Pop music composition starters for your General Music classroom



You want to incorporate composition into your classroom but you don’t know where to start. Start here. This is a step-by-step look at how you can make composition a part of your General Music classroom using pop music topics from the last 100 years.

This presentation gives you sequential examples of 12 composition assignments you can choose to weave into your General Music curriculum as you see fit. Feel free to modify the concepts and use them for your own purposes.

  • Folk Music Composition
  • Blues Composition
  • Rockabilly Composition
  • Rhythm and Blues Composition
  • Rhythm and Blues Accompaniment Improvisation
  • 1950s Chord Progression Composition
  • Disco Loop composition
  • 1970s Bass Line Improvisation
  • Rap “Where I’m From” Composition
  • Loop-based DJ compositions
  • Sample Composition
  • Remix Composition

There is also information on grading pop music compositions, gallery walk assessments, my view on standard notation, rationale for doing this type of assignment, and more.

This session was originally  presented at the 2015 New York State School Music Association Winter Conference.


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Pop music composition starters for your General Music classroom

Folk Music Unit Plan

My 8th graders start their school year learning about American Folk music for a lot of different reasons. It leads to country music which leads to rock and roll, so it’s the start of the pop music canon in this country and the melodies and accompaniments are easy to perform. It’s the perfect jump start to our pop music curriculum.

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The Slides presentations gives an overview of the basics of the style and historical key points. If you’re looking to truncate a few decades into one post, the playlist encompasses the progression of folk music to country and western in a few videos.


The first composition assignment I do with my students each year requires them only to write lyrics. It serves several purposes; it helps me get to know something about each one of my students while teaching them how to write lyrics on the staff and teaches them about song parodies, which were a very popular form of song writing in the U.S. prior to 1900. While my students that have come through our general music program are well-versed in writing music on a staff, they’ve never added lyrics.


I like to get everyone on the same page at the beginning of the year so we focus on two just chords with the baritone ukulele. (It would also work with the guitar if you’d prefer.) Folk music is known for simple accompaniments and it’s a great place to start brand new students. I use Tom Dooley because of the extreme simplicity. Returning students get to focus on technique while the new students learn the chords and everyone is playing something that sounds like an actual song. Giving them that success early helps prevent frustration from taking over.


If you’re looking to reinforce the concepts of pre-1900s folk music, a great way is to compare a traditional version of a song with a more polished version. I use the Kingston Trio’s number one hit from 1959 for the latter and have used a couple different performances for the former. The performance I use now is this performance on upright bass, guitar, and banjo. I like to highlight the differences in the performance more so than the lyrics (though it’s certainly a big part of folk music). We talk about what it means to be rehearsed vs. unrehearsed and what cues we get from the performers that inform us it’s not perfect and they are making changes on the spot. We also highlight the added and polished parts of the Kingston Trio version that differentiate it from a traditional performance. Using “Tom Dooley” reinforces our performance track but you could use a whole host of different songs if you desire.

Over the course of a couple classes, you can comprehensively teach folk music, basics on the guitar, how to write song lyrics, and assess listening responses all at the same time. Try it!

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Folk Music Unit Plan

Performing popular music builds engagement, lifelong learners

Every music class should be performing regularly as part of their curriculum. It’s important to not overlook popular music as a medium for that performance either in line with a history of popular music or as a stand-alone performance track. This will give students a better opportunity to become lifelong musicians than if they were simply playing constructed melodies and accompaniments.


All music teachers were performers at one point that had extensive training in reading standard notation, performing with excellent technique, and honing their skills to near-perfection. The reality is that most of our students won’t share that experience so teaching performance has to be done in a more accessible manner.

Using “social instruments” – loosely defined as instruments people play in common social settings – and teaching students how to perform them in social ways is our best way to ensure the chance of lifelong musicianship. We should be empowering eventual adults who can pick up a guitar and accompany a song or sit at a piano and accompany or play a melody.

In our middle school, we use keyboards, baritones ukuleles, and guitars as part of our performance curriculum. The students begin with right hand melodies on the keyboard and chord accompaniments on the ukulele in sixth grade before building to left hand accompaniments on the keyboard, adding the guitar, and eventually playing two hands together on the keyboard before they leave eighth grade.

Teaching students to read chords and play improvised or practiced accompaniments on these instruments is the basic performance skill my students should be leaving with. Guitar TAB is also a useful tool. I don’t foresee much use for standard notation by my students beyond reading a lead sheet (sometimes called a “fake”), so I approach performance that way.

Engage your students with performance now and into their future with popular music performance.

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Performing popular music builds engagement, lifelong learners