Through the Music Maze: Creative Composing for young children

This research will develop understandings of how to use repertoire as a stimulus that opens the composing horizons for children and young people.

Young composers project large


Research background

The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) is one of the world’s foremost new music ensembles with an international reputation in performance and learning and participation provision. BCU School of Education has worked alongside BCMG to help develop their provision for young composers across a number of projects including ‘Through the Music Maze’. ‘Music Maze’, which offers a series of free participatory music-making workshops for children aged 8–11 linked to the contemporary classical repertoire being performed by the BCMG.

This research explores the use of contemporary classical/experimental music repertoire and the processes of contemporary classical composers as a stimulus for young people’s own composing and as a tool for supporting listening.

The research was commissioned by BCMG and funded through the AHRC Networking Scheme (Research Council),

Research aims

Many arts organisations use upcoming concert repertoire as a starting point for designing educational workshops. The reasons for using repertoire vary from organisation to organisation but have also evolved across time. Initially, repertoire projects were audience development projects – ‘building audiences for the future’ and latterly more as a vehicle for developing understanding of a piece of music. Though these remain either a central or peripheral goal, for many organisations, children’s own creative music-making and its intrinsic value has become more or as important. This research will develop understandings of how to use repertoire as a stimulus that opens the composing horizons for children and young people.

Research methods

Researchers took an action research approach to data collection and analysis; supporting the organisation through a cyclical process of action, observation, reflection and planning. Researchers gathered in-depth qualitative research with music leaders and young people through interviews, focus group interviews, and observations of sessions. Activity Theory (Engeström 1999) was used to deconstruct composing processes within Music Maze. The analysis of Music Maze sessions also had to account for a range of different identities, intelligence, modes of learning, and pedagogical processes. In order to understand this multifaceted reality, a socio-cultural perspective, like activity theory, is helpful as it embraces individuality but also credits interconnections between people involved.


The research helps to contribute to the knowledge and understanding of composing teaching and learning practices. Through the use of repertoire as a starting point, the research explored aspects such as how students responded to open-ended and closed composing tasks, the diversity of children’s starting points, and how much adult scaffolding and support was needed.

The research suggests that repertoire projects happen on a continuum, with re-creation in a simplified version, via pastiche, to taking an extra-musical stimulus and using this as the brief (eg “La Mer” – piece about the sea). This research explores how contemporary repertoire and the processes embedded in them support children’s composing and how this might be approached whilst still valuing children’s own composing and creative processes.  A model is proposed that goes beyond pastiche, mechanistic composing tools and skills to articulate a concept of composerly thinking and doing and how that might be nurtured in children.

In using an activity theory system, the research enabled deeper understandings of composing processes employed by the music leaders, BCMG musicians and children within Music Maze forwards, with outcomes of use to policy-makers, music teachers, practitioners, composers, and arts organisation; thus highlighting the benefits to the wider music education sector.

Initial results were presented at the European Association of Music in Schools conference in 2016, and more recently in a presentation titled: Through the Music Maze: Adventures in experimental music with children” at the “Interfaces: Bringing New Music to New Audiences” Conference in 2018 at De Monfort University. The research resulted in co-authoring a book chapter titled: Musician-Teacher Collaborations: Altering the Chord (Routledge, 2018) with BCMG’s learning and participation director Nancy Evans and Birmingham Music Education Research Group at BCU, as well as an internal research report.

Reports and links

Kinsella, V., Fautley, M. and Evans, N. (2017). Musician-Teacher collaborations in composing contemporary music in secondary schools. In Christophersen and Kenny (2017) Musician-Teacher collaborations in Educational Contexts.