Music composition in the high school curriculum: A multiple case study

Menard, E. A. (2015). Music composition in the high school curriculum: A multiple case study. Journal of Research in Music Education, 63(1).


Achieving all objectives in the National Standards for Arts Education would require fundamental changes to the way music is taught in school today. This study aims to explore how composition, a part of the National Standards, can be integrated into high-school music programs. Student and teacher perceptions regarding composition instruction were investigated using mixed-methods techniques in two high school music programs: a “talented arts program” (TAP), providing accelerated instruction to gifted musicians, and a typical performance-based band program. Students and teachers in both programs participated in a six-week music composition program. Data collected included interviews, observations, attitude surveys, student and teacher journals, and composition assessment scores. The two teachers of the programs reported an increase of instruction capacity and student understanding of musical concepts after the program. This lead both teachers to experience an increase in confidence to teach unfamiliar subjects and approach teaching in new ways.

Key Findings:

  • Following the composition experience, teachers reported that implementing composition instruction in high school classrooms increased their own instructional capacity and was valuable to the student’s educational experience.
  • Prior to the program, teachers found they were afraid to teach composition due to a lack of training in their own education, but at the end of the program, they exhibited greater confidence in their own skills and abilities.
  • Teachers found many students with less performance abilities created more complex and creative compositions than the more performance inclined students, indicating performance skill is not the only measure of a student’s musical abilities.
  • Students in both classes identified personal expression, increased musical understanding, understanding of composer process, increased interest in music, and general enjoyment as benefits to composition instruction.

Significance of the Findings:

Both teachers saw growth in their instructional capacity through teaching subject matter that is not standard in music education curriculum. Furthermore, the teachers gained confidence in their own skills and abilities, leading to better understanding of their students’ needs and capabilities. Finally, as the teachers stepped beyond their formal training and challenged themselves and their students, they were able to tap into previously unexplored potential in their students. Including compositional study in the requirement for licensure or continued education of music teachers can increase self-efficacy, improve instructional capacity, and provide another avenue for student success. Since the National Core Arts Standards for music do include music composition, it would be beneficial for schools with music programs to encourage teachers to incorporate composition into their lesson plans or to provide professional development for teachers in compositional study.


In this mixed method study, qualitative case study techniques were used to examine student attitudes and teacher perceptions before, during, and after the compositional process. Techniques included interviews, journals, and field observations of the teachers and students involved in the composition program. Two teachers were involved in this study, one from the TAP program and one from the symphonic band. A quantitative component generated data to analyze student attitude and investigate the use of Amabile’s (1996) Consensual Assessment Technique as an evaluative tool for creativity in high school music composition using different judging groups. Over the course of six weeks, students were taught a program of music composition for 50 minutes each week, and were required to compose a short piece on the seventh week. The TAP had 24 students, of which, 10 compositions were selected to be evaluated, representing students with one or more years of compositional experience. The symphonic band was comprised of 74 students, of which 20 compositions were randomly selected for evaluation, representing students with no prior composition experience.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers identified the following limitations to the study:

• Only two teachers were involved in this study, and so the findings are not generalizable to the broader population.

• The two groups studied were subject to selection bias based on their nature as members of arts classes, and are not generalizable to the broader population.

• Predetermined perceptions of the difficulty of composition on the parts of either the teachers or the students may have altered the compositional experience in the classroom.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Potential questions for future research include:

• What are the impacts of implementing and studying composition activities in other performance-based classes such as choral and orchestral programs?

• How would this curriculum be implemented in a non-accelerated high school general music program, instead of a TAP?

• Are there ways to include composition-based instruction in music teacher education programs? Through initial licensure, continuing education, or professional development seminars?