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Music: Thinking in Music

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By Robin WarrenKey Stage 2 Co-ordinator, Islington

These simple strategies will help you teach children to listen to music, appraise what they hear and compose their own pieces

Music is a fun subject. It is relaxing, enjoyable and noisy – but it can also be a daunting subject to teach. This pack is designed for non-specialists and provides a simple introduction to developing music thinking. The activities are loosely linked to the QCA Scheme of Work and promote creativity and imagination, as well as covering the basic skills of composition, listening and responding to music, and creating music through concept mapping.

The ideas that follow can easily be incorporated into your planning, either as one-off activities or as a series of units. Each unit is easily adaptable for different year groups and can be used as an introduction to specific skills.

The activities and ideas follow a collaborative learning approach, whereby children share ideas with a partner or group and are encouraged to evaluate their own learning. This also forms a basis for teacher assessment and ensures that all children get to share everyone’s answers.

The sessions do not necessarily have to take place in a music room – they can easily be carried out in the classroom and some could be performed in the hall linked to a PE lesson.

Key skills

It is important to note that before children can do really complicated things, such as following a rhythmic pattern or attempting a loop of sound on a computer, they have to be confident with basic musical skills and terminology (see Activity sheet, ‘Music glossary’. It is essential that children understand the meanings of these words and use them when describing the pieces of music that they hear, and also when creating music themselves. One way to ensure the children have grasped the terms is to ask them to design a poster that shows one or more of the words and explains its meaning. You can display these posters during your subsequent music lessons as useful visual reminders.

Warm-up activities

Try the following activities to get you and your class ready and raring for music. The activities will develop children’s concentration and activate their minds, and are particularly useful after playtime or a PE lesson, when children may find it difficult to focus. The game is called Copy Me. It’s very simple – you just give the class a series of instructions to follow:

  • Do this – hold out your hands and touch your thumb with each finger.
  • Say this – give the children a tongue twister such as ‘Betty bought badger’s bounty bar beautifully’.
  • Clap this – clap various rhythms for the children to copy.
  • Do this – fold your arms (or similar).

Making a music mind movie

Overview of the strategy

Music is like language. It has to be acquired, understood, learned and rehearsed until you are proficient. The questions we ask when writing a story – Why? Who? Where? When? How? – can also be applied to music.

The first thing to learn about in music is listening. Listening does not come naturally – it is a skill that has to be taught. Children will have begun to learn to listen in Key Stage 1, and it is now time to develop this area to expand the language of music and most importantly, the thinking about music. This activity teaches children to listen carefully and analyse what they hear. They use this information and their imaginations to create their own ‘music mind movie’.

Curriculum links

QCA Scheme of Work Unit 9 – Exploring descriptive sounds, and Unit 18 – Exploring sound sources.

Cross-curricular link:

PE (dance).

Targeted age group: any age range in Key Stage 2. The activity will provide new skills for Year 3 and 4 children and consolidate other skills for Year 5 and 6.


The aim of this strategy is to illustrate different types of instruments, and show how musical elements can be used together. Children will create a mind movie based on sound.


You will need:

  • a small hand fan
  • a filled hot water bottle
  • water
  • other objects to represent the elements of story, such as leaves, wool or wood
  • a copy of the ‘Making a music mind movie’ sheet opposite for each child.

Starter activity

Children need to be sitting or lying down for this activity. Darken the room as much as you can by switching off the lights and pulling down the blinds if you have them. Ask the children to sit in silence and to concentrate on their breathing. Select some appropriate music to play, preferably something instrumental with an outdoor theme. (See our suggestions in the box below.) Before you begin, ask the children to pass around around the props listed under ‘Preparation’ (see below) and to think about what images they conjure up. They may be able to use these ideas later on in the activity.

Read the following passages to the children. Explain that they must focus on the task and listen carefully to your voice and the music.

As you walk, you notice nothing in the blackness. Your eyes become accustomed to the light and you hear the sound of a creature in distress. THINK. An animal is hurt and alone in the middle of the forest. It is very windy and the light has begun to fade. You hide inside a hollow oak tree, damaged by the years. All around you is a cloud of billowing dead leaves and all that can be heard is the cry of the animal. Somehow you must get there. THINK.

Click your fingers.

In your head, imagine the journey you are going to take from your spot in the trees to the place where the animal is lying in need of rescue. You have to go a certain way, following the sounds of the music, listening to the rhythm. That is all you will hear. There are many obstacles. If you hear any other sounds you must change direction and find a different route. What will you see in the forest? How will it look, smell, feel? When the music ends I will ask you to share your journey with others and to explain what sounds you heard.

Encourage the children to discuss their journeys with a partner. What did they see in the forest? What thoughts did their minds create? What sounds did they hear? Allow the class to share their thoughts with each other.

Suggested instrumental pieces to play to the class

  • Ruthless Gravity by Craig Armstrong, from the album, As If To Nothing.
  • The World’s Green Laughter by the B-52s, from the album, Good Stuff.
  • Any of Enya’s music.
  • Traditional and modern classics such as:
    • The Piano, Michael Nyman
    • Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture, James Horner
    • Nocturne No. 2, Chopin
    • Tubular Bells series, Mike Oldfield
    • Pieces in a Modern Style, William Orbit
    • Pride and Prejudice theme, Carl Davis
  • Piano Moods on the Decadance label.

Listen and appraise

Overview of the strategy

Children listen to and appraise music all the time, such as when deciding whether or not to buy a single or while watching Top of the Pops. In their music lessons, it is important that they learn to do this with a wide variety of musical genres, rather than be restricted to the classics. This activity provides children with a technique that they can use to appraise any kind of music. It can be employed at different times during the year to assess children’s understanding of musical structure and vocabulary.

Curriculum links

QCA Scheme of Work Unit 9 – Exploring descriptive sounds, Unit 16 – Exploring rhythm and pulse, and Unit 18 – Exploring sound sources.

Cross-curricular link: literacy.

Targeted age group: any age range in Key Stage 2. The activity will provide new skills for Year 3 and 4 children and consolidate other skills for Year 5 and 6.


This strategy will help children to understand different musical styles and recognise how musical elements can be used together. They will practise appraising this in writing.


You will need:

  • a range of different pieces of music, preferably instrumental
  • a copy of Activity sheet, ‘Music appraisal sheet’ for each child.

Starter activity

Demonstrate the task to the children by playing a piece of music and showing them your completed Activity sheet, ‘Music appraisal sheet’. You can make this more exciting by using an interactive whiteboard or creating a PowerPoint presentation with animated boxes. If this is not possible, use layers of acetate to create the effect. Stress that these are your thoughts about the music and no one else’s. This will reassure the children that their thoughts are important. They will be really impressed when they can visualise the sounds you have identified in the music.

Main activity

Inform the children that they are going to hear a new piece of music. Tell them the name of the composer and the title, but don’t give them many details about the piece itself. This activity is about the children understanding the story behind a piece of music and identifying why the composer has used particular instruments. Create a class brainstorm about what the music could be about.

Give each child a copy of Activity sheet, ‘Music appraisal sheet’. Explain that some sounds will be difficult to identify, but that the mood they invoke will be easy to respond to.

Play the selected music. While it is playing, encourage the children to listen carefully but not to write anything. When it is finished, add more ideas to the brainstorm and delete anything that may now seem redundant.

Play the track again, this time asking the children to write down their thoughts on the appraisal sheet. Prompt the children with questions to help them to add further information. They can then spend 15 minutes writing up their work into a short descriptive passage.


Discuss the whole-class response and compare it with children’s individual responses. Encourage the use of musical language and ask the children to comment on the tempo, dynamics, duration, and so on. Keep the children’s work, as it can be used for comparison when you repeat this activity.

Steps to making music

Overview of the strategy

Composition is a really important element of the music curriculum and one which children find really enjoyable. It is also one of the trickiest areas to teach successfully. In this activity, children are given a theme to base their compositions on, and visual and oral prompts to inspire them.

Curriculum links

QCA Scheme of Work Unit 10 – Exploring rhythmic patterns.

Targeted age group: Years 3 and 4 (but can be adapted for upper Key Stage 2).


Children will learn to compose a piece of instrumental music based on a theme. This could be a type of music, such as a fanfare, a horror film score or a jingle. Or it could be linked to a topic such as the Tudors, the Victorians or the Aztecs.


You will need:

  • examples of the type of music you are asking the children to create
  • visual aids linked to the theme
  • a selection of instruments
  • electronic equipment (optional).

Starter activity

Play the children an example of a piece of music linked to your chosen theme – for example, a royal fanfare or the theme to a horror film. Make a class brainstorm of thoughts relating to different aspects of the music – the instruments used, the tempo and dynamics, how it makes the listener feel, and so on.

Main activity

Ask the children to work in pairs to discuss their composition and make notes. They should record:

  • the theme
  • the images they want the audience to see when they hear the music
  • which instruments they will use to create different effects
  • words they would use to describe the music.

They can then begin to experiment with instruments and plan the first version of their piece. It is important to give the children some exploration time to try and create the desired effect before you intervene. Composition is really difficult and children will need to find this out. Discussing their work with them after this time will give you some clues as to how you can help them.

When all of the children have created a basic composition, ask them to perform it to other groups to get additional feedback. Get the children to annotate any changes they make as a result of the performance, making sure they use a different colour pen to their original notes.

Children can use electronic equipment such as drum machines, keyboards or even taped samples from other pieces of music in their composition, but emphasise that they must include some original music. If you have a minidisk player, children can record and erase sounds very simply using a microphone. ICT programs such as Sound Player from Evolution are also useful.


This is obviously an activity that will be developed over a few sessions. The plenary is a time when you can discuss successes and ways to improve the work. Children will get ideas from each other. Encourage them to think critically about their work and others’ to improve the finished pieces.

At the end of this unit, celebrate the children’s work by having an assembly or key stage performance. You could also record the music onto CDs and sell them to parents and friends, or send them out to parents of potential new children.



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