Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Recomposition as Low-Stakes Analysis

Shersten Johnson, University of St. Thomas

Short exercises in writing music and style modeling are staples of music theory coursework. Examples include harmonizing a melody, realizing a figured bass or roman numerals, and species counterpoint exercises. While these are helpful in developing facility in manipulating musical materials, in my experience, the biggest leaps in learning come when students begin composing pieces. Students respond with enthusiasm to writing for each other and to playing each other’s compositions. They appreciate the multiplicity of options and the opportunity to express creativity while showcasing learned skills.

Of course, most learners can’t just jump into composition without some scaffolding. Somewhere between isolated voice-leading drills and fully realized compositions lie a number of intermediate activities, including recomposition. Recomposing can provide an opportunity for low-stakes skill-building and reflective analysis. Recomposing-as-analysis can demonstrate musical intuitions, answering questions like, “what did I expect to hear next? and why?” or, stylistic questions like, “what would Mozart have done with this motive?” More than just a reimagining of a passage for creative purposes, recomposing-as-analysis directs attention to the original passage, sparking new understanding of relationships within the piece. It can take the form of rewriting small bits of music and can then be extended to larger passages, variations, or arrangements.

Theorists often use this technique to demonstrate analytical observations (see, for example Matt BaileyShea’s 2007 essay in Music Theory Online, “Filleted Mignon: A New Recipe for Analysis and Recomposition”); however, in my experience theory classes make use of the approach only infrequently. The first time I encountered it in my own training was in graduate school when a professor asked us to dismantle a Mahler song and then re-order the fragments. Another example is Alan Gosman’s 2005 paper given at the Society for Music Theory meeting entitled “Music Scrambles and Tonal Form,” which presents unordered fragments of music that students can reorder to demonstrate formal principles. Some undergraduate texts, such as Robert Gauldin’s Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music, model recomposing as a way to understand implications and expectations, but few workbooks offer exercises that allow students to experiment with this tool.

Recomposition and structured reflection offer many benefits over standard part-writing and analytical approaches. They encourage students to understand the aesthetic of the piece and the value of the composer’s choices, as well as the typical goals of analysis, such as understanding the structural and stylistic characteristics. This active-learning technique downplays the notion of a composer as an untouchable “master,” and instead encourages learners to think of themselves as capable and creative individuals. They relish the opportunity to make their own choices and explore possibilities without the pressure of a “right” answer. Analysis via recomposition is generative in that students start with small amounts of music and elaborate them in contrast to the more common process of reducing an existing musical foreground. This engaging, hands-on approach can be posed as a problem-based activity to encourage exploration, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

The remainder of this essay will consider a recomposition assignment that combines web-based notation software with electronic journals to support group reflection and to partially flip content delivery. I will walk through the steps of the project using an excerpt from Mozart’s musical joke, the divertimento “Ein Musikalischer Spass,” K.522 (score and audio), in which comically bad compositional choices provide the impetus for recomposition. I will be following the “Explore-Flip-Apply” model of learning cycles that Kris Shaffer discusses in his article on “Inquiry-based Learning” in the first volume of Engaging Students. Shaffer’s article draws on the work of Ramsey Musallam outlined in “A Pedagogy-First Approach to the Flipped Classroom” and Donald Finkel in Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, as well as that of other scholars. In the project described below, the exploration phase will take place in the presence of the instructor and peers during a class session. This in-class session will be followed by at-home flipped content consisting of short, targeted screencasts and study guides delivered through a course management system. After students review the information, they will apply what they’ve learned in low-stakes recompositions followed by reflections on their own work and on that of their peers.

1. Explore

This project is tailored for second-semester undergraduate theory students who will, by the end of the semester, compose a high-stakes work to be performed by classmates. Within the first third of the semester, they will have been exposed to two-phrase period structures, hypermetric disruptions like elisions and expansions, and will have written as a class a few model antecedent–consequent periods and now they are ready to take on the recomposition project. We begin by listening to the first movement of Mozart’s Spass in class without identifying the piece. After hearing the first movement, we listen again to the beginning, focusing on the first seven measures. As has become a class routine, we make a mental “M.A.P.” of the excerpt, tracking M(usical), A(ffective), and P(erformance) elements. When focusing on affective elements, students often observe, “it’s boring,” and “it doesn’t go anywhere.” Some will respond by saying that it feels like it is supposed to be grand but merely sounds trite. Eventually they point to the elision in m. 4 and we discuss other structures in music and language that similarly employ elision (e.g. “This is the Song that Never Ends” or the snicker-inducing “Hello Operator”).

The discussion leads to the question, “if these measures are somehow frustrated in their purpose, how could we make them more effective? How could the passage be recomposed to be less trite?” At this point, some examples of other “Mozartian Loops” (as described by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy in Elements of Sonata Theory) can be played for comparison and discussion (e.g. K. 279 or K. 172). In preparation for students’ individual recompositions, the class brainstorms a list of general musical elements that could be changed (harmony, rhythm, melody, number of measures, etc.) and they think about what elements will have to be kept. This last consideration requires a bit of discussion, as knowing how much material to keep and how much to change can be tricky at first. A spectrum of possibilities exists ranging from keeping almost everything the same to changing many parameters at once. We sketch out some extreme examples, one of which changes as little as possible (perhaps just reiterating m. 4) and another of which makes enough changes so as to disguise the connection to the original. Agreeing that their recompositions will fall somewhere in between those extremes, they develop criteria for assessing whether or not their work will have accomplished the desired outcome. These high-order tasks of evaluation and preliminary analysis are thus done in class with peers, so that students can later apply them at home more confidently. At the end of class, students sketch some ideas on their own while the music is still ringing in their ears and ideas are fresh.

2. Flip

The at-home, flipped portion of this assignment provides two important pieces of information:

​1) The first contains the technical details they need to know to perform the recomposition. A link leads them to a digital version of the original seven measures of Mozart’s Spass in a web-based program like Noteflight that they can then revise. The instructions will provide a brief tutorial on the notation software, and also anticipate other questions about notation that might arise. They direct students to post their recompositions as a link in their electronic journals and to write an account of their decision-making process. The instructions let them know that after a certain target date I will make their journals public, so classmates can review each other’s recompositions and comment on them.

​2) A study guide provides a short historical background of the piece with a couple of translations of the title. Students reflect in their journals on how this information affects their thoughts about the original movement we heard in class.

3. Apply

Students apply what they’ve discovered in the exploration and content-delivery phases of the project by recomposing the excerpt. The instructions offer no further explicit constraints, however students are asked to explicate their compositional decisions in their journals. Low-stakes grades are given for the journal entries based on good-faith efforts, and the grading rubric is open to almost any answer in either the recomposition or journal entry.

As for the students’ recompositions themselves, most normalize the phrase structure to eight measures by inserting a measure between the original third and fourth measures. Many students design a half cadence in the new fourth measure. Other strategies include melodic and rhythmic variations and harmonic changes such as adding a predominant. Some will adjust the final cadence to end on the downbeat, or even recast the harmony to modulate to the dominant. Students are encouraged to build in musical interest and not just stop at normalizing the structure. Peer comments on journals help pave the way to an informed discussion in the next class period that can extend to related topics:

  • What were the expectations of audiences in Mozart’s day?
  • How do other divertimenti differ from Mozart’s Spass?
  • Are there performance elements that could underscore the humor in this piece?
  • How might students compose a humorous piece of music from scratch?

Of course, there are challenges to this assignment. Students do not always complete their recompositions in time to participate in peer review. Since receiving comments from classmates is an important step, keeping the conversation going with a second round of comments––perhaps addressing even more detailed questions––can often catch those who need a longer time to process the assignment. Another challenge for learners is lack of familiarity with genre conventions, which is revealed far more readily with this type of assignment than with generic part-writing assignments. Practice with several models in class helps identify stylistic subtleties, as do out-of-class listening assignments.

In her essay “On Standards and Assessment” in Volume One of Engaging Students, Anna Gawboy advocates for authentic assessments that replicate the real-life problems faced by musicians. Recomposition projects like this one act as authentic assessments in that they can open the door to more advanced composition and arranging activities. They address NASM’s “synthesis” competency requirement, by combining “aural, verbal, and visual analysis; composition/improvisation; and history and repertory.” As previously mentioned, this technique also offers students a more generative approach to analysis and takes on aesthetic considerations not well handled by conventional analysis. In addition to gaining understanding of the specific piece and forms being studied, this assignment further familiarizes students with notation software and a means of sharing pieces electronically. Most importantly, it fosters notions of composition as a collaborative and exploratory activity that could be useful in future situations that musicians encounter.

This work is ©2014 Shersten Johnson and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.