Music Appreciation Made Easy as ABC

I believe that our souls are tuned by God to be affected by music. The Bible is full of references to music, we are encouraged to “make a joyful noise” and “sing unto the Lord a new song.” To me, the most striking reference that shows where music ranks in the priorities of God, however, is John’s revelation of Heaven. We read in Chapter 5 that surrounding His thrown are twenty-four elders with harps. Again and again they are shown serenading God with praises. Or, in other words, God has a surround sound, in-house praise and worship choir.

Many of my memories are tied to music. Certain pieces are intertwined so tightly to my heart strings, that when played again my mind is instantly tugged back to places and emotions of the past. Two seconds of Rossini’s Overture from The Barber of Seville and I’m bouncing up and down in the back seat of our old station wagon on a winding Makakilo mountain road for our family camping trip. The trade-winds are heavy with the scent of seawater and send hair whipping around my face.  Or a smidgen of the synthesized intro of Gary Wright’s Dream Weaver and it’s pitch black outside the dance room as we stretch for another early morning Drill Team practice. The musty stench of leg-warmers and duffle bags surrounds me and my hamstrings twinge in protest. All the feelings of those days flood back to my mind with the trickle of but a few notes. In some cases, the emotions and musical memory are as thread spun to the point I need not hear the music at all. I must simply read the number of my husband’s favorite hymn to once again be floating down the aisle at our wedding, the excitement bubbling in my belly as the fragrance of tuberoses rises to mix with the clouds of incense. It astounds me how music can have such a profound impact on us. Do any songs affect you in that way? Please share your story in the comments below.

The ancient Greeks were convinced of the power of music. It was included as a required subject to mold the whole person. They believed the type of music one listened to had a direct affect the on a person’s future behavior, that it could instill specific virtues. The more a child could be exposed to harmonious music, the greater, it was thought, their understanding of justice would one day be. It was also held that music could be applied as a balm to restore harmony to an upset soul.

The souls of our families have so much truth, goodness, and beauty to reap from studying music, especially the classical music of the past. All one must do to receive these gifts is to regularly listen with the two-fold purpose of discerning what is being heard and to cultivate a love of music. Yes, I don’t want my children to just appreciate music, I want them to love music. A love for music is what will cause children to seek out the great works for themselves. It is a love that piece by piece builds a growing relationship that will last a lifetime and bless the furniture of their minds with a phonograph, their own soundtrack of beauty to revisit and replay their whole lives long.

Few children will be fully captivated at their first introduction to classical music. In a fallen world, all our affections require diligent effort to be rightly ordered. Like a baby slowly learning to eat solid foods, we must learn to love great music through increased familiarity over time. And as homeschooling parents, we are the ones who must provide the opportunities for our children to fall in love with classical music.

This is why it grieves me to hear friends are hesitant to listen to classical music with their children. This is why I’m sitting in my dim living room to write on this subject while the rest of my family peacefully slumbers. Some have a sincere interest in sharing the joy of classical music with their children but don’t know where to start. They are intimidated or overwhelmed by the logistics of teaching music. Some are deterred by their lack of familiarity with musical concepts and terminology, and the perceived complexity of the pieces themselves. If any of these friends describe you, please keep reading. By sharing the easy ABCs of our family’s method today, I want to help put these valid concerns to rest and demystify music education at home by equipping you with some ideas for beginning the practice of listening with purpose along side your children.

It is a fallacy that one must have extensive knowledge of music theory to delight in classical music, so please don’t let knowing little to nothing about the constituting elements of music be an impediment to your family’s pursuit of the enjoyment and learning of the subject. If one can recognize when a segment of music is the same or different from the last, then one can glean worth in listening to classical music. And the seeds sown by an early introduction to this form of ear training will yield a bountiful harvest for your family culture with memories and conversations for years to come. (I know, I know. That sounds really cheesy and sentimental, but, hand to God, I’ve witnessed the benefits with my own young children.)

We use the following framework for structured listening at least once a week for music study in our homeschool, and as part of liturgical living on our family’s favorite feast days. Our method is a procedure of three steps (A, B, & C) that consists of listening to a piece of music only a couple times in a row while having a different task – purpose – each listening. The whole processes is done in one sitting and takes, on the long side 15 -20 minutes depending on the piece chosen for study and length of conversation. For younger children it can be quite short. And do not hesitate to exclude the littlest ones in your home. My 18 month old goddaughter just dances around to the music. Which is perfect for laying the foundation for the love of music at that age!

You could focus on a composer or period of music, choosing one for the term or month. Charlotte Mason’s students studied a composer per term. In our home pieces are chosen based on Ambleside Online’s compser schedule, my personal preferences, and the liturgical year.

I purposely created this method to have freedom, flexibility, and adaptability in its implementation because with all our growing boys it is a necessity. Use this method the way that benefits your family the most and works best with the current ages of your children. 

Our Easy ABCs of Music Appreciation

A – Attentive Listening

The first thing the kids and I do when we sit down to for music study is close our eyes and silently listen to the previously selected piece from start to finish. We are “silent coyotes” as my dear college professor, Mrs.Carr, would say. My oldest just turned seven years old so the boys’ closed eyes keep the distractions to a minimum and let them imagine the music with their complete attention. For this first playing we listen with the purpose of simply acquainting ourselves with the new piece.

B – Bodily Movment

Our next step is to listen to the piece again as we participate in a form of physical movement. This is to tap into the area of kinesthetic learning and the connection between movement and memory. We are making the abstract more concrete, more tangible.

In this second step we do things like:

  • pat the music’s tempo (speed) and dynamics (the way the notes are played, volume, smooth, jump)
  • dance in our seats
  • make a music collage by painting or drawing the story or parts we hear in the music
  • act out the playing of the instruments we are hearing
  • follow along with a listening map
  • make a listening map showing the piece’s form (the order themes happen) out of stickers or drawings
  • use clay, playdoh, or wax to make what we are hearing
  • draw or paint the piece’s texture (the few or many parts making the music)
  • conduct the the tempo (speed) of the piece
  • Motif, chord, or interval bingo

We pick one activity per piece. The suggestions above are listed from more simple early education appropriate options to the more complicated middle grade tasks and beyond.

Similar to a nature notebook, all the paintings and drawings are easier to keep together in a devoted notebook or listening journal. Labling the page with the date, piece title, composer’s name, and any description the child provides helps keep things organized and allows us to easily compare their work when the piece or composer is revisited.

C – Conversation

In this last step, we listen to the piece and talk together about what we are hearing as it plays. During this conversation, I use the music terminology and define each term as I go along. When speaking about a musical concept at a child’s level, I make a point to introduce the proper term when explaining the concept. Every time that concept is relevant again, I remind my boys of the definition and term as an inseparable pair. For example: “Did you hear any notes in the piece that were short and jumpy? We call notes like that staccatto,” or, “Now when we hear the forte parts, we’re going to clap the beat as loud as we can. Remember forte means loud.” Music has a language all its own and, like any foreign language, it takes time and exposure to gain fluency. I have provided some basic terms above, but will also be compiling a post for quicker reference so that side by side with your children, you can gradually learn music’s vocabulary.

All that being said, the last thing I want to do is make you think a farmiliarity with musical terms is a requirement to begin. It is definately not! Many meaningful connections can be made with the music, and each other, when we use our own descriptions to explain the music we hear. The fact that a concept is being observed in the music is more important then what one calls it, so please go ahead and begin. The unique family lexicon created in the process is an added gift that will help everyone make greater lasting connections when the terms are introduced.

Step C is also where I share historical information about the composer and piece. (This can easily be found on Google. University websites and program notes from regional symphonies are reputable sources.)

While listening, older children are able to volunteer their observations with few prompts and the music itself. Some older children may not required this listening in order to relate what they heard at all.

Given my sons’ young ages, right now I ask a lot of open ended questions.

For example:

  • What instruments do you hear (orchestration)?
  • Are there few or many instruments making the music (texture)?
  • What is the speed of the music (tempo)?
  • Do you hear any parts of the music repeating? (motive, themes, form)
  • What does the sound music like to you? How would you describe this part? Is it calm or smooth or loud or jumpy? (Here for dynamics, I just go through several adjectives for them to choose from. Older children can provide these on their own.)
  • What kind of story is the music telling? Is it happy, etc? (I use more describing words here for mood/tone.)
  • How does the music make you feel? (mood/tone)
  • What do you hear in the music?
  • Does the music remind you or anything or paint a specific picture in your mind?

You don’t need to ask every question each time, or even expect older children to recognize all the elements of music mentioned above. That discernment will grow with every future listening. The more one practices listening with purpose the easier and more comprehensive it will become. I encourage and applaud any comment. With fast music, one of my son’s usual descriptions is that it sounds like, “little mice running around.” These creative observations are valuable in the early days of ear training as they reinforce the child’s attentive listening and confedence.

For older children: A written narration of the composer’s life and the heard specifics of the music could be done during the conversation as well. These narrations would be a lovely addition to the child’s music notebook/ listening journal.

Finally, if everyone is well into the enjoyment of the piece, we will play it again just for the fun of it – an extra bonus listening time and a little closing dance party as we transition to our next subject of the day.

I pray that the method I employ with my five little ones will give you the confidence and tools you need to make the great works of music approachable with your own children.

St. Cecelia and St. Blaise, pray for us!


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