Cereal (Serial) Compositions with Tonara

sheet music on piano

By Gail Fischler of Fistful of Notes and Piano Addict

I love talking to teachers about how they use my Fistful of Notes teaching tools. Last week I had the best discussion with Lou Ann Pope about how she incorporates Cereal (Serial) Composition into her teaching. We talked about how we each used the unit with our students and even came up with some crackerjack new ideas. It made me happy because I had a lot of fun creating a unit that would allow everyone to get their serial ingredients (Rows, Clusters, Crab Rows, Mirrors) together and stir them up into a tone row composition.  Of course, milk is optional. 

You know that my big thing is no uni-tasker materials. If it only works on Tuesdays with the perfect student, I’m not on board. So, we highlighted lots of individual and group activities for many levels plus Lou Ann had some really creative ways to incorporate Cereal Composition into assignments on Tonara.  


Some of you are probably thinking musical abstraction is a thing of the past. Why teach serial composition at all? After all, it is 2020. Good question. I created the unit because many of my students were frustrated and turned off by contemporary pieces. It’s weird, I don’t like it. I’ve never heard anything like it and it feels strange in my heart, said one fourth grader. 

We learn a lot about what something is by experiencing what it’s not. Taking out emotional choices, traditional harmonies, forms, and phrase structure helps you learn their boundaries and limitations. 

Imagine two musicians… 

The first says – Music does not have to be about anything. It simply is a series of notes and sounds.

The second says – Music should express our deepest feelings. The organization of notes and sounds gives us a window into our inner thoughts and feelings.

At first glance, our two musicians are philosophically on complete opposite sides of the fence. But, as one of my young students said, Deciding not to say anything with music is actually making a statement. Bingo! If you think about it a bit you realize that serialism is a compositional tool like any other. 

Tone row compositions are typically dissonant. They often contain jagged gestures and rhythms contrasted with lyrical passages.  The ways in which the row, crab row, mirrors, and clusters are manipulated can result in randomness, logical phrasing, or a combination of both.​ Modern film, tv, and, video game composers use serial techniques fairly freely, even mixing in traditional scales and harmonies.

You can purchase a copy of Cereal (Serial) Composition at Fistful of Notes by Gail Fischler on Teachers Pay Teachers. Be sure and look for my bundles which give you added teaching tools and save you some $$ too.