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  • Writer's pictureJanis Aston

Start with what they know

Teaching music reading skills begins in Kindergarten

Kindergartners come to you with a lot of vocabulary, preconceived ideas, and a wide range of experiences and exposure to music. Most children this age understand the concept of opposites. So . . . let's start with what they know and begin building a solid foundation that will eventually translate into an understanding of how to read music.

There are three fundamental sets of opposites that you can use at the beginning of school—loud-soft, fast-slow, and high-low. The most important thing to remember is that children's concept of these words is visual and physical, not aural. Your job is to help them make that transition.


I don't think I ever had a kindergartner who didn't have an understanding of the words—loud and soft.

So this is a fairly easy concept to begin with. One of the first things introduced early in the kindergarten curriculum is the four ways we use our voices—speaking, whispering, shouting, and singing.

Echo-whisper: "This is my whispering voice."

Echo-speak: "This is my speaking voice."

Echo-shout: "This is my shouting (calling) voice."

Echo-sing, using sol-mi, "This is my singing voice."

Show a variety of picture examples of people, animals, vehicles making loud and soft sounds. Let the students mimic these sounds. Let students sort these pictures. Put the words Loud and Soft on the board and have students attach the pictures under the correct word.

After you have your expectations set for movement activities, play different selections of music that have contrasting sections/phrases of loud and soft. Before moving around the room play the music and have students pat hands on knees when they hear the loud music and use their "tiptoe" fingers on knees when they hear soft music. Then have students march and tiptoe accordingly to the music.

Most curriculum has selections of music with loud-soft sections. One suggestion—"Radetsky's March" by J. Strauss. See video.

Assessing kindergarten students. Video tape while they move to loud soft-music. Watch their feet—March to loud sections in the music, tiptoe to the soft sections.

After two years of experience with loud and soft sounds in music, students are ready to transition to the musical terminology—forte and piano. Then they progress to the finer nuances of dynamics—crescendo, decrescendo.

Even though this may not seem like a "music-reading skill," it lays the foundation. Start with something they know. Think about it. Interpretation of dynamics is a huge part of reading and making music. Approach Loud-Soft just as you would any other skill.


Fast-Slow are also two words that your kindergarten students will know. Show pictures and they will be able to identify the objects, animals, people moving fast and slow. However, this will be a little different when applying the same words to music.

Activities for teaching Fast-Slow also include moving to music that has very distinctly different sections of music. Suggestions—"The Elephant" by Hap Palmer and "Doot Doot" by Mason Williams. These are also great selections for teaching form. But we will save that for another day. When listening to "Doot Doot," I told the students to pretend they were driving their cars to work. They had to pull out of the driveway, get on the road, and then drive to work. For the slow section, I told them they ran into a traffic jam, slow-mo, no passing! And I was the policeman who pulled over anyone who was going too fast during the fast sections. They love it!!


Now, High-Low is a much more difficult concept for kindergartners to understand. Some children associate the words, high and low with volume on a device—radio, CD player, tablet, etc. "Turn it up higher, I can't hear it!" Lately, I've been seeing commercials for a local grocery chain—"How low can you go?" So the challenge for the music teacher is to find ways to "Take what they know" and transition to what we want them to learn about High-Low sounds/pitches in music.

On the first day of kindergarten, I began the routine—echo-clap simple rhythms. It only took a few minutes before they caught on. After 2-3 classes of echo-rhythms, I began echo-sounds. I just transitioned from the rhythms to making a low-to-high sound AND used my hands to show low to high. Never said a word. Just did that for several weeks. Vocalizing lots of sounds—sirens, low barks, high barks, cat meows, moos, ghost sounds, other random sounds while ALWAYS using my hands to indicate the movement from high to low.

Finally, after many weeks of doing this, I would ask, "Does anyone know why I am moving my hands this way when we make those sounds?" Usually, no one answered. So I would ask, "What if I did it this way? Would that be right?" And I would make a low to high sound but move my hands in the opposite way—high to low. (NOTE: That is hard to do!!) They would look at me like I was crazy! "No, Mrs. Aston!" "Why, not?" Silence. Then someone would say, "Because those are high sounds. So your hands should be high." Exactly!! Bingo! And everyone agreed.

Put the words, High and Low, on the board. Distribute lots of pictures of things that are high and things that are low. Play high-low sounds on a keyboard or recorder or other instrument and let students choose which pictures represent the sound and which word to place them under. A video like the one below is helpful. No, there is no sound. In the actual activity, the teacher is directed to furnish the appropriate high-low sounds.

When you introduce Kodály syllables and hand signs (Curwen), your kindergartners will automatically move their hands high and low. You have helped them internalize these sounds and that's preparation for reading music. The next step is to show sol-mi on the staff. Smooth and natural transitions are so much easier than spending frustrating amounts of time explaining.

Following is a list of items that you might find helpful when introducing these concepts to your students.

Activities and Lesson Plans

Activities and Lesson Plans, Powerpoint

And, as always, have fun with your students!

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