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Song writing for the Play it Strange competition

Focus key competencies: Participating and contributing, creative thinking

Learning area context: Arts


In this story the teacher developed a song writing unit with her year 12 and 13 students so that they could participate in the national Play it Strange competition run through the New Zealand Music Commission as part of New Zealand music month. The song writing theme was peace.

The teacher wanted her students to learn that the meaning in songs is carried by the music as well as by the lyrics. In particular she wanted her students to learn how music can foreground different emotions. So she gave her students four chords (D, A, G, F) and set them the task of using these chords to create four pieces of music representing a range of contexts such as a beach party, or a graveyard at midnight. The students then performed these to each other.

The teacher provided the students with pictures associated with the theme of peace to help them get started on writing lyrics. However she found that the students interpreted the pictures superficially, and with clichéd responses. She wanted to elicit more passionate and visceral responses so she took a new approach. First she got students to brainstorm and record on mind maps different ideas or themes associated with peace. Then she got students to work in groups to brainstorm and record words associated with each theme. The students generated lots of ideas that they felt passionate about, such as the peaceful protests at Parihaka, and the search for peace in the context of family violence.

The next step involved teaching some literary techniques that students could use in their song writing. The teacher taught the students about point of view and how to write similes, metaphors, personification, and alliteration. She provided examples of each device, as used in the lyrics of songs students already knew. She also taught different rhyme patterns (AABB, ABAC) commonly used by song writers, and again provided students with examples from existing songs. She then provided them with opportunities to practice writing rhyming lyrics. Students worked in pairs to create lyrics for each rhyme pattern using the words they had brainstormed earlier. Some chose to add music at this stage while others just worked with words.

Finally the teacher set the students the task of writing their own songs. Each student chose their own song topic and carried out some research. They then began writing their songs. Some chose to start with the chords, some with the lyrics, and some worked on chords and lyrics concurrently. Students applied the techniques they had learnt to the songs they wrote. One student, for example, wrote a song about family violence in which each section of the song was written from the point of view of a different family member. Another student wrote a rap about Parihaka, including in his lyrics the simile ‘like an explosive volcano’.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

The Arts Learning Area of NZC states that “by making, sharing, and responding to music, students contribute to the cultural life of their school, whānau, peer groups, and communities. As they engage with and develop knowledge and deeper understandings of music, they draw on cultural practices and on histories, theories, structures, technologies, and personal experiences” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p.21). This story shows one way to help students use their own cultural practices as resources for creative thinking as an aspect of music-making, and specifically song writing.

Song writing provides opportunities to explore non-verbal, as well as verbal, forms of meaning making. Using non-verbal forms of communication in the arts allows for the creation and response to ideas beyond the linguistic (Fraser, D., Price, G., & Henderson, C., 2008). The competency participating and contributing provides students with opportunities to learn the ‘discourses’ of song writing—that is how to be a song writer. This involves learning how song writers behave as they interact, value, think, believe, speak, read, and write (Gee, 2008). Students can learn how to be song writers through explicit instruction and opportunities to practice with others; together the students form an ‘apprentice discourse community’ of songwriters.

Foregrounding the key competency of using language, symbols, and texts provides opportunities to explore the relationship between function and form in music. The function of a text (such as a song) is its social purpose. The form of a text includes its mode(s), in this case: audio and linguistic. (See Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures (Cope and Kalantis, 2000, p. 26) for a diagram illustrating some of the modes and elements of meaning making - or what they refer to as “linguistic design”.)

NZC states that “students develop literacies in music as they listen and respond, sing, play instruments, create and improvise, read symbols and notations, record sound and music works, and analyse and appreciate music. This enables them to develop aural and theoretical skills and to value and understand the expressive qualities of music” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 21).

Reflections on effective pedagogy

This unit of work was structured to help students make connections between:

  • Ÿsongs they already knew and those they were creating
  • Ÿissues of personal concern and the act of song-writing
  • Ÿwords and music
  • Ÿfunction and form.

In this story the teacher recognised early in the unit that she needed to increase the level of challenge if students were to create songs that were up to competition standard. She went about doing this very strategically. She provided careful scaffolding to ensure that all students had opportunities to develop the capacity to be creative. (Sumara and Davis (2006) challenge educators to not think about creativity as a personality trait, but rather to consider how the task design creates the space for all students to be creative.)

Students were given freedom and flexibility within structured tasks that allowed for improvisatory play (Fraser, D., Price, G., & Henderson, C. (2008), who cite music research demonstrating that improvisatory play is central to idea generation). They could choose how to go about defining and tackling their task within certain broad limits. (Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2008) refer to this idea as “enabling constraints" and model how these enabling constraints can be provided through the example of a poetry writing unit, which has some similarities with the sequence of lessons described here.) They were given they space they needed to take the initiative and opportunities to: reflect, share, present, perform, rehearse, structure, refine, and focus their ideas (Price, 2002, A model of the creative process in: Fraser, D., Price, G., & Henderson, C., 2008). Building in flexibility, combined with the extended period of time, allowed for unanticipated possibilities to emerge as the tasks were undertaken.

Discussion starters: Authentic experiences of “being”

In this story, students develop an aspect of participating and contributing as they learn what it feels like to be a song writer. What might they learn about song writing that could pass them by in a less personal learning encounter such as learning about some other song writer? Is this an important aspect of participating and contributing to develop? Why or why not? Are there implications for other learning areas?

What sort of scaffolds are needed to ensure that all students can experience what it feels like to be creative? Is this an important aspect of thinking to develop in all subject areas? Why or why not?

How is this context similar to and different from the ways that teachers developed experiences of “being” in the following stories: Investigating like a scientistBeing a food technologistEngaging with historical significance by creating sound walks; and A critical encounter with the nature of games?


Davis, B., Sumara, D., & Luce-Kapler, R. (2008). Engaging minds: Changing teaching in complex times. New York: Routledge.

Fraser, D., Price, G., & Henderson, C. (2008). Enhancing learning in the arts: A professional development resource. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Gee, J. (2008). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. (3rd Ed.) London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Sumara, D., & Davis, B. (2006). Correspondence, coherence and complexity: Theories of learning and their influences on processes of literary composition. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 5(2), 34–55.

The New London Group. (2000). A pedagogy of multiliteracies designing social futures. In B. Cope and M. Kalanzis (Eds.) Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and design of social futures (pp. 9–37). South Yarra, Australia: MacMillan.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014