Pop music composition starters – buy my new book!


“Pop Music Composition Starters” is eleven lesson plans that use the history of American popular music as a backbone to teach composition skills to your secondary music students.

These lessons are tried and true tools to get every student in your music class creating in a way they never thought they could do before. The best part is it’s not a complete curriculum – it can be picked apart and done in any order to enhance what you already have in place.

Students will learn how to write melodies and lyrics, use harmonic progressions, perform accompaniments on multiple instruments, record, and edit sound using popular styles from the past and the present.

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Some lessons require computers and software while others simply require paper and pencil. Some lessons use instruments such as keyboard and guitar while others can be done without instruments at all. Use what you can, adapt what you can, and save the rest for when you can fit it in.

These lessons are the heart of the presentation I’ve written for the National Association for Music Education convention in Grapevine, Texas this November. Being from New York State, the trip to Dallas is going to be expensive. This book is a great opportunity to offer my curriculum for sale to raise some money to defray the cost of the trip and share these lessons with your students.

These lesson plans feature reproducible handouts and step-by-step instructions for each of the pop music compositions I will discuss at the conference. Here’s a full list:

  • Folk Music Lyrics Composition
  • Blues Melody and Lyrics Composition
  • Blues Keyboard Melody Improvisation
  • Rockabilly Guitar Accompaniment Composition
  • Rhythm and Blues Keyboard Accompaniment Improvisation
  • 50s Rock Guitar Accompaniment Composition
  • 70s Bass Line Keyboard Improvisation
  • Rap Introduction Composition
  • 80s Drum Beat Improvisation
  • Sampling Composition
  • Remix Composition

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If you’re not interested in purchasing the lesson plans, you can make a donation of any amount to my trip if you’d like. Thank you so much for your help and support.

Donate with PayPal

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Pop music composition starters – buy my new book!

Pop music listening activity: “Dibs” by Kelsea Ballerini


The number one song on the Billboard Country Radio play chart for the second cosecutive week is “Dibs” by Kelsea Ballerini. It’s a pretty straightforward song with the lyrics so go ahead and listen to it with your students. Here’s my breakdown:

Form Letter Time Description
Intro 0:00 – 0:09

– Instrumental intro featuring acoustic guitar,
banjo, and light bass and percussion.

Verse A 0:09 – 0:32 “I know everybody wants you, that ain’t no
– Acoustic vibe continues with sparse
accompaniment. Banjo reenters halfway
Chorus B 0:32 – 0:54 “If you got a kiss on your lips that you’re…”
– Accompaniment becomes more lush and
prominent as vocals get fuller.
– Male vocal harmony part joins female lead
and a group “eh” punctuates pauses.

Transition C 0:54 – 1:05 “I’m callin’ dibs, on your lips…”
– New speech-like vocals come in over same
sparse accompaniment from verse.
Verse A 1:05 – 1:26

“Make everybody Jealous…”
– Same music as before but banjo is through
the entire section.
– Adds male harmony to vocal melody.

Chorus  B 1:26 – 1:48 Same as before.
Break D 1:48 – 1:59 Upbeat, restrained electric guitar solo over
chorus accompaniment.
Chorus B 1:59 – 2:21 Same vocal melody as before.
– Accompaniment begins sparse similar to
earlier sections.
– Second half returns to normal.
Transition C 2:21 – 2:31 Same as before
Transition C’ 2:31 – 2:43 Same lyrics as before, presented in a higher
vocal register.
– Accompaniment mirrors the chorus, not
previous transition sections.
Coda 2:43 – 3:03 Extension of the transition with similar lyrics.
– Accompaniment style from chorus continues.

There are multiple ways I have students analyze a song like this. If this is their first time listening critically like this, put a blank spreadsheet on the SMART board of white board for them, replaying the sections several times to let them hear what you are pulling apart. Then go back and listen to the whole thing to show them the overall form. Have them fill it in as you go or just watch and participate. This takes me 45 minutes or so.

Once students get the hang of it, let them pick their own song to analyze. It’s how they build skills for their own compositions and analysis, by listening to what others have done.


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Pop music listening activity: “Dibs” by Kelsea Ballerini

2016 GRAMMYs recap: using the ceremony in the music education classroom


The 2016 GRAMMYs have come and gone. Here are my thoughts as the show was going on and some overall thoughts following the performance. (A nice GRAMMY primer from Vox can help you out, too.)

This is really the overarching theme for the night. While the tributes to Glenn Frey, B.B. King, David Bowie, Maurice White, Michael Jackson, Lemmy Kilmister, and the yearly “those we lost” compilation were all very good individually, as a whole there were almost as many tributes to deceased musicians (7) as actual awards given out on the telecast (8, right?).

Best Performances

My favorites were Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and the David Bowie tribute by Lady Gaga but for completely different reasons. Little Big Town’s performance incorporated some great string accompaniment that is a really easy chord analysis if you’re looking for music ed content.

Gaga’s performance was great for the ingenuity. The opening visuals evoking the different Bowie characters using projection then morphing into new roles along the way was a perfect way to remember Rock’s greatest chameleon.

Worst Performances

Through no fault of her own, Adele’s appearance was marred by technical issues including a weird string sound and her vocal being obscured then completely dropped before returning. She sent a NSFW tweet saying a microphone fell on a piano string causing the entire thing to be out of tune. Without knowing the sound mix going into her ear, it’s very possible that while we stopped hearing it after a little bit, she heard it the entire time. Woof.

So, so many performances were slow during the middle hour of the telecast. Then they got a huge, powerful performance from Kendrick Lamar only to bring it back down with Miguel singing a slow Michael Jackson tribute. Things began to pick up over the last hour of the show.

I love Hamilton. It is not meant to be shared as a single song without show notes or lyrics in front of you. I thought it was awesome that it was featured but I doubt it did anything to broaden the audience for the show.

Most Surprising Moments

The biggest surprise of the night happened in the last five minutes when Taylor Swift took home Album of the Year for 1989. Surely it produced a ton of hit singles, but as a whole I didn’t like the album very much and most expected Lamar to take the top prize.

Another moment late in the telecast, the GRAMMYs went after Spotify without mentioning the streaming service by name saying all the artists that made that song get paid less than a penny every time you stream the song they helped create. A powerful message that they chose to put after 11 p.m. on the East Coast.


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2016 GRAMMYs recap: using the ceremony in the music education classroom

Charlotte Danielson’s “Framework for Teaching” and music composition assessment

Recently, I sat down with a new assistant principal who I’ve never hosted in my classroom before to discuss my observation using the Charlotte Danielson “Framework for Teaching.” He attended my high school general music class, Music Plugged In, to observe an assessment lesson. I want to take you through my explanation on a pop music composition assessment activity I used in this lesson to get a perfect score on the Danielson rubric.


A gallery walk can be done in several different ways. The goal for the activity is each student gets to hear every composition from their colleagues. It is a great tool for differentiation as the low-performing students get to hear exemplary work while the high-performing students get a chance to hone their critical ears and voice to give constructive feedback. For the first half of the year, we have done ours all together guided by the teacher in written form so I can remove hurtful comments. Another set-up is to have the composers pull up their compositions at individual stations and students can literally walk from composition to composition, giving written feedback. You can also assign it as homework and have a more advanced class share their criticism directly with a composer. For the composer, it is a safe step into the presentation aspect of composing in a room of peers before their music goes off into the more perilous real world.

Like my previous post on the Danielson framework and popular music, this lesson is tailor-made for a perfect score, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to prepare. Only after working with students to hone their ears and critical comments is it possible to really achieve great results.

In my district, we are not evaluated on each and every component during each and every observation so I will showcase just the components I used for my lesson. Direct quotations have come from individual component levels of Danielson’s Implementing the Framework for Teaching in Enhancing Professional Practice: An ASCD Action Tool:

Component 1b: demonstrating knowledge of students
– “Teacher regularly designs lessons that allow for individual choice.”
– “Teacher’s lesson plan reflects student-­initiated ideas for incorporating culturally relevant
activities and assignments.”

For this activity, students have been working for several weeks to create their own remix using a Digital Audio Workstation. I’ve applied the gallery walk principle to all of our composition activities throughout the year, though. Students are using their own words to critique other composers’ works and their own decision-making process is displayed in their compositions.

Component 2b: ­ Establishing a culture for learning
– “Students take advantage of opportunities to choose their own projects and show individualism and creativity in their methods of demonstrating their learning.”
– “Teacher develops and shares high­ quality instructional outcomes and expectations with
all students.”
– “Teacher holds all students to high standards for completion of assignments.”
– “Students determine the relevance of assignment to real ­life examples…”
– “Students attribute their success to hard work and effort rather than the task being easy or luck.”
– “Students encourage each other to take risks and continually ask questions.”
– “Students reflect on their own work and consider how they might improve it.”

Each student chose their own song to remix in this assignment and through the year they have been making their own compositional choices within the framework outlined by the teacher. They have made multiple decisions along the way to craft their project. These compositions are real-world based and playing them in front of their peers solidifies that. On paper, the students are encouraged to ask open-ended and thought-provoking questions of each other’s compositional decisions.

Component 3c: Engaging Students in Learning
– “Students initiate the choice, adaptation, or creation of materials to enhance their

Students were invited to help refine the grading rubric and point totals were altered to
reflect their input. That includes students who specifically asked to remove sections of
the song, something specifically outlawed by the rubric, if the student can justify the
decision in a conversation with the teacher. With each student listening to all the other compositions, the process enhances their understanding for what to do and not to do in future assignments.

Component 3d: Using Assessment in Instruction
– “Every student” will be “asked diagnostic questions… to see at a glance which students
do and do not understand.”
– “Teacher provides a variety of feedback including written, verbal, and modeling…”

The written feedback the other students and the teacher provide here can be used as a summative or formative assessment. I allow students to resubmit projects like this after receiving feedback from their peers. Students also use a self rubric, to articulate what is good, what needs improvement, as well as what additional learning they need to obtain success.

This model is a exactly what classroom teachers in other fields are looking for. It’s general enough where each student can make it their own but shows each student’s content language and knowledge. Bring the student feedback sheets with you to your post-observation to show the administrator exactly what the other students had to say.

Here are some feedback examples discussing the same remix of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” created by one of my students:

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The level of depth shown by these comments isn’t extreme, but it’s enough to see genuine musical listening, vocabulary, and criticism skills. You can also see the feedback each composer will get to improve their work.

Read more about how you can integrate pop music activities using the Danielson rubric in my previous blog post. To support my blog, use this Amazon link to buy Implementing the Framework for Teaching in Enhancing Professional Practice where you can get ultra-specific on what makes an activity a perfect 4-of-4 on the Danielson rubric.


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Charlotte Danielson’s “Framework for Teaching” and music composition assessment

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

Read this: High school a cappella jives with teacher evaluation systems


Recently I attended a festival at South Glens Falls High School in Upstate New York where I presented on two topics near and dear to my heart; contemporary a cappella music and student choice. I have found this type of music to be extremely popular among students and it allows them the opportunity to be creative, not simply perform the pre-written notes on the page. Read the excerpt and check out the full article:

Student leadership and choice has been a hot topic among music educators recently as the element is being used to evaluate teachers. To earn a perfect score using teacher evaluation tools such as the Danielson rubric or the new National Core Arts Standards, students need to take ownership of their experience and proceed beyond teacher-led activities. In many cases, that’s exactly what they are doing in their high school a cappella groups.

Read the full post here.

Read this: High school a cappella jives with teacher evaluation systems

2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees: one song

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The 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees have been announced. Here is one definitive, school-appropriate song and YouTube video for each nominee and a link to their nominee bio at the Rock Hall website.

The Cars
“My Best Friend’s Girl”

Cheap Trick
“I Want You To Want Me”

“Good Times”

“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”

Deep Purple
“Smoke on the Water”

Janet Jackson
“What Have You Done For Me Lately”

The J.B.’s
“Doing It To Death”

Chaka Khan
“I’m Every Woman”

Los Lobos
“Will the Wolf Survive?”

Steve Miller
“Fly Like an Eagle”

Nine Inch Nails
“The Day The World Went Away”

“Express Yourself”

The Smiths
“Shiela Take A Bow”

The Spinners
“Rubberband Man”

“Owner of a Lonely Heart”


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2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees: one song

Music Ed Video Review: “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Time-Life)

This is a mammoth documentary that includes pre-rock topics through the 1990s when it was produced. Pulling clips to show students is a great way to bring more authentic popular musicians into your curriculum. Like many documentaries, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll from Time-Life (now part of Warner Brothers) it covers a wide swath of material from which you can choose what to focus.

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What I like:

This documentary is comprehensive and includes topics not explored in great depth in other rock and roll documentaries. The information on Bob Dylan plugging in, for example, is top-notch and the 1970s is explored in great detail. It’s also helpful that it includes pre-rock inspiration that directly led to rock ‘n’ roll. The sheer scope of the documentary means you can pick and choose great material for your students.

What I don’t like:

The scope is a double-edged sword and you’re going to have to preview a lot of material in order to find what’s right for your students. It’s not a documentary you can press play on and leave for a sub, either. Depending on the age and tolerance level of your students, school, and community there are some very good parts you’ll have to cut out. (Pete Townshend from The Who has great takes on Jimi Hendrix that you can’t play a single bit of because of the swearing, for instance.)


I have four documentaries I pull from for my curriculum and this one has been indispensable since I purchased it. Despite that fact that it’s 20 years old now, getting to hear from some of the people who were there and changing popular music and by extension the country is a valuable asset. It’s pricey ($175 is the cheapest used copy I’ve seen) so I would only recommend it for people doing extended popular music history lessons as opposed to a shorter five- or ten-week units. Do not leave it for a sub or you’ll have some apologizing to do when you return.

It’s available on Amazon.

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Music Ed Video Review: “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Time-Life)

2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Lou Reed

As we get closer to the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, I’ll share short and sweet profiles of the inductees and some lesson ideas. Bookmark it.

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Lou Reed was one of the most influential figures in the punk rock era, impacting generations of rebellious music from punk to grunge. In the 1960s, his band The Velvet Underground broke the ground for the punk rock revolution in the 1970s despite little commercial success. With Reed as their front man they explored drugs, urban decline, sex, and other topics in a more forthright, honest, and sometimes shocking way than any group ever had while also experimenting wildly with sound, even incorporating avant garde techniques.

Reed entered the Rock Hall as a member of Velvet Underground but now goes in as a solo artist for his continued work after the break-up.


“Heroin” The Velvet Underground
Lyric content is the revolutionary thing about this song if you’re going to study it but there are obviously drug references so use your judgement. This is one drug song I would play for my middle school students.

“Sweet Jane” The Velvet Underground
The guitar riff of this song is definitely worth discussing.

“Walk on the Wild Side ” Lou Reed
Reed’s most famous solo piece is another controversial one. It discusses transsexuality, sex acts, and drugs. Everything is so overt in this song, I certainly wouldn’t play it for my students.

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2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Lou Reed

Music ed book review: “Top 40 Fun Facts: Rock ‘n’ Roll”

If you’re calling in a sub unexpectedly and need plans for a non-music person or need a filler activity to keep some students busy, you’ll really like this book. Tom Anderson’s Top 40 Fun Facts: Rock ‘n’ Roll is full of worksheets to use in your elementary to early middle school classroom.


What I like:

The best and most important thing to consider with the $25 price tag is that each activity is fully reproducible. Students can navigate each of the activities on their own without teacher help. It is designed “for substitutes, field trips, and other days when you can’t use your regular curriculum.”

What I don’t like:

Students are going to come away from these activities with very little practical knowledge of popular music. Only a handful of the worksheets provide relevant information while the rest are simple word searches, jumbles, and fill-in-the-blanks. The activities are busy work and $25 is a lot to pay for busy work.


I haven’t found much use for this book since I ordered it. When I have sub plans, I like them to be curricular and since these assignments generally cover wide periods of time, they aren’t focused enough to reinforce what I am teaching in that my current unit. In fact, I’ve only photocopied one assignment from the book in the 18 months it’s been in my library.

You can buy it directly from Hal Leonard as it’s not available on Amazon.

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Music ed book review: “Top 40 Fun Facts: Rock ‘n’ Roll”