Oh general music class … what a challenge it can be. It seems like we always want something that will grab their attention and be FUN, but still teach them something valuable and leave them wanting more. One of my go to activities to accomplish this is Chance Music.
With chance music activities I can:
Let students get as creative as they want.
Let students create something as complex as they want.
Let students invest as much effort as they want.
Let students explore new instruments and sounds.
Let students create their own system of notation.
All of these things while having an easy couple of days of teaching. (I personally like to do this at the beginning of a new school year!)
Here’s what I do and what grade levels I’d recommend for each step.
Step 1: (K-8) Complete a class or group chance composition. I like to use Boomwhackers and dice. I have students assign a Boomwhacker to each color of the die, roll the die, then write the results. I keep it basic and slim – no rhythms, just the pitch of the Boomwhackers. Our Boomwhacker Chance Music Worksheets are available for FREE on TpT! I have the students perform the song(s) they wrote.
Step 2: (2-8) Using these songs we just wrote – I ask the students, “What makes these different from typical songs?” Ideally I’m looking for someone to mention things like just pitch, no specific rhythm, no lyrics, single sounds, etc. From here I will ask the students how we can add something like rhythm to this song. There are a LOT of ways you can go here – this is just what I do when my class doesn’t take me down a different creative path. We’ll work together as a class to use the same method of randomization (rolling dice) to assign a rhythm to each pitch. Something as basic as a 1 is a quarter note, 2 is a half note, etc. Students roll through their songs again, this time notating rhythms WITH the pitches. Perform the song(s) again!
Step 3: (4-8) Here is where we can get into some REAL creativity. I like to show this video. Then, I have the students work through some simple questions on a worksheet (FREE download available HERE). It’s healthy to have a class discussion and work through answers to the questions on the worksheet (listed below with my answer goals).
What is chance music? Music that has been created by leaving some or all aspects completely up to chance or methods of randomization.
What aspects of music can be left to chance? Pitch, Rhythm, Dynamics, Timbre, Instrumentation, Meter, Phrasing – etc. (basically ANYTHING)
What are some methods of randomization? Rolling dice, drawing a card, flipping a coin, drawing straws, etc.
What is a notation system? A method of keeping track of information so another individual can understand it. (more on this later!)
Then I ask the students to:
“Create a chance composition using any notation system you desire. Write down whatever is required to correctly perform your song on separate paper(s). Be specific! Make sure someone else could look at your song, understand it, and perform it without being able to ask you questions.”
Before you turn them loose – have a serious talk about your expectations of a notation system. I put zero limitations on this (which can present challenges) – it can be as simple or complex as they want. I expect to see things that are literally just letters on a piece of paper, maybe a line of different colors, sometimes I have students use full music notation and even put their composition in with notation software – it really can be whatever they want. BUT – I have to be able to understand how to perform their song JUST by looking at their notation system. If that means there is a key of to the side where a red block means this and a blue block means this – that’s fine! It HAS to be on the paper. Not worrying about a specific notation system frees those students who don’t have a good grasp of music notation to be creative. Okay, ready?
Prepare for creative chaos!
I open up the room and tell the students to get creative.
I provide dice, cards, and coins for students to use (or let them create something on their own for randomization).
I let the students use the classroom instruments, their OWN band instruments (if they are in band), and whatever else they can think of to create music (within reason of course.)
Give the students time to work as long as you feel they are being productive (I usually give them about 2 periods of 45 minutes to compose their song.)
Then have them perform the piece for the class – using friends if need be to cover other parts!
What about the “I’m done!” crowd?
-Wow your song is four notes and that’s it? Okay, how about we roll a die for each of those notes and see how many times you are going to play that note. Then flip a coin to see if it repeats or not!
This activity is less about the final product and more about the complete process underwent.
I absolutely stress this statement to my students. Sometimes the songs sound cool and fun – sometimes they sound like nonsense. It’s about what you put into it. There are no wrong answers with this activity!
My Favorite Student Creations:
I have had an entire composition that could be played on a single chair using a pencil – and it was actually really cool! They flipped a coin numerous times to see if they were supposed to hit the seat or the back (which each had different sounds). Then I pushed them to take it a step further and see if they could find a method to add dynamics by chance.
My personal favorite was a student who created a 12 by 12 grid of color blocks. Each color meant a different instrument was supposed to play an unspecified pitch. He had 3 friends perform with him. But what I LOVED about this was before his performance he asked me to pick a number between 1 and 4. Whichever number I said was the direction he rotated his grid and that was the direction of how the song was played through. So he basically was able to write 4 songs in one simply by rotating his piece of paper.
I had a student who randomized EVERY possible aspect he could and put his composition into Noteflight (music notation software). He rolled a die to see how many measures, flipped a coin to see what time signature, drew cards to see what pitch, flip a coin for what dynamic, rolled a die to determine what rhythm, etc. The end result sounded ….. pretty outlandish – but I absolutely LOVED the creativity and initiative he showed in his work.
Well … that was a rather lengthy post! I hope this at the very least gave you some ideas to help conquer the beast that is general music class!