Motif Game

A musical motif is a device that most of my students don’t arrive at naturally. It needs explanation, and here is a great way to do it.

What You Need:

  • These cards, printed and cut up
  • A die
  • Game Pieces


  • Remove any cards you don’t want to use.
  • Starting with “Start,” lay the cards out face down on the floor like a board game. You can make loops and swirls and short cuts to make it more interesting. End with the “Finish” card.
  • Place your two game pieces on Start.

How to Play:

  • First explain the concept of a motif.
    • A motif is a very short musical idea. (Two measures maximum for this game.)
    • For example, the first line of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” the first measure of the “Imperial March” from Star Wars, the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, etc.
    • Our ears like repetition, but they also get bored. Composers use motifs to create melodies by modifying their motif just enough that it stays interesting, but not so much that we can’t identify it as the same motif.
  • Both the student and the teacher need to come up with a motif in the key of C major. Keep it simple. Make the student play their idea several times until they can remember it consistently. When he can reliably play it back, he’s ready to play.
  • The student rolls the die and advances his game piece that many cards forward. Then he needs to return to the piano and play his same motif, but with the modifications specified on the card (i.e., with a different key, tempo, rhythm, etc.)
    • Some modifications are easier than others. You can keep score by assigning points for difficulty. Or you can ignore scores and just play to see who gets to finish first.
  • The teacher takes a turn with her own motif.
  • The first one to the finish line wins. (Or the one who collects the most difficulty points wins, if you are playing with points.)



  • To make it easier, only place out the easiest cards, such as dynamic changes and changing one note.
  • To make it harder, remove the easier cards, such as dynamic changes and changing one note.
  • To make it spookier, create your motif in A minor and remove all the cards that have major key signatures.

Motif Game



Chromatic Composition

It was time for a little chromaticism this week. We composed with this worksheet I worked up and all the students enjoyed it eventually, though some of them gave me some doubtful looks at the beginning.

The basic instructions are all on the worksheet. The only variations I did were to what rhythm I gave them for the right hand. Beginners got only quarter notes and half notes. Older students got something more advanced. For the most part, I did all the writing and most of the playing. I find that for most students the actual writing and playing is so difficult, it gets in the way of their free composing and ruins the creativity of the experience.

Other variations would include having the more advanced students continue on with more measures. Or transposing it to another key.


Chromatic Composition
Chromatic Composition Exercise



Remote Control Rhythms

If you don’t have a remote controlled thing of some kind already, this activity is not worth the effort. If you do, this is easy and thrilling for many of the kids

What you need:

  • A remote controlled vehicle of any kind
  • A selection of note values written out separately. I have a set I use on a giant staff, but even quickly written notes on scrap paper would work.


  • Scatter the notes around the floor.

How to Play:

  • The student gets 45 seconds to drive the vehicle over as many notes as she can. The teacher picks them up as the student gets over them.
  • The student chooses a time signature. I offered 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 6/4. Many students liked choosing an unfamiliar time signature.
  • The student organizes the notes into measures. If the beats don’t come out right, they can have one free note per measure, as long as they can identify what kind of note they need.
  • Once the measures were organized, the student have three tasks:
    • Count and clap their rhythm.
    • Pick their favorite note and play their rhythm on the piano.
    • Pick several notes and play a melody using their rhythm.


  • To make it easier, limit the type of notes you scatter.
  • To make it harder, include a variety of note values, such as triplets.
  • To make it very hard, have the student play the rhythm with one hand while simultaneously playing a different rhythm with the other hand.
  • To make it more exciting, use different instruments to play the rhythms.
  • To make it longer, have them choose and write down notes to go with their rhythm. They can also repeat their rhythm several times, putting it together to make a composition, with or without accompaniment.


Sequence Song (Composition Activity)

One of the most basic compositional techniques is a sequence. It happens when composers use a basic idea and then they repeat it starting on a different note. Beethoven uses it here:

Beethoven Sequence

The carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” uses it here:

Angels sequence

This week my students used it to compose their own songs.

What You Need:

  • A copy of this worksheet for writing out their song. Print one out for each student.
  • A pencil
  • A method of choosing start notes for each sequence (optional)
    • I used a toy catapult to lob small balls at different targets. It was a big hit, but anything will work. Dice, bits of paper to draw from a bag, shuffled cards, anything.
    • Alternatively, you could just tell the kids what notes to use. Or have them choose themselves. That’s easier, but less fun. I gave my students this option instead of the catapult. None of them took me up on it. As one student said, “When in doubt, always go with the medieval weaponry.”


  • None. (Unless you have chosen an elaborate method of choosing start notes.)

How to Compose:

  • Explain what a sequence is. I used the examples at the top of this post.
  • Start by writing their name up top as the composer. They can also give it a title, but my students all preferred to save that for last, after they’d heard their song.
  • Starting on C, compose two measures in 4/4 time. Write it down on the first staff on the worksheet.
    • Older students could write it out themselves, but I found it saved a lot of time if I just did it for them.
    • Some students need a fair bit of help thinking through the timing so that they end up with eight total beats.
    • I did not allow black notes, and I encouraged most students to stay within a five-note pattern. It just makes the next steps simpler.
    • I did insist the first note had to be a C to establish the key in our ears. Technically, this is not required, but again, we were trying to make it work for them. The theme does not have to end on C.
  • Make sure the student can play back the main theme. If they’re unsure, they should do it several times.
  • Choose the starting note for the first sequence using whatever method you’ve chosen.
    • If you’re choosing for the student here are some common chord progressions from C:
      • C-C-F-G-C
      • C-A-F-G-C
  • Write the starting note on the blank line for Sequence 1 and have the student play their main idea having moved their hand so that their first finger is on the new starting note.
    • There is space on the worksheet to write out all the notes. I usually didn’t bother. The students can do it without that.
    • Depending on the melody, the note we moved to, and the ear of the student, some students objected to the way it sounds in the new key. If they did, I made some suggestions for slight modifications to make it sound better. The theme sounding minor is not a bad thing. It actually adds to the interest of the piece. But if they are starting on F, they may want a B-flat instead of a B. Or if they’re starting on E, they may want an F-sharp instead of an F. We played that by ear. With the older students, we talked through why those notes sounded wrong to them.
  • Play the song so far.
  • Repeat those steps for the next set of sequences, until you have filled the page.
  • The final sequence should be a repeat of the main theme in C. If the melody does not end on C, add a whole note C at the end to finish it off.
  • To finish it off, we played the whole song with me improvising an accompaniment below their melody. All of my students were very pleased with how it sounded once we had an accompaniment, and they had very little trouble coming up with titles once they’d heard the whole thing.

Sequence Song