A Thought for Thursday: Where Does Music Come From?

This article originally appeared in TEMPO Magazine, the magazine of the New Jersey Music Educators Association, in October 2009.

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

Rhythm instruments play a unique role in the development of young children’s musicality. When students are tapping on drums, shaking shakers, or crashing cymbals, they’re learning about the elements of music in an age-appropriate, meaningful way, while enjoying the fun of making music with friends.

With these instruments, children can explore not only the  sounds of materials, but the musical capabilities of their own bodies, and physical concepts such as hard and soft, top and bottom, over and under, and big and small. They can also explore musical concepts like timbre, dynamics, and tempo. And they can use their developing understanding of these concepts to express themselves creatively.

 As the MENC Pre-K and Kindergarten standards indicate, there are four main areas in which young children develop musically: singing and playing instruments, creating music, responding to music, and understanding music. Activities using rhythm instruments help children grow in each of these areas. In particular, I’ve found that the understanding of music they gain from rhythm instruments is really remarkable.

This understanding begins amazingly early. My youngest students are eighteen months old, and their enthusiasm for playing instruments is inspiring! At this early stage, it may seem that children are content to merely bang or shake instruments while listening to music. But that’s not the whole story. When toddlers bang and shake and roll and tap and rub and scratch these instruments, their eyes are bright with excitement. They’re totally focused and engaged. When you watch toddlers play these instruments, it’s obvious that there’s a lot of thinking and wondering and puzzling and questioning going on in those cute little heads!

Then these children grow, and grow more verbal, and they can ask those questions they’ve been wondering about. What’s inside the shakers? Why are sticks made of wood? How do bells make that jingley sound?

 They become interested in how their fingers, hands, and other body parts can make different sounds on the instruments. By age four, children are very imaginative improvisers who love to come up with loud, soft, fast, slow, smooth and jumpy sounds. They’re learning how stories, songs, and games can be enhanced with various musical sounds, and they’re gaining confidence in their ability to express emotions, events, and ideas through music.

Teachers have a special role to play in helping young children explore the elements of music through playing percussion instruments. As with all subject areas, young children learn music through play and free exploration. But that doesn’t mean we hand them instruments and just let them go at it! Children need our guidance to learn respect for musical instruments, our expertise to answer their questions, and most of all, our support as they investigate the fascinating world of sounds.

 Exploring timbre is a natural place to start. Before we play instruments in a group, I usually bring out one instrument, or a pair of two-handed instruments like rhythm sticks or sand blocks, and demonstrate how to play it. Then we pass the instrument around to let each child experience making the sound, and hearing it, for themselves. We talk about what the instrument is made of and how that relates to its sound. For instance, the metal of a triangle gives it a hard, bright sound, while the sandpaper on the sand blocks makes a soft, scratchy sound.

 From there, we go on to learning about dynamics. I often relate dynamics to animal sounds. A mouse is soft; an elephant is loud. So I might ask the children to play a drum like a mouse, and then like an elephant. This is a great example of the value of teaching music with rhythm instruments. It’s one thing to hear loud and soft sounds, but when a child makes those sounds on an instrument, she gains a more meaningful understanding of those concepts. Soft and loud sounds don’t just happen – they’re caused by light, weak touches or heavy, forceful touches. When they experience the difference in energy, the concept comes alive for them.

It can be a challenge teaching the concept of tempo to young children, since they seem to be stuck on one tempo – presto! They run fast, they talk fast, and when they play instruments, they like to play fast. My answer: offer activities in which fast and slow sections alternate often. While I read “The Tortoise and the Hare,” for instance, I ask children to tap tambourines quickly when the hare is running, and slowly when the tortoise is lumbering along. It’s easier for them to play slowly when they know a fast section is coming up, and it’s a dramatic way to help them feel the contrast in tempo.

When young children play rhythm instruments on a regular basis, they directly experience the elements of music and build a solid foundation for their future musical education.

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