Composing with Pictures – music sequencers for the primary classroom

The creation of music in primary schools is simplified by using software or online tools which let pupils, with limited or no music notation skills, choose musical phrases and sequence them in any order which the pupil wishes. The facility to drag these graphics around, play back and edit their order, instrumentation and tempo until  the whole sequence sounds the way the pupil wishes is a useful way to be creative with music-making without the need to have developed music notation reading skills. And the music files created in this way by pupils can then be used in pupil presentations, whether online in blogs or webpages, or in Powerpoint or other presentation forms.

Compose World Play

Compose World Play from ESP is an easy to use piece of commercial software aimed at primary schools which lets children create music by dragging pictures into a sequence of their choice, where each picture represents a musical pattern. This program has a long pedigree in educational software, having been developed for the BBC computer. Latterly the software was called Compose World Junior.

How do you make Compose World Play work?

The main screen is displayed divided into two sections.

Top of screen contains list of phrases that can be used to make up your tune, usually represented by pictures. The lower screen is used to build a sequence of phrases. This is the sequencer.

The initial file consists of nine different pictures, each of which represents a musical phrase. To listen to them: Double-click the pictures at the top of the screen.

To move a phrase to the sequencer:
Move mouse over phrase you would like to put on the sequencer. Hold left mouse button down and drag and drop the phrase to a box on the sequencer. Repeat this process to construct a sequence of phrases.

Click on Play button to hear the created composition. Click on tempo arrows to increase or decrease tempo. Click the Loop button to make the sequence play repeatedly.

To replace contents of one box on sequencer with another phrase, simply drag another phrase to box. To delete a phrase from the sequencer, drag it back to the phrases at the top of the screen. To delete a blank box and move the phrases along, drag the blank box to the phrases at top. If you wish to save a file to use in another multimedia presentation (such as Powerpoint) then save as a Midi file.  This can be played in a media player such as Microsoft Windows Media Player.

To make a longer composition, simply change the number of boxes on sequencer, thus enabling different number of phrases: Click View, select Sequence, then Options. Sequence Layout dialog box appears. Change width and height.
Number of boxes on sequencer can be changed up to maximum width of 16 and height of 16.

So how might you use Compose World Play in the classroom?

On the default opening sequence the pictorial icons are tree, car, apple, house, star, mug, yacht, plane, teapot.
Start a tune together and children try to complete it looking for patterns that complement the start.

There are 70 different sets of pictures and phrases to choose from and each set explores a different aspect of music or can be used for a variety of topic-related musical activities.

The files are grouped into folders as follows:

Compose folder has Compose 2 (racquet, balloon, cube, glasses, flag, umbrella, anchor, kite, bat); Compose 3 (cube, pipe, candle, cheese, moon, city, mouse, castle, wall); Compose 4 (Chinese icons temple, worker, willow, junk, lantern, house, bowl, pot, bridge); Compose 5 (snail, butterfly, dragonfly, tree, fish, sun, pear, tree, bird);
Compose 6 (Ancient Egyptian pyramid, coffin, urn, mask, letters, person, head, snake, dog); Compose 7 (phone, key, bridge, train, boot, rocket, tree, flag, pop); Compose 8 (arrow, grapes, castle, snooker, chair, mower, spray, bars, flag).

Jumbles folder can be used to develop auditory memory by re-ordering phrases of melodies to songs pupils may know well: Three Blind Mice, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Land of Hope and Glory, Sailor’s Hornpipe, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, London’s Burning, Skye Boat Song, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, My Bonnie lies over the Ocean, The Star Spangled Banner, and Jingle Bells.

Learn folder has Beat (rhythms in 4/4, ¾, 6/8 and 5/8) where you can create a rhythm track to which pupils add own instrumental or sung performance; Chord 1 (ascending and descending arpeggios in selected named keys) – to use to accompany children’s playing or singing; Chord 2 (block chord labelled sequences) – again for accompaniment to pupil playing or singing; Echo; Notes; Racket; and Shape Colours.

Melody folder contains Bathtime icons; Carpenter (tools); Express (facial expressions); Fruity – try AABA or ABAC form.  Put computer on continuous play and pupils accompany with percussion instruments playing one of the rhythms only; Garden (tools); Home (types); Kitchen (utensils); Mountain (winter holiday); Oversea (boat types); Pets; Roadsign; Shape; sporty (various sports); Ticktock (digital times); and Veg (vegetables).

Moods folder is ideal for story-telling effects, e.g. midnight (Hallowe’en theme), dreams, PlSolo, thinker, up_down – Experiment with tempo controls and different sounds, or create an ostinato (repeating pattern). Dreams has 5 instruments, with sustained timbre – try changing instruments, or vary the tempo, to alter mood. Alter balance between instruments to change dominant sound.

Play folder has Along (play or sing along to the catchy rhythms and harmonies); Bass Only; Bass Plus; and Tune.

Scales folder (phrases incorporating various scales) has Chromatic (chromatic runs phrases); Pentatonic; RagaTodi (world music); Space (outer space icons); Whole Tone – musical words: Scale, Start, One, Two, harmony, Invert, Reverse, triplet, chords.

Story folder has Themes to accompany a story, or as a class create a suite with different movements created by different groups of pupils, e.g. Cloudy; Popups (space creatures); Rocket (space travel icons) – change tempo and instruments to illustrate musically a journey into outer space; Travel suite (pedestrian, cycle or car icons) e.g. setting off, country lanes, the motorway, traffic jam, arrival; Weather suite for storm e.g. Calm, build-up of storm, storm rages, Fade to calm.

Styles folder has musical styles Baroque, Calypso 1, Calypso 2, Folk, Fugue, Jazz, Mozart, Ragtime, and waltz. Handy where pupils can create their own music in their chocie of musical style just by manipulating the order of icons.

Free online music sequencers suitable for primary school use

Roc from the Aviary suite

Roc from the Aviary suite (no longer available as of 2012). Roc is more akin to a professional music sequencer in that the user chooses the instrument from a text list, chooses the rhythms, tempo and volume for each musical phrase assigned to specific instruments.  The tool lets the user then select where the phrses is to appear – hear it played back, and edit as often as required to get the sound desired. Then it can be saved online (sign-up required). Roc (as with the rest of the Aviary suite of online tools) is free and is aimed at school use. Click here for a tutorial on the use of Roc.

Isle of Tune

Isle of Tune a free online musical sequencer where you create a street scene as musical phrases, and cars as players. As you drag the various pictures of parts of the street scene into place these pictures have musical phrases associated with them. Then when the car goes past that street scene element that phrase plays until the next scene musical phrase is encountered by the car. Users can add several cars and therefore several layers of musical phrases playing at the same time.

Jam Studio

Jam Studio is a free online tool for dragging and dropping icons for music chords and rhythms along with choice of instruments to create a music track. It is free to use, though payment is required for download of mp3 files. Click here to see examples of work created by pupils at Clackmannan Primary School using Jam Studio.

Audio Sauna

Audio Sauna is a free online tool which lets users create a music track with multiple layers and export as an audio file for use elsewhere. It is not aimed specifically at schools and has a comprehensive range of tools with plenty of support material to guide users.


UJam – an online tool where you sing or play a single melody by voice or any instrument (you can also just speak) and the tool then takes your audio and automatically adds a music backing track with chords and beat. All can then be tweaked from a range of isntrumentation, and many other changes, before downloading as a completed mp3 file for use elsewhere.


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