I was a senior in high school when my piano teacher approached me with an opportunity to write a song for a national composition competition. I had never written a song before, but I jumped right in and started improvising a song on the piano. The next step was to get my song on paper, and though I had been reading music for years, I didn’t know where to start with the actual notation. My first attempt was eye opening. What I had written down on paper didn’t quite sound like what I had in mind. My teacher helped me figure out the notation, and then we submitted the song into the MTNA Composition Contest. To my great surprise and delight, I won the first place prize in Colorado.
Seven years later I tried to get published, but it was nearly impossible. I submitted my music to a number of music publishing companies and I heard nothing back from them. They didn’t even bother to send me a rejection letter. Luckily I had a connection to one publishing company. I knew a guy that knew a lady that knew the owner. The owner did get back to me and told me that there was no market to sell my song. Ouch! I was devastated, but I realized that he was right. Who wanted to spend time learning difficult pieces by an unknown artist?
I decided to try my hand at writing for my students instead and found that they liked my music, and it was easy for them to learn. By this point, instead of going to a publisher, I started exploring the idea of self-publishing. The world was changing, the internet had made way for sharing platforms and “do-it-yourselfers” were creating things in their basement that rivaled what big companies were producing. I have since written over a thousand songs and have had more than a hundred thousand people play my music.
I have dreamed of the day when the average person could write a song and successfully share it with the world. Creating your own music is the ultimate means of self expression, but it is a skill that needs to be taught. Many people can play or sing, yet they don’t know how to create their own music. And many people have created their own song, but they don’t know how to notate it and share it so others can play their song.
The average person who learns to play the piano still lacks the skill to write music. After decades of teaching music, I have come to believe that learning music is very much like learning a language. The majority of citizens in the United States have learned to both read and write, and music teachers can have the same success with their students in teaching them to not only read music but also to write music. But where do you start?
The literacy pyramid helps to visualize the process of becoming literate in a language. We can approach learning music with this same process.
The foundation of the pyramid is “Listening.” Listening leads to speaking, and upon that foundation, we learn to read and then to write. Listening to music is essential in the process of becoming literate in music. First, we begin listening until we gain a basic comprehension of music. Just through listening, we pick up on dozens of musical innuendos. Simply by listening to music, you learn far more than can be described in words. It becomes the foundation upon which everything is built. As we listen to different kinds of music, we expand our foundation.
The next stage of learning a native language is learning to speak. We first start by trying out sounds and then imitating sounds that we hear. We then start making more complex sound combinations and then imitating the combinations we hear until we attain a basic level of verbal communication. In music this can be done through singing or playing an instrument. We squeak and we squawk until finally, our imitation begins to resemble the music we have heard.
Reading music is a much more complicated process. In the article “Speaking Is Natural; Reading and Writing Are Not” the author states...
“Human brains are naturally wired to speak; they are not naturally wired to read and write.”
Reading music is no different. Any piano teacher knows that to develop the ability to read piano music fluently requires an enormous amount of work and dedication. We often neglect to teach writing music until after we have taught how to read music, but language teachers don’t put off teaching their students to write until after they have become fluent readers. They teach the basics of writing very early in the process. The basics of writing music can be taught simultaneously to reading music if you stick to the basics.
I have been guilty of neglecting to teach the skill of writing to my students. I attempted it many times with students throughout the years and failed time after time. I am now determined to succeed, and I am convinced that I need to teach writing music the same as language teachers teach writing.
Keep things simple, clear, gradual, engaging, and rewarding. With this in mind, I developed this Songwriting Worksheet that teachers and students can use to get started. I have made each step very simple to follow and included videos to guide students through each step.
Today I came across a piece called “Do I Hear Santa?” written by Josh Mills. It made me laugh and I could not stop playing it. I realized that there are thousands of people with brilliant ideas that will enrich the world. Please keep writing and sharing your music.