helping children develop creative thinking

Teaching Elements of Music Workshop

Where Does Music Come From?: Teaching the Elements of Music to Young Children Using Rhythm Instruments

Abby Connors

NJ Music Educators Association Annual Conference, Feb. 20, 2010




1. Introduction


Why teach the elements of music to young children? Do they really need to understand them? Are they even interested?


When I started teaching music to young children, I didn’t think in terms of teaching the elements of music. I sang songs, we played instruments, we played musical games and movement activities. But I soon realized two things: first, young children are very curious. Very. I would bring out rhythm sticks, and they would ask things like, “Why are they blue?” “Where did you get these?” “How do they make that sound?” “What are they made of?” and “Can I pretend mine are racecars?”


Young children are so relentlessly inquisitive– When children want to know something, they really want to know it! Once I was playing with shakers with a group of  five-year-olds, and this little boy asked me what was inside them that made the sound. When I told him I thought there were little beads or pebbles inside, he said, “Well, let’s open it and find out.” Then, trying to put him off, I said, “Well, these shakers are pretty strong. You’d probably need a hammer to break one open.” Quick as a wink he said, “Oh, we’ve got a hammer!”


And this would kind of drive me crazy, because I had a certain lesson plan in mind, playing instruments in a certain way to a certain song or piece of music. And I brushed off all these questions as irrelevant. But as you’ve probably noticed, some of those were very good questions and very relevant questions. They may not have been relevant to my lesson plan, but they were relevant to learning about music. Questions like how the rhythm sticks made that sound. And what were they made of.  I started to think that maybe I should include the exploration of those topics in my music classes. By sticking to a strictly “music education” lesson plan, I was actually missing opportunities to teach. Basically, I realized that young children want to learn about the science of sound.


The second thing I realized was that young children learn across domains. Instead of learning music, and then science, and then math, and so on, like we’re used to doing as adults, they’re learning everything all at once, all the time. They’re also learning with their brains, their senses, and their bodies at the same time. So when they ask why the rhythm sticks are blue, that’s relevant to them. They know that in some areas, different colors indicate different things. For instance, red foods may taste like strawberries or cherries. So it’s a valid question, to ask why the sticks are blue. I say, the color is just to make them look nice; it doesn’t make them sound any different. Blue ones, red ones, they all sound the same. (But I still try to give them all the same color so there’s no fussing.) When I have to give different colors of a certain instrument, I recite my favorite poem: “You get what you get and you don’t  upset.”


Now, this curiosity, and the ability to learn across all domains make young children very open to learning about the elements of music, since the elements, pitch, dynamics, timbre, texture, and tempo, are what makes music sound the way it does. They’re “where music comes from.”  They’re what music is made of.


As I was preparing this presentation, I was doing some research, and one educator I read stated that musical elements were very difficult to teach to young children because they’re such abstract concepts. He said something like, the trouble is, you can’t see music, or feel it, and so on. Well, you can hear it!! And you can feel it as you play it with your hands  or sing it with your voice. It’s not about abstract concepts, it’s about very concrete experience.


 Learning the elements of music in an experiential way gives children a deeper, more meaningful understanding of music… It also puts music into a wider context, relating it to the science of sound, their experience of their bodies and movements, intellectual concepts such as size and numbers, and their natural instinct to explore and investigate the world around them… Experimenting with rhythm instruments is a natural way for young children to explore musical concepts, as well as express themselves musically and dramatically.


The activities I’m sharing today have a theoretical basis in developmentally appropriate practice – this is kind of an early-childhood thing, if you’re not familiar with it there’s a link to it in the “Elements of Music” section on my website -   http://www.naeyc.org/dap/core. The activities are also based on current research in educational psychology and early brain development, as well as my own experience and observations of young children in learning situations.


2. Exploring Timbre and Texture

Rhythm instruments provide many opportunities for children to learn about timbre and texture.

Again, as I was preparing this presentation, I looked up some typical sample “lesson plans” for young children on timbre. And I saw things like “show children a picture of a violin, then listen to a recording of a violinist playing,” and so on, and I was just dismayed. The best way to understand the timbre of an instrument is to play it! Because first of all, timbre isn’t a static thing. (Demonstrate with maraca)

(Shake it) That’s what a maraca sounds like. But – (shake upside down, holding rounded part) that’s a different timbre, because the sound is partially blocked from going out into the air. And (tap on palm) that’s another timbre – because of the resonance of the playing surface, in this case my hand. Secondly, on a real, concrete level, the maraca isn’t making the sound.  I’m making the sound, using the maraca. So children get the wrong impression from just listening to CD’s. We want children to understand that we - musicians - create sounds with instruments. And they learn this through the experience of playing instruments themselves.


Over the years, I’ve developed some general rules for introducing all kinds of rhythm instruments.


1.    Demonstrate. Before you put instruments into all those little hands, take out one instrument (or one pair of rhythm sticks or sand blocks) and demonstrate how to play it.


2.    Set rules. Keep the rules clear and very simple, i.e. “Keep the instrument away from your face.” (When I first started out, I’d say “Don’t hit the rhythm sticks too hard, don’t hit other people’s sticks,” and all this other stuff, and all the kids would chime in with their ideas for more rules… One little girl said, “And don’t put them inside your nose!” I hadn’t thought of that one! So now I try to keep it very simple, – and positive – not a lot of “don’ts.”


3.    Maintain order. If you’re on the floor, have children sit “criss-cross applesauce” and keep their hands in their laps while you pass out and collect instruments.


4.    Practice signals. Have children practice picking up/playing and stopping/putting down on your spoken signals. Or you might use a sound signal like a xylophone or a whistle.


Discuss what instruments are made of (wood, metal, plastic), and other familiar items that are made of these materials. Discuss how different materials make different sounds when hit, scraped, or shaken. And talk about how different ways of touching instruments also create different sounds.



Now we’re going to do an activity that explores using different playing techniques to explore timbre.


I love shakers, they’re so easy to play, and they’re so versatile – you can do somany things with them. I only have one rule for playing shakers, since I quickly learned that the first way many young children explore the musical possibilities of an instrument is to bang it on the floor as hard as they possibly can. So my only rule for shakers is: don’t bang them on the floor.


It can be fun to just pass out instruments, show the children a few ways to play, and then ask, “What are some other ways we could make music with this instrument?” But improvising to songs or recorded music brings out more creativity and musicality.   


Improvising to recorded music can help children explore different ways to make sounds with instruments.  This piece is called “Eastern Journey” by the Biddu Orchestra – it’s on the Putumayo “Asian Lounge” CD. It’s fun to play along with and has kind of a Bollywood flavor.   



Shake shaker

                                                Twirl shaker (twist)

                                                Shake shaker above head

                                                Rock shaker (like a baby)

                                                Roll shaker on floor

                                                Slide shaker on floor

                                                Circle shaker (circle in air)

                                                Stir shaker (upside down like spoon)

                                                Shake shaker behind back

                                                Knock on shaker (with knuckles)

                                                Hold shaker with two hands and shake


                                                What are some other ways we could play?


Two hands – up and down

                                                Two hands – rock l-r

                                                Shake while holding round part of shaker

                                                Walk shaker on floor

                                                Have shaker “jump” on floor


Listening games can help children learn to identify different timbres.


I play “Guess the Instrument” with a maraca and bells, and have children close their eyes and try to tell which I played by just listening. Then I try three or more instruments.


You can also play “Guess How I Played” (e.g., tapping or scraping rhythm sticks)


“Guess the Different Surfaces” – newspaper, blanket, drum, aluminum foil


All of those games can also be played with the children playing the instruments and trying to fool you. They love to do that!


“When the Saints Go Marching In” – I give all the children instruments at random, around the circle – when I sing their instrument, they get up and march around inside the circle. (sing “oh when the bells go marching in,” etc.) I ask the other children to sing and clap along.


I play a game called “If You Hear It, Play It” – Children are given different instruments. When the teacher plays one of the instruments behind her back, children with that instrument play along. For a harder version, try playing two instruments.


Now we’re going to play a game called “Music Detective.” Usually, the detective sits in the middle of the circle with eyes closed.  Again, each child has an instrument. I point to one child, who plays their instrument. Then we all hide our instruments behind our backs. Then the detective tries to identify both the player and the instrument.

Winds sound – play recorder, blow over water bottle, kazoos


I love to use instruments with read-aloud stories. It adds meaning to the  story and it highlights how we can use timbre to express ourselves dramatically. “The Leopard’s Drum” by Jessica Souhami – I use coffee can drums – in some schools we make a project out of collecting the cans and decorating them. This activity also teaches rhythm –every time the drum is mentioned, we chant and play: the/ big big drum goes/boom boom boom(rest)




3. Exploring Dynamics


Young children are fascinated by loud and soft sounds and why some sounds are louder than others. One concept to learn is that bigger instruments (and people) tend to make louder sounds than little ones. Another is that heavier, more forceful touches create louder sounds than lighter touches. Children are also interested in experimenting with the expressive qualities of dynamic changes in music, dramatics, and storytelling.


“The Hubbub Above” by Arthur Howard –you can use tambourines or small drums – children play along on “boom, boom, cha-cha-cha”


Related game – “The Elephants Walk Like This”  (I’ll  use a tambourine, but if you have a drum, join in)(tune: “A-Hunting We Will Go”) Oh, the elephants walk like this  /The elephants walk like this/ They walk and walk, they walk and walk/ The elephants walk like this). Then I ask, but what if we were singing about mice? How would they walk? : Oh, the mice walk like this…

Add jump, run. So when they’re pretending to be the elephants and mice, they’re experiencing the difference in dynamics.


This next story also has a great expressive use of dynamics.

 “The Crickets” –from “Mouse Soup” by Arnold Lobel. One child can act the part of the mouse who is trying to sleep, (I’ll be the mouse today) and a small group can play the crickets who chirp increasingly loudly, using jingle bells to make the chirping sound. Repeat to give all children turns to act in the story. This activity also relates to texture – how does one instrument sound different from a few instruments, or many instruments. (Read and act out story)


 “New Year’s Eve Countdown” – Each child has an instrument. We all count down quietly from ten to one and then shout “Happy New Year!” as we play instruments very loudly.  The difference in dynamics is very sharp and exciting!


“Conducting” – (Conductor card come up) Children are given instruments and they take turns conducting, directing the group to play loudly or softly by using hand signals.  

1. Hands could go up (louder) or down (softer)

2. Hands could go out to sides (louder) or in to the middle (softer)

Young children often think in terms of only two dynamic entities, “loud” and “soft.” This activity introduces the concepts of getting louder and getting softer (crescendo and diminuendo).


4. Exploring Tempo


Young children are very excited by fast sounds, and by songs which get faster and faster as they go along. Slow tempos are more challenging for them to listen to and to play and sing along with – perhaps because of their naturally faster heartbeats. In helping young children explore tempo changes, it can be helpful to alternate between fast and slow sections, keeping the slow sections short. Knowing that a fast section is coming up can help them focus on listening and playing along with a slow section.


Now we’re going to play a game called “Change the Tempo”. Would the triangle player come up? One player with a drum, I’m going to start, sets the tempo for the group – if you have an instrument, play with me at my tempo. Then the triangle player strikes the triangle to indicate that players should stop. Then the drum player sets a new tempo.


This story is a perfect way to explore slow and fast tempos.

“The Tortoise and the Hare” by Janet Stevens– while the teacher reads the

story, children play instruments slowly (for the tortoise) and quickly (for the hare). Song: (tune: Farmer/Dell) The tortoise goes so slow (2x), Hi ho, the derry-o, the tortoise goes so slow. (Hare – fast)


“London Bridge” – sing the song while children play instruments to the beat. Then sing “London Bridge is slowing down,” while playing a bit slower. Repeat a few times, getting slower and slower. Then say that London Bridge is fast again! Sing “London Bridge is fast again,” while playing along to the new, fast beat.


 “Two Tempos” – Each child has an instrument. Teacher has a CD/cassette player with two pieces of music featuring different tempos. Play tempo 1 – children play along until you stop the music – then they “freeze.” Play tempo 2, “freeze” again, and go back and forth.


“Mbube” (slow African song) from “African Playground” by Putumayo  and “Trepak” from “Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky. This game can also be played using music of different meters, for a more difficult challenge.


 “Slow and Fast” from “Rhythms on Parade” CD by Hap Palmer


“Drum Game” – step slow or fast to drumbeat (feel the difference in energy)


5. Exploring Pitch

            Xylophone activities – “Mortimer” by Robert Munsch – going upstairs and

                        going downstairs (children can take turns playing the xylophone)

Stringed instruments – show that making strings shorter makes them sound higher


Point out that smaller instruments, or parts of instruments, produce higher pitches. Explain that that is why children have higher voices than adults – their vocal cords are shorter.


For young children, learning the elements of music is part of their instinctive drive to learn about the world them and express themselves creatively. When we remember to teach in a way that respects the way young children learn, in an atmosphere of free play and exploration, we can help them learn music in a natural, organic way that will be a solid foundation for their future music education.