Teaching Through Composition: First steps in Harmony at Grade One Level – Jeni Warder

Welcome to the first guest post of the year! I’m delighted to welcome back Jeni Warder, who is the founder and director of Keys Piano School in Bolton near Manchester. Jeni is a passionate piano and composition teacher and in this post she explores teaching Grade 1 composition;  there is also a downloadble free resource at the bottom of the post so that you can create the same lesson plan as Jeni describes here.

Teaching Through Composition: First steps in Harmony at Grade One Level

At my home studio, Keys Piano School in Bolton, we teach almost 300 children and adults from a wide range of backgrounds. Our ethos is based in challenging each individual to create their own musical journey, encouraging students to explore music which reflects both the past and the present, and to develop their own musical voice.

Composition can be a very powerful tool in developing confidence and understanding at the piano. Over the past few years, I have developed a range of projects, at various levels, where our students can begin to compose within a structured format. In this way, learners can explore the building blocks from which all music is made.

As a Trinity Champion Centre, Keys enjoys entering children for both live and digital Trinity exams, where a composition can be used in place of a third set piece. As such, there are requirements in content and technical demand for each grade. In my previous post (read it here), I focused on developing simple melodies to produce ‘question and answer’ phrases, resulting in a piece appropriate at initial level. In this article I will focus on producing a piece from a harmonic stimulus, which would be suitable for Trinity grade 1, if required. Many of our composition classes at Keys are taught in groups, but these activities are also suited to a one-to-one situation. 

Previous learning

At grade one level on the Trinity College syllabus, students are expected to be familiar with the keys of G major and E minor, as well as F major and D minor. The technical requirements at this grade include playing a single octave scale, and the broken chord pattern of each. At Keys, we also teach children to understand the connection between related keys (which I sometimes describe as “the same team with different captains”). To access this project effectively, children need to be familiar with these keys, the concept of ‘home’ and the relevant key signatures. It is also essential they have covered the concept of a triad being a chord which is built up in thirds and named after the root note, and be comfortable playing them with 1-3-5 fingering. For the purpose of this activity, I ask the children to choose one of the major keys, and in this example, I will use the key of G major.

Activity 1: Exploring the Chords of the Key. (Using free resource sheet)

After recapping the scale and key signature, the first task is simply to write out all the notes that belong to the key of G major against their corresponding degree of the scale in the vertical boxes. G is therefore at the bottom, and F sharp at the top. Using the piano and the row of notes to help, students then fill in the notes of each triad in the centre columns. Notice I have deliberately left out chord 7 in this circumstance, as it generates a diminished chord which often acts as a dominant 7th, which can be pretty confusing! Once the boxes are complete, I ask children to play each chord on the piano and listen to whether it sounds major or minor, writing this in the final box of each row. After checking and discussing answers, there is an opportunity to consider what intervals give these chords their character. We notice the outside notes of major or minor triads always stay the same, making a fifth, but the middle note is higher or lower, making the major and minor thirds swap places. We are very lucky to have use of a giant teaching keyboard (called a ‘Manumat’, from Blackrock music) and with the help of a few beanbags we can demonstrate these chords clearly on the floor of our studio.

Activity 2: Going Home!

Once all the chords 1-6 have been established, it’s a great opportunity to explore cadences. How much detail is included in this session is entirely down to how much the student is able to absorb. At grade 1 level, I feel a perfect cadence, chords 5-1, is the only concept necessary, but we explore this in a variety of ways. Only using bass notes works well for those who struggle to find the chords quickly, or finding perfect cadences in a variety of familiar keys is a great extension for those who need further challenge.

Activity 3: Roll a sequence (at the bottom of free resource sheet)

Once students have familiarized themselves with each chord, they can start to play them in sequence. At first it is easiest for a teacher to suggest a pattern, such as using the primary chords, G-C-D-G, or 1-4-5-1. In groups, I often allocate each child a chord, and they play this when I shout out their chord or hold up a card. They can hear the sequences that work well and it’s an opportunity to have a ‘jam’ together. As a teacher, improvising or playing a familiar tune over the top enables you to model what will come later in the process.

Students can now start to create their own sequences, usually of four chords. I generally suggest they either begin or end with G major, chord 1, but other than this, the choice is theirs. Some children can hear which they prefer and do this quickly, but most will need more prompting. Using dice to create a row of four numbers is a great way of generating a few different sequences for children to choose from. They also have the option of adjusting anything, perhaps including finishing on a perfect cadence.

Activity 4 Getting creative with chords

At this point children will most likely be playing their triads in root position, and holding them each for a short time before moving to the next chord. This may sound very boring to us, but for them this is the beginning of truly understanding how harmony works, and I make sure the children celebrate this.

Helping them use this sequence to create something with character is one of my favourite parts of this process. We start by brainstorming styles they’ve heard of; a waltz, a march or a lullaby, and explore how they can play their chords in different ways to create their own version. My children also love to challenge me to play their sequences (still no melody!) in different styles – once we somehow got onto an animal theme and I had to make them sound like a cat, a monkey and a rhinoceros. I really find that teacher demonstration and enthusiasm does really capture their imagination, so be prepared to give this a bit of thought beforehand. After this input, students usually have a good idea about the kind of piece they want to create, and it is then over to them to become confident with playing the chords, in their chosen style, usually with their left hand.

Activity 5 Improvisation and Melody Writing

Once chords are decided, it’s time to create a melody. Children decide how many beats/bars of each chord they would like, and how many repeats of the sequence work best. In our group sessions, I pair children and ask one to play the chords, while the other improvises over the top. If working with an individual, we record the accompaniment and explore ideas on top of the recording. The biggest challenge comes when a student begins playing all these ideas at the same time! At this point, whether intentionally or accidentally, things can change, and this is just a lovely part of the creative process. Over time, a piece evolves, and a student becomes totally in control of its development. Once this full process is complete, a teacher can ask a few more questions about articulation, dynamics, character and tempo.

You may notice I have not mentioned anything about notation. For our students, the process of composition is about learning harmony, aural exploration and musical content. Once completed, it can be appropriate for children to notate a small portion of their work, such as the key and time signatures and initial theme. This in itself has many learning opportunities and could probably be the subject of a whole new post, but I would love to hear how others encourage their students to notate their music!

You can hear Lauren’s final composition and others on the YouTube playlist accompanying this blog series here:

Download Jeni’s FREE resource here: Exploring chords

Jeni Warder



Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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