Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 6

Table of Contents

Making a Case for Freewriting in the Music Theory Classroom

Jennifer Salamone

Most of us have had nightmares about missing an important meeting, interview, or audition. When I first began teaching those haunting dreams evolved: showing up prepared to teach Theory II only to realize I was on the roster for Aural Skills IV, or looking down at the piano and finding that I had completely forgotten how to play. Yet as my first few years at the front of the class passed without major catastrophe, my apprehensions grew more realistic. I worried about my effectiveness, my rapport with students; my anxieties shifted to not just “Did I do the thing?” but “Did I do the thing well?” and “Did the students engage with and maybe even enjoy the thing?”

I also quickly realized that the more actively I could involve students in their own learning, the more ownership they took over the material. One of the most effective ways I found to do this was through classroom discussion. And while I envisioned lively, discursive repartee, I was met all too often with interminable silence and awkward eye contact. Even the most conscientious students seemed to struggle when it came to openly talking about music. Although most were perfectly comfortable asking skill-related questions like how to label a cadence or how to resolve a chord, generally students seemed unable or perhaps unwilling to simply talk about the music—what they liked, what they didn’t like, what confused them, what seemed out of place or unusual. Since these were precisely the types of things I wanted us to talk about in conjunction with the skills students were acquiring, this permeating reticence disheartened me. As a result, I went on a quest for new, innovative ways to stimulate classroom discourse.

The method I settled upon—a technique called freewriting—offers a pathway to classroom discussion that relies on students’ unbridled, unfiltered responses to the music. When I first introduced the concept of freewriting to my sophomore music theory class, I was equal parts excited and terrified—like all calculated risks, this one had the potential for glowing success or dismal failure. In those initial weeks I used freewriting almost daily, both in class and as homework assignments, and found that it gave students a much-needed springboard into classroom dialogue. What’s more, as students grew accustomed to the assignments, their freewrites became less stilted and more intuitive. In short, they became “freer.” In this essay I discuss my experiences with freewriting as a tool in the music theory curriculum and demonstrate how freewriting can act as a pathway to student-driven discussions.

Focused Freewriting in the Music Theory Classroom

Peter Elbow (1973) first coined the term “freewriting.” At its core, freewriting is simply a way for the writer to get off the starting blocks; Elbow advocates that it is “the easiest way to get words on paper.” The goal is to write for a set amount of time, unencumbered—no backtracking, no second-guessing, and no revising along the way. The idea behind the practice is that even mediocre words on paper are better than no words at all. Elbow writes that “the only point is to keep writing . . . .The goal of freewriting is in the process, not the product.” For a music theory student, this process can exist on various planes. At first, many will simply find it difficult to write about the piece of music they’ve just heard; freewriting allows these students to explore and develop facility with descriptive musical language. For the overthinking student who might otherwise stare at a blank page for hours, freewriting becomes about loosening the reins and growing comfortable with unpolished thoughts or unanswered questions. Meanwhile, the student overflowing with opinions and observations will experience freewriting as a way to channel and streamline their ideas.

Before I continue to tout the virtues of freewriting, it is important to note that the practice is not without critics. Its very “free”-ness has led some to call it undisciplined, unsystematic, and even antithetical to good writing (Fox & Suhor 1986; Rodrigues 1985). Raymond Rodrigues (1985) laments the “cult” of composition instructors so focused on the writing process (emphasis his), to which freewriting is crucial, that they eschew more traditional instruction. The result, he insists, is that while students may be writing, they are not improving their writing. Because of freewriting’s “anything goes” approach and its emphasis on detaching oneself from concern for spelling and grammar, it became for some a symbol of mediocrity in writing instruction.

Despite its critics, freewriting remains a staple of many composition classrooms. However, not all freewriting is created equal. As composition pedagogy continues to develop, some instructors (Li 2007; Rule 2013) have implemented and studied the effectiveness of a technique called focused freewriting. This is “an adaptation of Elbow’s non-stop, non-editing act of writing with a specific topic to give a focus during the freewriting process” (Li 2007, 42). An open freewrite may overwhelm students to the point where, rather than writing about anything, they end up writing nothing. The added direction of a focused freewrite offers a narrower, more manageable scope to allow those struggling students to succeed. Focused freewriting is in essence the best of both worlds: the creative abandon remains, but with just enough structure to keep the process from becoming unwieldy.

Freewriting originated as a tool for writers and students of writing. As such, how can it play a role in the music theory classroom? Responding directly to the critics of freewriting, I would point out that all music theory freewrites are by their nature focused freewrites. That is to say, the coursework itself is focused—on a piece of music, on a skill, on a performance or listening experience. Thus assigning freewrites based on specific course content automatically lends them a bit of a framework. Occasionally, an additional prompt can help direct the task even further. Take for instance an exercise I gave last fall involving Franz Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger,” which involved a freewrite coupled with a supplementary prompt.

The assignment was as follows: Students listened to the piece once without the score and once more while following the score. During that time they were free to make notes as they wished, either on the music itself or on a separate piece of paper (but were not required to do so). Then, they set a timer for five minutes. In that time they wrote whatever reactions, feelings, observations, or even questions they had about the music. This is the focused freewrite portion of the assignment—focused in that the writing has to be about “Der Doppelgänger,” but free in the sense that each student may choose what specific elements they choose to consider. Some students highlighted the performance itself—the singer, the pianist, the interpretation—and others targeted things like stylistic elements, harmony, melody, or overall affect.

In addition to the focused freewrite, I asked students to do one more thing: choose a word or phrase they felt accurately described the piece’s mood. Seemingly small, this extra prompt required students to take a moment and consider the work as a whole and specify how it made them feel. I compiled their adjectives on the board; students called out words like “haunting,” “dark,” “desolate.” The list, with its obvious tendency toward morose descriptors, then led us back to the class’ freewrites: What was your initial reaction to the work? Can you articulate the specifics of that reaction? That is, what musical elements led you to the adjective you chose?

With those questions, we were able to begin the process of connecting the affective (their focused freewrites and especially, the additional prompt) to the technical (the music itself and relevant music theory terminology). Pressed to specify musical qualities that made the piece “dark” and “brooding,” the class developed a new list: tempo, dynamics, vocal tessitura, key, harmony, the range and texture of the accompaniment, melodic contour. Using these terms as a guide, we continued digging: How does the melodic contour play into these descriptors? Why does the slow tempo fit with these adjectives?

Finally, knowing that I had chosen the piece in large part for its advanced harmonic language, I guided the class to that item on our list: How does the harmony help set the mood? How does it interact with the text? Are there moments where it seems particularly important? By the time the hour was over, we had not only located and identified the most complex harmonies, but the students were also intimately aware of how those harmonies functioned—not only in a technical sense within each progression, but also in a more panoramic way within the overall fabric of the piece. Using a focused freewrite and one additional prompt, the students had (perhaps unknowingly) given me the musical big picture. Then I only needed to guide them toward bringing that picture into focus, and in doing so they were able to gain facility with increasingly sophisticated music theory concepts and language.

As the example above illustrates, supplementing focused freewrites with a prompt can help funnel discussion in a particular direction without dictating that direction outright. This becomes especially important in cases of longer or more complex works where students might otherwise become overwhelmed with the scope of the piece. I might ask the class to do a focused freewrite (listen twice and then write for five minutes) on the work and then, as a final prompt, have them assign a title to the piece. This encourages students to distill the work down to its most salient features—features that will very likely vary from person to person. As an example, I used this assignment alongside Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, no. 4. The titles students assigned were quite a conglomeration: “Floating,” “Ethereal Heartbeat,” “Lost at Sea,” and my personal favorite, “Stuck in the Mud.” Judging just by the titles it’s clear that while some students found the left hand’s constant pulsating to be comforting and other-worldly, others received it with more despondency and even frustration. What’s more, for works like this with one or more editorial titles, lively discussions can develop regarding what constitutes a “good” or “accurate” title, and even if there is such a thing at all. The freewrite allows students to get their initial reactions down on paper, helping solve the problem of “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” (Forster 1927). The additional prompt encourages them to cultivate specific descriptive vocabulary, engaging more deeply and even critically with the music.

Freewriting and Classroom Discourse

When I began teaching Theory III at Oberlin in the fall of 2016, I wanted to cultivate a dialogic, collaborative classroom environment. The harmonic language we tackle in the third semester includes modal mixture, advanced chromaticism, and modulation to distant keys; we also take on sonata and rondo forms. I chose to teach these topics almost entirely from repertoire. Although I was excited about the music, I was also unsure of how to approach it in a way that was not dictated by my own predetermined notions of what was most “important” to each work. I didn’t want to lecture on each piece; rather, I wanted to address the music using the students’ own ideas and experiences as a guide. The immediate roadblock I faced, however, was that students were unsure of how to even begin discussing such intricate music. They seemed to enjoy and be curious about the pieces, yet were unable to articulate what precisely they found notable, and why. Even when a student was able to point out a specific aspect of the music he or she wanted to discuss, the focus tended toward correctly labeling the device rather than the device’s significance to the piece overall. My goal was for the discourse to live more in the big picture: “Sure, we need to be able to identify and label that chord, but how does it fit? How does it change the musical landscape? Why is it valuable to the greater context of the work?” And while I wanted us to dive deeper, I also wanted the students to be at the helm. With those thoughts in mind, the following year I implemented a new strategy: pre-class freewrites.

For every piece we studied in Theory III the following year, I assigned a freewriting exercise that students were to complete before coming to class. At their most basic, these pre-class freewrites get students listening to and thinking about the piece prior to our time together; I find class time itself too precious to spend listening to entire works each day. I suggest that students mark any moments that, for whatever reason, jump out at them as they listen. These often serve as great points for discussion later. Even though it’s a music theory class, I assure students that their freewrites are not meant to be about solely “music theory things.” Opinions are encouraged, and I continually remind students that they are under no obligation to like the pieces I have chosen! Freewrites can be typed or handwritten, sloppy or neat. I want everyone to write without concern for judgment and as such I don’t grade or evaluate freewrites in terms of content but rather treat them as pass/no pass based solely on completion.

The main goal of pre-class freewrites is exposure. Simply by completing the assignment students listen to the piece two times on their own, without my influence directing them. Through those two uninterrupted, back-to-back hearings they get a sense of the work as a whole—which of course echoes what I want from our classroom analysis. When students complete the assignment they are at home, in the student lounge, in the library—quite literally anywhere but sitting in my classroom. I want them as relaxed as possible so their writing can be as free as possible. The pre-class freewrites remain focused to the degree that they are still about a specific musical work, but there are no additional prompts or guidelines. I simply want students to commit to two listenings and five minutes of writing, and see where it takes us as a class.

With a pair of hearings under their belts and freewrites in hand, students enter the classroom ready and able to jump right into the music. I begin most class meetings by asking students to partner with somebody close by and share freewrites. This helps focus everyone’s minds but more importantly for the purposes of classroom discussion it gets students talking. Once those few minutes are up I cull thoughts and comments from each pair, usually making a list on the board as I go. Many responses come in the form of questions: “The harmony at measure X sounded cool but what is it?” “This cadence felt like it came too early/too late; what happened?” Others zero in on the performer’s interpretive choices, the music’s relationship to the text (when applicable), or even their own performance experiences with the work or composer. And then there are responses focused on affective reactions to the music—“I really loved (or hated!) this passage/piece,” “This made me feel anxious/relaxed/energized”—that open the doors for us to explore how the music was able to elicit such a response.

With commentary drawn from freewrites now on the board, we can begin our discussion in earnest. There are several avenues I may take to start off: I might scan our list and point out a significant trend (“Five of you wrote something about mm. 54–60; let’s start there.”); perhaps I’ll zero in on one specific comment and ask the student author to elaborate and others to respond; maybe I’ll simply have the class survey the freewrite responses and dictate the discussion’s initial direction. Taking the latter avenue can be a bit scary—you’re throwing yourself to the mercy of the students’ whims, after all—but it can also result in discussions that would have never otherwise come to be.

For instance, after collecting pre-class freewrite comments for Gustav Mahler’s “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” I simply opened the discussion up to the group, quite unsure of what I would get in response. One student immediately restated what she had written in her freewrite: every time she felt grounded the music pulled the rug out from under her. Several of her peers nodded in affirmation. Knowing that the piece is full of wonderfully slippery tonicizations and common-tone modulations, I was of course encouraged by this observation and eager to steer us toward a technical explanation for this student’s reaction. However, before I could say a word the discussion plowed on without me. Students acknowledged that shifts in tonic occurred—some even had a few of the spots marked in their scores—but were much more eager to draw the text into our discourse. They talked about the ephemeral nature of scent (“einen linden Duft” translates to “a gentle fragrance”) and how that could be tied to the fleeting sense of tonal stability; the text painting at work with each shift of tonic; and lastly, the play on words that permeates the poem. In Friedrich Rückert’s text, the word “linden” morphs from adjective (“gentle”) to noun (“linden” the tree) and back again. Although I was aware of this, I hadn’t necessarily considered it a high priority for discussion. The students, however, dug into it with abandon. They speculated on how the dual meaning of the word is reflected in the “dual meaning” inherent to the music’s common-tone modulations. With that, I was able to guide them through the score, locate those modulations, and work out the mechanics involved. The class was delighted by the text painting specifically surrounding the word “linden,” and they went far deeper into the musico-poetic implications than I ever would have dreamed. Did we analyze every interesting harmony in the song? Frankly, I doubt it. Did the students acquire an understanding of the major modulations and tonicizations? Yes. And most importantly—and what likely wouldn’t have happened had I not let the class use their freewrites to steer that day—did the students walk away with an enduring impression of the work as a holistic entity? Absolutely.

This experience also highlights how, on days where I use pre-class freewrites to guide discussion, my primary role is that of a moderator. My wish is for the conversation to bloom from within the cohort of students and to steer only when necessary. Through their two hearings of the piece students often intuitively gravitate toward the curious and the unusual, and the subsequent freewrites focus on those attention-grabbing moments. More often than not, those passages are precisely the ones I want us to tackle analytically: a salient mixture chord, a startling modulation, a hypermetric shift leading to unbalanced phrases. Pre-class freewrites give students the freedom to intuit the importance of these moments without the pressure of analyzing them. We then work as a group to dig deeper into the music, attach labels to the elements in question, and finally discuss how and why they caught our attention in the first place. By the end of class we have touched upon all of the major analytical hot spots, but most importantly, we have done so using the students’ own observations to guide us.

Final Thoughts

Much of the beauty in freewriting lies in its informality. These assignments don’t have to be neat, grammatically correct, or even in full sentences. I do an introductory focused freewrite on the first day of class, using Robert Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht.” The piece is neither too long nor too complex—perfect for the first day of music theory after a long summer. I play the piece twice, allowing students to follow a score the second time. When I set a timer for five minutes and tell them to write non-stop, many stall out in the first minute and begin looking around in a panic. I encourage the class, “I just need words on a page. Don’t think too hard, just put words on a page.” Some find it difficult, even awkward; others find it liberating. When you strip away the need for structure, for editing, and for perfection, you’re left with unfettered access to gut reactions. Students begin to learn what they value in music and what grabs their attention. In short, they begin to find their voice.

Freewriting has given me a way to offer students agency over their classroom learning. By removing the need for correctness, freewrites give students the freedom to simply react to the music. As the semester goes on, they begin to realize that the moments to which they have the strongest reactions are also often the most analytically interesting. In the cases of students who may traditionally struggle in music theory, this realization bolsters their confidence and reinforces the intuitive musical skills they possess. As we move into longer works with a focus on large-scale formal listening, these same students have now developed a level of self-efficacy and trust in their abilities. This allows them to embrace the challenges of our new repertoire rather than becoming frustrated or downtrodden. I have also found freewrites to be advantageous for drawing out quieter students or those who are not native English speakers. With a tangible piece of their own writing in front of them, these students are more comfortable speaking up and joining their peers in discussion, often referring to their freewrites or even reading directly from them. I feel strongly that utilizing freewriting not only encourages a more student-centered curriculum but also offers unique ways to draw upon a wider breadth of voices.


Elbow, Peter. 1973. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1981. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York: Oxford University Press.

Forster, E.M. 1927. Aspects of the Novel. Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Fox, Deborah and Charles Suhor. 1986. “ERIC/RCS Report: Limitations of Free Writing.” The English Journal 75 (8): 34–6.

Li, Linda. 2007. “Exploring the Use of Focused Freewriting in Developing Academic Writing.” Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice 4 (1): 41–53.

Rodrigues, Raymond. 1985. “Moving Away from Writing-Process Worship.” The English Journal 74 (5): 24–7.

Rule, Hannah. 2013. “The Difficulties of Thinking Through Freewriting.” Composition Forum 27. Accessed July 17, 2018. http://compositionforum.com/issue/27/freewriting.php

This work is copyright ⓒ 2018 Jennifer Salamone and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.