Tell Me A Story: Teaching Music Composition Through Narrative Design

September 20, 2019


Since student composers with non-classical backgrounds are more common than ever in college music programs, creating new strategies for teaching them concepts of form and structure presents a challenge for the composition teacher. The use of model composition in which students are encouraged to employ classical forms such as sonata or rondo in their studies is only useful for those students already familiar with them. In order to best serve those students who lack this background, better models for such formal approaches need to be devised. In this article, I argue that all students, regardless of background, already possess models for formal and structural expression: stories. The article provides an overview of the issues and concerns surrounding modern compositional pedagogy, then outlines an approach to teaching composition using narrative designs to model concepts of form, structure, and development. It considers the monomyth and the Freytag pyramid—narrative frameworks shown to guide storytelling traditions across the world—and shows their close relationship with traditional paradigms of musical form. Using a combination of musical analysis, narrative analysis, and case study, I propose a pedagogy for composition that uses these narrative designs as models for musical structure. I not only demonstrate how this strategy can be used to teach structural concepts of composition to students who may be encountering the concert music world for the first time but also explore its potential for guiding every kind of student in the increasingly diverse composition studio of today.

Vincent P. Benitez


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