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Art to Heart

Music Basics and Terms

Becoming familiar with the elements of music can help parents and teachers become more comfortable about doing music activities.


The tempo of music refers to how slowly (andante) or how quickly (allegro) the music is played. The beat is the underlying pulse of the music. Like a heartbeat, it can be fast or slow. Music specialists agree that understanding and being able to respond to the beat of music and the tempo of that beat is a fundamental skill that should be started early and practiced often. In the Baby Artsplay class featured in Program 1 of Art to Heart and the Music in Motion class featured in Program 4, parents and children engage in activities designed to get youngsters moving to the beat—like walking, bouncing, and clapping in time to the music.


Rhythm in music is created by combining sounds and silences (notes and rests) of various durations. The beat provides the foundation over which rhythm is organized.


Pitch refers to how high or low the sound is. Instruments and the human voice have a range of pitch—think of how high you can sing a note and how low you can sing a note. Teachers note that identifying high and low pitches can be difficult for children to learn. When they hear a high note, it sounds softer to them, so they think it is low. The low pitches sound loud to them because of the timbre (tone quality) of the voice, so they think they are high. They also confuse pitch with volume, which is natural because adults tell them to turn up the radio or turn down the radio. Therefore, it takes a while for them to hear the really high pitches and realize that you can play either soft or loud on that pitch, but the pitch doesn’t change.


Melody is the combination of pitch and rhythm that we usually refer to as the tune of a song. Music specialists teach primary students to read music by using notes, lines, and spaces on the treble clef staff. You can reinforce this idea by providing many opportunities for children to sing. Showing the music as you sing helps with reading both music and words.


Harmony is the simultaneous sounding of two or more pitches. This vertical aspect of music is often characterized as the music that supports the tune. A way to reinforce this aspect of music is to provide opportunities to sing songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds. This activity will also reinforce listening skills and sharpen attention.


Form is the plan or structure of a piece of music. Some of the forms suitable for primary grades are call and response, AB, and ABA. In call-and-response form, one part is sung, then another part is sung in response. “Hole in the Bucket” is an example of a call-and-response song. In AB form, there are two parts; a song with verses and a chorus (such as “Jingle Bells”) would be in AB form. In ABA form, there are two parts, with the first part (A) repeated after the second (B), as in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”


Timbre (pronounced tam-bor) is the tone color or unique sound created by an instrument (including the voice). Primary students can learn to recognize different qualities of musical sounds and identify instruments by family: brass, woodwind, string, percussion, and human voices.


Dynamics is the relative loudness or softness of sound. You can reinforce this concept by asking students to sing, play instruments, or speak fortissimo (very loud), forte (loud), piano (softly), or pianissimo (very softly). Children enjoy the opportunity to experiment with their voices.

Exploring the Elements of Music

  • Echo singing (singing a line and having the children sing it back to you) is a good way to build listening skills. Be sure that you do not sing back with the children because you will not be able to hear whether they are doing it right if you are singing, too. (When you are echo singing with kids, pitch it pretty high. Children need to learn to sing in their head voice, not in their chest voice. When they are singing in their chest voices, they cannot project their voices as well.)
  • If you are not comfortable singing, you can enhance listening skills with a drum. Play different beats or different rhythms at different tempos. Have children move when you play the drum, but stop when the drum stops. That forces them to listen.
  • Take some of the poems, stories, or nursery rhymes you are reading and have children say them in their “head voice.” Encourage them to use different voices to represent different characters or to make silly sound effects. This gets them ready for vocal expression.
  • Practice clapping rhythms. Or, one child or group of children can clap a beat (a steady pulse, fast or slow) while you or other children clap rhythms over it. This activity helps point out the difference between tempo/beat and rhythm.
  • Play diverse styles of music. With infants and toddlers, bounce or move along to the music. In the classroom, you can start each day with music playing as children enter.
  • As children’s language skills develop, encourage them to make up new words to familiar songs. In the classroom, this activity can be tied to a variety of subject areas—for example, making up new words to help remember science concepts or to practice the alphabet or numbers.
  • Look for opportunities for children to hear and explore different musical instruments. Some orchestras and philharmonics hold “instrument petting zoos” or other special events for younger children.
  • Don’t tell your children or students that you are not musical or that you cannot sing because it might give them the idea that they can’t sing, either. If you feel uncomfortable in your singing, use tapes or CDs.

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