Pythagoras might have been speaking for numerous others when he said that he found music in the spacings between the planets and geometry in the sounds of strings. Plato wrote of harmonies in mathematics and how they parallel harmony in a just society. Confucius also found numerous eternal truths in the unfolding of pieces of music.
These ancient philosophers grasped truths about the interconnectedness of music and mathematics that have become even more clear over the centuries.
Here are only a few insights, based on the experiences of musicians and mathematicians, about this close relationship:
1. Activation of analogous skills
Music students, when tested, tend to show more skill in mathematics than their non-musical peers. High levels of cognitive processing ability and executive function—which involves self-regulation and self-management in order to achieve a goal—are essential for success in both fields.
Research also supports the notion that executive function, even more so than overall intelligence, has been shown to influence academic achievement. Learning math ties into the development of executive function by calling on a child to analyze, identify key concepts, and proceed through a series of logical steps. Likewise, learning to play a musical instrument enhances this capacity by, among other factors, drawing on the ability to calibrate motor movements in response to changes of time signature and key.
2. A beautiful symmetry
Some mathematicians explain their field by focusing on how they work to extract the essential elements of any given thing and study the characteristics and interactions of those elements on an abstract plane. This type of learning can help students to understand music and can lead to a deeper engagement with the essential elements of a musical composition.
Music can inspire students to learn more about mathematics through studying, for example, the properties and manifestations of sound. Innovative mathematics teachers have even brought opera singers into their classrooms to show students how the patterns of mathematics are part of the essence of music.
3. Simplicity within complexity
Every note a composer writes or a musician plays is involved in an intricate web of harmony, rhythm, and mathematical patterns.
These patterns tend to be built around elements of symmetry. For example, just as the shapes of regular geometric figures remain the same when rotated, a musical tune can be transposed to another key in a composition such as a fugue.
In a Mandelbrot set, a famous fractal, a smaller replica of the entire patterned set can always be found hidden at the core of any other image in the set. So, we might also say that a musical fractal occurs when one theme harmonizes with a slower version of itself. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, showcased a talent for repeating his themes numerous times throughout a variety of permutations.
4. A composition made possible by math
In fact, thanks to an extraordinary mathematical insight, Bach had the tools he needed to compose The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722. The piece consists of a set of masterful preludes and fugues, one in each of the major and minor keys.
But Bach could not have created this much-loved work without mathematics. In 1636, the French monk and mathematician Marin Mersenne successfully solved a difficult problem by deriving the twelfth root of the number 2, thus paving the way for the division of the octave into 12 equal semitones.
Before this division and the associated method of equal temperament of musical instruments, pieces transposed into new keys often sounded uneven and unpleasing. But after Mersenne’s achievement, musicians were able to work with a 12-part octave, evenly spaced and divided into ratios. They could then write music in every key and transpose easily from one key to another. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier was the first noteworthy example of this musical revolution.
5. How math determines pitch
A discussion of pitch is only one way to demonstrate how math undergirds sound.
Pitch is based on wave frequencies. All audible sounds are produced by changes in the air pressure of the pockets surrounding a sound wave. The frequency that hits the human ear translates into the perceived pitch. Each note possesses its own individual frequency.
For an example of sound waves in action, think of a train whistle. Notice that the sound seems higher-pitched as the train approaches. But after the train goes by, the sound seems lower. As the train speeds toward the listener, the forward movement compresses the arriving air pockets against each other, thus pushing them forward more frequently. As a result, the sound seems higher-pitched. Then as the train recedes into the distance, the air pockets slow in their arrival to the ear, giving a lower pitch.
We perceive the most pleasant-sounding chords when we combine notes with sound waves that reverberate in analogous patterns. The mathematical ratios of the intervals between notes give the means of calculating which note combinations produce harmony and which create discord.
Frequency is measured in terms of hertz, and notes with higher pitch have a higher frequency. Middle C has a frequency of approximately 262 hertz. This means that, when middle C sounds on a piano, the sound waves that reach a listener’s ear consist of 262 pockets of higher air pressure striking against the ear every second. As a comparison, the E just above middle C sounds at approximately 329.63 hertz.
Building an understanding of the physics and mathematics behind pitch also leads students to a fuller understanding of octaves, chords, and other musical elements.
6. Pairing music and math in the classroom
When teaching music in the classroom, teachers can incorporate math in a multitude of ways. One is to ask older children to identify the parts of a musical pattern, then to restate the rule governing that pattern. They can go on to use their analysis of patterns to make predictions about the future direction of a composition. An exploration of time signatures and chords can also be the basis for lessons in how math and music work together.
Before younger children even learn the formal concepts of mathematics, they learn through experience about rhythm, repetition, and proportional relationships among musical concepts. They can clap out the syllables of their names, and then see if they can match the number of syllables in their own names to those in other students’ names. They can also echo their teacher, with voice or movement, as he or she calls out and varies notes, beats, and tempos.
When teaching music to young children, educators and parents today can choose from a wide range of colorful, fun, and fascinating picture books that will enhance their lesson plans. Here are only a few of the best books for preschoolers and early elementary students that offer lilting texts and multi-layered pictures to help to convey the joy found in music.
1. Music, Music for Everyone
2. My Family Plays Music
My Family Plays Music, written by Judy Cox and illustrated by Elbrite Brown, showcases the lives of an entire family of musicians in bright and lively cut-paper pictures. Educators have praised the book as a first introduction to the range of musical instruments children can play. Published by Holiday House, it received a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent Illustrator after its original publication in 2003.
The heroine of the story practices making music with a variety of instruments alongside different members of her family. She tries out the triangle with her father and his string quartet, joins her aunt’s jazz band playing the woodblock, and more.
3. Kat Writes a Song
Kat Writes a Song, written and illustrated by Greg Foley, is a story of inspiration, creativity, and the ability of music to brighten anyone’s day. Published by the Little Simon imprint in 2018, the book stars Kat, a kitten who is feeling down and lonely on a rainy day. She writes and sings a song, and finds the clouds and rain going away. But the magic really begins when she decides to share her song to lift the spirits of her friends and others in the neighborhood.
4. Barnyard Boogie!
5. Music Class Today!
Part of the Music for Aardvarks series, Music Class Today! was written by David Weinstone and illustrated by Vin Vogel. Published in 2015 by Farrar Straus Giroux, Music Class Today! is the simple story of a music class, one shy student, and how to find the inner strength to try new experiences. The lively text and illustrations bring the excitement of making music as a group to life.
In addition to his work as a picture book author, Weinstone created the imagination-fueled Music for Aardvarks CDs and classes for young children.
6. Miguel and the Grand Harmony
The making of Miguel and the Grand Harmony brought together Newbery Award-winning writer Matt de la Peña and Pixar artist Ana Ramírez to create an original work of art based on characters from the beloved movie Coco. The book, published by Disney Press in 2017, tells the story of Miguel. Prohibited from making music, the young boy practices on his homemade guitar in secret. He gets help from the spirit of La Música, who creates the right sequence of circumstances that will allow his dream to come true.
The book’s rich illustrations celebrate music’s ability to be a creative force that enhances life’s journey.
7. Geraldine, the Music Mouse
8. Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin
And finally, there is Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin. The now-classic picture story treatment of the instruments of the orchestra was written by Lloyd Moss, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, and published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in 1995.
This Caldecott Honor book spotlights the distinctive voices of 10 different instruments in catchy and musically rhyming words set amidst a swirl of saturated pinks, golds, and other colors. It also serves as a counting book, as one by one the instruments and their musicians take the stage.
Musicologists define perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch, as the ability to independently identify the pitch of any musical note, or to reproduce any specified note. Some studies have indicated that perfect pitch is relatively rare; only about one person in 10,000 possesses it.
Here are a few facts and theories about perfect pitch, and how human beings—particularly children—might be taught to develop it.
1. What is the science behind musical pitch?
Every sound consists of sound waves. These vibrations reach the ear, and then the brain, via nerve impulses. The unit of measurement for sound waves is the hertz, with a single wave per second designated as one hertz, 100 wave vibrations per second as 100 hertz, and so on. The human ear can perceive sound waves vibrating along a scale of approximately 20 to 20,000 hertz.
When musicians talk about the pitch of a sound, they are referring to the sensation of its frequency. Lower frequencies equal lower pitch, and as the frequency gets higher, so does the pitch. A highly trained musician with excellent pitch can distinguish very subtle differences between sounds that vary by as little as 2 hertz.
2. What’s the difference between perfect pitch and relative pitch?
People with perfect pitch know, for example, that the first musical interval in the children’s song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” represents a perfect fifth on the scale, and that the iconic vocal “way up high” jump in Judy Garland’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is the interval of a major sixth.
A musician with perfect pitch can instantly determine the relation of any one note on the scale to any other. He or she can also reproduce notes at specified intervals without looking at the instrument being played or any other external source.
With relative pitch, a musician can identify the intervals between notes, but not necessarily the notes themselves. Most experts believe that perfect pitch cannot be taught; however, most musicians can develop some degree of relative pitch through application and study.
Experts point out that perfect pitch and relative pitch are complementary, and that it is possible to possess both. One way of describing the difference is to say that perfect pitch is analogous to creative, artistic, “right-brained” ways of understanding the world. Relative pitch is in line with more “intellectualized,” “left-brained” means of perception. After developing relative pitch, musicians are better able to name and describe the elements of music verbally, whereas those with a sense of perfect pitch have an instant, innate understanding that transcends words.
3. Which famous musicians have had perfect pitch?
5. Pitch can be associated with meaning.
Other techniques exist for assisting young children in the development of relative pitch.
Children can listen to a story about, for example, animals of different sizes and temperaments, and can learn to associate a specific pitch with each one. For example, one instructor would ask children to imagine a big, powerful elephant lumbering alone. As the image unfolded in the children’s minds, the instructor would play a combination of low notes on the piano. Then a monkey would appear in the story, accompanied by notes in the piano’s middle range. A series of lilting high notes would go along with a section of the story about light, high-flying birds.
6. New research suggests perfect pitch can be learned.
It was a long believed that perfect pitch was inborn and not able to be taught or learned, but some contemporary researchers believe otherwise.
Diana Deutsch, a University of California, San Diego, psychology professor and researcher into cognition and musical ability, believes that the secret lies in helping young children make connections between pitch and meaning. Dr. Deutsch, known for her discovery of a range of musical illusions and paradoxes, has focused in particular on the phenomenon of perfect pitch.
Dr. Deutsch has written that all people are born with an inherent form of perfect pitch, but that most never learn to recognize or use it. People may recognize a note but be unable to name it. But she also believes that timing is everything. If a child has not had in-depth musical training before beginning elementary school, he or she is less likely to discover that hidden sense of perfect pitch.
7. The identification of tritones can help develop perfect pitch.
Dr. Deutsch grounds her theory about developing perfect pitch partly on her work with musical illusions and conundrums, including her discovery of the “Tritone Paradox.” A tritone indicates the interval where an octave—a series of eight notes—divides evenly into two halves. An example: C and F-sharp form a tritone pair.
Every musical note has a companion, as in the C-F-sharp pairing, located precisely one-half octave away. The paradox lies in the fact that individuals may hear the same tritones as either ascending or descending when they are played in sequence. People are often astonished to find that others hear the opposite.
Dr. Deutsch’s research showed that everyone has some ability to remember these fixed tritone pairs, which she defines as one innate form of perfect pitch. She further discovered that working on this type of fixed pitch just might enable an individual to go on to acquire perfect pitch, if such instruction starts early enough.
8. Speaking a tonal language may help with the acquisition of perfect pitch.
Native speakers of tonal languages, such as Vietnamese and Chinese, seem to have a particular advantage when it comes to developing perfect pitch. Dr. Deutsch theorizes that this is because their brains were wired around distinguishing fine gradations in spoken tones, and because perception of tritone patterns in these cultures tends to be the same for all speakers. By contrast, individual speakers of American English tend to have their own individual perceptions of whether any given tritone is ascending or descending.
9. Creating a DIY tonal language may help young children develop perfect pitch.
Dr. Deutsch suggests that parents who want to give their young children perfect pitch try to recreate a tonal language at home. An easy way to do this is to label each note on a keyboard with a different sticker showing an animal. For example, every C note can be labeled with a dog, every F-sharp with a cat, and so on. Children can then more easily mentally associate each tone with a meaning. As they learn the abstract notes of the scale, they will substitute them for the animal pictures.
Percussion instruments are perennial favorites of both children and their teachers within any music education program. The variety of percussion instruments available for purchase by educators and parents is rivaled only by the wide range of such instruments that school groups and families can make from relatively simple materials.
Here is a summary of the fascinating history and educational uses of drums and other percussion instruments.
Why keeping the beat is important
Babies and young children love to shake, rattle, and roll a variety of musical instruments and common household items. The “aha!” instant when a young child discovers the ability to manipulate objects to make sounds can be a joyful and momentous one.
So rhythm instruments solve one perennial classroom problem: Ensuring an orderly environment conducive to learning while at the same time respecting young children’s innate need to make noise and enjoy movement.
While learning the words to a new song can be challenging and involve a great deal of memorization, making music with rhythm and percussion instruments is so simple that it can be enjoyed by children with a wide range of abilities.
For shy children, having a musical instrument in hand can increase their self-confidence as they join musical activities that demand only that they make noise.
One study after another has shown that learning to make music supports the full range of intellectual, artistic, social, and emotional development in young children.
Early education programs that make good use of rhythm and percussion instruments can be particularly helpful in strengthening spatial and kinesthetic awareness, as well as to develop young participants’ coordination.
Some simple examples of percussion in the classroom
You can instruct children to shake their rhythm instruments alternately high, low, to the left, and to the right, in front of themselves and behind their backs. Children can make the big motions that reinforce gross muscle development while shaking their instruments, or small movements that build fine motor skills.
Real-time verbal commentary (“Shake it to the left! Shake it to the right! Over! Under!”) adds another layer of language learning to the mix, while rhythm and music can help to anchor memories of new words in children’s consciousness.
Young musicians can easily learn to adjust their movements, ranging from vigorous shaking to delicate jingling, as they learn more about the concepts of “loud” and “soft.”
The history of drums reverberates to the present day
Civilizations throughout recorded history have made use of drums. Military maneuvers and marches have been accompanied by drum beats. Ancient tribes frequently used drums to broadcast signals and send messages back and forth.
Many students of music history believe that the snare drum arose in medieval Europe, at a time when a wide range of drum types were used, although the ultimate origin of drums was likely in Asia.
The Middle Ages also saw the extensive use of the timbrel, an early type of tambourine with jingling attachments, and of the frame drum or tympanum, whose body was a wooden frame with an open underside. Itinerant performers would often pair a timbrel with a pipe held in one hand.
Medieval Europe also saw a proliferation of various types of drums, with no standard way of referring to them. “Tabor” or “tambour” was another term used to describe a drum, with various linguistic variations. The phrase “trommel” was a 12th century coinage from Germanic languages that linguists believe to be the source of the current English word, “drum.”
In medieval Europe, the bass drum followed the snare drum into wide use, even as drum sticks evolved to the point where they were carved from a range of wood types. Beef wood was a popular drum stick material in the 18th century, while military bands of the following century favored ebony.
The era of European colonization led to the adoption of bongos from African and Afro-Cuban populations into Western cultures in the 1800s, as well.
The early 20th century witnessed the sale of entire sets of drums as a unit, with innovations adding cymbals and other percussion to the standard set. In the 1950s, Joe Calato introduced the nylon-tipped drum stick, and electric drums appeared for the first time in the 1970s.
Homemade rhythm instruments can be all you need
Homemade rhythm and percussion instruments can provide hours of fun. And they can be as simple as a small, sealed container filled with rice, beads, or other items that produce sound when shaken.
Other, more elaborate shakers can be made by using strong packing tape to attach two clear plastic cups together after filling them with percussive material. To add flair, you can attach shower curtain rings to either end of this type of shaker with more packing tape. Then you can attach ribbon to the rings to serve as colorful streamers.
A discarded coffee can might become a drum, or unused window casings or wooden rectangles can be cut to various sizes and assembled as a xylophone. A garbage can is just waiting to become a steel drum, while a series of jars filled with water of varying depths can create cascading, delicate melodies when struck with a light mallet.
For those who would rather purchase their instruments, a wealth of online shopping sites offer inexpensive, child-friendly egg-shaped shakers, rhythm sticks, whistles, small drums, tambourines, and more.
Across the world, dedicated musicians have helped nurture the talents of new generations of young performers in the classical tradition through a variety of youth symphony orchestra experiences. These organizations, regardless of their location, share a set of common goals: to train young men and women in the rigors of musical interpretation while helping them develop vital life skills such as cooperation, self-discipline, goal-setting, and professionalism.
Here are summaries of the histories and work of only a few of the world’s many youth orchestras active today:
1. The Children’s Orchestra Society
In 1962, Dr. Hiao-Tsiun Ma established the Children’s Orchestra Society (COS) as a means of teaching children to appreciate and perform music, and to understand the values of collaboration and teamwork. Since then, the New York-based nonprofit organization has transformed the lives of numerous young people by helping them gain skills in musicianship and performance that have had lasting positive effects on their lives. Thanks to the training COS offers, young musicians can perform at high levels as members of groups dedicated to classical and chamber music, and play alongside established adult performers.
The COS continues to operate under the principles of its founder. Dr. Ma, a musicologist and teacher in his native China and in the West, was the father of world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and of Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, who currently heads the COS. The society’s child-centered philosophy aims to provide a supportive environment optimized for the unfolding of each student’s own innate musical gifts, with parts written specifically to enhance individual competencies.
2. The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra
The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra was founded in 1999. Originally funded with grant monies from the local Jewish Community Federation, the organization—then known as the Los Angeles Jewish Youth Orchestra—focused on Jewish-themed liturgical and other music. Its mission soon widened to include performance of the full range of music from the world’s musical heritage, both classical and contemporary.
Under the leadership of composer and music director Russell Steinberg, who arranged several symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn and created original compositions specifically for the group, its musicians’ talents blossomed.
As its repertoire grew and diversified, so did the orchestra’s membership. By 2003, its performers included some five dozen students from a variety of backgrounds and representing about 50 Los Angeles-area high schools. In acknowledgement of this broader focus, that year Steinberg renamed the group the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. In 2008, the group earned official nonprofit status.
Since its debut, the LAYO has hosted West Coast and world premieres of a number of original compositions. Its schedule includes regular public performances, and it has planned a 2019 Argentina Tour, in which its members will perform four concerts in Buenos Aires, including an outreach concert in one of the city’s most poverty-stricken communities.
3. Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras
The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras has served the community as a nonprofit group providing music and performance education since 1946. Today, CYSO works with hundreds of young people from the primary grades through high school. These youth take part in a variety of ensembles including four full-scale orchestras, several string orchestras, jazz and steel orchestras, and chamber music groups.
Prominent Chicagoland professional musicians serve as teachers and mentors to the youth as they train to present major performances. Former CYSO participants have gone on to distinguished careers in music and other fields. Many today perform in well-known orchestras and other ensembles around the world, while others have used the skills they learned with CYSO to become lawyers, physicians, and community leaders.
Thanks to CYSO’s Community Partnership Programs, more than 8,000 young people have had the opportunity to gain musical training through neighborhood-based groups and through other venues over the course of the 2017-2018 season. These programs focus particularly on serving youth in under-resourced parts of the community, with the goal of making a strong music education a core part of the life of every Chicagoan.
4. The New York Youth Symphony
The New York Youth Symphony was founded in 1963 to highlight the talents of young people ages 12 to 22. Today, after winning numerous awards and earning praise as one of the most prestigious of the world’s youth orchestras, the symphony continues its program of preparing young people for careers in music, and for becoming lifelong students of—and advocates for—the art.
Over the half-century and more of its existence, the New York Youth Symphony has benefited from the guidance of world-renowned music directors. It has also served as the training ground for some of today’s most in-demand composers and performers, and has for almost 35 years actively commissioned new compositions from young musicians themselves.
5. The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura
In Paraguay, young people with few material resources have established themselves as a remarkable orchestra playing exquisite music on instruments made from garbage. The 2016 documentary film Landfill Harmonic takes viewers inside the creation of this extraordinary youth orchestra, founded by renowned maestro Luis Szaran and led by music director Favio Chavez for the benefit of the children living in the slum of Cateura, Paraguay.
The orchestra has thrived thanks to the dedication of Szaran, Chavez, and a local recycler whose family has sustained itself by collecting and recycling trash. Now, the area’s youth have become skilled musicians playing violins, double bass, wind instruments, and more, all made from scrap metal, old barrels, discarded spoons and buttons, and other trash. And Szaran’s organization, Sonidos de la Tierra, or “Sounds of the Earth,” continues as an instrument workshop and worldwide musical touring ensemble supporting the orchestra.
While numerous examples of lively, well-crafted contemporary music composed especially for children exist, educators and parents also have at their disposal a wide range of classical compositions that can foster a love of music. While not written specifically for young people, a variety of individual short works—and movements or pieces of longer works—from the classical repertoire have proven over the years to be as enticing for kids as they are for adults.
These works include pieces by composers ranging from the towering, august Ludwig van Beethoven to popular 20th-century masters such as Aaron Copland. However, as diverse as these composers are, their compositions all feature strong melodic lines and rich tonality that can paint colorful stories across the canvas of a young listener’s mind.
The following are a few suggestions for album collections, composers, and individual recordings that can enrich any child’s musical education:
1. Beethoven Lives Upstairs
Beethoven Lives Upstairs is only one in the Classical Kids series of CDs and DVDs showcasing child-friendly pieces by great composers while emphasizing that these artists were also real-life human beings. This particular recording offers movements from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor and Symphony No. 7 in A major, as well as pieces such as the composer’s Flute Serenade (Opus 23) and his popular piano composition Für Elise.
The children’s media review organization Common Sense Media has praised this series as particularly suitable for kids ages 5 and up. The website’s review of the video version of Beethoven Lives Upstairs notes the vividness and accessibility with which it portrays the composer’s complex personality and depth of artistic expression.
2. Classical Wonderland - Classical Music for Children
The album Classical Wonderland - Classical Music for Children, produced by Sony Music, offers a compilation of 11 recordings by various artists. Selections range from staples of the classical repertoire such as “The Flight of the Bumblebee” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan to “The Swan,” one of the creatures portrayed in The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. The former piece depicts the antics of the prince when he disguises himself as a bee, while the latter paints a musical portrait of one of nature’s most graceful and elegant creatures.
3. My First Tchaikovsky Album
Available online at the Met Opera Shop and in other venues, My First Tchaikovsky Album, from Naxos Records, offers kids some of their favorite melodies from the composer’s Nutcracker Suite and excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and other works. A companion recording, My First Mozart Album, similarly extracts some of the most listenable tunes from that composer’s oeuvre.
Naxos also offers kids My First Classical Album, featuring 21 Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms, Slavonic Dances by Antonín Dvořák, and Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.
4. Stories in Music
The Stories in Music series, produced and sold by the music education company Maestro Classics, aims to make learning about great music even more fun through highlighting the entertaining tales its rhythms and beats tell. In albums of recorded music performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Classics offers retellings of works with extra-high kid appeal, such as the rollicking magical hijinks of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas and Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev.
The genesis for these productions was a series of family classical concerts by the late Stephen Simon and his wife Bonnie Ward Simon. Mr. Simon was a well-known conductor who established, among other programs, an annual Handel festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
5. Various Recordings for Play and Rest
The youngest children often respond enthusiastically to classical compositions cause them to whirl, twirl, leap, and kick up their feet to a rapid beat. Music educators often suggest playing to toddlers’ need to move by using recordings of such extra-lively pieces as Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt, and pieces from Gioachino Rossini’s comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville.
The Barber of Seville offers even greater opportunities for nostalgic fun when parents share with their children the vintage 1950 Looney Tunes cartoon version. Called “The Rabbit of Seville,” the cartoon short features characters Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in their now-classic bit.
Other favorites to get the blood flowing for toddlers and their families include the “Hoe-Down” section from American composer Aaron Copland’s iconic ballet Rodeo, the energetic Russian Dance “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and the whirligig rhythms of “Sabre Dance” from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane. “Sabre Dance” continues to enjoy broad recognition in popular culture as a common theme played in movies and television shows.
Soothing music at bedtime can contribute to more restful sleep, as well as to an increased appreciation for music among children and their families. Music educators often recommend playing pieces such as Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello as lullabies. These collections of dance compositions—featuring gavottes, sarabands, minuets, and more—are among the most frequently performed works for the resonant instrument. Recordings such as Janos Starker’s Bach: Complete Suites for Solo Cello on the Mercury Living Presence label, for example, offer the slow, steady beats and flights of fancy that promote focused relaxation for parents and children alike.
One of the most serenely lovely compositions ever created may be the Concerto for Flute and Harp by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Among suggested recordings of this dream-like piece is that featuring violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin as conductor with the English Chamber Orchestra, available in various recorded editions.
There are a number of methods and sets of practices, some generations-old, for teaching the techniques - and the enjoyment - of music to children. Here are brief summaries of four of the best-known and most widely used of these methods throughout much of the world.
1. The Kodály Method
In 2016, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization placed the music teaching method devised by 20th-century Hungarian composer and musicologist Zoltán Kodály on its UNESCO World Heritage List. The method’s ability to help preserve traditional folk music and make it easier to learn earned it a place on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage practices.
This experience-based teaching method is comprehensive in its teaching of how to read and write music as part of a basic musical curriculum. Singing, folk songs, and solfège - training the ear to understand pitch and pattern - are all central components of the curriculum. Kodály believed that learning to express oneself through singing the songs of one’s native land should be a foundation stone of a child’s musical education.
The Kodály Method begins with helping children develop a sense of rhythm, and with teaching sight-reading and basic pitch through a series of hand signals that assist in demonstrating the relationships between musical notes.
Kodály, a collaborator with his fellow Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, gathered and published major collections of Hungarian folk songs. He was an important figure in the spread of music education throughout Hungary. His method puts such strong emphasis on folk songs because he believed the genre possesses every quality necessary for inculcating a deep love of music in each child.
2. The Suzuki Method
The Suzuki Talent Education Method starts music training early, with teachers striving to ensure that children learn mental focus and fine muscle control when they are young enough to make these skills an integral part of their personalities.
This method involves parents in their children’s music education as co-educators and co-learners. Parents may learn to play an instrument before their child does, and they serve as reinforcing influences in the home for the lessons provided by the classroom teacher.
The Suzuki Method concentrates on teaching music the same way that children acquire language: through listening and repeating. Every day, a Suzuki student listens to recordings of the same piece of music he or she is engaged in learning. Regular review allows students to incorporate new techniques into material already mastered. Reading music waits until the student has begun to master actually playing an instrument.
The method’s inventor, Japanese violinist Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, based his method on the way children naturally acquire spoken language, calling his program a “mother tongue” approach. He emphasized the joy involved when children, parents, and teachers participate in studying music together. He was less concerned with training professional musicians than he was with enriching children’s lives so that their natural sensitivity and awareness of the world around them would blossom.
3. The Orff Method
In the Orff Method, a child learns music through movement, singing, and acting out musically-themed stories. Students may use xylophones, drums, maracas, tone blocks, and numerous other percussion instruments to practice melodies within a learning framework that emphasizes the importance of play and fun.
Teachers also encourage their students to compose their own pieces of music, and to practice improvising already-known pieces. Student improvisation is, in fact, one of the cornerstones of this method, as children have the chance to follow their own creative ideas during lessons.
The Orff Method is known in the original German as Orff-Schulwerk (Orff Schoolwork), and also called simply “Music for Children.”
The 20th-century composer Carl Orff is today best known for his 1937 oratorio Carmina Burana, a work that exemplifies his passion for strong rhythm and movement. He also assisted the gymnast Dorothee Günther in establishing a school focused on music, gymnastic training, and dance. During his time working with the school in the 1920s and 1930s, he came up with the ideas that would form the basis for his own musical education system.
His book, entitled Orff-Schulwerk, which appeared in English translation as Music for Children, is based on the lessons he devised in collaboration with Gunild Keetman, a former student at the Günther school. The method is now taught in dozens of countries and is the subject of increasing interest around the world.
Teachers using the Orff system create their own lessons based on the needs of their individual students. A typical lesson might begin with a teacher reading a poem aloud to the class, followed by students acting out a short drama based on the poem. The students then repeat the poem, this time adding sound by accompanying the story with musical instruments.
4. Dalkroze Eurythmics
Dalkroze Eurythmics is a music instruction method anchored in using ear-training, movement exercises, and improvisation to awaken and develop a child’s inborn gift for music and rhythm.
Created by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, a 20th-century composer and professor of harmony in Geneva, Switzerland, the method is centered on its author’s tenet that rhythm-based, ear-training process cements musical concepts into a student’s muscle memory. This increases musical proficiency and builds a deep understanding of the physical demands on the musician. Dalcroze believed that students learn best through engagement of multiple senses, and that in order to gain a true understanding of his method, it is necessary to actually experience it.
Dalcroze designed his method to teach music on a deep level, building an understanding of how it works to express a range of meaning and emotion, as well as how it relates to other arts and to the daily life of human beings. His work has been influential in the development of the performing arts and art therapy.
In 1936, shortly after returning to the Soviet Union after living in Europe for 18 years, composer Sergei Prokofiev created one of the world’s most memorable and enduring musical pieces: Peter and the Wolf.
Ever since, Peter and the Wolf has entertained children while educating them about the sounds of key orchestral instruments.
Here are a few notes on Peter, the Wolf, their creator, and how this charming suite continues to be adapted to the needs of today’s music students:
An instrument defines each character
In Prokofiev’s story, every character has a signature instrument and tune that define individual personality. Music teachers can help children learn to identify the four families of instruments the composer used in the piece: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.
Peter is portrayed by a joyous leitmotiv from a string quartet. Peter’s animal friends are the bird, portrayed by a lilting trill on the flute; the duck, depicted through the waddling gait of the oboe; and the cat, who slinks through the story accompanied by the lower registers of the clarinet. The chugging of the bassoon portrays Peter’s stern and scolding grandfather, and the rolling kettledrums bring a group of hunters to life. A series of sinister blasts on three French horns conveys the menace of the wolf.
A rollicking, melody-filled adventure story
In Prokofiev’s original plot, Peter is a Communist Young Pioneer who lives in the forest at the home of his grandfather. When Peter is walking through the forest, he encounters his friend the bird flying through the trees, the duck swimming, and the cat stalking the birds. Peter’s grandfather comes out of the house to warn his grandson about the dangerous wolf that lurks in the forest, but Peter has no fear.
The wolf eventually comes slinking past Peter’s cottage and devours the duck. So Peter avenges his friend and captures the wolf. He struggles with his captive but ends up tying him to a tree. The hunters appear, wanting to kill the wolf, but Peter persuades them to take the wild creature to the zoo, borne along in a celebratory parade.
Peter and the Wolf earned quick success and is still beloved today by children, teachers, and parents. Prokofiev called on his memories of his own childhood for scenes and characters.
A composer’s life in light and shadows
Born in 1891 in what is now Ukraine, Sergei Prokofiev learned to play the piano as a child. When he grew older, his mother moved with him to St. Petersburg so that he might continue his studies with instruction at a higher level. He began his formal studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and became a skilled pianist, composer, and conductor.
As a young man, Prokofiev became a dedicated traveler, intent on soaking up a variety of musical styles on visits throughout Europe and even to the United States. After the devastations of the Russian Revolution and the First World War, he settled in Paris, but he missed his homeland so much that he returned to the Soviet Union in 1936. He composed Peter and the Wolf for the Moscow Central Children’s Theatre that same year.
As his career blossomed, Prokofiev studied artistic influences including Igor Stravinsky, ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and modernist artists such as Picasso. His oeuvre includes compositions for opera, ballet, and film. His symphonies and his concertos for piano, cello, and violin are notable among his works, as are his ballet Romeo and Juliet and his music for Sergei Eisenstein’s revered film Alexander Nevsky.
As the Cold War began, Soviet authorities targeted the composer for exclusion from cultural life due to his supposed anti-traditionalist point of view. Because the United States feared Soviet aggression, Western audiences also cooled toward him. When he died in 1953—on the same day as dictator Joseph Stalin—few newspaper readers noticed.
Disney works its magic on the story
There have been numerous recordings of Peter and the Wolf since its debut. The most famous film version is undoubtedly the Walt Disney company’s animated short subject in full color. This film was presented as part of the 1946 feature-length compilation Make Mine Music, which included a variety of other cartoon shorts focused on making music education fun.
In the Disney version, the animals have names and distinct personalities: The bird is named Sasha, the duck Sonia, and the cat Ivan, and each character livens things up through comedic routines.
A beloved favorite in schools and theaters
Dozens of lesson plans about Peter and the Wolf have been created for students of all ages. Typical of these is one created for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In this program, students hear the story, then listen to musical excerpts to become familiar with individual characters and their accompanying instruments. This goal is to ensure that students will understand the storyline; be able to pick out each character’s musical motif and signature instrument; anticipate how each theme will sound in the composition; and identify individual instruments, as well as instrument families, by sound and tone color.
Local companies continue to stage imaginative productions of Peter and the Wolf as part of campaigns for music education. For example, Seattle Children’s Theatre put on a local playwright’s adaptation of the story in which an Emmy Award-winning musician recast Prokofiev’s classic musical motifs with contemporary music styles such as the Charleston, the tango, and the two-step shuffle. The creative team enhanced the production with puppetry, movement, and an expanded series of humorous incidents.
Music offers a direct channel to human emotions, and this connection can be surprisingly useful in changing mood, attitude, and lifestyles for the better. Many people use music to relax after a stressful work or school day, and educators all over the world have opened the doors of their classrooms to its ability to promote an atmosphere of focused calm.
Here are seven ways that the power of music can aid human mood and performance:
1. Music helps relieve depression, stress, and emotional pain.
When psychologists use music therapy with their patients, they concentrate on the ways in which it can facilitate feelings of comfort and relief from stress and trauma. People report feeling better able to self-regulate their emotional states and becoming more aware of their own emotions, as a benefit of listening to music.
According to the American Music Therapy Association, therapeutic programs anchored in music can help improve a person’s resiliency in the face of stress. That’s because music can trigger the release of body chemicals that act as natural stress reducers. One study reported that listening to music was as relaxing for the test subjects as having a massage.
Older adults exposed to music have shown themselves to become less depressed and to experience increases in self-esteem. For children, particularly those who have undergone trauma or who live with disabilities, the mathematically ordered rhythms of music can produce a sense of increased personal security.
Music genres often make a big difference. Research shows that loud, discordant music can make symptoms of depression even worse, whereas classical music and gentle nature sounds are uplifting.
2. It also decreases physical pain.
Music even helps alleviate symptoms of physical pain. Surgeons who allow their patients to listen to soothing music before and after their procedures tend to need to prescribe less pain medication. Some experts recommend that anyone about to undergo surgery should have the opportunity to enter a state of relaxation through music.
And for people coping with chronic conditions and diseases such as cancer, music has demonstrated its capacity to heighten feelings of life satisfaction. Physicians who administer palliative care specifically focus on alleviating pain, and understand the importance of music in promoting a sense of peace and wellbeing for their patients.
3. Music fosters a better overall mood and greater productivity.
Slow-paced classical music has gained particular renown among researchers for its ability to induce a pleasant state of relaxed attentiveness. Classical music can reduce a person’s pulse and heart rate, and can even reduce blood pressure levels.
When people lower their levels of stress through music, their productivity at work and at home can both increase. One particular study, for example, showed that overworked students in a nursing program experienced less intense feelings of burnout after listening to music.
4. “Sad” and “happy” music both have their place.
One recent survey of Finnish and British subjects showed that, for many people, even music with a sorrowful tone can increase positive feelings and foster a sense of wellbeing. Researchers found that many people preferred to listen to sadder music after an emotionally significant loss. For some, this experience was similar to talking with an empathetic and insightful friend who is a good listener.
Not surprisingly, one 2013 study found that joyous, upbeat music acts to elevate a person’s mood. Research subjects who listened to “happy” music actually became happier after a period of two weeks.
General happiness offers positive effects that reach far beyond mood. Thanks to the mind-body connection, the greater an individual’s sense of happiness, the more likely he or she is to be healthier, earn a higher income, and build more satisfying personal relationships.
5. Music aids meditation and sleep.
For people who meditate, music acts as an anchor to help prevent distracting thoughts. “New age” music and recordings of sounds taken from nature, like rushing water or birdsong, have shown themselves especially suited for this purpose.
People also tend to experience more restful sleep when they listen to classical music, as researchers have found when studying college students who suffer from insomnia.
6. Catchy tunes fuel workouts and sports fitness.
One study found that adult male subjects who listened to fast-paced music during sessions on an exercise bike performed better and worked out harder. Runners and sports enthusiasts in general have long used upbeat music to improve their motivation and endurance. People even tend to better recoup their physical and mental energies post-workout when they listen to positive music.
And when the stakes are high, people listening to music can increase their winning performance. Basketball players previously identified as becoming less effective under pressure gained in their ability to make crucial shots after listening to music with a positive mood.
7. Students study better with music
Music with slower-paced beats, such as that of Baroque composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, has even been found to alter brainwave patterns, resulting in a state of relaxed alertness.
Students can use music to increase their ability to retain all types of information. For example, one group that listened to classical music during a professor’s lecture did better on a series of test questions about the material.
Based on the research of a wide range of experts, the musical styles most conducive to study and to the retention of information are classical, Baroque, and similar genres. Researchers advise students to select works by Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example. Slow-paced lute or guitar music is also helpful for concentration, as are gentle piano compositions by composers such as Claude Debussy.
Over the years, numerous educators and other experts have weighed in on the importance of music education to the intellectual, emotional, and social development of young people. Yet the depth and breadth of music education programs as part of the standard school curriculum varies significantly from one nation to another. Following is an overview of the state of music education in selected countries and regions around the world.
The Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland—offer robust music education programs both in and out of the classroom, all supported through government funding.
One example of this commitment to music education is the fact that Finnish instructors training to teach the subject receive 350 hours of government-supported education.
Finland’s commitment to music education is also notable in that it blends the great music teaching traditions of the Russian and Hungarian educational systems with the full complement of financial support available through the modern Finnish democratic social welfare state.
Finnish music programs integrate the teaching of the subject closely with other academic disciplines with a focus on quality. Music teachers and students also enjoy the advantages that come with Finland’s long-standing respect for the value of music and art. Young children study music as a form of play and exploration within a systematic curriculum that has earned worldwide renown.
Australia offers an example of how a national music education program can look when there is inconsistency in funding and support for it.
One study, administered under the auspices of The Music Trust, an organization that advocates for better music education programs, found that more than 60 percent of the schools that responded did not provide access to music education. Of the schools reporting that they did offer it, less than one-quarter of government-run schools were led by teachers with specialist qualifications in music. The figure is at variance with that of privately supported schools, of which 88 percent of the music programs were taught by specialist instructors.
Australian music education typically focuses on developing students’ general knowledge of the history and practice of music, as well as the ability to express themselves creatively within a musical tradition. Moreover, there is an emphasis on the country’s own musical traditions of the past and present, including those of the Aboriginal people.
In order to increase the quality of Australian music education, a national organization for teachers of music has initiated a government-supported program designed to narrow the gap between private and state-run schools. The program aims to expand the ability of music teachers to obtain ongoing professional development through a mentoring program.
Music education in Canada, like that in the United States and the United Kingdom, presents an inconsistent picture in that the level of commitment to it can vary widely from one school district to another. For example, more than one-third of Canadian schools responding to a recent survey reported that they either had no music program or had one taught by instructors without any background in the subject.
Canadian experts have pointed to several roadblocks that stand in the way of further development of the music curricula, including a lack of funding and qualified teachers, as well as time to develop music programs properly. As in the US, parent groups often hold fundraising events to support their schools’ music programs.
Additionally, Canadian schools typically emphasize the development of music listening skills for younger elementary students, the expansion of the curriculum to include learning performance skills, and visits to local musical performances for older students.
The United Kingdom
In the UK, financial constraints can also be a problem. Yet recent progress includes a 2012 nationwide government initiative that established more than 100 hubs for music education to provide more than 1 million students with the opportunity to use musical instruments.
Critics of the UK’s music education programs have noted that the emphasis on learning to play an instrument takes up most of the average student’s time. Consequently, few students actually study music theory, music history, or the role of music as a vital cultural product.
As in the UK and Canada, many public school districts in the US are inadequately funded. And when budgets do need to be cut, music and arts education are often the first programs to be discontinued.
Parents and music teachers are well aware that their fundraising efforts are often the most significant factor in determining whether their schools can offer a high-quality music program—or any music program at all.