A-Star Percussion: Listening in the Primary Music Curriculum

A-Star Percussion: Listening in the Primary Music Curriculum

Listening is such a key component of musical learning in Primary and Secondary. It is referenced as one the four main elements of the National Curriculum for Primary Music, making up a large proportion of the reasonably recent Model Music Curriculum document, but how do we ensure we are offering plenty of opportunities for our children to practice their listening skills and broaden their listening repertoire whilst keeping them engaged, creative and musical?

How and where do we slot listening into our music teaching?

As Ofsted recently corroborated, it is without doubt that for good music practice, all the key components to musical learning (performing, composing, listening, and appraising) should work in combination with one another rather than as standalone activities or lessons. This is where I always start when planning my listening activities within my curriculum. 

Within each of my music lessons, which are often preparing, presenting or practising a musical concept (or a combination of the three), my listening activity will always link directly to the musical learning. For example, if children are learning about ternary form (where a piece of music follows a simple ABA structure – section 1, a new section 2, and a repeat of section 1 again), I will choose music from a variety of genres that demonstrate this, for example The Trumpet Shall Sound from Handel’s Messiah or the Caribbean folk song, Tingalayo

Another example would be if my children are consolidating a specific set of rhythms such as ‘ti-ti’ and ‘ta’, or a pair of quavers and crotchets, I will choose something with a theme where these rhythms can be clearly heard, such as Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, or In the Hall of the Mountain King by Grieg. 

It is at this point that I critically reflect on the listening repertoire I’m offering to my students and ensure it is representative of the community I teach, so that the children can see themselves in the music I offer. This means it must incorporate a range of genres, including composers and musicians of different genders, ethnicities, sexuality and ages. If you’re looking to critically reflect on your music curriculum and repertoire, make sure to check out recent publications and podcasts from Nate Holder at The Why Books, https://www.thewhybooks.co.uk/.

Where should I look for suggested listening?

Listening lists such as that documented within the recent Model Music Curriculum can be a good place to start if you’re unsure, but can often be overwhelming. It certainly isn’t a compulsory list of all the music a child should have listened to by the time they reach Year 6, but rather a suggested list of pieces that might be appropriate for different year groups. Often class teachers who don’t have a personal interest in classical music have come to me unsure of where to look for western classical music in particular. Some good places to find inspiration would be:

If you have a look on your local professional orchestra’s website, you will often find an outreach or learning and education page within it. It is a fantastic idea to check out what opportunities you may be able to engage with as they often put on primary concerts with animateurs to children for a competitive cost.

Understandably, in the current climate, schools’ budgets can’t always stretch to this, so looking out for musicians within your school community; local secondary schools, universities and music colleges, and amongst your staff is another good place to start. Offering children the opportunity to watch music performed live is often the ‘light bulb’ moment for students, the memory that never leaves them, and the enrichment needed to spark a real passion for music amongst your students. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

How should children be listening?

Have you ever asked a class of 5 year-olds to sit still and listen to five minutes of music without shuffling, whispering, chatting, fiddling or asking for the toilet? It’s impossible. 

On reflection, that would be a challenge for lots of us. So why do we embed a concert-culture where people are asked to sit still and listen to hour-long symphonies without murmuring or moving? (Well, that’s a discussion for another day, but perhaps some traditionalists need to take a leaf out of the book of other musical cultures from around the world to ensure all music continues to thrive in the future). 

In the classroom, we are preparing our children to be the audiences of tomorrow, hoping that they will appreciate and enjoy a huge range of music – keeping it alive for generations to come. As a result, especially in the primary years, we need to ensure listening is engaging, active and with clear purpose. In my classroom, children are invited to dance to; draw to; mime to, and paint to music on a regular basis. 

When moving to music, my instructions can differ depending on the intended outcome, the purpose of the learning and the age of the child. For example, sometimes I may ask children to imitate my movements whilst listening to music, as my intended learning purpose is for the children to begin to learn about musical structure – modelling the same movements when a musical idea is repeated and starting a new movement when the musical phrase is new.

Sometimes, I allow children to be completely free and interpret the music for themselves. This often allows children the space they need to improvise, be creative and use their imaginations, and leaves me with the opportunity to notice when a child is showing me the difference between the loud and soft sections of the music purely with their movements, or perhaps show me that they have a really clear sense of the pulse (beat) and tempo (speed) without them even knowing that I’m assessing them.

On other occasions, I begin by joining the students and modelling some movement before allowing them their own space to continue, or sometimes I ask them to show me a specific movement when they hear a certain musical concept that we have been practising. For example, I have been known to ask children to tiptoe every time they hear pizzicato (plucking) strings. 

Having a mixture of these opportunities depending on the purpose of the learning and your intention is important for both you as a teacher and for the musical development of your children. If you’re looking for more inspiration for music and movement specifically, checking out the Dalcroze approach to music learning is an absolute must. You can find some ideas here: https://dalcroze.org.uk/

Using manipulatives when listening

Often giving children something to listen and move with is the key to engaging them fully in the learning, leaving behind any inhibitions or shyness they feel they have. Simply offering a child a scarf, a ribbon, a paintbrush for imaginary painting, or a bouncy ball to ‘show the music’ can unlock expression you didn’t know was there.

These are inexpensive but, in my opinion, essential and can often be homemade if you have the time and energy. I’ve been known to stick strips of colourful ribbon to the end of lolly sticks in the evenings to create fireworks ready for a November Bonfire-Night themed lesson!

Using listening within storytelling

Finally, I wanted to talk about how music can be used to bring a story to life. This can be for purely musical purposes but can also take literacy learning to the next level. Lucinda Geoghegan from the British Kodaly Academy really inspired me when presenting a session on this during the lockdown, and it has been something I have continually used in my teaching since and never fails to engage the children.

Often, I take the time to select emotive and fitting pieces of music to intersperse with reading a story. Lucinda once read a story about an astronaut in a rocket launching into space, shortly followed by Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathusa and the story has since stayed firmly and clearly in my memory as the music elicited so much imagination for me. You can do this too with your music. Why not play some carnival music during the ‘wild rumpus’ from Where the Wild Things are? Or play some of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights when the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk is stomping around his castle in the clouds looking for Jack?

Alternatively, with older children, often setting them the task of choosing appropriate music (perhaps providing them with a music bank) to accompany a story they’re learning or a story they’re writing could be an interesting point of discussion. This not only encourages incredible musical analysis from your students, bringing into discussion those all-important ‘inter-related dimensions of music’ such as dynamics and tempo, but also offers an opportunity to deepen literacy understanding.

Take it Easy!

In this blog, I’ve offered plenty of ideas for how you could incorporate engaging music listening into your classroom practice. It is important to approach new teaching ideas in a manageable way so that it doesn’t become overwhelming for you and/or the children. I suggest trying out one new idea this week and reflecting on the activity afterwards. Perhaps you’d prefer to do some further reading and research using the links in the blog, take the time to get to know your class and their musical tastes this week or purchase some manipulatives for your next lesson. 

Please do let us know how you get on and we’d love to hear your ideas on how you incorporate listening into your music curriculum and beyond. 

Do tweet us @a_starmusic and get in touch!