A Four-Class Music Curriculum (Ages 11-18)

Music to Images: by Barbara Cohen


dreamy fantasy bridge in the clouds

CHAPTER 1 – Overview  


This class is designed for students to explore ways of creating music to images. Students will write music to their chosen image, using one or more of these writing tools and instruments:

(1) DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) with sampled and synthesized instrumentation,

(2) acoustic and electric instruments (both melodic and percussive),

(3) vocals and lyrics. 


This after-school program is designed for students in middle school, ages 11-13. The class could also work for high school-aged students, ages 14-18. 

Duration: 200-240 minutes, about five to six class periods 

Prior Knowledge: Some experience with basic features of the DAW software, connecting audio interface to tablets and laptops (see buttons below), and how to record with microphones and DI cables is helpful. 

Materials & Equipment:  

Creative Writing Exercises 1-3 

DAW Exercises 1-4  

DAW Exercises 3-4  

CHAPTER 2 – Images  & Creative Writing

Finding Images 

Encourage students to choose an image they feel connected to, that can inspire an interesting story and an accompanying musical theme. 

Students can find images from different sources. Below are suggestions for internet searches and printed image sources.

Internet: Students can use the internet to search for images. Once they have an image they like, they can use the screen capture function, to save their image to the desktop (on their computers, iPads, and smart phones). To Search for Images, suggest the following keywords (links provided): 

Printed Image Sources: 

  • Comic books 
  • Magazines  
  • Books 
  • Calendars  
Using Images to Create Imaginary Worlds – Creative Writing Exercises 

These exercises are meant to help create a sense of mood- and energy associated with the student’s chosen image- that students can later reference when writing their musical theme. 

Examples:  magical, soft, bright, dark, scary, exciting, fiery, free 

Questions to consider: 

  • What happens in this world? 
  • What do you eat, drink, and breathe in this world? 
  • Do you have special powers? 
  • Are there other creatures, if yes what do they look like? 
  • Are there humans? 
  • What are the weather and the atmosphere like? 
  • What is the landscape (seascape, airspace) like? 
  • What are the plants like? 
  • What do things look like: the sky, the ground, your eyes? 


  • Are you discovering something in this new world  
  • Are you saving someone or something in your new world 
  • Are you fighting a battle, if so with who (or what) 
  • Are you helping a community 
  • Are you raising interesting animals/ creatures 
  • Are you exploring and seeing new things 
  • Are you becoming something else 
  • Do you have siblings and friends in this world 

After the creative writing exercises are completed, students will begin writing their musical theme to the image. 

photo: Band Lab

CHAPTER 3 – Musical Themes Overview 

Musical Theme – Tempo and Mood Options 

Discuss the idea of tempo and mood to help create a musical theme.  

Examples of Musical Themes: 

  • Fast Theme – This theme could feel exciting, high energy, boisterous, tense, or driving. It could be used as the hero’s theme, a chasing theme, fighting, flying, or running theme.  
  • Medium Tempo Theme – This theme could accompany a character walking, exploring and learning about their world.
  • Slow Theme – This theme could explore the emotional, thoughtful, or deeper side of life in their world. 

Creating Musical Themes 

Students may write their musical themes using any type of instrument and DAW software that is provided by the school or that the students bring from home. 

Using a Digital Audio Workstation

DAW as a writing tool, recording tool or both.

Depending on the school’s resources, the school can either provide computers or tablets with DAW software installed, or the students can bring their personal laptops and tablets from home, with DAWs installed.  

There are many Digital Audio Workstations available on the market, but the DAWs that will be the most useful for this program will come with their own sound library.  

Examples of DAWs with their own sound library:  

Note – This program works best, if both the instructor and students have some familiarity with the DAW, they’ll be using to create their themes.  

Helpful Tip: Most answers to DAW technical questions, can be found online as tutorial videos, Q & A Blogs, and manuals from the company that created the DAW.   

Theme Length and Song Form 

Discuss theme length and basic song forms with your students. 

AAA – Strophic Form, also known as Verse, Verse, Verse

(Song Examples: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Gordon Lightfoot, The House of the Rising Sun – Traditional/Alan Price) 

ABAB – Binary Form, also known as Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus  (A = the verse and B = the chorus) 

(Song Examples: Bad – Michael Jackson and Smooth – Carlos Santana) 

ABABCB – known as Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus  

(Song Examples: Happy – Pharrel Williams, What’s Love Got to Do with It – Tina Turner, Ticket to Ride – Beatles) 

Links to helpful blogs and videos about Musical Form: 

photo: Soundtrap

CHAPTER 4 – Writing Musical Themes Using DAWs 

Writing with a DAW 

Writing music is different for everyone, some students will want to start their theme by writing a groove and layering loops, others will want to begin by playing chord progressions and writing melodies, and still, others might want to start by layering sonic pads and sound design elements. There’s no right way to create a musical theme or song. Because everyone’s writing process is different, this makes using a DAW a rich experience for young composers and songwriters. With DAW sound libraries, students have access to almost any sound and instrument they can dream up.  

Recording with a DAW 

Students can also use a DAW as primarily recording software and record their themes using live instruments (piano, guitar, trumpet, vocals, drums) using microphones and direct inputs that connect to the computer or to an interface that connects to the computer and DAW. 

Writing and Recording with a DAW  

Depending on how advanced students are technically and musically, they can also write and record with both the DAW’s sound library and their live instruments, to create their musical theme and arrangement. 

DAW Demonstration or Review 

Demonstrate to students how to open a tracking window, create tracks, add instruments and loops with the DAW software, as well how to automate volume in a track. 

Writing Music with DAWs 

All students should start with DAW Exercise 1, to begin the theme writing process. DAW Exercise 2 will work best for both beginning and intermediate students. DAW Exercises 3 and 4, will work best for intermediate and advanced students. Based on your student’s musical experience, you may want to organize the class by offering either DAW Exercises 1 and 2, or DAW Exercises 1, 3, and 4. 

DAW Exercises: Exploring the Sound Library 

Have students audition sounds from the DAW sound library that feel like the energy and mood of their image. 

DAW sound libraries are often organized by instrument groupings. They can be grouped as loops, loop families, instrument sections (drum kits, basses, guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, sonic pads, strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, etc…), or by musical genres (rock, R&B, pop, hip hop, EDM, orchestral, jazz, etc…).

DAW Exercise 1 – Audition Sounds in the DAW Sound Library  

This exercise should be done first- by all students, at all musical levels

  1. Audition Sounds – Students audition sampled instruments, sounds, and loops that have the right mood and energy for their image   
  1. Saving Sounds – Students can save their sounds, by loading preferred sound files into tracks, in a new session on their DAW.  
  1. Document Sounds – Students can also keep track of sounds, by creating a written list of their preferred sounds. Remind students to document both the name of the sound file and the folder it lives in, so they can find the sound again, quickly. 

DAW Exercise 2 – Themes – Loops and Layering  

This exercise is for students with both beginning and intermediate levels of musical experience. Students will work with their auditioned loops to create a theme. 

  1. Students open their saved session of auditioned loops, sounds, and sampled instruments from DAW Exercise 1.  
  1. For this exercise, students will create themes using just their loops. 
  1. Students may want to audition additional looped instruments as they work 
  1. Discuss different ways to layer loops in the DAW Tracking Window.  
  1. Discuss arranging and dynamics, how to: (1) grow an arrangement, (2) create a breakdown, or (3) thin or remove certain loops to create interesting dynamics and textures in the arrangement.  (See below: examples of songs and compositions with layered arrangements- grey box)
  1. Discuss or demonstrate how to layer loops by – (1) Starting with the drum groove first, adding percussion, then bass loops, followed by a chord progression and/or melodic loops, to build a full musical section.  (2) Or starting with the melodic or chord progression loops first, and then layering in drums, percussion, and bass loops. 
  1. Loops often have variations, for example – Drum Verse 1 – 3, Drum Chorus 1 & 2, and Drum Fill 1-8, students should be encouraged to try using the loop variations to hear how they affect the arrangement (Note – using loop variations can help music stay engaging)  
  1. Once the student is happy with their looped section, they can either loop (and repeat) the entire section, to make a longer section, or create a new section.  
  1. Discuss the option to create two (or more) musical sections an A and B section (or a C section) that work together to make a fuller theme.  
  1. Encourage students to use song forms, if they’re creating an A, B, and /or C section in their themes.  

DAW Exercise 3 – Themes – Chord Progressions, Melodies, and Drums  

This exercise is for students with intermediate and advanced musical experience!

If students have more musical experience, they can write their own musical ideas using sampled or live instruments. Students can also add loops, or make their own loops, in combination with their written ideas. 

  1. Reinforce the idea, that there’s no right way to start a musical theme. Students can begin by writing/singing a melody or playing a chord progression, they can also layer pads, or create a groove first.  
  1. Have students open their saved session of auditioned loops, sounds, and sampled instruments from DAW Exercise 1. Remind them that they may want to find additional sounds as they create their theme. 
  1. Discuss the idea of layering parts into their theme: 
  • Lead lines and melody 
  • Chord progressions and rhythmic instrumentation 
  • Bass lines 
  • Drums & Percussion 
  1. Discuss (1) Ways to grow an arrangement, (2) How to create a breakdown, (3) How to thin and remove instruments, to create interesting dynamics and textures in the arrangement, (4) Changing instrumental textures, particularly with larger ensembles i.e., sampled orchestras or big band sounds to keep it interesting. (See below: Songs and compositions with layered arrangements)

Examples: Songs and composition with layered arrangements: 

  • Can’t Stop This Feeling – Justin Timberlake & Max Martin 
  • Saturday in the Park – by Robert Lamm, and performed by Chicago 
  • Theme from Jaws – Main titles by John Williams 
  • Inception – Main theme by Hans Zimmer 
  1. Discuss the option to create two (or more) musical sections an A and B section (or a C section) that work together to make a fuller theme.  
  1. Encourage students to use song forms, if they’re creating an A, B, and /or C section in their themes.  
  1. Demonstrate how to record a live instrument or vocal as part of their arrangement:  
  • How to connect a microphone or direct line to the interface or computer 
  • Microphone placement for recording vocals, guitar, trumpet, etc…  
  • How to set up mono tracks in the tracking window 
  • How to record with a DAW, using a microphone, direct line, and headphones 
  • A quick review of setting volume levels 

DAW Exercise 4 – Themes with Live Instruments & Recording  

This exercise is for students who are comfortable playing live instruments, or students who are singer-songwriters, who may want to create their theme outside a DAW first, and then record their live parts using a DAW second.  

In this scenario, the student’s theme might be performed as solo piano, or solo trumpet, or the theme could be a song with lyrics using voice and guitar. 

Live Instrument Writing & Recording: 

  1. Students should consider the mood and tempo that fits their image, before writing their theme 
  1. If needed review song forms, and the option to create an A, B, and /or C section in their themes.  
  1. Demonstrate:  
  • How to connect a microphone or direct line to the interface or computer 
  • Microphone placement for recording vocals, guitar, trumpet, etc…  
  • How to set up mono tracks in the tracking window 
  • How to record with a DAW, using a microphone, direct line, and headphones 
  • A quick review of setting volume levels 

Feedback & Changes 

For DAW Exercises 1-4 have students play their work-in-progress for you.  Coach them and give them feedback. Make sure to build in time, so students can make changes to their themes based on your feedback. 

Mini Concert 

Students play finished themes for one another with their images shown on a projector, when possible. 

©MacPhail Center for Music | All Rights Reserved | May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.

Meet Barbara Cohen

Barbara looking off to the right

Barbara Cohen is an accomplished singer/songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer whose work embraces a variety of genres—from folk to trip-hop, electronica, world, and modern-classical music.

Her career as a recording artist includes co-founding the Virgin Records’ band, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, collaborating with England’s rave luminaries, Orbital, singing lead vocals for the French experimental duo, Air, and releasing critically acclaimed albums, both as a soloist and with Red House Record’s band Farm Accident and Girl & Her Monster Record’s band Little Lizard.  

As an educator, Barbara Cohen has been a faculty instructor at Musicians Institute in Los Angeles California, where she authored curriculum and taught classes on Film & Television Scoring, Production & Recording for the Vocalist as well as, individual instruction for Songwriting and Voice. She has guest lectured at the University of Southern California’s Cinematic & Animation Arts, Art Center College of Design Pasadena, CA, and was a Panelist for CILECT Sound Conference at Chapman University, Orange CA. Read more

Email Barbara Cohen

This curriculum is made possible through a MacPhail Center for Music School Partnerships initiative, Project Amplify, a grant-funded, music education initiative focused on strengthening learning opportunities for K-12 Minnesota music students from historically marginalized backgrounds. This effort provides transformational programming that nurtures creativity, honors students’ backgrounds, and provides tools and resources to support K-12 educators.

About MacPhail Center for Music’s School Partnership Program

MacPhail School Partnerships enrich the lives of students by providing unrivaled in-person or live online instruction in tandem with Minnesota schools. Our staff works with schools to develop customized and relevant programming through individual instruction, sectionals, ELL support, residencies, masterclasses, and more. 

Many of our Project Amplify or School Partnership programs are offered at no-charge to the school or subsidized rates.

Visit our program page for more information or contact Ben Bussey

Published on Date: Oct 18, 2022
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