These lessons focus on the joys of listening to music and of creating your own instruments. Instead of exploring how to read music or how to play a specific instrument, I wanted to concentrate instead on learning a bit about musical genres and on making instruments with household objects. This, I think, is a terrific way to investigate sound. I’ve mixed in some other fun activities here, too, like learning some basics of African dance and building a musical Rube Goldberg machine.
If you’ve already explored sound a bit in “Teach Kids About Sound and Hearing,” this is a great next step (or if you haven’t, you might raid that page for additional ideas to use at the beginning of these lessons).
What Kids Might Do
In these explorations, kids might…
- Make a drum set from tin lids
- Make instruments from CDs, film canisters, and coffee cans
- Explore protest music
- Design a musical Rube Goldberg machine
- Do an African dance tutorial
- Get an in introduction to different genres of music
- Make bagpipes from latex gloves
- Experiment with tempo, dynamics, and pitch
- and more
Designed for preschool and elementary students, but many parts will be enjoyable for older children and adults, too.
Music and How It Works: The Complete Guide for Kids, DK [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this well-executed and wide-ranging guide to music for beginners, kids can learn about the basics of reading and composing music, types of instruments and how they produce sound, and musical genres and their history. Like a lot of DK books, the text is arranged in small bursts all over the pages — more like facts or trivia than an essay — but it’s well designed and feels very current. Most pages include truly helpful playlists, filled with music kids will actually like, and these playlists are great not only for understanding musical genres but also for grasping terms like “displaced rhythm” or “canon structure.” (There’s a well-organized Spotify account with all the playlists, or, of course, you can search for the songs yourself.) The book also makes a real effort to be inclusive — and not just with the featured artists. There are whole spreads on K-Pop and Indian classical music, for example, and a world map of musical styles, too. While the book doesn’t feel like an in-depth course on music, it’s a terrific way to sample a lot of different styles and to have fun exploring.
Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, Michael Mahin and Evan Turk [Amazon | Bookshop] — This very good picture book biography of Muddy Waters features bustling, electric illustrations and language that wonderfully evokes the blues: “But to play the blues was to take that low-down, skunk-funk, deep-stomach hurt and turn it into something else.” It’s particularly good for slightly older children (7+), who might better understand the historical and geographical references (the Mississippi Delta, jazz, sharecropping, and record production, for instance), and the author’s note at the back is full of fantastic information, too.
One Love [Amazon | Bookshop] and Get Up, Stand Up [Amazon | Bookshop], Bob Marley, Cedella Marley, and Vanessa Brantley-Newton — In this series of books, Marley’s daughter has adapted several of his songs for children. You can’t exactly listen to the music at the same time — the words are just different enough to make it awkward — but the memorable choruses come through here. Although the books do feel somewhat generic (as many songs-turned-books do), they can be a fun way to get children to connect more deeply to the messages in the songs.
Hip Hop Speaks to Children: 50 Inspiring Poems with a Beat, Nikki Giovanni (ed.) [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this wonderful introduction to hip-hop and poetry, poet Nikki Giovanni’s has made some fantastic selections, pitched perfectly to young children. The book comes with a CD, too, featuring musical excerpts (like from The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First”) and poems from poets like Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes, read by the authors themselves.
- The Kennedy Center’s lessons and resources on music education — Excellent and detailed lesson plans for music education (and the Kennedy Center has plenty of other lesson plans, too).
- Nicolas Bras – Musiques de Nulle Part — A fascinating YouTube channel with guides for making musical instruments, from the simple to the complex.
Intro and Classical Music
Read: “Why Do We Love Music?,” “Seven Ingredients,” Music and How It Works: The Complete Guide for Kids, DK [Amazon | Bookshop] 6-9
“How Is Sound Made?,” Music and How It Works 18-19
Read: “Classical,” Music and How It Works 22-23
Watch: George Meets the Orchestra | An Introduction to the Orchestra for Children
Listen: Guide to instruments and their sounds (with sound clips) from The Dallas Symphony
Or read and listen: The Kennedy Center’s Guide to the Orchestra (for children)
Look: Architecture in Music by photographer Charles Brooks
Beautiful, fascinating photographs of the interiors of musical instruments. For an article with photos, click here.
Musical Machines and Rube Goldberg machines
Watch: Wintergatan – Marble Machine (music instrument using 2000 marbles)
Watch: Rube Goldberg sound machine
Activity: Musical Rube Goldberg machine
Construct a musical Rube Goldberg machine. We used a lap harp, drums, a xylophone, marble run components, and some handmade paper funnels to make our machine. You might also consider using pans, cooking trays, and wood or cardboard boxes. It’s quite tricky (but good fun) to get it just right — and even then ours only worked occasionally. But it was tremendously exciting when it did!
Interlude: Traditional African Styles
Read: “Traditional African Styles,” Music and How It Works 16-17
Listen: Traditional African Styles playlist (linked in Music and How It Works)
Percussion / Rhythm
Read: “Percussion,” Music and How It Works 14-15
“Rhythm,” Music and How It Works 62
“Tempo,” Music and How It Works 63
Read: “Reggae,” Music and How It Works 64-5
Activity: Walk slowly or run to a song to explore tempo or do Music and Movement with Dr. Erica Glenn, which gives children an opportunity to explore music through body movement
Watch: Gravity (an exploration of rhythm)
Watch and do: The Hambone (body percussion)
Watch: Baka Forest People Play the River Like a Drum
Activity: Djembe lessons
This is best on the off-chance that you happen to have a djembe or similar drum (it doesn’t work terribly well with common children’s drums). It’s an interesting exploration of sound and rhythm, though, even if you just watch it. Alternatively, see below for African dance lessons (which don’t require any supplies).
Lesson one, with history
Lesson two, playing a rhythm on the djembe or another drum
Activity: African dance lessons
These excellent lessons are short, fun, and a good workout. Part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Watch: Heavy Metal: The Physics of DIY Instruments (a video about found-metal instruments and the show GLANK)
Activity: Make a drum set and cymbals from lids
You might think these drum sets wouldn’t produce good sound, but they’re actually pretty great. For the best results, try to get a variety of lid sizes. I used small lids from tomato paste cans, medium lids from bean cans, and large lids from metal coffee cans (these can be somewhat hard to find, but I used this, and the rest of the can came in handy for the coffee can cuíca below). The glued can here is from a small tin of pineapple. You might try soda tabs on the nails for extra jingly noises (secure them by putting rubber bands at the top of the nails), and if you have decorative washi tape, it’s great for giving the drum boards some style. Full instructions here. For more ideas for how to make music with just can lids, see here: Making music with only tin can lids.
Activity: Coffee can cuíca
You can play this instrument by rubbing the bamboo skewer with a damp piece of cloth (like a piece of an old t-shirt). Full instructions here.
Activity: Water-bottle membranophone (see “Wind Instruments” below)
You can make the membranophone here, where it can demonstrate vibrations in a drum, if you like. I’ve put it under “Wind Instruments,” as you play it by blowing into a straw, and you can find the instructions below, under that heading.
Read: “Jazz,” Music and How It Works 48-9
Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, Chris Raschka
Or watch: Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, a musical performance of the book by the Reader’s Theater Project for the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles
Listen: Jazz playlist (linked in Music and How It Works)
Read: “How High Can You Go?,” Music and How It Works 34-5
Watch: An Introduction to Opera’s Voice Types
Kids Meet an Opera Singer
Activity: Percussion instruments and pitch
Put different amounts of water in glass bottles and predict which ones will create higher or lower pitches. Full instructions here (click “Get printable version” or click here). You can then remove the tops and blow across the bottles to do the same activity for woodwinds.
Activity: Pipes of Pan
For this listening activity, collect cardboard tubes in a variety of sizes and hot-glue them to a piece of wood. (I used poster tubes, paper towel tubes, and toilet rolls, but you can also tape paper towel or toilet roll tubes together to make a variety of sizes.) Kids can put their ears to each tube in turn and discuss the variety of frequencies they hear. Full instructions here.
Activity: Blob Opera
Drag four blobs to change their pitches and create a piece of music (or just watch them perform songs from around the world).
Interlude: The Blues
Read: “The Blues,” Music and How It Works 46-7
Listen: Blues playlist (linked in Music and How It Works)
Read: Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, Michael Mahin and Evan Turk [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch and do: Feel the Dynamics with Zeynep Alpan
Explore dynamics with a glass jar and a pencil.
Read: “Wind Instruments,” Music and How It Works 28-29
Activity: Make film canister whistle
These easy instruments make a whistling sound when you swing them in the air. I used these film canisters to make ours. Simply pierce them with a regular pair of scissors and cut a hole (you can experiment, too, with larger and smaller holes). Full instructions here.
Activity: Make a bee hummer
When you swing this instrument around rapidly, it makes a fascinating buzzing sound. If you’re not hearing a loud buzz — it will be very clear — make sure that no part of the paper is touching the rubber band. Small adjustments will get this working in no time. Full instructions here.
Activity: Make a CD flute
For this instrument, you need three CDs, some scissors, and hot glue. It needs to sit atop a cup or container to make noise, and you can experiment with different cups, jars, or vessels to see what types of sounds you can produce. Full instructions here.
Activity: Make a sound sandwich
Even toddlers can make a thrilling, silly sound with this easy instrument. To make a variety of sounds with this, slide one of the interior straws back and forth. Full instructions here.
Activity: Make latex glove bagpipes
It’s amazing what you can do with a glove and a couple of straws. This instrument is loud and does not make beautiful music, but it’s really delightful all the same. Take note that the trimmed straw, even on its own, makes a fun sound and is easier for toddlers to use than the full bagpipe (though my 7-year-old could get the bagpipe to work from time to time and everyone loved when I really got it going). Full video instructions here.
Activity: Water-bottle membranophone
With a latex glove, straw, water bottle, paper, and rubber bands, you can create this simple-to-play instrument. (My 5-year-old had no problems playing it.) If you’re not getting sound out of it, try pushing the paper tube up a bit more, so it’s pressed more against the membrane. My children thought this instrument was hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing. Full instructions here.
Read: “Funk,” Music and How It Works 56-7
Listen: Funk playlist (linked in Music and How It Works)
Read: “String Instruments,” Music and How It Works 38-9
Listen: Recordings with Stradivari and Rugeri violins from the Royal Academy of Music
Listen: Aeolian Harp
Listen: Anoushka Shankar plays “Pancham Se Gara”
Activity: Head harp
Wrap a string around your head, being careful to stretch it over your ears, and pluck it! Full instructions here.
Activity: Make stringed instruments with boxes and rubber bands
If you have a variety of rubber bands (different thicknesses and widths) and construct them properly, these little instruments are truly delightful. Complete instructions in video here.
Read: “K-Pop,” Music and How It Works 78-9
Listen: K-Pop playlist (linked in Music and How It Works)
Watch: BTS, “Butter”
Read: “Hip-Hop,” Music and How It Works 72-3
Listen: Hip-hop playlist (linked in Music and How It Works)
Read/listen: Hip Hop Speaks to Children: 50 Inspiring Poems with a Beat, Nikki Giovanni (ed.) [Amazon | Bookshop] (I particularly recommend the Queen Latifah and Sugarhill Gang excerpts from this book. It comes with a CD, too, so you can listen as you read.)
Interlude: What’s Popular Around the World?
Activity: Explore your geographic musical bubble (and others)
This map allows you to play #1 songs in various locations (but be aware that some of them might not be appropriate for children).
Songwriting and Lyrics
Watch: The Power of Music in Film — How Music Affects Film
Read: “How to Build a Song,” Music and How It Works 20-21
“Layers of a Song,” Music and How It Works 70-1
Listen: “Layers of a Song” playlist (linked in Music and How It Works)
Activity: Advocacy songwriting workshop
A really wonderful lesson that analyzes civil rights protest songs and the well-known Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” (both the version that most schoolchildren know and the original composition, which features a clearer critique). I printed out Guthrie’s full lyrics (below) and covered the later verses with a sticky note at first so that we could talk about the well-known version before we looked at the more critical one. It worked great this way! Full instructions here.
For use with this lesson, you can see:
Woody Guthrie’s original lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land” here. (And you can also see materials for and a virtual tour of the Morgan Library and Museum’s Woody Guthrie exhibit, “Woodie Guthrie: The People Are the Song” here.)
Listen to “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” here and find a version of the lyrics here (not exact to the video, but it’s a flexible protest song).
See also: The Freedom Singers perform “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the March on Washington
and “When Will We Be Paid,” The Staples Singers: listen here, lyrics here.
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