Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Composition Shopping Cart

Embracing Musical Limitations in Songwriting

James Doyle, Ryan Rahhal | Published: March 10th, 2022 by K20 Center


In this lesson, students will create a composition using a limited number of musical elements by selecting from a menu of pitches, dynamics, rhythms, and symbols. Students will then reflect on their experience and engage in a discussion concerning the benefits and drawbacks of musical limitations in songwriting.

Essential Question(s)

Can musical limitations increase creativity in songwriting?



Students generate lists of different musical elements.


Students choose a limited number of musical elements and create a four-measure composition.


Students listen to famous melodies that use very few notes and complete an I Notice, I Wonder activity.


Students revisit their own composition, this time using two more elements.


Students complete a How Am I Feeling, What Am I Thinking activity.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Composition Shopping Cart Handout (attached; one per group)

  • Composition Shopping Cart 2.0 Handout (attached; one per group)

  • Music Staves (optional; attached; one per group)

  • Computer or iPad (one per group)

  • Speaker with auxiliary connection (optional)

  • Sticky notes


Introduce the lesson by displaying slide 2 from the attached Lesson Slides. Review slides 3-4 to introduce students to the essential question and learning objectives.

Break students into groups using your preferred method, then have students open a blank document on their computer (alternatively, they can use blank paper and a writing utensil). Display slide 5 and introduce the Collective Brain Dump strategy. Have students follow the instructions on the slide, listing as many examples as possible of each musical element listed. After groups have generated their lists, have them share out with the class. Write group answers on the white board in their appropriate categories.

Have students make corrections to their list where necessary.


Pass out the Composition Shopping Cart handout. Display slide 6.

Using the Justified List strategy, have groups select the musical elements from each column that they will use to create their song. After selecting their elements, have students write one sentence in each column explaining their choices.

Display slide 7. Have students open Flat using either their browser or the app. Instruct students to sign in and make a new composition with the melodic instrument of their choice. Students can now use any number of the musical elements from their list to make a melody that is four measures long.

Display slide 8. Use the Airplane Landing strategy to decide the order in which students will share their song. Display slide 9 and instruct students to share their compositions with the class. If the class is large, you can have students plug their device into a speaker before playing for the class. Alternatively, have students perform their song on their personal instruments.

If dividing this lesson into two class periods, end day one here.


Display slide 10. Use the questions on the slide to generate a class discussion. As you conclude the discussion, prepare the students to hear some famous examples.

Display slide 11. Play the video at the indicated time (in slide notes) and point out the "Ode to Joy" melody to students.

Display slide 12. Play the video and point out the opening melody of Beethoven No. 5.

Display slide 13. Play the video that showcases the melody from the Kendrick Lamar song, "Humble." You might also share with the students that Kendrick Lamar won three GRAMMY awards for this song, the melody of which is made up of only three notes.

Display slide 14. Using the I Notice, I Wonder strategy, have groups list one observation and one question for each of the three songs. This can be completed on devices or on a piece of scrap paper. When all of the groups have completed their list, have them share observations with the class and while you compile the answers on the board.


Display slide 15. Pass out the Composition Shopping Cart 2.0 handout to each of the students.

After hearing some examples, students should have a better understanding of some techniques or strategies for creating melodies. For example, the Kendrick Lamar melody needs either a flat or sharp symbol to create the correct intervals.

Have students repeat the Justified List exercise, but this time instruct them to choose two more musical elements from any column. When they've completed their new compositions, use the Airplane Landing strategy for share-outs.


Display slide 16. Pass out a sticky note to each student and have them complete the How Am I Feeling, What Am I Thinking? strategy.

Direct the students to place their sticky note on the whiteboard or wall as they leave the room.