Composing Bad Guy Music

A paper bad guy

At the beginning of the year, there was a group putting hardware pieces together in their classroom, and as is often the case with 4 and 5 year old children, some of the pieces were turned into weapons. The rule around here is that if you want to play a game involving fighting, you have to find a space for the game and an adult willing to come with you there. I went with a group to find some bad guys to fight, but soon the bad guy became me, and the shooting started to involve throwing dirt, which got in my eyes and made me not want to play anymore.

Later, groups began to come to the studio to make paper bad guys that they could really throw things at. However, after making the bad guys, there was not much interest in playing the game any more. Another day, I heard Nolan singing a song about a bad guy as he drew, and I asked if a group would come to the studio to write bad guy music together.
Singing a song as he worked
Initially they wrote lyrics and played on the marimbas. Eventually Oliver began to play on an instrument he designed and made, which is a kind of a drum. Soon a song structure emerged, involving the beginning, a pause called "the separation" (during which everyone falls down), and then "the inning" in which all of the boys get up, play and sing together.

"Bad guys shoot and fight"

"Bad guys shoot and fight"
"the separation"
the separation on another day

Here are the lyrics;
Bad guys shoot and fight
bad guys shoot and fight
bad guys shoot and get on a boat

boom boom boom, psh psh psh (the sound of cannons and guns)
cannons shoot and go boom boom psh
----the separation---
bad guys get captured!
they fall into the sea!
get eaten,
by sharks!

I love music, but don't feel like I know how to teach composition or elements of music, and was beginning to worry about how far this composition could go without someone who understands these things better than I do. The next thing I knew, the boys were sharing knowledge and scaffolding each other! The composers  initiated a rhythmic structure for the song, saying;  "Go like this- 'bad guys shoot and fight' one, one! 'Bad guys shoot and fight' one, one." (the "one, one" are the two beat pauses after the lyric). They also chose to remove all of the notes except for the c and the d on the marimbas, so that they could be sure they were all playing the music in the same way.

Teaching a friend how to write "middle C"

Putting the notes in alphabetical order, discovering there is no H
Beginning to write the score by drawing cannons

I challenged the guys to write down their music, which is where the project is currently.


  1. Following your story a few things really stood out and interested me:

    The outdoor bad guy play did not resolve itself in a positive way, and ended.
    The creating bad guys to engage in play, ended up being the entire play, without the fight.
    The song writing, took a life of it's own, including lyrics, instruments and a separation.
    What are the questions you have about the bad guy project?
    What questions do the kids have?
    As far as writing music, the best way to write music is to listen to it and sing it, and then notice all the parts. For some kids, they might need some kind of a visual graphic or color to see/hear the parts. It's a pattern.
    So much happening in your studio. It really is complex. Good stuff (or maybe I should say "bad" stuff!)

  2. The way that the children are writing the music is fascinating to me, but it makes much more sense when you think of the way these boys are using the language of music. Just like a child would make a block structure without thinking about an architects rules or blueprints or tried and true weight distribution, you are letting these boys write how it makes sense to them. It makes so much sense.

  3. The score and the cannons makes me think of Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture......

  4. I would have felt like you Anna, a little intimidated with the idea of having to somehow "lead" children in a music project like this, but I suspect your lack of a music background is one of the reasons the children have arrived at this amazing place. Teachers teach best when they are also learning.

    I like when my experience level is the same as the children's when setting out on a project. It's exciting. Magic or tragic failure; either way we all learn together.


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