Choral music has held a revered and beloved place in human societies since the beginning of recorded history. From medieval times to today’s children’s choirs, here are four things you need to know about choral music:
1. Choral music has its roots in religious music.
Most of today’s choral singing groups can trace the roots of their practices back to sacred music. The most popular example is probably the Gregorian chant that was a familiar part of medieval church services.
In Gregorian chant, groups of monks would participate together in singing the various passages of sacred music. The conscious blending of their individual voices created the powerful sound of a single musical presence. It still serves as the model for much modern-day choral music.
Gregorian chant, a form of the monophonic “plainsong” or “plain chant,” accompanied the recitation of the mass and the divine office of the canonical hours. It derives its name from the fact that it developed during the rule of Pope (later Saint) Gregory I, at the turn of the 7th century of the Common Era.
The development of polyphony, the use of more than one voice or tone heard in a composition, brought composers the opportunity to expand on the range and types of compositions they wrote. When creating contrasting vocal parts, composers often drew on the talents of young boy sopranos to sing the contrasting trouble notes. This is because during this period in history, women’s voices were often forbidden in public performance.
2. Choral music eventually found a secular audience and begin to include lyrics and instruments.
As religious reformation and social secularization progressed, audiences outside sacred spaces enjoyed greater opportunities to hear choral music in performance. Once it flowed outside the monasteries and into the streets, its composers experienced greater creative freedom. They began to abandon the formalized structures common to sacred choral music, and to add instruments into the mix.
Composers also began to bring in human voices singing in chorus to enhance and add texture to familiar types of instrumental pieces. The addition of words enabled composers of instrumental music to address their audiences in new ways.
The Baroque period saw Italian composer and singer Claudio Monteverdi creating “polychoral” sacred pieces with multiple choirs and increasing numbers of instruments. The 16th and 17th century choral tradition also included the development of numerous motets, a form that evolved during the Middle Ages into a variety of types of religious and secular compositions.
3. Choral music was integrated into the oratorio and symphonic traditions.
The oratorio, a larger composition for orchestra, chorus, and soloists and typically based on stories from scripture, was born as composers expanded on the form of the motet. The oratorio form reached its apogee during the 1600s. The German composer George Frideric Handel, who worked extensively in England, perfected this type of music. Handel became, in fact, the father of the particularly English style of oratorio.
One exceptional 19th-century example of the integration of choral music into the symphony is the “Ode to Joy” sequence of the 1824 Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. The large-scale choir’s singing of text by the lyric poet Friedrich Schiller lifts the mood into a soaring affirmation of humanity’s potential.
For many lovers of classical music, Gustav Mahler’s use of choral performance in his titanic symphonies represents the pinnacle of the form. Mahler’s Second “Resurrection” Symphony, as well as his Third and his Eighth, offer powerful musical interpretations of the nature of love, life, and fate enhanced by the voices of their choruses.
The Austrian composer, whose creative period straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, became known for his thundering, multi-layered sound. His Eighth Symphony earned the title of “Symphony of a Thousand” thanks to its gargantuan cast of voices and instruments. It is written for performance by a massive orchestra, a double chorus, a boys’ choir, and eight single solo voices.
4. Today, children's choral groups continue to delight performers and audience members alike.
Today, choral music in the United States continues to flourish, performed by a wide range of ensembles of all ages. Children’s choruses offer opportunities for young people to engage with music education, learn performance skills, and develop friendships based on a common commitment to creative work.
The Children’s Chorus of Washington is one group that represents the nation’s capital. Over the past 24 years, it has provided choral training and experiences to 2,500 youth and toured internationally.
The Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas is a mosaic of six individual groups of some 450 singers total. Under the auspices of the Deloitte Concert Series, it performs seasonal concerts at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.
The Boston Children’s Chorus is composed of about 500 students from all over the greater Boston area. Almost half of them live in the city of Boston.
Children’s choruses typically hold auditions at designated times of year, and work hard to open opportunities to as many talented young people as possible. The BCC’s students, like those in Washington DC, Dallas, and many more communities around the country, are eligible to receive need-based scholarships to support their participation. In fact, about 80 percent of the BCC’s performers attend its musicianship programs on scholarship.
When students of any age are learning about music, they will find their studies enriched by learning about the history of different musical forms. The following survey of medieval Western music can serve as one doorway into this topic for young musicians, as well as for adult learners interested in the musical history of Europe.
Defining an era beyond the stereotypes
The stereotypical view of anything “medieval” conjures up images of dank, fusty monasteries, brutal warfare, and stagnation in the arts and sciences. However, this is far from the truth. The Middle Ages in Western Europe were years of great creativity in the arts, sciences, and exploration.
Authorities differ on which time span precisely defines the Middle Ages. The most generous reckoning begins the period at the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century and ends it in the late 15th century AD.
A world centered on prayer
The medieval period was characterized by the central place of liturgical music as both high art and a daily companion for the nobility and common people alike.
The practice of singing psalms and setting prayer to music dates back much earlier than the Middle Ages, into the beginnings of human history. While much of this ancient religious music was performed a cappella, instruments often lent their voices to the mix, enhancing the sound.
The medieval Christian church took many of its cues from ancient Jewish sacred music, in forbidding the participation of women’s voices after the late sixth century AD and limiting or curtailing instrumentation.
In the church, mass was the chief occasion for the performance of this music, sung by priest, congregation, and choir. The choir typically filled an “answering” function, responding to the themes of the main part sung by the priest.
The human voice as instrument
The long tradition of prayer through song reached a pinnacle in the development of Gregorian chant, a variety of plainchant, during the ninth century AD. Gregorian chant is still often used today in Catholic ritual. This style of plainchant puts the religious text at the heart of the composition. The human voice is the only instrument used.
The music of Gregorian chant is described as monophonic—it consists of one melody, sung in unison. The chant serves to frame the words of the prayers, rather than to overpower them. The majority of Gregorian chants originate in the Latin Vulgate, the version of the Bible in widespread use in medieval Europe.
Although most Catholic congregations today celebrate mass in the community's vernacular language, traditional Gregorian chant holds an honored place, both esthetically and liturgically, in modern Catholic culture. Its popularity with both religious and secular audiences is attested by the many recordings now available.
Hildegard von Bingen – a composer of mystic devotion
Hildegard von Bingen, later Saint Hildegard, was born in Germany at the close of the 11th century and died near the end of the 12th. This abbess, mystic, and prophetic visionary is considered one of the first and most talented female composers. Her monophonic works are characterized by soaring lyricism and a deeply felt spirituality.
St. Hildegard set dozens of her own poems to music, assembling them into a collection entitled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. She was also a scholar who wrote widely on science and medicine and traveled as an itinerant preacher.
Numerous musical ensembles have produced recordings of St. Hildegard’s surviving compositions in recent years, and contemporary audiences continue to find them musically and spiritually rewarding. Contemporary collections of her music have titles that reflect her mysticism: Canticle of Ecstasy, Music for Paradise, and A Feather on the Breath of God are only a few examples.
Moniot d’Arras – exemplar of the trouvère esthetic
One enduring tradition that flourished particularly in the later Middle Ages was that of the secular romantic balladeers and traveling entertainers known as troubadours and trouvères. Lutes, citterns, and other stringed instruments frequently accompanied these musicians' compositions, although their vocals often stood alone.
The city of Arras, France, in northern France was noted as a center of the delicate and refined trouvère style. The trouvères’ style evolved roughly in tandem with that of the troubadours, although the trouvères typically composed lyrics in their northern French dialect, and the troubadours drew from the vernacular native to southern France, the langue d’Oc.
One monk, Moniot d’Arras, earned widespread recognition as a composer in the early 13th century. While much of his output was focused on liturgy, many other pieces extol the culture of chivalry and courtly love between a nobleman and his lady. These were often the main subjects of troubadour and trouvère compositions.
The sacred and the secular
The traditions of the troubadours and trouvères were part of the larger growth of non-sacred medieval music from about the 13th century onward. The ballade, the rondeau, and the virelai were the three leading types of secular compositions in France at this time.
Guillaume de Machaut – lyricist supreme
Guillaume de Machaut, considered today one of the towering figures of medieval European music, was born at the beginning of the 14th century and is thought to have lived well into his 70s. He wrote in both French and Latin.
Machaut composed one of the first polyphonic treatments of the mass, a development moving away from the monophonic plainchants. Polyphonic music features two or more independent melodies. Machaut's dozens of motets demonstrate the full flowering of this type of music.
In 1337, Machaut became the canon of the cathedral at Reims. He wrote poems and musical compositions, with experts today viewing him as a master lyricist and versifier working in the then-current Ars Nova (polyphonic) style. Machaut also used and reworked the courtly love theme, creating beautifully constructed poems that blend technical virtuosity with lyricism.
A large number of researchers believe that, for people of any age, listening to music while performing tasks at home, work, and school can have a beneficial effect on learning, productivity, and satisfaction. Here are a few facts about this effect:
1. Music improves productivity when working on repetitive tasks.
One team at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom found that playing background music while engaging in repetitive tasks—think spreadsheets, counting objects, and reading email—not only makes time go by more pleasantly, it serves to boost productivity. The authors of the study note that this held true for their test subjects even when they were in the midst of a considerable amount of ambient industrial noise.
2. Music is most effective when it is considered pleasant or neutral by the listener.
A University of Miami music therapy professor discovered that when people hear music that they personally find enjoyable, they tend to start feeling better. Her test subjects—people who worked in information technology—reported finishing their assignments more quickly when listening to music they liked. Additionally, she discovered that the elevation in mood her subjects experienced propelled them on to come up with better ideas and insights related to their tasks.
She concluded that personal choice regarding musical selections is extremely important to the effectiveness of that music in heightening mood and productivity. She went on to observe that over-stressed individuals tend to come to over-hasty conclusions about work tasks. On the other hand, individuals who were able to select their own music could see multiple possible solutions to a problem.
Some investigators have discovered, however, that music we neither strongly like, nor strongly dislike, may be best for workplace productivity. A group of Taiwanese researchers at Fu Jen Catholic University found that extreme reactions—positive and negative—to music made it more difficult to maintain concentration.
3. Music triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.
Biology tells us that the act of listening to music we enjoy releases hormones called dopamine into the brain’s reward center. This is the same reaction we experience when we look at a beautiful scene, drink in the scent of a rose, or eat a delicious meal. One physician at the Mayo Clinic who has studied the way people at work gain focus from listening to music notes that it takes less than an hour a day to achieve the mood-lifting and mind-opening benefits.
4. Music is most effective at increasing productivity when it is instrumental.
One point seems to be consistent across a variety of research studies: the best music for concentration and productivity is wordless. Words that we can understand tend to distract the brain, since they pull us in the direction of trying to make sense of them.
One study found that almost half of office employees in the test group were distracted by human speech. Trying to tune out the background noise of others’ voices won’t work if the music has lyrics. It will merely cause the brain to shift its focus.
5. The tempo of Baroque music may facilitate concentration and learning.
The tempo of a piece of music has a strong impact on how well it facilitates concentration. Numerous studies have shown that music from the Baroque period in particular—think Bach, Vivaldi, Georg Telemann, Henry Purcell, and Jean-Philippe Rameau—aids learning and concentration, which contributes to longer-term retention of new information.
In fact, authors Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder wrote the book Superlearning 2000, an update to their earlier title Superlearning, to further outline exactly how to use the steady, even beats of Baroque music to learn foreign languages, new vocabulary, and a host of other facts, figures, and real-world skills. Fans of the Super-Learning books say that the techniques and helpful resources the authors offer have helped them speed up their learning, recall much more of what they have read, and fully engage both hemispheres of their brains.
Ostrander and Schroeder, who began putting the book together in the 1970s, drew on then-revolutionary research by top psychologists and neurologists. These scientists had discovered that listening to Baroque music in particular was capable of increasing the powers of a person’s concentration and memory. They posited that this was the result of the regular mathematical formulas that lie at the heart of the Baroque tempo.
6. Baroque music may facilitate the production of alpha waves in the brain.
The 50- to 80-beat-per-minute tempo of Baroque, researchers have learned, is comparable to an adult’s resting heart rate. This makes it ideal for stimulating the production of alpha waves in the brain. These alpha waves are known for inducing a mood of deep but focused relaxation.
When human beings are in an alpha state—with their brain waves’ frequency measuring from 9 to 14 hertz, or cycles per second—they are far from being passive or inattentive. A person in an alpha state is calm but alert, and is extremely receptive to taking in and processing new information.
Most of our daily lives are spent in the active beta state, with brain waves of between 15 and 40 cycles per second. This means the alpha state represents a significant reduction in our normal rhythms, giving us more time and space to notice things we may not have noticed before.
Most experts date the Baroque period in classical music from about 1600 to 1750, putting it between the polyphony of the Renaissance and the era of Classicism (the period after the mid-18th century distinguished by the works of composers such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert).
Compositions from the Baroque period are typically marked by their grandiosity and drama as well as the numerous ways in which composers used the technique of counterpoint to express musical themes and ideas.
Developments in the music of this period parallel those in the other arts—for example, massive and ornate buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Caserta Royal Palace in Rome. Venetian Baroque-era churches, built with two opposing galleries, were ideal for the performances of two ensembles of musicians playing at the same time.
A complex form
The concept of two voices or groupings in contrast with one another is a central idea in Baroque composition. Concertos (known in Italian as concerti grossi) featured a solo instrument or voice playing or singing along with a full orchestra. They were a favorite among Baroque composers.
Baroque music tends to emphasize a bass line set against a melody. A cello, for example, might deliver the bass, while a vocalist sings a melody.
The technique of counterpoint is central to the development and performance of Baroque music.
Simply put, counterpoint is the art of combination. A composer working with counterpoint will juxtapose two or more separate melodic lines in a single composition. In counterpoint, individual melodic lines are known as “parts” or “voices.” Each part or voice has a distinct melody.
The term “counterpoint” is sometimes incorrectly conflated with polyphony. Polyphony refers to the presence of at least two individual melodic lines in a composition. Although counterpoint evolved out of polyphonic music, counterpoint is a much more complicated technique. True counterpoint involves a complex handling of the several melodic lines of a composition to fashion an acoustically and emotionally meaningful and harmonious whole.
The organ and the harpsichord are perhaps the instruments audiences most acquaint with Baroque music. During the Baroque period, these instruments offered two keyboards, allowing the musician to transfer from one to the other to create the rich blending of the contrasting sounds.
A centuries-old technique that continues
Composers of the Classical period were usually steeped in the techniques of Baroque composition from their early years. Some, like Mozart and Beethoven, would go on to employ counterpoint extensively in their own later works, written well into the Classical era.
Counterpoint continues to find favor today among musicians, composers, and even mathematicians, who have devoted much effort to explaining its symmetry and intricacy in terms of numerical relationships.
The supreme artistry of Bach
Numerous critics and teachers have found the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach to represent a pinnacle of the development of the concerto grosso form, and of the Baroque style itself.
Bach created these works over the span of the second decade of the 18th century, one of the happiest periods of his life. The six compositions masterfully weave together the component threads played by a smaller orchestra and by several solo groups.
Music scholars point out that the scale of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 features so many soloists that it is more of a symphony than a concerto, in fact. Bach brought in oboes, horns, a bassoon, and a solo violin. And the third of these concertos features performances from no fewer than three cellos, three violas, and three violins. Unique among these concerti, Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 features not even a single violin; instead, it focuses on lower-voiced string instruments.
Three centuries after their composition, the rich-toned, lilting Brandenburg Concertos remain among the most popular and beloved works in the classical repertoire.
The art of fugue
Bach was a master of the fugue, and many musicologists revere his late work The Art of Fugue as one of his most significant creations.
A fugue is a piece of music—or a part of a larger composition—that offers finely tuned and mathematically pleasing use of a central theme (the "subject") and numerous restatements and reconfigurations of that theme. In a fugue, the subject is taken up by other parts that are successively woven together.
A fugue begins with an exposition, introducing the listener to the central subject. The subject then plays out in different parts, becoming transposed into various keys that serve as “answers” to the essential statement of the subject. A fugue can unfold over as many statements, restatements, and key changes as the composer would like, and can be as short or as long as desired, as well.
Baroque composers worth knowing
Gramophone magazine, one of the world’s premier authorities in classical music criticism, recently put out its 2019 edition of the Top 10 Baroque composers.
Bach heads the list, with the Gramophone team noting that he continues to enjoy a status in music equivalent to that of Shakespeare in literature or da Vinci in the visual arts. The publication particularly recommends Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as a supreme example of his musicianship and of the Baroque style.
Next comes Antonio Vivaldi, whose lavish, ornate compositions echo the culture of his native Venice at the time. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is perhaps the best known of his works today. This lilting, exuberant hymn to the beauty of earth’s changing seasons is known for its exquisite craftsmanship.
George Frideric Handel’s lively, upbeat Baroque compositions are other essentials for anyone becoming familiar with the era. His towering oratorio Messiah remains a not-to-be-missed composition for both music lovers and those devoted to the Christian faith.
The experts at Gramophone additionally nominate English composer Henry Purcell, composer of Dido and Aeneas and other operas, to this select group. Claudio Monteverdi, remembered as a bridge between Renaissance polyphony and the early Baroque style, also made the list, as did Domenico Scarlatti, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Georg Philipp Telemann, Arcangelo Corelli, and Heinrich Schutz.
Teaching the basics of music doesn’t always have to take place in school. While formal music education programs are vital for giving children an appreciation of music as one of the quintessential human activities—and are certainly needed when children hope to pursue a musical career—parents and families can provide numerous informal opportunities to develop their children’s musical gifts.
Music has an innate and immediate appeal to almost all children, so get creative and make it one of the focal points in your family life. The following suggestions, advocated by a variety of music teachers and family educators, can help point you in the right direction:
Turn “trash” into treasure.
Use ordinary items found around your home, office, or yard to produce interesting and captivating sounds.
For example, you can start an entire percussion section with a few kitchen and garden tools: Pots and pans, lids, watering cans, metal or wooden spoons, empty jugs, unbreakable bowls, water glasses, and other items can produce a wide variety of tones. Try banging the sturdier items together, or beat them with spoons or ladles to make an impromptu drum set.
Fill a series of glasses with different levels of water and gently strike them with a spoon. This latter activity is a wonderful chance to create your own STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) lesson, as you and your child see firsthand how the amount of water in a glass affects the speed at which sound waves travel and therefore the pitch of the resulting sound.
Other items that can produce a variety of sounds for your child’s enjoyment include that bubble wrap you were about to throw away, pens and pencils, or even crumpled-up newspaper or wrapping paper.
Making his or her own musical instruments together with adults can add to the fun of a child’s musical education. In addition, reusing items that you would have thrown away can help your family gain a greater appreciation of the need for recycling and purposeful spending.
Numerous websites, put together by parents and teachers, offer lively selections of ideas and directions for making a rich array of simple instruments. An old box that may once have held tissue paper can be fitted with rubber bands to fashion a simple guitar. Plastic Easter eggs can be decorated and filled with dry rice, beans, or peas to become wonderful shaker instruments. A paper plate with jingle bells attached to it with string becomes a tambourine. And balloon skins stretched over the tops of a series of tin cans can become an exceptional set of drums.
After you create your own instruments, practice them together. See how many sounds you can coax them to produce, and even try writing and performing a musical composition using only the instruments you have made. Experiment together while emphasizing to your child that improvisation and exploration are more important than “perfection.”
Connect with real musical instruments.
If you can buy or borrow real musical instruments, bring them into your home whenever possible. Young children are likely to be especially tactile, so let them experience what a drum set, a clarinet, or a flute feels like in their hands. A visit to a local museum that has a music exhibit, or to a music store or university music department, can also provide this experience.
Investigate whether your community offers musical instrument lending libraries, which are designed to provide access to music education for all people, regardless of income. Such libraries are available in some locations in the United States, but residents of Canada are especially fortunate.
Toronto, for example, recently initiated a musical instrument lending program through its public library system. Library patrons can check out violins, guitars, drums, and other instruments, free of charge.
Bring live and recorded music from as many cultures and time periods as possible into your home. Practice your listening skills, and see if you and your child can recognize the sounds of the different instruments in a composition. Encourage your child to catch the beat by clapping, tapping a foot, or creating a dance in time with the music.
Hit the books.
Bring home a variety of music-themed books, including picture storybook classics like Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin, written by Lloyd Moss and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman; or The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, with pictures by Marc Simont.
Older children will also find plenty of music-themed fiction in titles such as Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis and The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White.
Your local bookstore or public library will likely offer all of these, and many others, as well as informational books about music and biographies of great musicians.
Unite music and art.
You can also look for coloring books that feature images of musical instruments or music performances. Additionally, a simple internet search using the keywords “musical instruments” and “coloring pages” will yield many free images to download and print for your child to decorate. Creating visual representations of musical instruments and concepts will provide a multi-sensory experience that can deepen your child’s connection to the related art of music.
At Music Training Center (MTC) in Philadelphia, children can take lessons in music and voice training. They can also participate in an a cappella vocal ensemble, Rock Band classes, or a number of high-quality musical theater productions. Over the years, Music Training Center has nurtured the talents of a number of promising young musicians and performers.
The musical theater component is one of the organization’s signature programs. Kids in the upper elementary, middle school, and early high school grades can participate in its Main Stage musical production. Younger kids work on their own Junior Stage and Mini Stage productions. Popular musicals serve as an excellent way to engage kids with learning the basics of musical theater stagecraft.
Experts in the performing arts have noted musical theater’s ability to develop a wide range of essential talents and skills in children who are considering making any branch of acting or performing a lifelong career. Further, musical theater training can lay the foundation for the kind of self-confidence, physical and mental stamina and agility, and personal presentation skills that will enhance a young person’s performance in any other type of career later on.
There are many reasons to encourage your child to participate in musical theater. Here are four:
1. Musical theater programs are available throughout the country
The MTC program is only one of many across the country that focus, either year-round or as a special summer experience, on the wealth of benefits that participation in a musical theater production can provide for children.
The Performers Theatre Workshop in New Jersey, the Music Institute of Chicago, and San Francisco Children’s Musical Theater are only a few more examples of organizations that offer this kind of vibrant and engaging—and potentially life-changing—programming.
2. Musical theater helps teach movement, communication, and confidence.
For example, kids who participate in musical theater training learn a whole set of movement skills. These skills can improve coordination, kinetic awareness, and overall fitness. In addition, training the voice to perform songs in a musical theater production tends to strengthen the vocal chords. They also benefit the performer’s overall voice presentation. This is a helpful tool for leaders and communicators in any field.
Experts in teaching musical theater additionally point out that confidence is among the main takeaways from participation for many kids. Musical theater can take performers far beyond their familiar comfort zones. A student who primarily views herself as an actor might be asked to sing in a particular production. Another who thinks of himself only as a dancer might be called on to learn and speak lines of dialogue to convey an emotional experience.
These activities might at first give young performers a case of nerves. Ultimately, however, this type of multifaceted training can open doors onto new ideas, build new skills, and create a sense of accomplishment in ways that stay meaningful over a lifetime.
3. Musical theater boosts self-esteem.
One dissertation-related study, published in 2017 under the auspices of Concordia University-Portland, found that music and theater studies, individually, offer enormous potential. They can help middle school students develop their self-esteem and their scholastic achievement.
The study goes even further by exploring the ways in which the combination of the two subjects in musical theater can lift up middle school students’ sense of self-worth and facilitate their achievement in a number of ways.
In this particular study, about a dozen suburban private school students in Minnesota took part in staging a musical theater event. The researcher used direct observation, interviews, school records, and Likert scale surveys to gauge the degree to which the students engaged in a positive or negative way with the experience.
The study concluded that if a student came into the production with already-high levels of self-esteem, he or she did not experience an additional boost of self-esteem from participation. On the other hand, if a student had a lower level of self-esteem before the production, he or she was more likely to develop more openness to being flexible and taking on novel tasks during the course of the production. These students also showed increased comfort with the process of change during the production.
4. Musical theater is fun!
One remaining important aspect of performing in musical theater: it's fun. Kids of all ages enjoy meeting familiar or intriguing characters from movies, books, or TV shows translated onto the stage.
When they take on the personas of these characters themselves, they can find creative new ways to express themselves. They can also deepen their awareness of their own emotions and let their imaginations take them on new adventures.
Can the study of music, or a program of music therapy, help children struggling with emotional or behavioral disorders? A growing number of experts say it can.
Emotional disorders in children and adolescents can have a number of negative or potentially dangerous consequences. These can include a chronic lack of academic success, aggression against peers, isolation from others, substance abuse, running away from home, and even violence against oneself or others.
Children with emotional and behavioral disorders may have extremely limited functioning in one or more areas. This can prevent them from engaging in a healthy way with their families, schools, or communities.
A comprehensive plan of general psychological or psychiatric therapy is likely to be the lynchpin of any successful program to treat these conditions. However, such a plan can be enhanced considerably by the incorporation of music.
Music can help in a variety of ways.
Music therapy can improve a child’s self-image, and can help him or her develop much-needed self-esteem and a clearer and stronger personal identity. For any child or teen who has experienced abuse, this type of therapy has the potential to promote positive new attitudes about themselves and their worth.
Recent research has demonstrated the capacity of music therapy to help in several specific ways in working with children with emotional disorders. These involve the regulation of the child’s own emotions, developing communication skills, and addressing challenges with social functioning.
Music therapy has proven extremely useful in decreasing children’s levels of anxiety and developing their ability to be emotionally responsive. Young people who have difficulty controlling their impulsivity have also been helped by music therapy.
In fact, a carefully structured and appropriately repetitive series of experiences that engage multiple senses, presented within a context of acceptance and support, can be of immense value in a variety of clinical settings. Some research has even suggested that the use of music can even produce a sense of relaxation that leads to improved performance on a range of assessment metrics.
Music fosters positive social interactions.
The use of music in therapy provides young people with a topic of conversation. This makes it an excellent starting point for establishing comfort within a social group and for fostering healthy self-expression.
Music can help a child experiencing social challenges to gain greater awareness of the presence and feelings of others. It can also facilitate greater levels of cooperation with peers and adults. Children who participate in music therapy have also shown a decreased level of disruptive incidents as reported in psychological studies.
Music’s value as a social harmonizer in the general classroom becomes especially important when working with children with emotional and behavioral dysfunction. This is because it can help establish a positive atmosphere and encourage the development of cooperative skills. Experts point out that, once such a foundation is laid, it can be used to build a child’s social skills out still farther.
Music teaches new skills and builds confidence.
At least one researcher in this field has reported that a series of carefully-structured experiences with music, supported by targeted and easily understood reinforcement, enabled children labeled “delinquent” to gain a positive self-concept.
In one study, a 12-year-old with significant behavioral issues who learned to play the piano gained constructive new communication skills, made measurably fewer negative statements about themselves, and showed notable motivation to continue learning music.
Music improves verbal and nonverbal communication skills.
Songwriting, or communicating through the lyrics of a song, can offer a non-threatening means of communication. For many children with emotional difficulties, speaking through lyrics makes self-expression much easier.
Music also has an appeal beyond the realm of the verbal. This makes it an ideal tool for connecting with young people who may be hard to reach, who may themselves be non-verbal, or who may feel threatened by engaging in direct, one-to-one conversation.
One perhaps underappreciated benefit of music therapy as a non-verbal means of communication is that it is nonthreatening. When listening to music, a child may feel they have a safe space in which to engage with emotional issues that might otherwise feel too complex or unsettling to confront. A skilled music therapy practitioner can even tailor-make a program to assist a child in coping with overwhelming emotions such as grief, anger, or trauma.
Experts point out that for many young people with serious emotional issues, music can become both an outlet for expression as well as a core therapeutic component. For many children in this population, it serves as an effective way for them to establish communication channels with therapists, parents, teachers, and peers.
Music has significant short-term gains.
In a study based in Northern Ireland, a cohort of some 250 school-age children and teens exhibiting a range of emotional and behavioral challenges were divided into two groups. One received treatment via music therapy. The other received the current standard of care. More than half the total cohort had exhibited significant levels of anxiety.
The young people who participated in the music therapy program explored improvisation and music creation through singing, movement, and playing musical instruments. The therapist worked with the youth for half an hour at a time, for 12 weeks total. Through these sessions, the therapist was able to contextualize the experience and provide a supportive atmosphere with the ultimate goal of improving communication and social skills.
The study showed that, in the short term, the group that received music therapy showed decreased levels of depression and increased feelings of self-esteem. Communication skills appeared unchanged.
Longer follow-up studies showed that the improvement in other areas eventually dropped off. The conclusion: at least on a short-term basis, music therapy may be helpful for young people with a range of behavioral and emotional challenges.
Zoltán Kodály ranks among the foremost music educators of all time. He was born in what is now Hungary in 1882, and, well before his death in 1967, had earned an international reputation as a composer of highly original pieces, a scholar of folk music, and the originator of the method of music instruction that continues to bear his name.
The Kodály Method has become widely known among music educators for its dynamic, interactive, and movement-oriented approach to instruction for children. It incorporates a set of proven techniques that foster the unfolding of a child’s natural gift for musicianship. The approach, which focuses on creativity and expressiveness, has demonstrated its relationship to the traditional ear-training method.
During Kodály’s lifetime, his influence was felt throughout Europe and the world as an instructor who taught numerous teachers, and his method continues to be popular today.
A young composer and teacher finds his vocation.
In his youth, Kodály studied the piano, cello, and violin. When he was in his teens, his school orchestra performed several of his compositions.
In 1900, he enrolled at the University of Sciences, located in Budapest, and became a student of contemporary languages and philosophy. He went on to study composition at Budapest University, but before graduating, he spent a year criss-crossing Hungary on a search for sources of traditional folk songs. He then centered his university thesis on the structural properties of Hungarian folk songs.
Shortly after graduating in 1907, Kodály accepted a position in Budapest teaching the theory and composition of music at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. He would remain on the school’s faculty for 34 years. Even after retiring, he returned to the school in 1945 to serve as a director. His dedication was driven by a desire to preserve his country’s musical culture, particularly in light of the unrest that characterized its political scene in his time.
Before he entered into his duties at the Liszt Academy, Kodály met fellow Hungarian composer and folk music collector Béla Bartók. Together they published, over a span of 15 years, a folk song series based on their research. The series became the core of Hungary’s authoritative corpus of popular music.
A 20th century master of styles.
Kodály’s own style as a composer was anchored in the folk music that he loved and had a richly Romantic tone, while incorporating classical, modernist, and impressionistic techniques, as well.
His best-known works include a concerto for orchestra, chamber pieces, a comic opera, groups of Hungarian dances, and the 1923 work Psalmus Hungaricus, which was created to honor the 50-year anniversary of the fusion of Buda and Pest into a single city. The piece brought him international fame and conferred upon him the mantle of musical spokesman for the culture of his country.
As both a scholarly writer and musician, Kodály in his later years penned numerous books and articles on Hungarian folk songs.
An evolving method.
One story, perhaps apocryphal, has it that Kodály was so disappointed when he heard a group of schoolchildren perform a traditional song that he decided to improve the state of Hungarian music instruction himself.
Kodály put nearly as much emphasis on developing his music education program as on his own creative works of composition. His interest in the issue of music teaching was intense, and he produced a variety of educational publications designed to expand the horizons of teachers.
Kodály thought that music was among the vital subjects that should be required in all systems of primary instruction. He further stipulated that it be presented in a sequential framework, with one step logically leading to the next.
He believed that students should enjoy learning music, that the human voice is the premier musical instrument, and that the most accessible teaching method incorporates folk songs in a child’s original language.
Kodály himself was primarily the originator of his eponymous method, generating numerous ideas and principles that now form the basis of its core teachings, as used in classrooms today. However, it was left to the Hungarian teachers that he trained and inspired to fully develop it over time, often under his direct guidance.
The Kodály Method serves as a comprehensive system of training musicians in the reading and writing of musical notation, as well as the acquisition of basic skills. In doing so, it draws upon proven techniques in the field of music instruction. It is also in itself a philosophy of musical development that emphasizes the experiences of each learner.
The importance of the human voice.
One of the basic principles of the method is singing, which Kodály himself viewed as the core of his system. The Kodály Method stresses that, first, a child should learn to love music for the sheer fact that it is a sound made by other human beings, and one that makes life richer and happier.
Teachers of the method also emphasize the human voice as the one musical instrument accessible to most people around the world as a common means of expression.
One reason why singing has such a central role in the method is the idea that the music one creates by oneself is better retained and provides a greater feeling of pride and personal accomplishment. The Kodály Method therefore places singing—and reading music—ahead of any sort of training on an instrument. Kodály also believed that singing was the best means of training the inner musical ear.
The content of any classroom based on the Kodály Method will consist largely of folk songs from a child’s own heritage, as well as those of other cultures. Classic childhood rhymes and games will also be included, as will pieces of great music produced in any time and place.
Continuing the work.
Since 2005, the Liszt Academy has hosted the Kodály Institute, which provides advanced-level music education training for teachers, based on the Kodály Method. The institute works as the guiding force for the entire set of music instruction programs of the academy.
In addition to its teacher-training programs, the institute offers the International Kodály Seminar every two years. Participation in the seminar is open to music teachers around the world and coincides with an international festival of music.
The next seminar is scheduled to take place in July 2019. For more information, visit Kodaly.hu.
Folk songs in the classroom offer numerous ways to build a strong and engaging music curriculum.
Recent surveys by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) show that its members are in near-unanimity in favor of teaching American heritage folk songs as a major part of the music curriculum.
Zoltán Kodály, an early 20th-century Hungarian musicologist and music educator, held folk songs in the highest esteem as musical teaching tools. Today, teachers around the world make use of folk songs either through lessons based on the Kodály method or informally, as a means of enhancing the music curriculum and the study of other subjects.
At the heart of the Kodály method is instruction in singing, movement, and playing musical instruments, with folk songs as the core content. This helps children to learn the traditional songs of their own cultures, and develop an appreciation for the richness of other cultures as well.
Read on for some more interesting ways to use folk music in the classroom and beyond.
Simple examples to inform music lessons
Folk songs, with their simple, repetitive musical phrasing, can serve as excellent means for teaching the basics of musical notation, harmony, tempo, rhythm, pitch, and artistic expressiveness.
A wealth of classroom uses
Folk songs also afford an opportunity to enrich STEM- and STEAM-focused learning. They can be used in physics classes to illustrate the science of sound, in art programs in conjunction with an activity involving making musical instruments, or as examples of various points in American and world history.
With their catchy, easy-to-remember lyrics and rhythms, folk songs have become key components of popular repertoires for school bands, choral groups, and dance troupes.
A springboard for creativity
Because they’re highly adaptable, folk songs can accompany any number of games or playground activities. They encourage movement and the physical joy inherent in music.
Children can enhance the experience themselves by creating their own dances and games to accompany the songs. They can write pastiches that employ similar themes, or update the songs’ historical themes in amusing ways.
A way to strengthen memory and memorization skills
Their easy-to-recall rhythms and refrains make folk songs excellent tools for training the memory, as well as helping with recall. For instance, in adults with dementia and other cognitive disorders, the simple, familiar lyrics and melodies of traditional folk songs can bring about pleasant and soothing associations with their childhood.
Refining children’s ear for language
Folk songs can help children to expand their vocabulary through the use of rare and unusual words. Students may not immediately understand some of the dated language in a song, but once they learn the new words, they will have added to their store of language, as well as to their ability to express themselves and communicate within a new framework of ideas.
A number of researchers have drawn a strong connection between learning folk songs and learning the finer points of English grammar and syntax. Thanks to the memorable patterns of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition found in folk songs, this learning technique can be especially useful and meaningful for English language learners.
Additionally, folk songs can help listeners to mirror and model correct word pronunciation and accent, while repeated singing or listening to a folk song will continue to reinforce the grammar and articulation of that particular song.
A web of historical connections
Through folk songs, students learn not only about their musical heritage, but about the historical events that have shaped this heritage—and their own lives. These songs connect children to generations of people—in their culture and in others—who have come before them, and whose lives made the world what it is today.
On its website, NAfME lists a number of American folk song genres that have developed over time, each deserving a closer look from teachers and students. These include African-American spirituals, Shaker tunes, songs of the Civil War, and work songs sung by railroad workers, seamen, and cowboys. Each can provide an intimate insight into what the lives of a wide range of Americans were like.
A few historical examples
Teachers who devote time to teaching some of the history behind folk songs have found that it often piques their students’ interest in learning more about the historical topics addressed. Children often enjoy hearing about the origin of a song and its history as played, sung, and danced to by various peoples over time.
Some teachers find that folk songs are a good fit with material geared to meeting state core educational standards. For example, many states’ official state songs are folk songs comprising multiple historical references, and as such are culturally, musically, and historically a part of every American child’s history.
For example, “Yankee Doodle,” sung during the American Revolution by British and Colonial soldiers alike, is the state song of Connecticut. The official state gospel song of Oklahoma is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” attributed to the former slave Wallace Willis, who, upon seeing Oklahoma’s Red River, is said to have been reminded of the Jordan River and the Bible story of the prophet Elijah being lifted into heaven in a chariot.
The song “Shenandoah,” also known as “‘Cross the Wide Missouri,” is said to have originated with the French adventurers and fur traders, called voyageurs, who traveled along the Missouri River in the early days of the European push westward in North America. The song references a voyageur who fell in love with a Native American woman. It later was widely adopted by American sailors. Its mysterious references and simple, haunting melody have kept it at the center of the American folk song corpus for generations.
Recordings of songs like “Shenandoah” can additionally serve to acquaint children with great singers in the American popular canon, such as Paul Robeson. In the 1930s, Robeson recorded a number of versions of the “Shenandoah” tune. Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits have also recorded their own versions. Comparison of the various versions of the song could be particularly instructive for older students studying vocal interpretation.
The study of an instrument is a long-term commitment. Students will need to feel comfortable with their choice and dedicated to getting the most out of their studies. With hard work, focus, and diligence, however, learning to play an instrument can be a way to enrich a child’s life well into adulthood.
The following seven tips can help parents, educators, and children identify the instrument that will be the best and most enjoyable fit.
1. Consider the child's age and development.
First, consider the child’s age. For particularly young children, consider the physical and developmental demands of each instrument. Children of this age may not have the physical strength, dexterity, or muscle fluency to manage certain instruments.
2. Consider the piano and the violin, particularly for younger children.
Expert teachers typically recommend the violin and the piano for children under 6 years of age. Both of these instruments serve as excellent building blocks for learning music theory and practice. They also assist with learning to play additional instruments.
The Suzuki Violin Method is one of the teaching practices that focuses specifically on the qualities of the violin as a young beginner’s instrument. Learning violin is made easier for younger children because the instrument can be fashioned in very small sizes. This makes it simpler and more intuitive for a child this age to manage fluidly and naturally.
The violin is also an excellent choice of instrument for teaching young music students to play in tune. Another advantage is that the act of bowing provides a kinetic manner through which students can learn the concept of musical phrasing. And, because the violin has no keys or frets, a young player can concentrate completely on the sounds he or she is creating.
The piano offers its own plusses as a first instrument. A child learning to play the piano picks up foundational skills of musicianship by becoming proficient in harmony and melody at one and the same time. Piano students gain experiential knowledge that will help them to better understand music theory.
3. Consider the child’s physical abilities and limitations.
An instrument’s design and its fit with a child’s physicality is also an important consideration. If a child’s hands are relatively small, for example, he or she may not have the finger span to become an accomplished pianist or a player of a larger stringed instrument.
For woodwinds and brass instruments, make sure that the embouchure—the place where the child places his or her mouth to produce sound—is a good fit. Keep in mind that some students take time to learn the best way to address this. The oboe has a double read mouthpiece and the French horn has a slender tube mouthpiece. As a result, these instruments present particular challenges regarding their fit against a player’s mouth.
For children who need orthodontic help, it can be better to select a stringed or percussion instrument. This is because blowing through any sort of embouchure may be uncomfortable or even painful.
4. Consider which instruments the child enjoys listening to.
Sound is an important quality as well. A child should enjoy the sound her instrument makes. Otherwise, he or she may be reluctant to continue practicing and playing it.
Experts point out that it is unrealistic to believe that, over time, a child will come to like the sound of an instrument he or she dislikes. Such a child may, instead, neglect lessons and resent practicing.
This is particularly important for parents to remember, because band directors sometimes encourage children to take on specific, less-popular instruments simply because one is needed in the ensemble.
5. Consider the child's temperament.
A child’s personality is another good indicator of the best instrument to select. For example, an outgoing child who enjoys being the center of attention will likely gravitate to an instrument that offers greater potential for front-of-the-band performance and solos. These instruments include the flute, saxophone, and trumpet. All are made to carry a central melodic line, rather than to play supporting roles.
6. Consider the social implications of the selected instrument.
One factor sometimes swept aside by adults can have a big impact on children. This factor is the social image of an instrument, and what that says, by implication, to peers about a child’s own image and personality.
Many children gravitate toward the instrument they perceive as having the most status among their peers. Unfortunately, that instrument may not be the best fit. Adults should encourage each child to take a fresh look at the instrument that actually seems best for him or her.
7. Consider your budget as well as any maintenance commitments.
Practical issues of cost and maintenance will also be on most parents’ lists when choosing an instrument. Take some time to go over a realistic timetable of maintenance with a child’s music teacher. A piano, for example, is one of the most expensive instruments, and needs to be tuned twice annually by a professional.
Remember that many music vendors offer monthly payment programs. A trial rental may also be a good option until a child is certain that he or she really likes an instrument. Some schools will facilitate free long-term loans of instruments for their band members.
It may also be worthwhile to explore options provided by nonprofit groups. For example, Hungry for Music supplies children in financial need with donated and carefully refurbished instruments.