The Clues in Music

Music can be seen as very complex (a Beethoven symphony or Bach variation), sometimes quite simplistic (a nursery rhyme or simple melody).  Music can be heard as dark and ominous, joyful and exciting, or even angst-driven with longing.

But what is it that makes music this way?  The great part about studying music is that there is truly no end to it.  I remember as a college music student, I was excited to walk into my first music theory class and learn all I could about it.  Who knew there would be just so much?!   (And I swear, they must start in on some complex theory concepts to weed out and determine who is really ready to take on a music major.)

The thing is, with music, there are so many people who are intimidated by the potential complexity of it that they think they cannot possibly make sense of it even if they enjoy listening to it.  Hogwash, I say!  With everything else we know about learning, the key is to start small by understanding a few basics of music.

Basic Musical Terms

Just about everyone has a reaction to the music they hear.  Think about that song that makes you cry or gets you excited or helps you relax.  Think of that sound track that scares you or that holiday music that moves you.  Music has such power, doesn’t it?  But why?  It all has to do with the musical clues left by the composer.

When I introduce my classroom of students to the idea that we will be actively listening to music each day, I begin to familiarize them with some basic music vocabulary.  It is through the understanding of this core set of vocabulary words, that students can start to talk intelligently about music.

So, a student who says this about a piece at first, “That made me scared,”  can develop the capacity to formulate this: “The long, low pitched notes in that piece really made me feel nervous, like I was waiting for something to get me!”

I first introduce my students to three terms in music that act as the musical clues they will be listening for:

Dynamics– the louds and softs of music (volume)

Tempo – the speed in music

Pitch – the highs and lows of music (note range)

From there we can discuss other words such as piano (soft), forte (loud), adagio (slow), allegro (quick), etc.

These three terms, though, can last you through the whole year as you listen to and discuss a variety of music.  Of course this takes some practice and the students need some modelling at first.

Inferences Made from the Clues We Hear

When I begin to introduce my students to a new piece of music (which we will then listen to once or twice a day and discuss for a week), I always enjoy getting their first impressions; their initial reactions to the music.   Undoubtedly, they come up with statements such as,

“That was exciting.”   or

“I pictured a chase.” or

“That made me want to sleep.”

What they are doing is making inferences!  This is a great time to bring that up.  People infer with music all the time.  How we react and feel about music is a form of inferring.  But what is it about the piece of music that makes us infer?  This is where you can apply those three easy terms: dynamics, tempo and pitch.

Just like we refer back to a text to uncover the clues that make us create an inference, we must listen back to the music and uncover what musical clues the composer left for us to discover.

Now students will start to come up with more musically intelligent statements such as,

“The fast tempo and high pitched notes made that piece exciting.”  or

“All the booming, low notes and fast tempo made me visualize a chase.” or

“Those long, low notes were played piano (soft), and they were played as such a slow tempo, it relaxed me.  I could have closed my eyes and fallen asleep.”

Listening is Active!

Listening to music is truly an active process.  So much is going on.  At times, it is wonderful to just sit back and listen to music for the pure enjoyment of it.  After, all music is a form of entertainment and is meant to elicit a variety of emotions.  It’s also great to teach students how to listen to music with a musical ear: listening for the clues that make us feel a certain way.

No matter what you teach, you may find that listening to music with your students is something beneficial.  I do!  It builds community and, if you allow for it, get students to have some great, intellectual discussions about music.

Here is a playlist of pieces to get you started.  Happy listening!


Inspired by Listening book
This Complete Resource for classroom teachers and music teachers includes information, activities to advance students’ listening skills, ready-to-use lesson plans for both art and core curriculum based lessons, vocabulary usage, project ideas, reproducible worksheets, rubrics and a list of practical resources you can use to implement active listening strategies into your curriculum. Suggestions for teacher collaboration are provided to encourage integration of subject areas. 8 1/2 X 11, perfect bound, 174 pages, ISBN# 0-9638595-5-2
Price: $20.00
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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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  1. Denise Minnard Campoli says:

    Again and again, I appreciate how you are enlarging the world of your students through music. You are encouraging insight, appreciation, learning and joy!
    Most of all, you are cultivating the skill of listening and hearing which is the most difficult of all. It is a true gift to hear music, the sounds, and all that is in between each note.
    Another benefit is that reading and understanding musical terms provides an opportunity to instigate a desire to learn and appreciate other languages and cultures! Music is an extenuation of language and parallels with all language learning.
    As Claude Debussy stated, “Music is the arithmetic of sounds as optics is the geometry of light.”
    Your students are benefiting tremendously through your efforts!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks Denise! It always amazes me how much students get out of music and it’s fun to watch them start to become more well versed in speaking about it. I always loved how yo incorporated music, dance and other arts into your foreign language lessons. What better way to teach language and culture?!

  2. Leslie says:

    Like most, I appreciate and enjoy music, but not always confident with the technical aspects or terminology. Welcoming adults into your class and reviewing musical terms and how to introduce them into a traditional classroom is very helpful. Many of your ideas and suggestions provide us with a place to start and grow. Often you know the limits of time, and you are seem to find useful resources, such as short compositions, to share with students. Your articles and workshops help to get the creative juices flowing. Teaching kids to hear and listen is a life skill.

    • Hey, Thanks, Leslie. It is exciting to know that teachers in our district are looking for ways to integrated good music into their teaching, so anything I can do… We all know music is powerful, so if we can use it to motivate kids, how awesome is that? And better than that, we can make them knowledgeable listeners too!

  3. Liz Morris says:

    I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you graciously flung open the door to your musical knowledge just when I needed it most. In this current climate of “data collection” and high-stakes standardized tests, your passion and understanding of the benefits of infusing music into the classroom is definitely music to my ears!
    Listening is an important learned skill, although it is easy to forget that we need to teach young children how to do this successfully. Using music is such an authentic and joyful way to provide practice with this critical skill. Thank you for sharing your creative ideas and beneficial methods!

    • I KNOW! It is very hard to keep these things (listening to music, staying creative) alive in the classroom when we are surrounded with the data collecting and urgency in results. I think we need to really support each other in this. I need you guys as much as you say you may need me!

  4. Mary-Ellen Uhlarik says:

    After reading this article I feel very excited about trying active listening with my students. Just looking at how you phrased the questions regarding the musical pieces such as “How does this music make you feel?” In addition introducing the terms of pitch, tempo and dynamics.
    I am very interested in seeing how my students who are language delayed may respond to this experience of active listening. Will this experience relax the children and decrease their inhibitions when posed such questions about music? It will be exciting to see what the outcome is. I am thinking about making some musical detective hats that they can put on during their listening experience and modeling for them.
    Thank you Elizabeth for presenting this activity in a simplistic way so that teachers feel that We can do it!!!

  5. Connie Gile says:

    The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of music vary according to culture and social context. Music ranges from strictly organized compositions (and their recreation in performance), through improvisational music to aleatoric forms. Music can be divided into genres and subgenres, although the dividing lines and relationships between music genres are often subtle.

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