Guest Post: Drawing to Music with Children

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I am excited to share a series of guest posts with you by other Artful Parents and teachers while I step back from the blog a bit this month! I hope you enjoy the new perspectives, different ideas, and fresh energy that each brings to this space. And I encourage you to leave a comment to continue the discussion, add your own viewpoint, or simply say thanks!

Drawing to Music with Children

Guest Post by Mary L. Christensen

As a faithful Artful Parent reader, I often hear a soundtrack of music running through my head as I read the blog. I can usually hear the folksy tunes of Elizabeth Mitchell or the energetic music of Dan Zanes as I scan the most recent posts for inspiration. At our house music plays a big role in our day-to-day life. Not playing it, although my husband does play the guitar and compose (usually sweet and silly) songs for our girls, but listening to it. Music helps us keep calm and carry on. It helps us focus and daydream, sleep and dance, and especially it helps us make art!

There is a term in the art world; synaesthesia.

Synaesthasia is, to put it briefly, "the union of the senses or the interchangeability of sensory perceptions." Years ago I volunteered as a docent at the Hirshhorn gallery in Washington DC when a fascinating exhibit called "Visual Music" opened. The show involved exploring how sensory perception of one kind could manifest itself as a sensory experience of another kind; one experience being the phenomenon of seeing color when hearing a certain sound. All well and good, right, but what does this have to do with making art with children!?

I’ve wanted to try out the idea of this marriage of the senses of sight and sound with my 2- and 4-year-old daughters, Josephine and Tess, for some time, using some of our favorite music. We love all kinds of music from Woody Guthrie (creator of my favorite children's music) to Peter, Paul, and Mommy, and the Beatles. For this little experiment with my girls, I decided to try classical music.

Drawing to Music with Children

I picked:

Flight of the Bumblebee, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The Flower Duet, from the opera Lakme, by Leo Delibes
and Fur Elise by Beethoven

Now classical music is not something I know a whole lot about, but I'm learning as I try to expose my girls to a wide variety of music and have discovered a few nice resources. We were introduced to Lakme and the Flower Duet on a CD we checked out from the library, "The Classical Child at the Opera," a really great introduction to opera for kids…and parents too! We also like the Music for Little People series of CD's with choices from classical music to show tunes, but I checked out Beethoven's Wig for Fur Elise and have a copy of Green Golly and her Golden Flute (a CD created by two musicians, calling themselves Flute Sweet and Tickletoon, to introduce kids to classical music) which includes the Flight of the Bumblebee. Other possible choices for this project were some other favorites of the genre; Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, Peter and the Wolf, by Prokofiev, or something from the Nutcracker, also by Tchaikovsky.

Drawing to Music

Josephine was pretty enthusiastic about drawing to the music, in response to the music.  Tess (my two year old) seemed pretty happy too, although if she has a crayon and some paper she’s pretty happy.  I gave them regular crayons, markers, and slick sticks to use in a wide variety of colors on large pieces of easel paper I taped to the floor. 

Drawing to Music with Children

I think they came up with some interesting interpretations!  Not all of them color driven (I did describe to them the phenomenon of seeing certain colors when hearing music…and taught them to say, “synaesthasia”), but the girls enjoyed both the drawing and the music so I think it was a success. 

The songs I chose are relatively short so I did play each one for them several times.  In particular Jo explained the drawing she made while listening to Fur Elise as "a pool and blue snow," she thought the Flower Duet reminded her of pink, brown, and blue, and she was inspired to try something more literal in response to Flight of the Bumblebee.  Tess made one drawing, but drew enthusiastically the whole time. 

All in all I think this is a nice way to get little ones drawing and really listening to music at the same time, and introducing them to the idea of the interplay of the senses. 

Have you tried this?  Any music in particular that inspires you or your children?

Drawing to Music with ChildrenI'm Mary, mother to two girls aged two and four, currently filling my days toddler wrangling, finger painting, and placating the many moods of the pre-schooler.  Working on starting a blog, The Forager's Landscape, and trying to approach life creatively!   

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  1. Nikki says

    Thank you for this post! My son (almost 4) started doing this at preschool a few months ago while singing to himself. They have college students help in the classroom who are in the visual arts program, and the one who typically works with my son was telling me it was unusual to see this happen spontaneously. He was excited to tell his class about seeing synaesthesia demonstrated organically. This reminded me that I wanted to try it with him at home too!

  2. says

    Nikki,
    That’s so cool about your son doing it spontaneously! He’s in really good company…lots of famous musicians and artists evidently have this ability. One I think is really interesting is Helene Grimaud a young female pianist. In fact Rimsky-Korsakov is said to have been like this! Duke Ellington said this:
    “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”
    It would be so interesting to see your son’s work if you try this project with him!
    Thanks for reading and thanks to Jean for the opportunity to share this post here.
    Mary

  3. says

    Just stopping in to say I love Elizabeth Mitchell! We often have music on at home too & her CD just finished playing as I began to type. :)

  4. says

    Love this post, Mary! Thank you! We’ve painted and drawn to music before but my music knowledge is terribly limited. It’s so interesting to learn about synaesthasia.

  5. says

    I am a musician and artist and not sure why I haven’t thought to purposefully try both with my kids. GREAT idea, can’t wait to experiment with this – thank you!

  6. says

    I just found out what synesthesia is this year from this post about it and found out it is super common and different from person to person. Some people see colors while reading, some attach genders to words and numbers, and others who have this brain response are overwhelmed by colors when they experience different emotions. All in all this is a REALLY interesting topic and I’m so glad there is a post on pairing art with this!
    Thanks for the post. I did this once while I was working in a public school and ALL the kids (aged K-5grade) just loved it. The creativity was SO different. We did this to various jazz tunes.
    Sarah M
    http://www.yesandyes.org/2011/12/true-story-i-have-synaesthesia.html

  7. says

    ^^^ also should note that MANY famous artists from painters, composers, etc. have synesthesia, so apparently it is very common for people who are already artistically inclined :)
    Sarah M

  8. says

    So interesting Sarah! I don’t think I’ve ever done it, but my husband assigns gender to letters and numbers. It was actually something he had to consider when we named our girls because both “J” and “T” are evidently male (to him, lol).
    I want to try this again with the girls and jazz would be a great choice.
    Mary

  9. freshlyplanted says

    Thanks for the idea- and the music suggestions. It would be fun to expose them, and me, to opera!

  10. says

    What a cool concept. I had never thought of it that way, and didn’t realize there was even a word to describe it. I have always been drawn to music and I frequently associate images in my head with songs that I’m hearing. It’s only recently that I’ve been trying to actively create what I’m seeing with my camera. Perhaps I should be wearing headphones on my next photowalk. Thank you for this brilliant post! For me, and for my children too!

  11. Nikki says

    Thank you for the response Mary! That is all so interesting. He also loves music and will sit for a couple of hours just moving through his favorites on an ipod. I will definitely try this project and try to share the results. Thanks again!

  12. says

    I think it’s wonderful that you did this activity! We should actually do this tomorrow. I learned about using this in my music education class in university. It is a great tool for having kids really listen and interpret the music – not just hear it. Great job girls! And mom too ;)