Using Games in the Music Classroom

by Stephanie K.

When we make learning fun, we get a better response from our students, and what better way to do so than by incorporating games into the lesson plan? I think we have all witnessed it firsthand; students become eager to participate the second you add a game to the learning mix. I have personally observed how just the use of the word “game” can get a positive and enthusiastic response from students. Games are exciting to children; thus, they can add excitement to the lesson. Games can change students’ entire attitude about learning. It is as though they no longer realize they are learning; they are just having fun. Yet, they are likely learning even more than they would have otherwise, and the bonus is that comprehension and retention are usually better, too.

 I am not promoting games for the sake of games. We need to make sure that we are getting the most out of the games we use in class. We need to use games that are more than just games for the sake of playing games and having fun. Those can be saved for the playground. We need games that actually help teach and reinforce the music concepts we want our music students to learn. We need “educational” games. In my almost three months of teaching general music, I have found a resource that provides such games.

The Music Zone and The Music Zone 2 by Cristi Cary Miller are wonderful additions to any general music curriculum. Each book includes music, lyrics, and a CD of original songs that help teach the basics of music. The musical concepts in each book are accompanied by a fun game or activity for reinforcement. I have already tried several of these games and activities with my 1st through 4th grade students and have seen tremendous improvement in their basic knowledge and understanding of the concepts and their retention of the material from week to week. I only see my general music students once a week for a thirty minute period, so every minute counts. When the students remember the material from the week before, it saves the time that would normally be spent re-teaching the previous week’s material. It also allows you to cover more material throughout the school year. I think we could all use more of that.

The best example I can give you of the books’ effectiveness is this personal story: I used the songs “Swingin’ Lines and Spaces (Music Staff)” (p. 41-42) and “Music Box ABC” (p. 22-23) and the suggested games that accompanied both songs at the beginning of the year with my third and fourth graders. The games were called the “Giant Staff Relay Game” (p. 43) and “Swat a Note” (p. 24), both from The Music Zone. Both songs and games were meant to help students learn and understand the treble clef line and space notes. After using the songs and, more importantly, the games for a couple weeks, I had my students take a note test. I was pleasantly surprised when 134 out of 166 students earned a 100% on their first attempt. That was almost 81% percent with a perfect score. This number even included the special education students that are mainstreamed into my music classes. To say the least, I was very happy with those results. So, it basically all comes down to this…

Children of all ages love to play games. When you add learning to the mix, it is a bonus. I would encourage all music teachers to use such “educational” games in the classroom. But, sometimes it is hard to find specific games or activities to supplement the music lesson you are teaching. Well, I believe these books are a good start. The books together cover most of the music topics and concepts you would want to cover with your 1st through 6th grade general music classes. So, the next time you are searching for an educational game to use in your music classroom or to supplement your lesson plan with, look no further. For only $29.99 each book, it is the solution you need and a resource too good to pass up.

Some of my students playing “Swat a Note” from page 24 in The Music Zone.

Miller, C. C. (2008).  The music zone. (p. 48). Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation.

Miller, C. C. (2010). The music zone 2. (p. 64). Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation.

Everything has rhythm. Everything dances. -Maya Angelou

This article written by, Amy Fatek

While rhythm is as basic as a simple heartbeat, teaching students how to use rhythmic notation and literacy is a challenge.  As a junior high band director I am constantly looking for ways to differentiate my instruction so that rhythm is understood and applicable by my students to different styles and genres of music.  I have determined that there are three steps to follow in helping our students find success in reading and applying rhythms.  We must know our students’ previous knowledge base and collaborate with colleagues to create a cohesive curriculum.  We must present a variety of different systems for practice and implement these practices in to our daily rehearsal routine.

Knowing our students means understanding what objectives they are familiar with and what things need reinforcing.  In the article, “Six Key Principals for Music Assessment”, the authors Connie Hale and Susan Green state, “Before teaching a skill or concept, a teacher needs to examine prerequisite knowledge needed for success”.  (Pg. 28)  Ideally a curriculum would be designed so that when the students are old enough to join band they have already worked on he fundamentals of music and have a solid foundation to start from. In creating a curriculum, it is very important that the band director communicates with the general music teacher.  This allows the general music teacher to share what objectives they have emphasized.   All to often we have tunnel vision in our own worlds, and do not see the big picture.  It is this big picture that should drive curriculum planning.  Teachers should look to their standards for guidance and then collaborate and develop a district vision of what the timeline for their students’ development should look like.

Teachers often present systems for counting rhythms that make sense to them.  It is understandable then, that students may not always see things the same way.  It is important that we introduce many different systems of counting.  A teacher might use one system while occasionally throwing in an example from another.  When students, “just don’t get it”, we have to try a different approach.  In the study, “The Effects of Learning Procedure, Tempo, and Performance Condition on Transfer of Rhythm Skills in Instrumental Music”, written by Michael A. Pierce, the study examined sixth, seventh and eighth grade band students ability to transfer previously learned rhythmic skills to a new piece.  This study used four different rhythmic learning strategies; clapping, counting, sizzling, and clapping and counting rhythm.  Pierce concluded that there was not a significant difference between systems.  Significance was found however, in the tempo variation between were the students originally learned the passage and the tempo they played during testing.  Tempo was the variable that led student to have a hard time transferring their knowledge.  I think this is an important thing for teachers to note.

Another method of teaching rhythm would be using words or syllables to describe rhythm. Bernadette Colley, the researcher who wrote the study, “A Comparison of Syllabic Methods for Improving Rhythm Literacy”, concluded that, “a syllabic system that differentiated between duple and triple subdivisions of the beat improved recognition skills to a greater degree than one that did not.  Furthermore, a system in which specific words were assigned to intact rhythm patterns improved performance and notation skills to a greater degree than did the two systems that used monosyllables”. (Pg. 221)  Here are the three treatments used with the experimental groups from Colley’s study:

From Colley’s study,  A Comparison of Syllabic Methods for Improving Rhythm Literacy. (Pg. 226)

It was discovered that:

“Subjects in the word group conceptualized the patterns as intact units because the words themselves were in tact units, regardless of their rhythmic connotation.  For example, it would have been unnatural to the children to pause between the syllables of the word Washington.  In contrast, Many Kodaly and Gordon subjects would hesitate between the individual syllables in TiTiTi or DuDaDi.  In addition, the accented first syllable of all the words or phrases gave word subjects a sense of a continuing metric accent.  Each measure could read like a sentence of sorts, which, like any sentence, had a rhythmic flow from one word to the next”.  (Pg.233)

I found this study to be very interesting.  I currently use more of a Kodaly approach.  Having seen this research, I am interested in learning more about the word method.  There are some very basic rhythms in which Ta and TiTi work well for my students, but for the more complex rhythms it definitely makes since to use multiple ways of building a “musical sentence”.

Finally, putting these ideas into a daily routine makes using these strategies second nature for students.  I do a rhythmic dictation or counting exercise everyday as a part of the warm-up.  By using multiple strategies as described within, more students should be able to make connections between notation and the sounds they should make.  By knowing our students needs and collaborating with colleagues we set students on a path of understanding and rhythmic literacy.  By using many different approaches to teaching rhythm we give students many different opportunities to have their “Ah-Ha Moment”.  Perfect and systematic practice makes perfect and by making these strategies a part of our daily practice and rehearsal routine we give our students the tools for success.


Colley, B.. (1985). A Comparison of Syllabic Methods for Improving Rhythm Literacy (Master’s Thesis).  Journal of Research in Music Education.  (Volume 4, Pages 221-235)

Hale, C.L., Green, S.K. (2009).  Six Key Principals for Music Assessment.  Journal of Music Education

Pierce, M.A., (1992),  The effects of Learning Procedure, Tempo, and Performance Condition on Transfer of Rhythm Skills in Instrumental Music.  (Volume 40, Pages 295-315)

Music, Movement and Memorization

Starring Jojo Holmby Stacie MacBush

Do your students need help memorizing text for a play or concert? Mine did. I teach kindergarten through eighth grade students. I get to see my students for general music one time a week for 45 minutes. That doesn’t leave much time for me to get them ready for plays, concerts, assemblies, reading music, and everything else that goes into a school music program.

I am not a huge fan of using music because it tends to looks sloppy and younger students look at the music more than the director. I wouldn’t mind my older students using their music because they are better at watching and holding the music in a uniformed matter.

The past two years I have been using movements to help student memorize the text. Students read through the text with me first. I have been using a new “fill-in-the-blank” method where I read and the students follow along. They say the missing word when I pause. This keeps everyone on task and on his or her toes, especially when I call on one specific student to say the missing word.

After we read the words we talk about the text and what the composer intended. I teach my younger students the text by echoing. I sing one phrase at a time then they echo back. After students are singing the correct pitches and rhythm they were forgetting the text from week to week.

I started adding movements to each phrase of music and that made a huge difference in my music programs. I am able to teach them the songs they need to know for our plays and concerts and I still have time to teach the other music concepts they need to know.

Adding movements to the music helped my students memorize the text. They are also better at watching me. I love this method! Please let me know if you have any other ideas to help students memorize their music.

Rehearse the Poetic Verse, Reinforce Skills in the Course

By Patti B.

             Music and poetry have similar elements such as cadence, meter, verse, rhythm, and repetition.  Children take great pleasure rhythmic language.   When music helps expose children to rhyme and repetition, then it is aiding students in skills necessary to learn to read.  I have always incorporated poetry into the general music setting.  This year, I have featured a seasonal poem with the entire school each new month.  I would like to share how I have used this poem to teach and review numerous elements of music as well as provide reading and spelling instruction and a sense of community in the school.

            First, I have used the poems to teach and reinforce rhythm.  After the students have mastered the recitation and movement of the poem, we can label the rhythms, note values, and even rests that the poem is using.  Furthermore, we have perfumed the poems with one or more ostinatos.  The older students are able to play the ostinato on an instrument while saying the rhythm in their head.  Younger students are still speaking the ostinatos aloud with body percussion or instruments.  We have also incorporated “student directors” to lead their small group.  The students are very motivated to be the leader.  The majority of the students are confident in their skills to be able to lead a group even when other groups are performing something different.  My classes have been more successful with performing multiple ostinatos than other attempts I have made with songs.  I believe assigning “directors” for each group has been a key component of this.  Hopefully, their success will transfer to more difficult songs with ostinatos and thick textures.  It is also amazing to hear the students critique their own performances of the poem with ostinatos.  They are harder on themselves than I am.

            Secondly, the monthly poems have allowed our classes to review other musical elements as well.  For example, we have performed the poems as a canon to continue to develop an understanding of how a round works.  We have also assigned dynamic and tempo markings to the poem to recall these symbols.  The students have gotten a “taste” of composing by assigning their own dynamic or tempo markings to the poems.  They carefully plan creative ways to make the text match the dynamics or tempo markings.  Antiphony has been introduced through these poems.  Identifying the meter of the poem is another beneficial activity.

            Finally, the poems have been an excellent way to continue to connect reading and spelling into the music room.  The poems assign a “catchy” rhythm to the spelling of the months.  The first graders are so proud to be able to spell a nine letter word-September!  They are eager to inform their classroom teachers of this accomplishment and present these big words on their spelling tests.  The rhyming and repetitious text is reinforcing their reading skills.  Moreover, the fact that every class in the school is learning the same poem allows the students to have shared experiences with all grade levels.  The poems could be recited at a school assembly or at other times to get their attention. 

The following articles and website can be beneficial to find out more on how to use poetry and music together.

 Towell, J.H. (1999). Motivating students through music and literature.  The Reading Teacher, 53(4), 284–287.

D’Agrosa, E. (2008).  Making music, reaching readers:  making powerful connections possible for young students.  General Music Today, 21(4), 6-10.

Ribbons for Scales: A Motivational Tool

by Stephanie K.

Music teachers, choral directors, and band directors understand the importance that scales play in making students better musicians and music programs more successful. Unfortunately, it is not always so easy to convince students of the fact. Musicians, especially young musicians, seem to dread learning and playing scales. Why? Well, it is definitely not the most fun part of a music class; and, usually, there is little to no motivation for them to do so. I have found a motivational tool that is working in my band program, and I would like to share it. It is working so well that my band students are now eager and excited to learn and play scales for me.

Here is a little background: I am in my fourth year of teaching band at the middle school level. During my first year, we honestly only covered three scales: Bb concert, Eb concert, and F concert. In my second year, we added two more: Ab concert and C concert. By year three, I had developed a program I call “Ribbons for Scales” and we began working on all twelve major scales. The program is motivational because the students earn a ribbon for each scale they play and finger correctly. Hence, the name “Ribbons for Scales.” They can, then, tie the ribbon on their instrument case to show off their progress. It is similar to Recorder Karate. In my first year trying this program, I even had fourth grade students earn all twelve ribbons.

If you are reading this and are not a music educator, you might be asking yourself, “What are the benefits of learning scales?” or “Why are they important?” Well, for starters, if you can play your scales, then you can play just about anything on your instrument. Why? Because you know all of the notes! Music is made of scales. They are the building blocks of music. The notes might be in a different order, but the scale is there in just about any piece of music you try to play. Scales also help you become a better musician. Knowing your scales means you know your instrument better. Scales are a large part of speaking the language of music. When you learn your scales, you are more successful at speaking that language. In addition, scales make it easier to sight-read music and play by ear. They can even help with memorization. These are just a few of the benefits. In case you are interested in another perspective, I have listed a couple sites listed below.

Check out the below site. It is about the importance of scales from a guitarist’s point of view. You do not have to be in band or music class to understand and appreciate the importance of scales. Scales are valuable and beneficial to all musicians.

Here is another site. Although the focus in this one is on the piano, the application is similar for all instruments. Here is a short quote from the site: “Learning the scales is like learning the ABC’s when learning to read: not so exciting, and it doesn’t get a lot of practical use in everyday life, but trying to learn piano without learning the scales is like trying to learn to read without first learning the alphabet.”

So, how can you set up the program “Ribbons for Scales” for your band program? Well, it is pretty easy and it does not cost much. I started by going to Wal-Mart and buying twelve different colors of ribbon. You will need one color of ribbon for each major scale. I use Offray “Spool O’ Ribbon,” which runs in lengths of 10 yards (9.14 meters) per spool for between 0.44 and 0.97 cents. I buy the ribbon in a width of 1/8” (3 mm), and I cut the ribbon in lengths of about 8 or 9 inches.

Next, you need to decide what order you want your students to learn the scales in and assign a ribbon to that scale. I have my order listed below. Please note that I allow the students to do the first five scales in any order because some scales are easier than others on certain instruments. However, if they can do the first five successfully, then they should be able to do the remaining ones in order. This is just what works for me because it aligns with the most common keys of our band pieces.

You also need to decide tempo and rhythmic expectations. I require that my students play a “quarter-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-quarter-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-eighth-quarter” note pattern. Basically, the first (lowest) note of the scale, the eighth (highest), and the last (again, lowest) receive the value of a quarter note. These three quarter note values share the name of the scale, which is referred to as the tonic. All other notes in the scale receive only the value of an eighth note. The second part is deciding on the tempo. Again, I have my tempo expectations listed below.

Finally, you need to get organized. It is just a good idea to have it all mapped out. The students need to know and see what they are working towards. If they want to earn a certain color of ribbon, they can see what expectations they must meet to achieve their goal.

“Ribbons for Scales” has been such an asset to my band program that I just wanted to share it. If it helps even just one other person, then it is worth it. I know our time with students is limited. Still, I now have students enter my band room for a lesson or sectional and the first thing they ask is, “Can I check off on a scale?” When students have earned all twelve ribbons, they ask, “What’s next?” In my band program, it is the chromatic scale; and, yes, I even have a ribbon for that. Scales reinforce so much of what we do in our music programs. They are invaluable tools, and this program is just one way to, perhaps, make better use of those tools.

♫ Ribbons for Scales ♫











































Red, White, & Blue


***Scales 1-5 may be done in any order, but 6-12 must be done in the order listed.


Tempo (BPM)











Creative Connections: Music is Math and Literacy

As long as politicians are the ones making decisions about school goals and resources, we as music educators must make connections to math and literacy to keep music relevant in the lives of our students.  Furthermore, it is no longer enough to advocate for music without pointing out its resulting benefits to skills and abilities in the core subject areas.  We as music educators know the intrinsic value of music as its own subject, but for its survival in the classroom and in modern education tying it to core curricular areas gives administrators and politicians the ammunition that they need to be able to “sell it” to the taxpayers.  This means we have to know our students’ strengths and how to connect things students already know to new ideas.  The key to this lies in working closely with both core curricular and arts education colleagues to create a learning community in which all subjects complement and support one another by scaffolding student learning.

Music and math are closely connected in a variety of ways that were recognized as far back as the Ancient Greeks.  This is reflected even in the names of modern musical terms.  For instance, the major scale is often referred to as the Ionian Mode in many music theory texts.  The Greeks recognized the mathematical patterns in music from the most basic melodies to the complex patterns found in the connection of key centers.  The Circle of Fifths, for instance, is connected in such a mathematically perfect fashion that it is difficult to fathom its creation.  It is also interesting to note that many school districts begin teaching instruments in fourth or fifth grade, once students have begun learning about fractions in their math class.  Division of whole notes into half, quarter, eighth notes and so on; is just one simple means for getting the conversation of the math-music connection started.  Once the rhythmic notation conversation begins it quickly moves from the basic to complex applications, such as syncopation, cut time, and the use of dotted rhythms.  Many administrators attempt to save on resources by delaying beginning band instruction into later Middle School, and even Junior High.  The counter-argument that music supports elementary and early middle school math concepts such as fractions gives Administrators to reflect on the universal educational benefits of both Elementary Band and Elementary General Music programs.

Just as music and math work together hand-in-hand, music can be crucial in helping students develop literacy skills.  Music is often described as “the universal language”.  Just as we learn to read by associating sounds with groupings of increasingly complex strings of letters into words, sentences, and paragraphs, learning to read music notation progresses in a similar fashion.  The visual learning skills involved in deciphering music notation translate in both Elementary Reading and Secondary English classrooms.  Additionally, it is important that students can express themselves verbally and on paper utilizing music vocabulary.  Students should be able to carry on a verbal or written conversation about musical ideas, describing elements of music such as dynamics, tone quality, balance and blend, and personal aesthetic taste.  This is a skill, which expands their overall language vocabulary and literacy skills.  These benefits are not always obvious to administrators and politicians, which is why music educators must help them draw these connections.

In an ideal world teachers would sit down together regularly and plan out what topics they would discuss, so that all learning would be connected for a more comprehensive student experience.  All to often subjects are taught in a vacuum where students can’t see past the classroom door.  When teachers think cross-curricularly they create connections between many different subject areas.  The key is that the learning takes place.  So if the goal is for the student to learn the concept, then it shouldn’t matter whether it “clicked” for the student in a math, science, art or music classroom, but only that they got it and understand it.  Not all students learn the same way, so giving them multiple platforms for comprehension provides a more rich and full learning environment; catering to many different learning styles.

The connections between music and core curriculum subjects like math and literacy are real, and when music educators develop and explore them in their classroom they accomplish multiple goals.  They give their students a more well rounded musical experience and overall educational experience.  Additionally, cross-curriculum teaching helps politicians and administrators justify the equally important and intrinsic value of musically educated students.

Check out these sites that support Music and Math/Literacy:

The National Association of Music Education:

Learning Through the Arts-