Patricia Lee explores practical ways for you to introduce children to musical concepts and elements.

The curriculum for creative development in the Foundation Stage and music in Key Stage 1 includes a requirement to teach children about musical concepts and elements. Young children will find pitch, dynamics and tempo the easiest to understand and when these have begun to be explored, duration, timbre, texture and structure can be introduced. At first glance it seems like a pretty tall order, but the process is made very much simpler if you apply some of the basic principles of teaching.

First, good teaching leads the learner from the known to the unknown by gradual, logical steps. And secondly, young children learn best when they are involved in practical activities.

The problem with music is that you cannot see it, feel it, taste it or put it in your pocket. The challenge then, is to transform abstract concepts and elements into something more concrete, give children the vocabulary to describe what they hear, and develop the skills they need to consciously use various musical elements in their own creative work.

There are three components to teaching children about musical concepts and elements, and these correspond almost exactly to Zoltán Kodály’s description of the three-stage process involved in acquiring any musical skill(preparation, presentation, practice).

1. Preparation – Give the children an opportunity to listen to music and sing songs that use and contrast different elements. Music played on the flute, piccolo or violin introduces high notes, and music played on the double bass or cello gives an opportunity to contrast those high notes with lower notes. Find music and songs that introduce louder and quieter sounds and also music that moves both quickly and more slowly. It is worth giving some thought to the effect the music may have on the children when they listen. Exciting, lively music is best listened to before the children go out to play.

Initially the children should not be given a verbal explanation of the main elements of the music they are listening to, or the song that they are singing. This first stage should concentrate on building a repertoire that you can return to when you begin to talk about and explore a particular concept. This will help to ensure that the children’s understanding is rooted in their experiences.

2. Presentation – When talking about a particular element, it is always a good idea to begin with what the children already know. Can they, for example, think of something that moves quickly – an express train or a cheetah? Or something that moves slowly, like a snail?

Checking and reinforcing vocabulary is a particularly important step for children with special educational needs and for those who speak English as an additional language. Being able to hear that the music moves quickly is one thing, using and understanding the correct word to describe it is a completely different skill.

3. Practice – The final stage is to let the children experience and explore a concept or element that has been presented. This involves helping the children to produce a visual or physical representation. Showing higher and lower notes with hands or bodies, moving quickly or slowly or finding a way to represent louder and quieter sounds with crayons on paper.
As you plan the activities you will find that each concept lends itself to a particular treatment and it is in this stage that you can usefully return to some of the music and songs that the children became familiar with in the preparation stage.

Engine, Engine Number Nine is a useful chant for practising and checking the children’s understanding of faster and slower, as the speed can be varied each time. In this rhyme the children follow you around the room chanting and keeping time with their feet. At the end, they decide if it was a fast or slow train. When the game is well known, the children can take turns to become the engine driver and set the speed of the train.

Engine, engine number nine, Running down Chicago line. If the train comes off the track,

Will I get my money back?

Yes, no, maybe so.
Yes, no, maybe so.

There are a number of skills within each concept that need to be mastered, but as each depends on an understanding of the previous skill it is unwise to be in too much of a hurry to move on. The first visit to each concept can usefully be restricted to teaching the children about extremes: high- low, fast- slow, loud-quiet, with subsequent visits gradually developing and refining the children’s aural perception. Eventually they should be able to recognise whether a note is higher or lower than the one before, even if the two notes are very close together, and say whether a piece of music is getting gradually faster, slower, louder or quieter.

As you present each element there is no reason why you should not introduce the correct musical terms. Loud = forte, quiet = piano. Children enjoy learning and using these words and rarely forget them. Crescendo (gradually getting louder) is always a favourite.

Adding sound effects and music to stories is a wonderful way for the children to develop their creativity and practise using musical elements. It also gives them an opportunity to learn more about musical instruments, perhaps discovering how to produce a variety of sounds on the same instrument.

The opportunities for adding music to stories may seem obvious to us but there is much that the children can learn. ‘Going upstairs’ can be played on a glockenspiel or xylophone, and here it is useful to hold the instrument vertically so that the higher notes are spatially higher than the lower notes. How would they play if the character were to run or creep? And which instruments will they choose to accompany a sleeping giant?

Preparation, presentation and practice, when used to teach children about musical concepts, ensures that aural perception, vocabulary, and visual or physical representation become firmly linked in the child’s mind.