or ‘composing education’ puts the focus on doing, the activity of composing.
The many meanings of composing
In the research literature, musical composition is frequently defined in one of two ways:
In a specific sense, composing is an undertaking requiring extensive training and/or professional skill and aiming at producing an end product, a completed work of music. Composing thus defined is vital, because music has intrinsic value and plays a significant role in society at large in enhancing wellbeing, broadening horizons and fostering a creative atmosphere. We need new pieces of music and new generations of professional composers to ensure the continuity and constant renewal of our musical life.
Having said that, we need to understand that composing is not only about the above.
An emphasis on talent and formal training sustains the impression that composing can only be undertaken by a small number of exceptional individuals. The cult of genius, dating from the Romantic era, has put composers on a pedestal and created the popular image of a composer as a solitary genius (usually a man).
No wonder, then, that many makers of music and music educators hesitate to apply the term ‘composing’ to their creative activities.
In a broad sense, composing encompasses the many flavours and dimensions of musical creativity and manifests itself as a sort of research inquiry that is accessible to just about everyone.
The process of musical composition is not just about inventing musical ideas but also about exploring, investigating, comparing, contemplating and playing with sounds and music. Whether writing songs, creating score-based music, arranging music, forming soundscapes or sound collages, improvising or remixing, this approach is always about probing the creative potential of musically organised sounds (Ojala & Väkevä 2013).
In Finland’s National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2016 (National Agency for Education 2014), which provides a common basis for school teaching, musical composition and other creative activities are directly linked to the fostering of intuitive and aesthetic thinking in pupils. In the National Core Curriculum for the Advanced Syllabus for Basic Education in the Arts 2018 (National Agency for Education 2017), encouraging pupils to creative thinking and producing and to a search for new solutions is defined as a goal alongside the improvement of musical skills.
The authors of the National Core Curricula seem to have been convinced that comprehensive music education should include not only playing, singing and listening but also composition. Composing is for everyone, as it supports the development of pupils’ creative thinking.
But what exactly is musical creativity?
Creativity is playing and self-expression
Every one of us creates something every day. We come up with ways to make our morning routines easier, find quicker routes to avoid heavy traffic, experiment with new combinations of spices to make our food more interesting and adopt tips and tricks to manage our flood of e-mails more efficiently. These are examples of everyday innovations that we scarcely even think of as creative. Yet the underlying process is exactly the same as that which has led to the greatest innovations in the history of the world: the ability to combine familiar elements in novel ways.
It is rare for someone to invent something new out of nowhere. Far more commonly creativity manifests itself in that it occurs to someone to combine two things not previously used together, or to place something in a new context, turn it upside down, see a situation from a new perspective or think up an original solution to a problem.
Creativity is equated with playing for good reasons. Like games, creativity is flexibility within a set of rules. Games are no fun if no one knows the rules or no one plays by the rules. On the other hand, rigid compliance leads to inflexibility. Within set boundaries, spontaneity can lead to creative results.
Creative music-making puts the musician actively at the centre of events.
This is not to say that historical and revolutionary inventions, theories and artworks did not require exceptional dedication to a specialist area in science or the arts. The individuals capable of such momentous achievements are very few indeed. But creativity as a form of self-expression is an innate ability of human beings.
In fact, creativity is ultimately about creating the self (see e.g. John-Steiner 2000). Following this line of reasoning, inventing musical ideas is not just an idle pleasure. Exploring the potential of sounds and music is also an opportunity to explore ourselves and to build our identity.
All other kinds of music-making naturally also improve our creative musicianship, but the processes of composing and improvising our own music (rather than only performing music composed by other people) uniquely put us in the driver’s seat for an expedition.
Creative music-making puts the musician actively at the centre of events. This reinforces our sense of self and of our own voice and our understanding of our role in revitalising culture.
Composing as a treasure trove in music education
Creative activity requires and stimulates flexibility in the mind, as opposed to rigid, formulaic thoughts and actions. This dichotomy is easily translatable from individuals to communities.
Being able to make unbiased observations, to examine self-evident truths critically and to learn from past experiences are building blocks of not only a creative individual but also of a healthy community.
Collaborative composition practices in particular challenge participants to negotiate on goals, procedures and artistic decisions, to address conflicts and disagreements and to listen to and respond to other people’s creative ideas (Partti 2014). Therefore, musical composition can be a vehicle for creating a common, shared space.
What might be the role of the music educator in fostering musical creativity? How can a music educator coaching or teaching composition provide a foundation for a creative, safe and cooperative learning community that also supports individual creativity?
From tabula rasa to a creative relationship with music
In Finland, as elsewhere, the conception of the goals and content of music education has evolved over time, paralleling broader changes in our understanding of the human mind and of learning.
Only a few decades ago, the received wisdom was that learning is a linear sequence of events that is the same for everyone and controllable by a teacher. The function of the teacher was to pour knowledge into recipients and to test whether that knowledge had been comprehended through events that could be objectively evaluated.
Gradually, this rather limited understanding of learning became broader. The focus shifted from the external governance of skills and knowledge to the internal, cognitive processes of the learner.
This also brought about a shift in the duties of the teacher. When the student was no longer seen as ‘tabula rasa’, a blank slate, the teacher’s role as the only expert in the classroom and as the gatekeeper of all skills and knowledge had to be questioned. How to support the learner’s capacity to actively process information emerged as the key issue.
Similarly, our understanding of how creativity manifests itself and evolves has expanded. Creativity is no longer seen as an ineffable and elusive talent but as a dynamic and diverse phenomenon consisting of many components that can be exercised and learned.
Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson went so far as to say that there is no such thing as innate genius. Ericsson describes creative talent as expertise that can be attained through diligent practice and study. Ericsson is principally known for introducing the ‘ten-year rule’: achieving excellence in any discipline requires approximately ten years of deliberate practice.
Contemporary research thus indicates that inherited intelligence and talent plays only a minor role in growing up to be a musician (e.g. Gardner 1983; Elliott 1995). Music education is now geared towards giving everyone a chance to learn by doing. It is also important to take into account learners’ previously acquired competence and interests (see also the article by Pasi Lyytikäinen).
A music educator who has taken this on board may encourage students to reinterpret music and to give it new meaning through their own compositions.
Creativity requires and generates a sense of security
Popular culture tends to favour the image of a starving, impoverished and maligned artist who, despite these difficult circumstances – or perhaps because of them – manages to create immortal artworks. In reality, physical and mental insecurity is probably more likely to paralyse people and generally leave them without any energy for creative activity.
Many scholars emphasise the importance of psychological security as a prerequisite for creativity. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety needs are immediately above physiological needs, which form the base of the pyramid.
A sense of safety is thus an important component of a person’s wellbeing, and as such vital for all creative activity.
A recently completed study on a composition project for children provides an example of fruitful interaction between musical creativity and a safe learning environment. In her master’s thesis, Tuuli Malve (2018) examined the establishing of a sense of safety in the project Kuule, minä sävellän! [Hear this, I’m a composer!] The study shows that the interactive group games forming part of the composition project were particularly good in fostering psychological safety, promoting creativity and fostering musical learning.
On the other hand, creativity may also be construed to generate wellbeing and thereby enhance a sense of safety. As Malve points out in her study, many theoreticians note that one of the key components of wellbeing is formed by opportunities for expressing oneself.
Creativity requires safety but also enhances a sense of safety.
One of the most important duties of a music educator is to build a safe learning environment that supports the growth of children and adolescents as human beings and as learners. A safe learning environment is formed of elements promoting both physical and psychological safety: clean indoor air and well-designed rooms as well as equal treatment and freedom from disruption.
One of the most important duties of a music educator is to build a safe learning environment that supports the growth of children and adolescents as human beings and as learners.
Following in the footsteps of psychologist Carl Rogers, Finnish creativity scholar Kari Uusikylä (Uusikylä & Piirto 1999, 35–36) offers three golden rules for promoting psychological safety. These can be applied as is to music educators who coach composition processes.
Firstly, a music educator must accept that everyone has value as a human being, without reservation. Everyone must have the right to be themselves without fear of loss of face. When we believe in someone and show it, we reinforce their sense of security.
Secondly, a music educator must aim to create a relaxed atmosphere with no fear of criticism. Although we give feedback on work done, everyone should be free to decide how they take that feedback and to rely on their own experiences. Do you want to support your students’ creativity? Then perhaps you should not pigeon-hole people based on stereotypical assumptions or your personal criteria.
Thirdly, it is important to remember that a permissive and accepting attitude fosters confidence in being yourself. This kind of freedom is fertile ground for creativity. Empathetic understanding requires the capability to see the world from the perspective of another person and refraining from forcing your version of the truth on them.
Musical creativity as a collaborative activity
Both learning and creativity have traditionally been considered mainly from the perspective of the individual. Recently, interest has shifted from the cognitive processes and goals of the individual to examining collaborative learning and interaction that supports such learning.
The complexity of creativity has also been highlighted by examining it as a communal phenomenon and group activity (e.g. Sawyer 2007). The focus in such examination is not restricted to the properties, talent and experiences of an individual but also includes the circumstances and factors that either help or hinder creative activity.
Examining creativity as a communal endeavour should be particularly useful for understanding musical creativity. After all, the vast majority of all music making is in collaboration with others.
As an example of collaborative musical creativity, we may look at a master’s thesis by Tuuli Wallenius (2018) on composition practices in a music course in upper secondary school. Wallenius demonstrates how the collaborative composing done on the course promoted joint learning and fostered a sense of community while rehearsing interaction skills.
It is noteworthy that in Wallenius’s study musical creativity is regarded not solely as an individual problem-solving capacity (see also Partti 2014). Instead, creativity is viewed as a joint activity where individuals focusing on a shared composition task gain influences and inspiration from one another. Even though every member of the group of course makes an individual contribution, the end result is different from what it would have been if every member of the group had completed the task on their own.
Practicing collaboration in a mixed group of children
An interesting example of the potential of musical composition for community building is offered in a study by Anna Kuoppamäki (2015) on the activities of children aged 9 in the Finnish Music School Basics of Music course. The study shows a significant gender bias in social interaction in music learning situations, as children negotiated group memberships, group roles and the importance of learning. Sometimes children’s gendered negotiations might even prevent democratic and meaningful learning and lead to inequality.
What is encouraging, however, is how composition and other creative activities reduced gendered groupings and increased cooperation among the children. Composition helped the children cross gender boundaries and engage in collaborative learning with others.
In the best cases, composing in a heterogeneous group results in a richness of musical ideas but also in a practical exercise of collaboration, negotiation skills and group decision-making.
Dealing with multiculturalism and social flexibility are vital skills in a democratic society. Musical composition would seem to provide valuable tools for practicing and improving these skills too.
Finland has a trump card for tourism that many other countries do not have: Everyman’s Rights. What this means is that people who want to enjoy the landscape do not need to own the land, ask the landowner for permission or pay any fees to access the natural environment. Everyman’s Rights, as the name says, grant everyone the right to walk around in the wilderness, to search, to explore and to discover, as long as they do so without causing harm or disruption.
Might musical composition be similarly defined as an Everyman’s Right? Rather than thinking of composing as a specialist area of musical competence that is the province of an exceptionally gifted few, we should consider it as a creative activity available to everyone (Partti & Ahola 2016).
And should we not really call them Everyperson’s Rights? After all, composing is traditionally a highly gender-bound profession, and creative expression by women has not always been regarded favourably. Everyperson’s Rights would grant anyone, regardless of background, gender, educational attainment or age, the right to explore the landscape of music.
A music educator may play a crucial role as the wilderness guide in such a scenario, actively pointing out pathways and taking up students on their musical ideas. Whether working on a major composition project or minor experiments alongside other activities, creative music-making should be adopted as a pedagogical approach mainstreamed through the entire learning process.
Toward an unknown future – together
If we are serious about the role of music education in offering building blocks for a good life – and not just breeding (only) world-class artists – it is important to shift our focus from musical content, teaching practices and didactical methods to broader issues of learning and of learning environments.
Musical composition is not just an alternative method for learning facts about music, musical structures, theory or styles. Also, creative music-making is not just a tool for improving, say, mathematical creativity.
Creative inventing offers no ready-made or ‘correct’ solutions; instead, it requires the inventor to come up with new ideas and new ways of thinking, understanding and acting.
Composition as part of music education forms part of complex processes of learning and growth. Creative inventing offers no ready-made or ‘correct’ solutions; instead, it requires the inventor to come up with new ideas and new ways of thinking, understanding and acting. Nourishing such a creative attitude to music and engaging in a critical reappraisal of musical practices are goals at least as important as social engagement in musical culture and instrument performance skills.
The world changes in unpredictable ways, and the future is unknown to us. We must constantly think about and reflect on how music education can help build solidarity in a world where social injustices, ecological crises and other global issues generate new needs for mutual understanding, dialogue and collaboration.
Composition as a creative musical activity offers great potential for building such a shared future.
Heidi Partti is Professor of Music Education at the University of the Arts Helsinki, Sibelius Academy in Finland. She has studied issues of music teaching and learning from multiple perspectives and in multiple environments, from online communities to traditional Nepalese music. She is one of the two authors of the textbook Säveltäjyyden jäljillä – Musiikintekijät tulevaisuuden koulussa [On the trail of creative music making – Composers in schools of the future].
Elliott, D. 1995. Music matters: A new philosophy of music education. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gardner, H. 1983. Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.
John-Steiner, V. 2000. Creative collaboration. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kuoppamäki, A. 2015. Gender lessons: girls and boys negotiating learning community in Basics of Music. Studia Musica 63. Helsinki: Sibelius Academy.
Malve, T. 2018. Henkinen turvallisuus luovassa musiikkikasvatuksessa: lasten kokemuksia säveltämisestä, turvallisuuden tunteesta ja leikeistä Kuule, minä sävellän -projektissa. (Master’s thesis.) Sibelius Academy.
Muukkonen, M. 2010. Monipuolisuuden eetos. Musiikin aineenopettajat artikuloimassa työnsä käytäntöjä. Studia Musica 42. Helsinki: Sibelius Academy.
National Agency for Education. 2014. Perusopetuksen opetussuunnitelman perusteet. Helsinki: National Agency for Education.
National Agency for Education. 2017. Taiteen perusopetuksen laajan oppimäärän opetussuunnitelman perusteet. Helsinki: National Agency for Education.
Ojala, J. & Väkevä, L. 2013. ‘Säveltäminen luovana ja merkityksellisenä toimintana.’ In J. Ojala & L. Väkevä (eds.) Säveltäjäksi kasvattaminen. Pedagogisia näkökulmia musiikin luovaan tekijyyteen. Helsinki: National Agency for Education, 10–22.
Partti, H. 2014. ‘Supporting collaboration in changing cultural landscapes: operabyyou.com as an arena for creativity in “kaleidoscope music”.’ In M.S. Barrett (ed.), Collaborative creative thought and practice in music. Surrey: Ashgate, 207-220.
Partti, H. & Ahola, A. 2016. Säveltäjyyden jäljillä. Musiikintekijät tulevaisuuden koulussa. Helsinki: Sibelius Academy.
Sawyer, K. R. 2007. Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. New York: Basic Books.
Uusikylä, K. & Piirto, J. 1999. Luovuus. Taito löytää, rohkeus toteuttaa. Jyväskylä: Atena.
Wallenius, T. 2018. ”Parasta oli kun saatiin tehdä yhdessä.” Yhteisöllisten musiikin oppimisen tapojen tarkastelua lukion sävellystehtävissä. (Master’s thesis.) Sibelius Academy.
Photos: Markku Klami, Tapio Lappalainen