Ode to Sound and Music: A Classroom Project

By Nancy Howe, Head Teacher

In the car today, on the way to school, I heard a jazz trio. There was a trumpet, a cello and a drum! —Alice

Listening to complex music, like the baroque fugues of Bach, is as important for brain development as learning to read. Research has shown that when children are repeatedly exposed to complex music, systematically sequenced in complexity, neural networking in their brains is increased, leading to long-term, higher-level cognitive functioning throughout life.

—Music for Their Minds, Young Children, Rebecca Shore and Janis Strasser, March 2006

At the beginning of winter quarter 2010, teachers in the Center PM classroom placed a variety of rhythm and traditional instruments on the discovery table for the children to interact with and explore. Children were immediately drawn to the instruments: a triangle, a set of maracas, a guiro, rhythm sticks, a drum, a Cajun washboard vest, spoons and a ukulele. They gathered spontaneously to play them, not only upon entering, but also throughout the afternoon. As the children became more experienced with the instruments, they organized impromptu parades around the play yard and concerts in the yard’s redwood grove. They also began to incorporate musical instruments into their dramatic play, both outdoors and inside the classroom. For example, they used a triangle as a doorbell and a drum became a car’s horn. Over the next few weeks, as teachers observed the children’s growing interest in music, we decided that “Sound and Music” would be our long-term classroom project.

Teachers were interested in finding out what children already knew about sound, music and musical instruments. Teachers began ethnographic research and developed questions. When asked, “What is your favorite instrument?” children responded enthusiastically with their preferences.

GARAB: I like the violin because it has a bow.

JOHN PAUL: I like the drums because then I can wake everyone up in my house!

SARAH: The piano. I like the sound. It’s low. It’s in a lot of ballets and I like ballets.

ROHAN: The sax because I like the keys.

ALEJANDRA: I like the flute because it’s like whistling.

Teachers arranged a variety of musical instruments on an art table as a way to heighten children’s awareness of each instrument. Paper and pencils were set out and the children were invited to look closely, interact with the instruments, ask questions and then draw what they saw. Observational drawing is a cognitive teaching tool that teachers often use to help children develop a deeper understanding of an object of study. While drawing a saxophone, Kiran said, “Press one and it’ll make the other button move. They’re connected.” Alexandra said, “You blow there and sort of press some buttons all around it.”

Teachers were also interested in understanding children’s theories about sound and how it travels.

MARTY: Sound blows. The little molecules that sound are made of travel around.

YAYA: Sound travels like a train!

As the project progressed, children became more aware of sounds in their environment: sounds heard on the Bing play yard, kitchen sounds, sounds of the night, man-made and mechanical sounds and what John Muir referred to as “the music of nature.” “I heard some ‘grumbling’ and that means a storm is coming!” said Amelia. Parents shared anecdotes from home about the children’s interest in sounds and music. On a walk with his mother, Nicholas said, “Mom, even cars and trucks sound like music.”

Children discovered ways to use their body to make sounds and music including foot stomping, handclapping, finger snapping, knee tapping and even whistling. They were intrigued by how they could control and regulate their voice to express emotions, vary speed and alter volume. Children enjoyed coming up with metaphors for loud sounds and soft ones.

As loud as:

ALEXANDRA: A nighttime train.

FAYE: Lions roaring in the night.


As quiet as:

AMANN: A whisper.

KIRAN: The world. It’s a really beautiful paradise.

Music inspired kinesthetic expression. Children danced with brightly colored scarves to the music of Stravinsky’s Firebird and ragtime music encouraged tap shoe shuffles!

What kind of music makes you want to dance?

YAYA: Beethoven. My daddy picks me up when the loud parts come!

Story time was a way to deepen the children’s understanding of music and create a shared musical culture. Teachers selected books that had sound or music as their central focus and they creatively transformed a non-musical story into a musical one by using the guitar as sound effect for the story Corduroy. Technology was successfully incorporated into stories as teachers identified selections to highlight musical genres and artists. Guest musicians, including family members, Stanford students, former teachers and even neighbors, performed regularly at story time. They also answered the children’s many insightful questions. The questions ranged from the personal, “How old were you when you started playing?” to the more technical, “What happens when you push that key down?” or, “How does the guitar sound when you unplug it?” There were innovative musings like, “What would happen if you put a stone in a trombone?” or “Can you play a clarinet with no hands?”

Several children played their violins, one accompanied by her aunt on the upright bass and the other by his violin teacher. There were solos, duets and a string quartet. Mark Applebaum, Stanford associate professor of composition and theory and a Bing parent, brought his entire improvisational music class to perform for the children. Teachers and parents noted that the children’s attention span for listening to music increased dramatically. They truly became an attentive, appreciative and supportive audience.

The children’s repertoire of musical knowledge grew to include musical genres from reggae and jazz to classical and country. They were introduced to classical composers Beethoven and Mozart. They had opportunities for first-hand experiences with at least a dozen musical instruments, including trombone, electric guitar, didgeridoo and even a 12-foot-long telescopic Swiss alphorn.

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, an easily recognizable piece of music introduced at story time, became the class theme song. The classroom piano was a frequent gathering spot, often shared by several children. It allowed for flexibility in learning styles as auditory learners enjoyed playing by ear while a parent provided the sheet music for Ode to Joy with color-coded notations and matching colors attached to the piano keys for the more-visual learners. As children became familiar with the music, they were eager to practice, experiment, share or collaborate with one another. A child came up with his own lyrics for the music by incorporating names of countries he knew: Ode to Canada, Ode to Australia… It spurred children’s interest in adding their own contributions and resulted in a collaborative Ode to all things held dear at story time: Ode to My Brother, Ode to My Mother, Ode to Nature, Ode to Food….

Children enjoyed spontaneously making and playing their own instruments. They created instruments from found materials: tongue-depressor harmonicas, cardboard-tube didgeridoos and rain sticks, rubber-band guitars, pebble maracas, a hanging xylophone, grass whistles and drums made from large cardboard tubes used to construct concrete pillars. They made a guitar out of paper, a saxophone from wood as well as one from clay and an “orchestra city” made with LEGO. In the redwood grove, children formed a stomp band, like its Broadway namesake, using overturned plastic paint buckets, pot lids and broomsticks. Its call and response beat echoed through the trees! They created an Appalachian jug band with washboards and a one-string bass made from a washtub, broomstick and fishing line.

The culminating event to the Sound and Music Project was a concert performed by all the children at the Center PM end-of-the-year potluck picnic. Each snack group chose a song and musical instruments to play—there was an Appalachian jug band, a stomp band, a rubber-band guitar band and a song highlighting the voice as an instrument. Hopefully, each child will remember this year with a song in their heart and an ode to the joy created when we all made music together!

Bing Nursery School has long recognized the value of music for young children and has made music an integral part of its early childhood curriculum. Each day includes a half-hour music and movement activity, and each classroom holds a large selection of traditional rhythm instruments, such as maracas, tambourines, rhythm sticks, triangles, guiros and drums, and a piano that can be played by children, teachers, students or parents. Every classroom also has an iPod with a variety of musical genres from a wide range of eras and cultures, and the best in children’s music. Available to all classrooms are wooden tone blocks, auto harps, drums of all sizes and shapes, and colored silk scarves, tap shoes and tutus for movement and dance. An extensive music library of songbooks and teacher resource books complete the extensive array of musical opportunities.

Story time in each classroom incorporates new as well as familiar songs, action rhymes and finger plays so that children have the opportunity to sing together as a group. Teachers inspire one another, swapping songs and sharing props. Some teachers enjoy playing an instrument like the banjo, ukulele or guitar.

Musical instruments children encountered first-hand during the project:

• Accordion

• Cello

• Clarinet

• Didgeridoo

• Electric bass guitar

• French horn

• Indian tabla

• Piano

• Saxophone

• Swiss alphorn

• Trombone

• Violin