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Music: The right note

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By Rosie Warden — Junior Ed PLUS guest editor 2007 and Year 4 teacher

Combine music with creative writing for some inspirational literacy activities

Girl writing

Many composers have used music to tell a story. Music has incredible power to create atmosphere, feeling and mood. In fact, as the writer Aldous Huxley once said, ‘After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Background music is commonly used in the classroom to create an appropriate atmosphere for writing, but this article goes a step further with ideas to help children actively draw on music as a stimulus for creative writing.

Further resources


  1. Soundtracks and scenes
  2. Music and poetry
  3. Music to tell a story

1. Soundtracks and scenes

Today’s children are multimedia literate, so it makes sense to draw on this knowledge to develop writing skills.

  • Play a selection of well-known soundtracks, such as ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ from Harry Potter, the James Bond, Jaws, Star Wars or Doctor Who themes (all of these are available to download from legal music sites). Discuss how iconic soundtracks can be, and the associations we make about the type of plot, setting and character, just from hearing them. Ask the children to think about the types of musical effects that are used. Now explore a range of other contrasting clips which children may not be familiar with. For example, the theme to Steptoe and Son, the murder music from Psycho or the Grange Hill theme tune. What kind of characters and stories do they make the children think of?
  • Try listening to extracts of dialogue from films without watching the picture itself. Ask the children to divide a piece of paper into four, and make notes on the following:

People: What kind of people can they hear? What are they like? What are they doing? What kind of voices do they have?

Places: Where is the story taking place? Does it remind you of anywhere you’ve been?

Story: What is happening?

Time: When is it set? What time of day is it?

Discuss the children’s answers, before listening to the clips again. Finally, watch the clip with the picture, and see how it compares with the children’s ideas. Discussions about description in relation to what can be seen, heard, smelled and how characters feel and behave, should now be much more powerful.

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2. Music and poetry

Music and poetry are a perfect combination. Encourage children to use their own voice to create musical effects in poetry. Tongue twisters, alliteration and onomatopoeia work particularly well. (Click here for a lively poem ‘The Music Makers’.)

  • Show the children a particular image or extract from a film (such as Narnia, The Lord of the Rings or Bridge to Terrabithia Note: The Lord of the Rings is rated 12 so choose extract carefully) and ask them questions such as: What kind of sounds could you make to evoke particular aspects of the scene? (Swishing of the trees, the sound of a horse in the distance, a river gushing, and so on.)
  • Sit children in a circle and assign groups a particular sound effect. Next, the teacher or a child can ‘conduct’ the scene, playing up or silencing a particular sound effect to tell a story. The same thing can be tried with instruments. Explore contrasting and complementary sounds, and link the sounds the instruments make to work on similes, metaphors and personification. The QCA Unit ‘Painting with sound’ ties in very well with creative writing.

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3. Music to tell a story

Discuss with the children the idea that music can tell a story. Visit and show the children the short, but poignant, animation as an example of how music can evoke different images and memories.

Setting: What is the weather like? Where are you? What time of day is it?

Character: What kind of person or creature is this music about? Where are they from? How are they feeling? Alternatively, ask the children what other themes and emotions come to mind when listening to the music, for example, anger, memories, dreams, being lost, and so on.

Agree which elements of the music gave rise to an idea, and model how to recreate this through descriptive language.

  • Listen to a range of different clips and provide the same number of images or objects. With a partner, ask the children to match the music to the image/item, and explain reasons for their choice.
  • The Interactive resource, ‘Musical stories’ is a stimulating multimedia resource that combines atmospheric music and illustrations for the purpose of creative writing. Children can select from four different illustrated story settings – a jungle, outer space, a haunted house or a fairytale castle (Read about the launch of our Fairytale Kingdom project) – eight characters and four objects, and play atmospheric music and sound clips. Invite the children to write a short story using the visual and audio samples – will an alien land in the jungle? Will a ghost end up in space? Let their imaginations run away with them. Explain that at appropriate points in their storytelling, one of their group members can select the sounds and pictures needed. This is a really fun and creative activity that will help develop literacy, as well as speaking and listening skills. The children could even perform their stories during an assembly.

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