Music and art feel like close siblings in the family of creative expression, yet I often encounter folks who are very comfortable in the open-ended art realm but feel a lack of confidence in their ability to integrate music and music education with their kids or in their classrooms.
My background is actually in music, so I am on the other end of the spectrum. I feel decidedly less confident in my own ability to create representationally accurate things in the world of visual arts, but I’m working on it! Hopefully, this is the beginning of a series here at The Artful Parent to help you gain confidence in connecting with your kids using sound, music and art together! I’m going to walk you through a simple way to use music as a listening activity and as an art prompt with kids. It’s simple and super enjoyable!
A Music Activity for Kids Using Music as an Art Prompt
Step one: Notice sound
Notice sound! I have done this frequently in a classroom setting (and out in the woods during a forest camp!) and it never ceases to amaze me how many and varied sounds children are able to notice and name.
You can talk about the five senses and how sometimes, if you want to focus on one of your senses (like hearing), it helps to block out a different sense (in this case, vision, by closing your eyes or using an eye pillow or blindfold). Once everyone is ready (sitting or laying down in a comfortable position, eyes covered, breathing deeply) I usually time a full minute—this can feel like a LONG time, but try and stick it out if you are working with kids 3 or older. At the end of a minute, ask your child (or students) to open their eyes and tell you what sounds they heard. I like to write them down on a chalkboard or a large piece of paper because it’s often really exciting and surprising to count how many sounds they can hear in one minute.
Step two: Now try some intentional music listening
Now that you’ve warmed up your ears, try the same thing (focus on listening, get comfortable, breathe deeply), except this time, select a short piece of music or a few short sections (1-2 minutes) of a longer piece of music.
Ideally, something without words works really well for the first time. I’ll give you a load of ideas below, but I often find fantastic music for listening at the public library. You can also listen to all sorts of great music in its entirety on YouTube or through services such as Pandora or Spotify. I’m a classical music nerd, so for this activity, I used 2-minute excerpts of one of my favorite symphonies, Mahler’s 5th Symphony. I like how the very beginning of the first movement has a completely different tonal feel from the 4th movement and wanted to talk about contrast with my kids. But don’t be intimidated – you can choose literally ANYTHING!
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- A piece of classical music that you love (Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Debussy)
- World music (we love selections from Putumayo’s series— World Playground and Congo to Cuba are frequent go-tos for listening at our house!)
- Instrumental jazz (Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane are favorites of my 5-year old)
- Experimental music if you are feeling post-modern (Meredith Monk, Harry Partch, Nico Muhly)
- Bluegrass (Earl Scruggs, John Hartford)
Before you start the music listening activity, set out some simple drawing or painting materials on a nearby work surface. Paper + markers, colored pencils, crayons, pastels, watercolor paints; whatever you have available! We used watercolors, but anything you have on hand will do.
Now that you have your music selected and your art materials set out and ready to go, you’re ready to get listening!
How to Listen
Here’s how I usually structure our listening + art-making sessions: we listen one time all the way through the segment silently. Then we listen a second time and at the end of the second time, I ask the kids what they noticed.
I love that question “What did you notice?” because it’s very freeing (even for us as adults listening to music!) The aspects of music to note are infinite—instruments, tones, feelings evoked by the music, dynamics, or things that the music reminded them of – I often hear stories here about scampering mice or evil witches or flying fairies! Just as in visual art-making, the point of listening together is to connect with each other and the world through sound.
Depending on ages and endurance, sometimes I listen one more time and give them a chance to say again what they noticed (such a great opportunity for them to listen again for something new or to hear something that someone else mentioned the first time); but if your child is ready to start making art, feel free to go ahead and do that now!
Step Three: Respond with art!
When you’re ready to move on to the art-making component, tell them you’re going to listen one final time and invite them to respond through art while playing the music again.
Most children will dive right into drawing or painting to music without needing any instruction from you, but if you have a child or a group who seems more hesitant, you might ask them what colors the music made them think of, whether it seemed smooth and flowing or short and choppy, loud or soft, and demonstrate some lines or marks that follow the flow or feel of the music. If you can dive right in and create alongside your child or class, it is awfully satisfying.
Step Four: Wrap it up!
Depending on the interest level of your kids, you can wrap up in different ways. During this activity, my kids had lots of questions about the instruments they were hearing and wanted to watch the orchestra perform what they heard, so once they were finished with their art-making, we watched the YouTube video of the orchestra playing the sections I had selected.
I have also had great success when doing this as a classroom activity in inviting the kids afterwards to share their picture and tell a little about what they were thinking about or noticing while they were listening.
However you wrap it up, consider this a launching pad for using music as an art prompt—I have done this activity many times, both at home as a parent and as a teacher in a preschool classroom, and I am always amazed at how attuned kids can be to music if they are given time and space to listen with intent. And it’s an activity easily repeated with different pieces of music and different art set-ups.
Happy listening and art-making!
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