Learning to play the piano is the beginning of a great adventure for young children, who will make many musical discoveries that will enrich their lives. Some may go on to make music a career, and they will always remember their first exercises at the keyboard.
For generations, parents, experts, and educators have recommended simple pieces of piano music from the classical keyboard repertoire that are the most suitable for these early learners. Those on this list are a few of the most often recommended, both for their innate beauty and their value as learning tools.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise
The short piece “Für Elise” (“For Elise”) is one of the most instantly recognizable of the world’s simplest piano compositions. Listed in the Beethoven catalog as “Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor,” for the youngest students it is anything but a frivolous throwaway piece. Educators often suggest it as a practice piece based on its clear melodic line and pleasing harmonics.
Beethoven’s original manuscript for this piece likely does not refer to an “Elise.” Some scholars believe that the obscured first title read “Für Therese” (possibly referring to a young woman who spurned the composer’s marriage proposal). “Elise” may have come about as the result of a transcription error.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata No. 16 in C Major
Mozart’s Sonata No. 16, known as “Sonata semplice,” or “Sonata facile,” is only “facile” because it is easy for beginners to play. He created it as a solo piece just for young beginners at the piano. It is a perennial favorite because it affords them the chance to perform a piece by this notoriously difficult composer with confidence.
The catchy melody and easy progression of the musical parts of this composition make it relatively simple to understand and to perfect for beginners. In performance, it typically takes about 14 minutes total.
3. Johann Sebastian Bach: Minuet in G Major
Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, left behind a notebook that contained this short harpsichord piece, which she had carefully hand-copied. Her notebook consisted of pieces by major composers of her time and before, a list that naturally included her husband. But some scholars today attribute this particularly lovely little piece not to Bach, but to fellow composer Christian Petzold.
Whoever the original composer may have been, Minuet in G remains a favorite of students and their teachers. It immediately leaps out of the air with a sprightly beginning, offers simple and easily distinguished variations, and ends with a sweet and definitive conclusion.
4. Robert Schumann: “Einsame Blumen”
In the original German, “Einsame Blumen” means “Lonely Flowers.” Schumann wrote this simple, melodic piece for his wife, Clara. She was also a distinguished pianist and performer.
The piece is part of the larger Schumann collection of piano miniature compositions entitled Waldszenen (“Forest Scenes”), Op. 82. Each one is a small tone poem that, in loving detail, offers an image of wilderness romanticism. “Einsame Blumen” is an excellent choice as a teaching vehicle for young beginners. Additionally, it remains a staple of the concert repertoire due to its soft, soothing quality and its gentle musical transitions.
5. Frédéric Chopin: Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4
Chopin was a virtuoso pianist, but he composed a number of pieces that are easy enough for young beginners. These include the haunting, simple melody and spare harmonies of this Prelude in E Minor.
Music teachers often recommend that students new to Chopin start with learning his preludes, as they are the simplest and most accessible part of his oeuvre. This particular prelude is typically considered among the easiest piano pieces for a beginner to execute. This is due in part to its easy, distinctive melodic line for the right hand, accompanied by the series of basic chords for the left.
6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: “Italian Song”
Tchaikovsky was not himself particularly known as a virtuoso of the piano. His collection in Op. 39, “Album for the Young,” reflects his focus on teaching young beginners through relatively simple compositions. “Italian Song” is perhaps the best-known of these, offering a lively, lilting, picturesque melody with a strong through-line.
Other compositions in “Album for the Young” are even simpler: “The Sick Doll” and “Morning Prayer” are typically ranked by music educators as highly suitable for young beginners. Other pieces in the collection are somewhat more difficult, and are perhaps better adapted for the needs of more skilled players.
7. Erik Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1
Satie, well-known as an early 20th century avant-garde French composer, created his series of “Gymnopédies” in 1888. They have stood the test of time among the simplest and loveliest beginning piano melodies. Additionally, the fact that they are meant to be played at slow tempos enhances their value to the youngest students.
Today, Gymnopédie No. 1 is instantly recognizable from its frequent use in film and television as a slow-paced mood piece. In fact, a number of critics have cited it as one of the most relaxing pieces to have ever been composed.
Learning to play a musical instrument can open up many exciting new adventures for a child and their family. To further encourage your child’s interest and enhance their learning, why not visit one of the following museums on your next family vacation? Music-focused museums can help your child appreciate their chosen instrument even more and see its place in the rich tapestry of humanity’s musical heritage.
1. The Met in New York shows how art sounds.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City needs no introduction as an art museum, but it is often overlooked as a rich source for learning the history of musical instruments.
The Met’s world-renowned collections include some 5,000 instruments from all over the world, with some dating back more than 2,000 years. The focus is on demonstrating how musical instruments have developed across cultures and throughout the centuries.
“The Art of Music Through Time,” housed in Gallery 684, is filled with objects, audio and video commentary, and related artworks that provide a multisensory illustration of the power of music. Meanwhile, the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments house hundreds of instruments from Western and non-Western traditions. These include a group of Stradivari violins and the oldest known piano still in existence.
There’s also “Fanfare,” an exhibit that centers on 75 specific brass instruments—“brass” interpreted as any tubular instrument played via a mouthpiece—that range from ancient hunting horns to a plastic vuvuzela manufactured to commemorate the World Cup of 2014. In addition, the Organ Loft houses the Thomas Appleton Organ, constructed in the first third of the 19th century and one of the earliest American working pipe organs.
2. An acclaimed musical instrument museum in the desert.
The widely praised Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, Arizona, is home to more than 13,000 instruments—about half of them on display at any given time—from almost every country in the world. The museum works with the goal of acquiring instruments of every time and place, with a special emphasis on folk and tribal instruments.
One entire gallery is dedicated to modern popular music. In this Artist Gallery, the objects on display honor artists from Pablo Casals to John Lennon, and Elvis Presley to Taylor Swift. Many of the museum’s installations feature audio or video recordings of iconic performances, while the Experience Gallery gives families a chance to actually play some of the world’s representative instruments. In addition, the MIM hosts regular performances that highlight a range of musicians and styles from around the world.
3. A cultural treasure being rebuilt in the Great Plains.
The National Music Museum in tiny Vermillion, South Dakota, has received accolades from the New York Times as one of the most important music museums in the world. It curates some 15,000 instruments, representing every part of the world and almost all of its cultures and time periods.
The museum’s collections include a viola made by the renowned Andrea Guarneri in the mid-17th century, and one of the earliest grand pianos ever constructed. Its walls also house a wide range of fascinating musical exotica, including stringed instruments crafted to resemble peacocks and harmonicas shaped like goldfish. High-tech exhibits rely on iPod Touch technology to play performance recordings of the instruments on display.
Currently undergoing a major reconstruction and expansion, the National Music Museum is set to reopen in 2021. It continues a lively current dialogue with its fans on Facebook, often offering video clips and pictures of some of the pieces in its collection.
4. See Mozart’s piano in Prague.
The Czech Republic loves and honors music and musicians. In the 1780s, for example, the capital city of Prague opened its arms to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and he conducted the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni in its Estates Theatre. So it makes sense that Prague is the site of one of the world’s finest museums of musical instruments.
Located in a former historic church in the Lesser Town near the Vltava River, the Czech Museum of Music is a constituent part of the county’s National Museum. Within its walls are displayed some 400 musical instruments, each with extraordinary artistic and cultural value.
An architecturally stunning atrium provides a lovely location for a journey through “Man-Instrument-Music,” the museum’s permanent exhibit, which delves into the many connections between people and instruments over time. On view in the exhibits are a variety of stringed and wind instruments. A grand piano that Mozart once used is just one of the extraordinary objects on display.
Museum goers enjoy a heightened experience as their journey through musical history is accompanied by musical recordings played alongside the instruments in the exhibits. The museum additionally hosts regular concerts and special exhibitions.
5. Brussels houses musical treasures in an architectural wonder.
The Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium, is another among the premier museums of its kind in the world. Housed in a restored, half-Neoclassical and half-Art Nouveau building complex, it houses a collection of more than 1,000 instruments ranging over four audio- and video-enhanced galleries that cover a variety of historical and contemporary periods.
The Brussels museum is part of the Royal Museums of Art and History, which makes its Carmentis online catalog, listing each of its instruments, publicly accessible. One fun feature of its website, at www.mim.be/en, is the Instrument of the Month.
The Musical Instruments Museum also encompasses a concert hall and a rooftop restaurant terrace with stunning views of Brussels.
At age 6, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart went on a European performance tour, showcasing his virtuosity on multiple instruments. While child musical prodigies with the extraordinary gifts of Mozart are rare, many children today do show early signs of exceptional musical ability.
The history of great performers in music is filled with such prodigies, including Daniel Barenboim, who performed in his first piano recital at age 7 and began to study conducting at 11; pianist Evgeny Kissin, who recorded an album of Chopin concertos at age 12; and operatic and pop music singer Charlotte Church, who also released her first album at 12.
Parents and teachers who have worked with highly musically gifted children—and musically talented young people themselves—point to a number of signs that can help identify talent as early as possible. Particularly for adults who are not themselves musical, this list can serve as an important guide.
1. Perfect pitch
An innate grasp of pitch is one of the most obvious early indications of strong musical ability in a young child. Experienced teachers point out that being able to sing on pitch and to identify when a musical composition or another singer is not in pitch is common among gifted young students.
The capacity to match any given pitch is one of the central qualities in musically gifted individuals. Many adults lack the ability to sing on pitch, so when a child easily matches pitch and sings on key, there is a strong indication of giftedness.
2. A sense of rhythm
A great sense of rhythm is another easy-to-spot characteristic of children with musical gifts. They may stomp their feet, clap, spin, or jump up and down in time to a favorite beat. It’s rare for young children to be able to keep time for the duration of an entire song, so any who do could be signaling their giftedness.
3. Quick song recognition
Being able to identify a song after hearing only the first few notes can be a sign of early musical talent. Memorizing the pitch and rhythm of the first few notes of a tune heard on the radio or on YouTube comes easily to children who are musically gifted.
4. A sense of movement
Additionally, children may show an extraordinary feel for music through their sense of movement in the space around them. While most younger children tend to collide with others on the dance floor, rhythmically and kinetically gifted kids often display rare gracefulness and a mature sense of spatial relationships when engaged in a classroom dance activity.
5. Fine-tuned emotions
A heightened emotional reaction to music is another hallmark of a child who possesses unusual musical gifts. Does your child cry when hearing sentimental or sad music? Does he or she become lighthearted in tune with a joyful song? If a child’s mood appears to deepen or brighten more so than similarly aged children in response to music, it may be a signal that he or she is more attuned to its power than others.
6. A quick study
Music teachers note that when a student who is beginning to learn an instrument is able to play a new piece with technical proficiency within a few days (sometimes within the first few minutes), he or she is very likely to be musically gifted.
Whereas an average student takes days or weeks to learn the proper dynamics, pitch, and execution of a piece, a gifted student often seems to have an immediate understanding of these concepts after first being introduced to a song.
7. A depth of appreciation
Some experts point out that musically talented people have the ability to hear music “vertically.” This simply means that they can easily identify the harmonics and instrumentation of a piece, along with its melody. A child who can pick out and sing along well with the bassline of a composition is demonstrating a deep, innate sense of the properties and character of music.
8. Original compositions
Composing one’s own musical works is another sign of early giftedness.
One contemporary musical prodigy, Ethan Bortnick, a Guinness World Record-holder as the youngest solo touring musical headliner, began to compose his own pieces at age 5—about the same age Mozart was when he began composing. By age 3, after being denied piano lessons because of his young age, Bortnick used a toy piano keyboard to reproduce tunes from popular media, playing them by ear.
Another of today’s gifted young composers, Alma Deutscher, was creating her own operas at age 10 and has also completed concertos for the violin and the piano.
9. Dedication to craft
No one should forget the fact that a passion for and dedication to improving one’s music skills is often a hallmark of great ability. Children who continue to show a desire to increase their musical knowledge, constantly listen to or begin to produce music, love to practice even the most rigorous drills, and display a pattern of the type of self-discipline necessary to gain proficiency, can certainly be identified as someone with significant musical potential.
The Juilliard School, which is housed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on New York City’s Upper East Side, is an educational institution that has helped to further the skills, talents, and careers of numerous young musicians and other performing artists from around the world for generations.
Over the years, The Juilliard School has expanded its programs to include a broad array of performing arts curricula, and it now serves as Lincoln Center’s professional education division. It offers undergraduate degrees in music, drama, and dance, as well as a master’s program in music. Its current total enrollment stands at approximately 1,400 students.
The following are a few interesting facts about the Juilliard School:
1. Distinguished alumni
Designed as a place to nurture extraordinary talent, The Juilliard School has produced scores of distinguished graduates who include legendary pianist Van Cliburn; cellist Yo-Yo Ma; conductor Leonard Slatkin; contemporary actors Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Samira Wiley, and Michael Urie; and Jon Batiste, bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
2. A turn-of-the-century American conservatory
The school began as the Institute of Musical Art in 1905, when it took up residence at the corner of 12th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Founder Dr. Frank Damrosch was the godson of the 19th century composer and musical prodigy Franz Liszt. Damrosch, then the head of the city’s music education program for public schools, worked with a focus on providing American music students with access to the same quality of instruction that was common in the best European conservatories.
When the institute opened its doors, it did so with a student body that was five times as large as originally expected, leading to a sudden need for expanded quarters. In 1910, it relocated to a space close to Columbia University.
3. A benefactor’s legacy
In 1919, Augustus Juilliard died, leaving a will containing the largest single bequest to further music education that was unseen up until then. Juilliard, who made his fortune in the textile industry, was thus immortalized in 1924 through a new institution called The Juilliard Graduate School, funded by his bequest under the auspices of the Juilliard Foundation.
Two years later, the graduate school merged with the Institute of Musical Art. The new combined school would be renamed The Juilliard School of Music in 1946.
4. Expansion beyond music
The school, as constituted after 1926, came under the direction of a single president, John Erskine, a popular novelist and a professor at Columbia University.
In 1937, Ernest Hutcheson, a widely known composer and pianist, took over as president, followed in 1945 by William Schuman, a distinguished composer.
Schuman began an effort to increase the school’s reach by offering not only music courses, but a new dance division, as well. The Literature and Materials of Music program, a pioneering curriculum in the art of music theory, also became a core component of the school during his tenure.
5. An iconic string quartet
It was also under Schuman’s direction that the school established its own in-house quartet, the Juilliard String Quartet, in 1946.
The Boston Globe has called the quartet the most important ensemble of its kind ever to be founded in the United States. Today, its members not only champion and exemplify the classical tradition, but they consistently work to expand the repertoire of newer works performed. Its 2018-19 season features works that include a newly commissioned piece by renowned Estonian-American composer Lembit Beecher.
Quartet members served as master instructors during their touring seasons, working with students in classes and open rehearsal formats. The group also hosts a five-day-long Juilliard String Quartet Seminar, annually in May.
In 2011, the quartet received a National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences lifetime achievement award, the first ever presented to a classical ensemble.
The Juilliard School today also hosts a broad array of other performances, including those by its orchestra, wind ensemble, and members of its Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts.
6. Becoming part of Lincoln Center
In 1968, when Peter Mennin served as Juilliard’s president, he oversaw the creation of a drama studies program headed by powerhouse actor and producer John Houseman. In that same year, under Mennin’s direction, the school rebranded itself with its current name, The Juilliard School, then relocated to its campus to Lincoln Center in 1969.
During Dr. Joseph W. Polisi’s tenure as president, Juilliard added new curricula in historical performance and jazz, as well as several new drama and liberal arts tracks and community engagement programs. Damian Woetzel, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, became Juilliard’s president in the summer of 2017.
7. A rich history captured on film
A documentary on the history of the school, which was produced by PBS, features the remembrances of current and former alumni and instructors. In 2018, the documentary became available for streaming online.
Titled Treasures of New York: The Juilliard School, the hour-long film includes comments from world-renowned figures in the arts such as violinist Itzhak Perlman and trumpeter and music educator Wynton Marsalis. The film captures the school’s rich history of teaching, learning, and performing, from its inception to its relocation to Lincoln Center.
8. An even stronger international footprint
The Tianjin Juilliard School in China is projected to open in the fall of 2019. The school’s creators envision it as incorporating all of the elements of a true 21st century music conservatory on an international scale.
The brass family of musical instruments takes its name from the material with which they are made, and their booming, brassy sound makes a big impact.
The brass instruments that most young students will encounter are the French horn, tuba, trombone, and trumpet. They might also meet the cornet, which is very similar to the trumpet, and the sousaphone, closest in style to the tuba. The euphonium and the baritone are less well-known—their size and range fall somewhere between the trumpet and the tuba.
Buzzing mouthpieces, valves, and pipes
Musicians play brass instruments, as they do members of the woodwind family, by pushing their breath into the instrument. But, unlike the woodwinds, it is not a vibrating reed, but a metal mouthpiece shaped like a cup, that amplifies the sound and drives it forward as the player’s lips buzz against it.
Today’s brass instruments consist of a long stretch of tubing or piping that flares out toward the end like a bell. In order to allow for better and smoother handling and playing, the instruments’ pipes are configured into twists, curves, and curlicues of various types. Attached to the pipes are a variety of valves that allow the player to open or close a range of apertures along the pipe’s length.
When a player presses down on various combinations of valves, he or she can vary the sound, loudness, and pitch.
The clear, strong sound of the trumpet
The trumpet and the cornet are the smallest and highest-pitched members of the brass family. The differences between the two are miniscule, and their sounds are almost indistinguishable, although the trumpet’s shape is slightly longer and slimmer. Beginning players typically find that neither is an improvement on the other.
The trumpet is easy to maintain and to store, with only two body pieces to take apart between one band practice and the next. The instrument’s valves and slides need occasional oiling.
The earliest prototype of the trumpet we know today appeared in approximately 1,500 BC. Early artisans began to decorate the horns they fashioned from animal tusks, and eventually from ceramics and metal. But the trumpet remained largely a one-note hunting, ceremonial, and wartime accessory until the latter part of the Middle Ages. It was then that musicians began to realize its artistic possibilities.
Baroque composers began to incorporate the trumpet into their compositions, impressed with its clear, ringing tone. By the close of the 1700s, Viennese musician Anton Weidinger had added keys to the instrument, giving it the capacity to produce a complete chromatic scale in all registers. The invention of valves replaced the keyed system, and by the second decade of the 1800s, the first working brass instrument valve ushered the trumpet into the modern orchestral age.
Makers of early musical recordings were so taken with the strong, bold sound of the trumpet that they featured it often, and superstar players such as Louis Armstrong made it an indelible part of the American musical experience.
Learning to slide with the trombone
The trombone’s long slide piece increases the length of its tubing and changes its pitch, making the slide analogous to the valves found on other instruments. Like the trumpet, it ends in a bell-shaped piece, but has a larger mouthpiece than the trumpet.
The trombone is relatively more challenging to play and to care for than other brass instruments. It’s important to take particular care of the slide and treat it gently—if it is damaged, the instrument becomes unplayable. The trombone’s two-piece structure makes it easy to assemble and disassemble, and, like the trumpet, it simply requires occasional oiling and greasing.
Students who have good pitch will be able to know exactly how far to extend the length of the slide to produce a desired tone. Students who are unsure of pitch may have more difficulty in controlling the trombone’s pitch.
The trombone arose as a byproduct of the development of the trumpet in the 1400s. Until hundreds of years after its invention, musicians and composers in the English-speaking world called it the “sackbut.”
From cor de chasse to French horn
The model for the French horn was based on ancient horns used for hunting. Its name is a bit of a misnomer, since most of the major developments in the instrument took place in Germany. Like its relatives, it was developed during the late-medieval period, when musicians’ experimentation created a variety of new horn types.
Seventeenth-century alterations in horn formations produced a model with a larger flared bell, the first recognizably “French horn” type of instrument. This model was originally called the “cor de chasse” and then the “French horn” in English.
Complete beginners are not usually capable of attaining great proficiency in playing the French horn, and so should proceed with caution before settling on it as a band instrument. But for a student with an excellent grasp of pitch and solid prior musical training, it can be a good choice. Like other brass instruments, the French horn is comparatively simple to store and to care for.
The big and beautiful tuba
The tuba, the brass family’s largest instrument, is also its deepest. It can play both accompaniment and melody, adding surprisingly nuanced and beautiful tones.
Students can obtain tubas of various sizes; it’s important for each musician to identify the size that’s right for them. Younger players who struggle with the full-sized tuba may find that the baritone is a more manageable instrument, at least at first. The tuba’s care is similar to that of other brass instruments, and it consists of at most three pieces.
Unlike its cousins, the tuba’s origins lie not in ancient or medieval times. Drawing on previous valved band instruments, two Berlin-based musicians filed a patent for the tuba in 1835. Johann Gottfried Moritz and Wilhelm Wieprecht provided their new instrument, set in the key of F, with five valves. Later variations include the Wagner tubas, small-bore models created specifically to fit composer Richard Wagner’s requirements in his large-scale opera The Ring of the Nibelung.
According to the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), early learning music programs should include numerous opportunities for exploration through listening, singing, dancing, and other kinds of movement. In addition, teachers should provide the opportunity for kids to actually play musical instruments.
Both learning how to play an instrument and learning about music assist young children in developing critical thinking skills and empathy, and promote positive socialization. By making music together, young children also get the chance to experience a wide range of cultures, learn new words, and develop vital senses involving body and spatial awareness, as well as fine and gross motor skills.
Every child has the potential to make music and to develop a lifelong appreciation for it. The key is to provide a rich range of developmentally appropriate musical experiences that allow for participation. In a general early childhood classroom, teachers should emphasize fostering a wide and deep appreciation for music, rather than on training children to attain performance-level proficiency.
Here are a few insights, gathered from the NAfME’s website and a range of other parent and teacher resources, about the specific instruments, practices, and activities that can make sharing music with young children especially vibrant and meaningful:
1. Select music literature for the classroom with a focus on quality.
The selection of music literature in an early education music classroom should acquaint children with high quality works of classic status or perennial value. These can include traditional folk tunes, the works of the classical music repertoire, and world music produced by a range of different cultures over time.
2. Look for age-appropriateness.
Professional educators note that it is vitally important to calibrate the types of materials and activities in an early childhood music classroom to children’s developmental age. Children become bored and will not engage if the material is too complicated or goes over their head.
3. Set up for fun.
Teachers can have a container of rhythm instruments, such as maracas, tambourines, shaker eggs, handbells, and other percussion instruments ready for impromptu group music-making. They can also stock a basket with accessories such as scarves, feathers, ribbons, and other things that kids will enjoy swirling, twirling, and dancing with.
If the classroom can accommodate it, a microphone is a great way to instill self-confidence in young performers who love to sing. And a quiet listening corner filled with choices of classical, jazz, and world music recordings can offer young children the opportunity to further expand and refine their musical tastes on a self-directed basis.
4. Add some real instruments.
Teachers, music educators, and parents tend to recommend certain types of instruments as the most appropriate for young children to become acquainted with at home or in the classroom. These include bells, the xylophone, drums, the piano, and the guitar.
5. Sound the bells.
A set of color-coded desk bells can be an easy and fun way for young children to learn about the variety of notes and tones. Their clear, simple tones are easy to distinguish from one another.
Bells are easy to play—there are no keys, strings, or anything else to manipulate. An additional advantage is that a typical set of desk bells is tuned to the C-Major scale. Because young children typically understand color long before they can connect the name of a note to a sound or tone, it’s much easier to teach them that the blue bell sounds a certain note than it is to describe it as the “C” bell.
In addition, bells are far easier to master at a young age than most other instruments, thanks to the fact that a set of desk bells typically consists of no more than eight notes.
6. Beat the drums.
Drums are another favorite with young children, with good reason—they’re simple and easy to understand and to use, and offer the immediate reward of sound. Bongo drums are a good choice for young children’s drums, particularly in the classroom, because of their smaller and more manageable size.
Although they don’t help with the development of pitch, playing drums builds coordination, and the associated sounds and movements help kids acquire a sense of rhythm. Another advantage is the limited number of sounds a drum can make, a factor that introduces a welcome predictability and familiarity for the youngest students.
7. Pound the xylophone.
A color-coded xylophone is a great way to give a young child an appreciation for notes and pitch. Its clear pitch and lengthy, sustained sounds help with pitch recognition. Some xylophones provide a way to remove and rearrange their components, giving a teacher or parent the flexibility to limit a child to only a few notes at a time for instructional purposes.
8. Strum the guitar.
Parents and teachers can purchase small, relatively inexpensive guitars designed especially for young hands. A guitar has the advantage of being portable; a young child can wear it throughout much of the day at home or in the classroom, which allows him or her to make up a song or sing a tune whenever the feeling strikes.
Thanks to the many guitar-playing icons of popular culture, the instrument can also seem “cool” and “grown-up” to a young child. In addition, there’s a wealth of resources available for teaching and making music with this popular instrument.
There are a few potential drawbacks to the guitar, however. It requires a bit more coordination, time, and practice to produce something that sounds like a melody. The notes on a guitar can also be confusing for young children, as there are multiple ways to produce the same note—for example, there are several middle C’s. In contrast, on the piano, there’s only one.
9. Learn the magic of the piano.
A number of music educators recommend the piano as an excellent choice for a first instrument, even for preschoolers. Though more complex than the drums, the piano offers a distinct and organic way of teaching relationships among notes, chords, and types of musical compositions.
The piano also offers an immediate reward, in that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a child’s actions (hitting a key) and the emergence of sound. The instrument can also teach fine motor skills and help a child develop an appreciation for subtle distinctions in pitch.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) points out that there is still no one comprehensive training program for music teachers on the best methods of teaching to students with disabilities and other special needs. Special education teachers may also be concerned about finding the most appropriate and memorable ways of bringing music into their classrooms.
With that in mind, here are a few notes on using music to expand the classroom experience for students with special needs:
1. Extraordinary benefits
Music holds an immense untapped potential to transform the lives of young people with special cognitive and emotional needs. It can build motor skills, social skills, and the ability to communicate with others. Using music as a tool can enrich the life of a child with special needs by making him or her more self-aware, more aware of the world, and better able to understand the people in it. It can serve as an easily accessible bridge from a child’s own inner world to the worlds of others.
Music therapists point out that setting lessons—in any subject—to music makes the material easier for students to process and retain. Music can serve as a motivational tool and a way of keeping track of time. Teachers may find that where other strategies have failed, music may be the key to facilitating communication with students with special needs, particularly those who are non-verbal.
Children with special intellectual or developmental needs sometimes show a gift for music. And, even for students with special needs who don’t show an obvious aptitude for making music, the very presence of music in the classroom can help overall educational progress.
2. A total neurological package
All areas of the human brain, as well as almost all of the human sense organs, receive stimulation from making or listening to music. This translates into music’s capacity to boost cognitive capacities in significant ways.
Because music engages multiple senses at once, it has an instant and powerful effect on both hemispheres of the brain, as well as the entire human nervous system.
Finnish investigators have discovered that simply hearing music stimulates broad swaths of neuro networks, including those that govern the creative process and coordinated movement.
While playing music of any kind, many parts of the brain receive stimulation: the cerebellum, a range of cortexes involved with sensation and movement, the prefrontal region, and the limbic system and its amygdala, which are responsible for responding to and remembering emotions.
3. Enhancing the musical experience
There are a number of resources that can even create customized music for special needs students, assisting them in distinguishing the sounds of spoken language or serving as aids to memorization and learning.
4. The power of percussion
Percussion instruments can be especially meaningful for students with special needs. Drums, shakers, and similar instruments provide an immediate sound in response to a physical activity, which can help sight-impaired students improve their ability to control their own movements and understand the nature of cause and effect.
The ability to touch and feel the shapes and physical textures of a variety of instruments is also beneficial, as is being able to feel the sound vibrations that follow a particular action.
5. A sample rhythm program
NAfME’s website offers some tips on how to build a structured approach to teaching the simple concept of rhythm to students with special needs:
First, start off by, as a group, clapping students’ names. Because our names are so intimately familiar to us, it is an easy way for those with special needs to connect to a beat and a pattern. This type of exercise is doubly valuable in that it reinforces the memorization of classmates’ names as well.
The next step includes using common words and phrases in rhythmic clapping. Words can be topical—tied in with an approaching holiday, for example—or can represent everyday things in students’ worlds. Displaying an image of the word or words is additionally helpful for any students who still may struggle with word recognition.
At this point, teachers can put background music into the mix to support classroom rhythm games.
At the next level, teachers can incorporate the use of color to teach musical notation. Each type of note value can have its own color; for example, blue can indicate a whole note, green a half note, and so on. A posted picture of a word that represents the musical expression, with the color-coded notes beneath it, can provide extra support as students learn to rely only on the notation.
As students become more comfortable with this phase in their learning, the teacher can gradually eliminate the pictures and the color-coding, encouraging students to read the original musical notation without any prompts.
6. Pairing music with visual stimulation
Visual cues are also very helpful for students with special needs learning to remember song lyrics. By fixing images of the words they are singing above the lyrics, teachers can support students in their processing and recall of the new information. Often, adding movement to the singing of lyrics can serve as an additional mnemonic.
7. Giving music its due in education plans
Teachers of children with special needs should ensure that each student’s individualized education plan includes a place for music instruction—and for the joys of creative self-expression that come along with it.
The universality of music as an art form—and as a cultural treasure—has become a cliche. However, as music teachers know, that cliche represents an important truth about the way in which music can expand horizons, facilitate understanding, and contribute to a broader appreciation of the heritages of all the people in the world.
Children who learn that there are others much like themselves who make music, dance, and sing together just as they do, can be a powerful motivator for them to learn more about other cultures. And when they participate in positive programs that introduce them to cultures other than their own, they learn to become more tolerant and accepting of other human beings.
In addition, participation in multicultural musical activities exposes children to a wider variety of sounds, intonations, and rhythms than they would ordinarily experience at home.
Educators point out that the process of teaching children music from a rich variety of cultures should begin in early childhood with an emphasis on broad participation. And any good early childhood music program will typically incorporate rhythmic movement activities and opportunities to develop social skills.
Studies validate multicultural music experiences.
Research has shown that when children hear music from other cultures, they develop the ability to perceive fine distinctions among sounds. This is just the type of experience that helps them to acquire and build on vital early language skills. They also learn the art of listening and increasing their ability to concentrate.
Experts assure anxious parents that hearing music in multiple languages—just as in the case of learning a second language—actually helps young children to improve their primary language skills.
World Music Day honors many traditions.
In fact, there is an entire day dedicated to the celebration of listening to, performing, and enjoying music from all over the world. World Music Day, which is observed in a multitude of ways in numerous countries, occurs on June 21 of each year.
The observance began in France, as Fête de la Musique, in the early 1980s. Since then, it has served as a means of promoting free access to music for everyone in some 700 cities worldwide, and it is supported by organizations such as Musicians Without Borders.
A treasure trove of recorded music.
Teachers and parents who want to focus on offering a multicultural palette of musical experiences can begin with one of the many well-reviewed recordings for children. These include the series published by Putumayo, which provides high-quality CDs of representative musical compositions from a wide range of cultures for children of all ages.
Putumayo’s children’s catalog, which is available online, includes the classroom favorite and Parents’ Choice award-winner World Playground. The label’s other selections include Kids’ African Party, which also offers an aid to learning with a list of instruments and musical genres that are distinctly African.
Other Putumayo titles include Cuban Playground, Italian Playground, and other “Playground” CDs featuring musical styles from New Orleans, Brazil, France, and the Caribbean. The albums are joined by several “Dreamland” collections, featuring multicultural songs suitable for quiet family times.
A classic American performer interprets the music of the world.
Ella Jenkins is a performer beloved by generations of parents and children. Jenkins, an African-American singer and actress, has worked since the 1950s to deliver definitive renditions of a wide range of folk songs for audiences of children. Her albums are available on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Jenkins’ classic Smithsonian Folkways albums include Multi-Cultural Children’s Songs and More Multicultural Children’s Songs. Children can enjoy songs from these albums that teach common greetings in many languages, including Swahili. Other tracks include renditions of beloved songs depicting the cultures of Israel, China, Australia, Germany, and many other nations.
Smithsonian also publishes Jenkins’ early albums Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, which introduces listeners to West African music, and Adventures in Rhythm, which teaches awareness of rhythmic concepts in music from the very basic to the more complex.
A bilingual educator offers multiple ways to learn music.
José-Luis Orozco is another musical artist with an international catalog that spans decades. A teacher with a master’s degree in education, Orozco has made a career of sharing the joys of music in Spanish and English with children and their families. He performs throughout the Americas to promote the value of bilingualism and multicultural understanding.
Orozco’s albums include Caramba Kids, De Colores, Esta es mi tierra/This Land Is Your Land, and numerous others. His website also offers educational kits that can enhance classroom music and cultural programming.
Putting traditional American classics in a global frame.
Another Smithsonian Folkways artist, Elizabeth Mitchell, offers recordings anchored in her early work as a teacher of young children in New York City. Her classes consisted of children who spoke a wide range of languages. Mitchell discovered that music could serve as a bridge among cultures. She has since gone on to immerse herself in the American and world folk music traditions. Her highly accessible albums include You Are My Little Bird, which features interpretations of American Appalachian and other folk melodies appropriate for all ages.
When parents and teachers first think about fiction titles for children on the subject of music, the ones that first come to mind are likely to be picture books. But there are also a wide range of absorbing novels for middle-grade readers, each bringing the world of creating and performing music to life. Here are only a few:
1. The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White
White is better known as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. However, The Trumpet of the Swan is a worthy addition to a young reader’s bookshelf in its own right.
The novel’s protagonist is Louis, a young trumpeter swan that the author named after legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Louis is broken-hearted because he cannot make a sound. He wants to be able to communicate with Serena, a beautiful swan who has won his heart.
When Louis learns to read and write, aided by his friend Sam Beaver, he only confuses his swan friends. But when Louis’ father steals a trumpet for him to play, the young swan shows that he is more than a voice. In this, his final book for children, White conveys the joy of music and the equal joyfulness of self-expression.
Director Richard Rich created a 2001 animated film adaptation of White’s 1970 masterpiece.
2. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
This Newbery Award-winning title also earned a Coretta Scott King Award for its vivid portrayal of the title character, an African-American boy living during the Great Depression. The 10-year-old Bud, whose mother died when he was only six, sets out on a train to find his missing father, as well as to track down the famous jazz musician Herman Calloway. As he learns about his family’s history, Bud also falls deeply in love with the rhythms of jazz.
Curtis’ 1999 book was later turned into a jazz-flavored musical that has delighted young people all over the country in touring performances.
3. Hidden Voices by Pat Lowery Collins
This 2009 historical fiction title for mature young people ages 12 and up is subtitled The Orphan Musicians of Venice. It is the story of three teenage girls who live in an orphanage in the early 18th century.
However, this particular orphanage has built up an extraordinary program of music education, and that theme pervades the book. The three girls all begin their lives searching for love. They find it in their growing devotion to the musical arts under the tutelage of composer Antonio Vivaldi.
But there is danger outside the orphanage walls. Each of the main characters experiences the complexities of life, love, and personal trauma in different ways. The book is a rich depiction of the capacity of rigorous musical study to strengthen the human spirit.
4. Second Fiddle by Rosanne Parry
Parry’s exciting, sensitive 2012 book is a look at the adventures of Jody, a 13-year-old girl in Berlin in 1990 in the wake of the fall of Communist governments across Eastern Europe and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
Jody, a violinist, lives with her family on an American army base. She and her two best friends are the members of an ensemble string trio who hope to perform in a competition in Paris. But their plans are derailed when they are the only ones who can rescue a young Russian soldier who becomes the object of attempted murder.
As the girls try to save the young man by helping him reach Paris, they become embroiled in political intrigue and learn the strengthening and revitalizing power of the art they have chosen.
5. Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
The harmonica is the star of this well-researched and deeply moving novel about musical vocation, identity, courage, and compassion.
Ryan follows the story of a particular harmonica through the lives of multiple children at multiple times and places. Their musical stories touch on the tragedies of the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the prejudices against Mexican migrant laborers in mid-20th century California, and the harsh lives of children in an orphanage. Ryan received a 2016 Newbery Honor Award for the book.
The audiobook version of Ryan’s beautifully-written historical and contemporary fable is made richer with accompanying musical performances.
6. I Am Drums by Mike Grosso
In Grosso’s 2016 book, middle school student Sam not only plays the drums, she lives the drums, hearing the beat even in her sleep. Unfortunately, her parents don’t have the money to support her dreams by buying her a drum set of her own. Additionally, her school loses its music program due to budget cuts.
Sam creates a drum kit out of old magazines and books while coping with her father’s job loss and her parents’ constant arguing and lack of understanding of her passion. Her love of music prompts Sam to test the limits of what she is prepared to do to achieve her goals. She even lies to her family about starting a lawn-mowing venture to earn money.
The author, a music teacher himself, creates a story based on the real dilemmas many kids like Sam face. He establishes reader empathy for his central character, her missteps and successes, and her dream to be a musician.
At the center of today’s symphony orchestra is the string section. The family group of stringed instruments includes the violin, the viola, the cello, and the double bass. This group’s defining features are strings, frets, and bows.
The word “violin” is actually a diminutive term for “viola,” meaning that the instrument descends from the older viol family. The original Italian term for the latter instrument is “viola da braccio,” or “viol for the arm.” Held against the musician’s shoulder, this is the type of viol from which the modern viola developed.
The following are some interesting facts about the always lyrical, expressive, and resonant violin:
1. It came into being during the Middle Ages.
Some experts believe that the introduction of the violin into Europe began with the stringed instruments of Arab-ruled Spain in the early Middle Ages. The instruments of the cultures of the Iberian Peninsula at the time included the rabab and its descendant, the rebec. The latter had three strings, was shaped like a pear, and was often played with its base resting against a seated player’s thigh.
Musicologists consider Central Asia the most likely ultimate origin for the bowed chordophone instruments that began to proliferate throughout Europe and Western Asia by the early Middle Ages. The Polish fiddle may be one of the direct progenitors of the violin.
In addition to the rebec, other medieval instruments that led to the development of the violin included the lira da braccio and the fiddle. The shape of the lira da braccio, in particular, with its arching body and low-relief ribs, prefigured today’s familiar violin.
The lira da braccio’s shallowness of body likely led to the addition of a sound post, a device particular to the violin and later to the viols. The sound post is a small, vertically positioned dividing wall that separates the instrument’s front and back in order to keep the pressures exerted on the strings from causing the belly arch to cave in. Musicologists point out that this sound post contributes to the richness of the violin’s lilting, singing tone, as it harmonizes the workings of the body and strings as a unit.
By the end of the medieval period, a fiddle of a type that would be recognizable today appeared on the scene.
2. The Amati family refined the violin during the Renaissance.
According to paintings of the time, violins with three strings were being played by at least the early 16th century. Lute-maker Andrea Amati of Cremona in Italy produced several violins with three strings at about this time. At about the middle of the 1500s, violins with top E-strings had appeared. It was then that the cello—or “violoncello”—and viola also branched out of the viol family.
Bowed instruments developed further in tandem with the Renaissance, particularly in Italy, with the Amati family being the most famous violin-makers of the 16th and early 17th centuries. The Amatis’ great innovation was the development of the thinner, flatter, violin body that produced a particularly appealing sound in the soprano register.
3. Stradivari established impeccable standards.
While the Amatis played a major role in standardizing the general size and proportions of the stringed instruments we know today, one of their apprentices, Antonio Stradivari, would carry forward and expand on their technical skills. By the late 1600s, Stradivari had created a wholesale alteration in violin proportions through elongating the instrument. His now-standard form for its bridge and general proportions has rendered it capable of producing sounds of extraordinary power and range.
At one time, it was believed that Stradivari’s violins drew their range and depth of tone from the secret formula he used for their varnish. No one, then or now, has ever figured out that formula.
Today’s music historians note that the distinct sound of Stradivari’s violins most likely derived from the quality of the vibration facilitated by thicker wooden top and rear plates, as well as from the configuration of miniscule pores in the wood. However, many experts additionally point out that the master’s varnish did indeed contribute to the overall quality of the sound.
4. Virtuosity became the goal for violinists in the 19th century.
Into the 1800s, violin-makers continued to try new ways to construct the instrument and refine its proportions, angles, and arches. At this time, the repertoire for solo and accompanied violin began to require high levels of skill and dexterity, and violinists such as Niccolò Paganini became known for executing tremendously complex passages. Paganini, who cultivated the image of the composer-musician as a wild Romantic, amassed an enormous and devoted fan following in his day.
Such virtuosity was further enhanced when Louis Spohr invented the chin rest sometime around 1820, thus enabling a player to more comfortably hold and manipulate the instrument. The addition of a shoulder rest additionally contributed to this ease of handling.
5. There are many modern-day virtuosos.
A number of 20th- and 21st-century players have rivaled Paganini in skill and popularity. Among these are the child prodigy and older grandmaster Yehudi Menuhin, who died in 1999 at age 82. Menuhin’s technical proficiency dazzled audiences, and he became known for his championing of contemporary composers such Béla Bartók.
Itzhak Perlman, born in 1945, remains one of the world’s finest living violinists, known for his focus on detail. While still in his teens, Perlman made his debut at Carnegie Hall. A Grammy Award winner for lifetime achievement, he has since played with jazz and klezmer groups, and performed music for motion pictures. In addition to his work as a conductor, he has also served as a teacher of gifted young musicians.
6.Today, the violin encompasses a mosaic of musical cultures.
Like Perlman, today’s violinists perform not only classical music, but also an entire world of country, bluegrass, folk, rock, and world music. Throughout North Africa, Greece, the Arab world, and the southern part of India, the violin and viola continue to be very popular. The Roma have a long tradition of using the violin in communal music-making, as do the Jews through the tradition of klezmer. The violin remains widely used in American and European folk compositions as well.