Composition Game

There’s an exercise I’ve been wanting to try with my students for a little while and I finally go the chance last weekend.

We did a composition exercise.

The idea was simple. I wrote down 8 different rhythmic building blocks along with an 8 note C major scale. I also had an eight sided dice.

Because of my work on Chartopia (which is a tool for role playing gamers), I happened to get gifted a set of gaming dice (thanks Scott) so I was able to put my d8 to some musical use.

The steps were as follows:

Roll a d8 for a rhythm and a note. A sharp eyed students noticed I’d missed a pair of quavers.
  • The student rolls the dice and the number defines the rhythmic building block to be used, say a quaver and 2 semi quavers.
  • To keep things simple, the time signature is common time and the first notes starts on the tonic, C.
  • The student then has a choice:
    • They can pick a note to go to next (keeping to the C major scale) given the rhythm…
    • …or let fate decide…

Some students were happy to just let the dice do all the work, some were keen to pick their notes. I typically let the dice define the rhythms though. One keen eyed student had noticed that I’d missed a very basic two quavers building block!

If fate decides a note, then the student gets to choose the octave although usually this was simple enough; octave jumps are great fun though.

The exercise was a success for something that I quickly sketched before a lesson. A couple of students said they expanded on their exercise and home and the following week, three did a couple more bar so that we could complete a 4 bar phrase.

Learning rhythms for composition

I remember as a pre and early teen finding it challenging to take a rhythm in your head, and being able to put it onto paper. I probably had far too complicated grooves going on in my mind, so I wasn’t doing myself any favours. Generally though, those rhythms are still one of a fundamental rhythmic building block. During the exercise, I made sure the student could their dice rolled building block in isolation and played as a loop. Even if it was just to the note, it would be the equivalent of ‘clapping with the tongue’, so to speak.

I don’t typically ask students to clap rhythms, although maybe I should(?)

Interestingly, looping a single crotchet’s worth of rhythm (say, a quaver and two semi-quavers), does boggle their minds sometimes. They can easily do it once, but the idea of looping it just creates that little bit of confusion; it’s a good brain tease for them. I find that far too often, students use their memory of how the piece started, to base how they should play now. Strange, but it’s also why they typically get it wrong. This is why understanding the rhythmic building blocks are so important.

Iterating on the ‘game’

As you can see from my picture, I jotted this down really quickly but there’s merit in tidying everything up, even expanding the rhythms out to a d10 once I add a pair of quavers and maybe a crotchet-triplet.

One major flaw? Well, obviously everything is linearly probability, so semiquavers may get interspersed with minums easily, which wouldn’t make sense in a funk piece say, but I don’t want to confuse students too much. Maybe once day I can create a crazy acyclic graph where different dice weighting lead to differing probabilities of different building blocks of rhythms so that the pieces tend toward a particular genre.

A much easier expansion to this is to take a blues scale, rather than just a C major scale. Keeping to white notes keeps things simpler, but a blue scale may capture a student’s imagination more.

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