CNMN > Projects > Creative Music Making from Source Material

Nikola Tosic

  • Open (def: scores for unspecified instrumentation)
  • Acoustic instruments
  • Rock band instruments
  • 13 to 18 years of age
  • Adults
  • Seniors
  • Education

Creative Music Making from Source Material


Here is an approach to col­lab­o­ra­tive music mak­ing based on using exist­ing reper­toire, where a group sam­ples and repur­pos­es mate­r­i­al and ideas for use as a Start­ing Point.

A. PREPARATION – Choose the Feature

Pre­pare by choos­ing one or more fea­tures direct­ly relat­ed to the reper­toire com­po­si­tion and intend­ed to use as a Start­ing Point.  You can also do this with the class, depend­ing on the “depth of engagement”.



Musi­cal Build­ing Blocks

  • Meters (odd meters of var­i­ous tra­di­tion­al music)

  • Rhyth­mic pat­terns (focus on syn­co­pa­tion, genre-spe­cif­ic beats)

  • Cadences (tra­di­tion­al and as a broad­er concept)


  • Cross-dis­ci­pli­nary (Debussy’s La Mer inspired by Hokusai)

  • Inspi­ra­tion from nature (Beethoven Sym­pho­ny No 6)

  • Con­tem­po­rary sam­pling techniques

Socio-his­tor­i­cal con­text and oth­er knowledges

  • Indige­nous knowledge

  • Ori­gins of African (per­cus­sion) instru­ments in the Amer­i­c­as (var­i­ous con­tem­po­rary jazz and lat­inx composers)

  • Inter­in­flu­ence of Asian and Euro­pean music tra­di­tions (mul­ti­ple composers/pieces)

B. The Workshop(s)

1. Warm-up

Warm-ups are intend­ed to bring a group into an opti­mal psy­cho-emo­tion­al state for cre­at­ing music togeth­er. I like to run com­plete­ly unfa­mil­iar activ­i­ties which “reset” the stu­dents’ usu­al band room mind­set. When design­ing the warm-up, keep in mind the cho­sen Feature.


  • For com­plex rhyth­mic pat­terns, warm-up by run­ning some sim­ple clap­ping riffs with phas­ing effect (3/4 4/4 5/4 start­ing together)

  • Fun phys­i­cal ice-break­er activ­i­ty with some space for impro­vi­sa­tion, guid­ed towards the Feature

2. Engage with the Feature

The Facil­i­ta­tor can be cre­ative with the man­ner of pre­sent­ing the Fea­ture. For the stu­dents, this expe­ri­ence should be slight­ly chal­leng­ing, a stretch into the “less known”.



  • Ver­bal­iza­tion of an odd meter (do-you wa-nna ba-na-na = 7/8)

  • Graph­ic nota­tion of com­plex rhythms

  • Learn melody/riff/motif (lat­er­al rote, decon­struc­tion of build­ing blocks, etc)

  • Fast visu­al brain­storm of con­cepts on white­board and identify/discuss connections


3. Gen­er­ate Mate­r­i­al in Break-out Groups 

Assign small­er groups and give them a task for explo­ration and exper­i­men­ta­tion, based on the Fea­ture (and its parts).



  • Define clear deliv­er­ables and keep a tight dead­line (<20 min)

  • Walk around and offer artis­tic assis­tance (lis­ten­ing, curios­i­ty, appreciation)

  • Sug­gest ways a stuck group could move forward

  • Pro­vide some socio-emo­tion­al guid­ance for resolv­ing con­flicts, assur­ing stu­dents that unused ideas are valu­able and can be used in anoth­er con­text, etc


4. Share – Dis­cuss – Combine 

The break­out groups share the musi­cal mate­r­i­al they came up with. After some dis­cus­sion, the idea is to try putting things together.



  • Lis­ten­ing groups pay atten­tion to details and make con­nec­tions with their own music material

  • The Facil­i­ta­tor can get the ball rolling by direct­ing the mix/match process

  • The Facil­i­ta­tor can suggest/direct vari­a­tions in tem­po, dynam­ics, octaves, extending/shortening bits

  • Rather than ver­bal­ly dis­cussing what parts may or may not fit togeth­er, have the groups try out their ideas and lis­ten to how they respond


*For more musi­cal mate­r­i­al, repeat steps 3 and 4


5. Rehearse – Perform/Record

You know what to do!



  • Stu­dents’ self-esteem from cre­at­ing an orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion results in deep­er focus – praise them for it!

  • Ask stu­dents which sec­tions need fixing

  • Assign con­duc­tors for spe­cif­ic sec­tions and transitions

  • Lim­it the num­ber of run-throughs before per­for­mance. Avoid ear/mind/soul fatigue!


6. Debrief – Appre­ci­ate – Celebrate

  • Stu­dents can share some­thing pos­i­tive they’ve observed about one or more of their col­lab­o­ra­tors. Ask them to be specific!

  • If you have time, run some fun cel­e­bra­to­ry games!



  • Be ALERT and FLEXIBLE: stu­dents will unex­pect­ed­ly come up with new ideas, which often redi­rect the work­shop. Let go of your ini­tial plan and fol­low the music!

  • Con­sid­er adjust­ing the “depth” of engage­ment to your stu­dents’ experience/skillset (also in real-time, dur­ing the workshops!)

  • Think about mak­ing this an aur­al expe­ri­ence. If nota­tion is nec­es­sary, you can get stu­dents to cre­ate graph­ic nota­tion or oth­er alter­na­tive (stu­dent-cre­at­ed sculptures).

  • Arrange the chairs into a large circle

  • Please con­sid­er the ideas in this doc­u­ment as just a few from an infi­nite num­ber of pos­si­bil­i­ties. In the spir­it of this approach, this doc­u­ment can be chopped up and rearranged. Please feel free to be as cre­ative as you like with these ideas!

Case Study:

Edu­ca­tion­al out­reach for Saari­a­ho Fes­ti­val, orga­nized my New Euro­pean Ensemble

  • the project involved music class­es from three dif­fer­ent schools (Inter­na­tion­al School in The Hague, Deutsche Inter­na­tionale Schule Den Haag, Haags Montes­sori Lyceum)

  • each class had a dif­fer­ent lead facil­i­ta­tor and dif­fer­ent approach

  • the Start­ing Point was Kai­ja Saariaho’s com­po­si­tion Licht­bo­gen (North­ern Lights)

  • the Deutsche Schule class focused on research­ing and dis­cussing the nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non, and then cre­at­ed sound­scapes based on tim­bre exper­i­men­ta­tion with their instru­ments. They then dis­cov­ered notes/scales/patterns which they super­im­posed on the soundscapes.

  • the final com­po­si­tions were pre­sent­ed as a pre-show per­for­mance dur­ing the main Festival

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