Making Students Make Music: Integrating Composition and Improvisation into the Early Music Classroom

James A. Grymes, John Allemeir


In his essay “Teaching Music History: Principles, Problems, and Proposals,” Douglass Seaton advises teachers to “make students make music” by having them perform, compose, or simply write out scores. His specific recommendations for composition assignments include Aquitanian organum, isorhythmic motets, and a mass movement based on a soggetto cavato on the student's own name. Seaton also proposes introducing students to historical composition assignments such as those Handel created for Princess Anne.

This article provides specific examples of how this approach can be implemented in daily teaching. The authors, a musicologist and a composer, have designed and team-taught an undergraduate course in early music that integrates the studies of composition and improvisation into the traditional survey of music history. As part of this class, they have developed methodologies and exercises that not only incorporate Seaton's suggestions, but also extend their principles to other genres.

The exercises require students to demonstrate fluency in major musical styles from the Medieval through the Baroque Period by analyzing, interpreting, and then reconstructing significant compositions and improvisations. Some of the resources designed for this approach were inspired by pedagogical manuals such as the Scolica enchiriadis and Handel’s composition assignments. Adhering to Seaton’s adage that “the history of music is the music itself,” the majority of the tasks are drawn directly from music literature, from compositional procedure in Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame to improvisational practice in Corelli's Violin Sonata, op. 5, no. 1.

Integrating composition and improvisation into the early music classroom has transformed “the history of music” into “the history of music-making.” Instead of passively learning historical details and music literature, the students are actively scrutinizing and then replicating various artistic choices made by composers and performers of early music. In doing so, the students become engaged not only in mastering musical concepts, but—more importantly—in actually making music.


Music; Early Music; Music History; Music History Pedagogy

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ISSN 2155-109X