Perceptions of Songwriting in a High School Guitar Class


Christopher William Bulgren, University of Michigan


Multiple authors have analyzed the benefits of songwriting in music education (McIntyre, 2011; Moore, 2013; Tobias, 2013). Reasons for including songwriting in the musical classroom include the roles of creativity, self-expression, and social meaning (Rodriguez, 2012). Other authors focused on the pedagogy, or how to teach songwriting (Jaffurs, 2004; Moore, 2013; Simos, 2014). This includes the elements of songwriting such as form, melody, and harmony.


While authors have discussed songwriting, questions remain concerning how to best facilitate and design pedagogy. The purpose of this study was to explore perceptions of songwriting in a high school guitar class in order to guide teacher preparation. Research questions are the following: (1) How is songwriting taught and learned in this guitar class?, and (2) How do participants perceive or respond to songwriting within this guitar class?


This study employed descriptive case study methodology as a means to deepen understanding of songwriting in a high school guitar class. The 22 students in the guitar class were ages 15-18. They came from diverse musical backgrounds and abilities on the guitar. Pseudonyms were used for all references to students or the instructor.


Sources of data included two recorded interviews with the teacher, five observations of the class, one focus group interview with the students, and collected artifacts such as worksheets and assignments. Throughout the study, I acted as “observer-as-participant,” sitting with the students, playing guitar, and engaging in all activities. In this type of observation, the researcher acts primarily as an observer while having some interaction with the participants (Glesne, 2011).


Once data were collected and interviews were transcribed, I coded the data according to research questions and developed codes to describe recurring themes in the data. Trustworthiness was achieved through triangulation of data among observations, informal interviews, focus groups, written student responses, and the collected artifacts.


Findings from coding revealed themes related to both research questions.

For the first question, "How is songwriting taught and learned in this guitar class?" the themes included Playing by Ear, Musical Content, and Pedagogical Tools.

For the second question, "How do participants perceive or respond to songwriting within this guitar class?" the themes were Music Selection, Emotional Reaction to the Experience, and Safety and Risk Taking.


In summary, these themes reveal the ways that teacher preparation can accommodate musical tastes and learning styles of a changing society. However, this change is often demanded in the context of conventional classrooms and class sizes. Songwriting in a large guitar class represents a way to teach new competencies in the context of current classroom structures. In spite of the enrollment size, students were able to develop creativity through songwriting skills. Advancing a constructivist approach to musical selection and songwriting could potentially accommodate creativity in a large group setting such as the one examined in this study.




Glesne, C. (2011). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Jaffurs, S. (2004). The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned how to teach from a garage band. International Journal of Music Education, 22, 189–200.

McIntyre, P. (2011). Rethinking the creative process: The systems model of creativity applied to popular songwriting. Journal of Music, Technology & Education, 4(1), 77-90.

Moore, P. (2013). Songwriting together: Creating songs with your students reinforces many valuable skills. Teaching Music, 22(2), 49.

Simos, M. (2014). Songwriting strategies: A 360 degree approach. Boston, MA: Berklee Press.

Tobias, E. S. (2013). Composing, songwriting, and producing: Informing popular music pedagogy. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(2), 213-237.