Leopold Mozart’s guide on how to teach composition to creative kids

Perhaps the world’s best-known wunderkind (wonder child) of all time is the young Wolfgang Mozart. It is believed that Mozart began composing his first little keyboard pieces at the age of five. His first playful creations can be found in the Notenbuch für Nannerl, his older sister’s notebook. This notebook leaves a trail showing the young Mozart’s progress from his very first attempt at composing, to pieces that showed the results of some lessons in composition from his father, Leopold Mozart.

Wolfgang has become a bit of a legend and it’s not easy to know what to believe about his childhood musical abilities. In the beginning he truly was a very curious, alert and talented child. But he was still a beginner on the keyboard and a beginner at composing. So, what can we learn from Mozart’s first compositions on how his father taught him?

It’s okay to write the music down for the child

Are you worried that if you write a child’s composition down for them, that others will question whether it’s truly their work?

Mozart’s first 14 compositions are in his father’s handwriting. Mozart composed them between the the ages of five and seven (1761 to 1763). It wasn’t until 1764, when Mozart was eight years old, that his own handwriting appears in the Notenbuch. It’s believed that his own Allegro in C, K. 5a. is the first piece he added to the book, himself.

It’s okay for the first pieces to be short

Mozart’s very first composition, Andante in C, K. 1a, was only 10 measures long. There was no formal structure. It was short, sweet, presented a cute musical idea or two — then suddenly stopped.

Leopold Mozart deserves credit for having written down young Wolfgang’s first piece with believable accuracy. He might have been tempted to “over teach” and ask Wolfgang to do more with the ideas, to round it out with a returning section or repeats. But he didn’t. He simply wrote the music down as Wolfgang created it — straight up. Then they moved on.

It’s okay to leave the irregularities in

Mozart’s first pieces bear the true marks of a child composer. The music is unrestrained and spontaneous. Upon listening to recordings, it’s clear that these pieces welled up out of a joyful sense of creativity.

The Andante in C, K. 1a (Mozart’s first piece) begins in 3/4 time with four measures in a decidedly Classical style, then switches to 2/4 with four measures imitating Baroque music. Two distinct styles were thus mixed into one piece, and to Leopold Mozart, that was okay.

Mozart’s next composition, Allegro in C, K. 1b, is only 12 measures long. The interplay between the right and left hand lines gives it a contrapuntal texture found in Baroque music. But instead of the final cadence occurring at the end, it arrives in an odd place between measures 8 and 9, followed by an extended Classical-sounding ending on broken C triads (chords) for the remainder of the piece. The ending hearkens to the elongated endings Wolfgang would write as an adult for opera arias and symphony movements. He already sounded like the “Mozart” we know in his second composition ever.

Leopold didn’t attempt to “correct” these stylistic mismatches in the compositions. He simply wrote them down.

YouTube video of Mozart’s earliest compositions performed on harpsichord.

It’s best to date all work

One of the sweetest things about doing research on Wolfgang Mozart’s first compositions is reading the little notes his father made in the Notenbuch of hand-written music. Leopold wrote details like, “di Wolfgango Mozart d. 11ten Maÿ 1762” and “di Wolfgango Mozart d. 30ten Novbr. 1763 à Paris“. These notes give a little window into the times, spaces and days in the life of a little boy and his dad in the middle of making music together.

When teaching a child composer, be sure to date all work. It’s a dear detail not to be missed.

It’s okay to upcycle your work

In the Notenbuch für Nannerl there’s a string of keyboard pieces composed by Wolfgang in 1763 (when he was age 7). From their genesis on the keyboard, these pieces were later upcycled to other instrument combinations.

Violin Sonata No. 1 in C, K. 6, originated first as individual keyboard pieces that were first written down by Leopold. Then, Leopold helped to collect them together into a multi-movement work and transcribe them for violin and keyboard.

The lesson from Leopold is that composers do create their music by playing around, experimenting and developing ideas on the keyboard. Then, once it exists, this music can be transferred to any voice or instrument, or combination of instruments. Mozart wasn’t learning how to compose in his head, he was learning how to compose on the keyboard (more on this must be left for another post).

Mozart’s Opus 1, Violin Sonata No. 1 in C. K. 6.

It’s okay to give a little extra help

To continue with Violin Sonata No. 1 in C, it was published together with Sonata No. 2 as Mozart’s Opus 1 in February 1764 when he was only eight years of age.

Let’s think of Wolfgang Mozart’s first violin sonatas as a large-scale science fair project for school. Leopold is the parent in the classroom who lends his child the full capacity of his own professional expertise. His child then brings in a project well beyond the capabilities of any of his classmates, and even beyond his own abilities. Mozart’s first violin sonatas were published in Paris in the middle of the Mozarts’ first tour around Europe, and Leopold was savvy enough in business to know that his child would look even more incredible with these works in print, which in turn would increase their concert attendance and revenue.

However cynical it might seem to say that Wolfgang Mozart, himself, wasn’t quite ready to be arranging his smaller keyboard pieces into complete violin and keyboard works at the age of 7 (when compared to other work he was producing at the time), I’m actually pointing out how Leopold went about developing a world-class composer. Leopold proved that it’s actually okay to be the parent in the classroom helping your kid excel at their project.

What does it say about the parent who is helping their child? They’re involved. They’re present with their child. They’re invested in their child’s success. The whole time they’re doing their kid’s project with them, this parent is teaching their child many valuable lessons that will in fact increase their child’s knowledge, abilities and skillset.

In Wolfgang’s case, it worked. He absorbed everything musical his father showed him. Except…Wolfgang didn’t quite pay enough attention to Leopold’s business smarts or lessons in finance.

It’s okay to let details slide

If you’ve ever seen the movie Amadeus, the catchy little piece played by the young Mozart in the palace scene is his own Klavierstück in F (Keyboard Piece in F), K. 33B. Mozart composed it in October 1766, just as his family’s three-and-a-half year European tour was coming to an end. He was nine at the time. (In the movie, Mozart is portrayed by a much younger actor.) It was written in pencil on the reverse side of a pamphlet advertising two upcoming concerts that were to be performed by Wolfgang and his sister, Nannerl, on October 7th and 9th.

By this time, young Mozart understood a little on how to structure a piece of music. Like many Baroque and Galant pieces (Galant referring to the transitional period from 1720 to 1770 when there was a return to simplicity in music), the Klavierstück in F is in two sections with repeats. But unlike the majority of such pieces, it’s not in true binary form, as the first section finishes not in the dominant, but lands back in the home key of F. This detail means that it’s still an example of a child’s piece, composed simply the way Wolfgang dreamed it up and not according to the harmonic rules that fully trained composers followed at the time.

As with Mozart’s very earliest compositions, Leopold left this detail untouched and didn’t “fix” it — he let his child’s music just stay the way it was. Mozart was still a child composer, writing child-like music.

Scene from the Movie Amadeus in which the child Mozart plays his Klavierstück in F.

It takes teamwork to make a child composer

If you are a music teacher teaching composition to children, take Leopold’s lessons to heart. Be the young composer’s teammate.

At first, just allow your students to compose what they want to. Accept their music precisely the way they present it to you. Let them create it at the instrument. Write it down for them. (This isn’t cheating, it’s teaching.)

Don’t fix the little kid-like idiosyncrasies that creep in. Nitpicking might make your student shy away from trying to compose again. Is your student’s piece without form? Let it stay that way. Later, show your student how music is put together with the pieces they are learning to play. This may influence their next compositions.

As you teach more complex composition techniques, be generous in your help if the student wants or needs it. They’ll see you in action and learn how it’s done.

Preparing students for a composition contest? This is the time to let them do it on their own. Sometimes talented kids have a difficult time writing down their own music. Their inventiveness and ability to create music exceeds their understanding of notation. Yet contests require music to be written in the child’s own handwriting. Try writing it yourself and let them copy it over. Do this until they’re ready to begin writing down their own music.

Leopold Mozart is a very inspiring example of just how well it can go if a young child is given the freedom to create on his or her own terms and offered a guiding hand!

Appendix of Mozart’s early compositions

All of Wolfgang Mozart’s early compositions in the Notenbuch für Nannerl are for keyboard. It is believed that only four of them are in his own handwriting. He presumably added these in 1764 when he was eight years of age (one year before the Klavierstück in F, K. 33B mentioned above).

This is assembled roughly in chronological order, according to musicologists. If you’d like to see the same information organized in the order in which it appears in the Notebook, see Wikipedia.

CompositionCatalogueCopyistNotenbuch contents entry, Dates, Notes
Andante in CK. 1aLeopold53; possibly first composition, age 5
Allegro in CK. 1bLeopold54; possibly written in 1761, age 5
Allegro in FK. 1cLeopold55; possibly written in 1761, age 5
Menuett in FK. 1dLeopold56; minuet by Wolfgang Mozart on 16 December 1761, age 5
Menuett in FK. 2Leopold58; Leopold likely copyist, (age 6?)
Allegro in B-flatK. 3Leopold59; by Wolfgang Mozart on 4 March 1762, in Salzburg, age 6
Menuett in FK. 4Leopold49; by Wolfgang Mozart on 11 May 1762, in Salzburg, age 6
Menuett in FK. 5Leopold61; 5 July 1762, in Salzburg, Leopold likely copyist, age 6
Menuett in FK. 6Leopold48; by Wolfgang Mozart 16 July 1762, in Salzburg, age 6; A piano version of the third movement of Leopold’s Serenade in D and Menuet II from the third movement of Wolfgang’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in C
Allegro in CK. 6Leopold46; by Wolfgang 14 October; possibly composed in Brussels 1763, age 7; A piano version of the first movement of Violin Sonata No. 1
Andante in FK. 6Leopold25; probably composed in Brussels 1763, age 7; A piano version of the second movement of Violin Sonata No. 1 in C
Menuett in CK. 6Leopold26; probably composed in Brussels 1763, age 7; A piano version of Menuet I from the third movement of Violin Sonata No. 1 in C
Menuett in DK. 7Leopold47; by Wolfgang Mozart 30 November 1763, age 7; A piano version of Menuet I from Violin Sonata No. 2 in D
Allegro in B-flatK. 8Leopold24; by Wolfgang Mozart in Paris on 21 November 1763, age 7; A piano version of the first movement of Violin Sonata No. 3 in B-flat
Allegro in CK. 5aWolfgang20; probably added in 1764, age 8
Menuett in GK. 1eWolfgang62; probably added in 1764, age 8
Menuett in CK. 1fWolfgang63; probably added in 1764, age 8
Andante in B-flatK. 5bWolfgang64; fragment, probably added in 1764, age 8

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤

Rebekah Maxner, composer, blogger, piano teacher. Follow my blog for great tips!

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