Making Music Study Meaningful

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  • Claire

    We are ending our year this week and heading in to our evaluations early next week.  It’s a nice time to reflect as I go through their notebooks and write their exams.  Which brought me to a question for the forum …

    How do you make music study meaningful?  Folksongs.  Hymns.  Composers.  Do you have anything that you’ve done and found works well to make it more than a breezy, albeit very enjoyable, listening session?

    We have much appreciation but little retention for any of our music studies.  What have your experiences been?  Is this important to you after elementary?


    I’ve had the same experience, Claire. I just picked up the new SCM resource for composer study. I’m hoping that it will help in this area.


    I’m a former public school music teacher – high school general music, choir, etc.   And I LOVE music history.  And I have the same problem you do!  (Embarrassing!!!)

    I’ve read biographies of the composers to my children (not one-page biographies, but a whole book – Opal Wheeler, for example).  We’ve listened to the same composer for weeks on end.  And my children still can’t hear “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and tell me who composed it.   They realize it’s familiar, but can’t tell the composer or the time period.   And it’s the same with the William Tell Overture (Rossini – and at the time, I linked it to our read aloud which was “The Apple and the Arrow”).  The 1812 Overture is another example.  Bernstein’s West Side Story (just the music, not the movie — my girls are too young for the movie) is another example.   They can remember that Bernstein’s dad sold hair salon supplies but not the pieces that we listened to from WSS!

    I even had them fill out Notebooking pages for each composer (that was last year).

    So disappointing. These are memorable pieces of music!

    So, I’m theorizing here— I think our children need to make their own emotional-mental connection with the music.  I only remember music and the facts surrounding that particular piece when it has impacted my emotions and my mind.  So, I can remember the Beethoven movement played in Mr. Holland’s Opus  (well, I can remember the tune, but I’m forever giving it the wrong title – was it the 3rd movement of the Eroica Symphony?).    I remember it because I saw it first while I was teaching and it made me cry.

    I remember Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (#8, I think) because one of my favorite profs would sing, ” This is the symphony, which Schubert wrote and never finished……”

    I actually got desperate and broke down and bought a couple of the “Beethoven’s Wig” albums – it’s long snippets of pieces with funny lyrics sung to it.  They do include the long snippet without any lyrics, too.   My girls actually remember some of the lyrics and that gives them the clue to the title of the piece or the composer.

    So, the theory I’m working under is that I need to expose my children to great music.   I need to try to have repeated listenings to the same piece – so they can actually come to anticipate what will happen in the piece next.   (Just like when you listen to your favorite CD over and over, you can guess or tell which song will come next.)  And I need to allow them the freedom to make their own associations.  I cannot force associations.  (I don’t think……can I???)  And I need to play the Beethoven’s Wig version of these works more often.



    I think Karen is correct.  I was a music major, taught piano for many years and I also have trouble with my own connections.  I don’t worry about it.  I just play the music, maybe read a bio, and allow us to enjoy it.  One thing that has amazed me, though, is that my two younger sons (age 11) recognize and appreciate a great deal of classical music.  They both study Suzuki violin. The oldest 11yo has since he was 4 and is fairly advanced.  Because of that they’ve always listened a lot but it often comes out in their play.  They are humming pieces, making it the dramatic background music for their “action dramas” and can discuss their favorites and why.

    It was funny…one day we found ourselves having to run errands after violin (we drive an hour each way twice a week for lessons so try to do any errands while we’re there) and we were starving.  So we ran into Five Guys to grab a bite.  As soon as we opened the door, my oldest 11yo groaned and said, “why do they ALWAYS have to play that circus music?!”  When we ordered our meal, he told the girl who took our order, “I really don’t like you music.  Have you ever heard of Vivaldi?  His g minor concerto is really nice.”  ☺️  Of course she had NO idea what he was talking about.

    Just give it time.  That’s what all relationships require.


    Here are some suggestions that might help as you plan: is having a sale until June 1.

    The Fine Arts bundle includes the resource Beethoven Who? Family Fun with Music by Marcia Washburn. You can learn more at

    The Charlotte Mason bundle includes the resource A Young Scholar’s Guide to Composers from Bright Ideas Press.

    I have not tried these resources but maybe someone who has could chime in before the sale ends.


    I find that I need to expand the musical experience from just passively listening and reading a biography once a week… I need to listen and comment about why *I* like this particular piece, listen to more than just the time slot on our schedule, and I love to find YouTube videos of the pieces being played…in short, make it meaningful on several levels.

    One thing that has been helpful is to study the different instruments of the orchestra and their sounds. Then as we listen, I can say “hey, listen to the oboes” or whatever. There are wonderful pieces on YouTube to use to expose your children to music – look around and use them. It is a great way to make the music come alive for your kids. I like to ask them what instrument is on the screen, what kind of sound does it make, how does it make them feel – happy, sad, quiet, excited, bouncy, etc.

    I’ve been doing this for 3 years now – and even my 6 yo can pick out pieces like The Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf, music from The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, some of Beethoven’s music. You can watch a movie with some of these as the score and all of a sudden, the kids *hear* it.  For example, we watch A Christmas Story every year around Christmas. The music played in the score every time the bully Scott Fargus (?) comes out is very distinctive. Imagine the thrill my kids had when we studied Peter and the Wolf by Serge Prokofiev and they realized that that particular bit of music was the wolf in Peter and the Wolf.  =) They will never forget that now.

    Whatever you do, don’t stop listening to it even if your child never can tell you the exact name of a piece or a composer! Classical music opens, uses, and expands all parts of your brain and that makes it easier to learn math, science, and more, including inspiring creativity. For children with processing issues, it brings their brain to a resting point, making it easier for them to learn.

    For a book full of specific ideas on why and how to use music, including a ton of recommended musical selections listed by composer, read a book called “Good Music, Brighter Children” by Sharlene Habermeyer. Then get involved in making sure that the arts are made available in your families and communities. 😉


    We’ve been enjoying the DSO (Detroit Symphony Orchestra) live (on their website).  Someone on this forum mentioned the website, I checked it out and since then, we’ve only missed one or two concerts that they’ve webcasted.

    I’m finding that my girls really enjoy watching/listening to the DSO.  I love that they webcam focuses in on the instruments that are playing the “melody” or the prominent melody.  We’ve started to recognize when there’s someone new playing in each section of the orchestra.  (I really ought to donate money as they’ve saved us a bunch – we could never have afforded to go to all the concerts we’ve watched!)

    So, I guess my children aren’t as bad off as I thought— they have formed a relationship of sorts with an orchestra – and with the instruments themselves.  These relationships are virtual relationships, so they’re not as “good” as In Real Life relationships, but they’re a start.

    The DSO is having a live webcast of Tosca in concert tomorrow at 3:30 pm.  (That’s eastern time.)  It would be a good time to intro students to opera — no one else will hear them say, “Why does that woman sing like that????” – therefore, no embarrassment! *L*   You can find the DSO at


    The Story of the Orchestra is a wonderful first exposure to hearing the various instruments in music.  It may be a available at your library as well.


    (wrote a post and lost it … new computer woes, my mouse pad is too fancy for me ;))

    Great points everyone.  I agree too.  A personal experience with music makes it your own.  I think I felt I’d forced that more than I’d wanted to this past year in some effort to be very CM and very efficient as a box checker.

    We are pretty saturated here in New Orleans with music.  We are lucky that way and I’d like to “count” that more as our music study.  I think I’ll shift from making Composer/Folksongs/Hymns a lesson to making them a part of the family calendar.

    I definitely want to add some books to our library too.  Thanks for the suggestions.


    Claire, we are pretty laid back about music study here, too. We do it as part of our co-op and the shared experience is helpful. Singing folk songs and hymns together, listening to composers and biographies about them in class and narrating them together, simply listening at home – this sums up our experience. We do try to go to the symphony to hear our studied composers when they are offered.


    I am so glad I am not the only one in this boat!  Makes sinking seem less likely.  🙂

    Awesome ideas everyone!

    We actually get a lot of great music exposure here in New Orleans.  It’s saturated in music!  Check out the listings for a Saturday … it’s crazy.  Not all of it is appropriate or interesting to us but still opportunity abounds.

    We attend the opera season each year.  We attend Jazz Fest every year, we hear free concerts, we attend our favorite festivals (which all have great music) and our church hosts weekly free concerts – it’s not unusual for the Marsalis family to be there or any number of great performers from around the country.  Exposure; check.

    Ah, but retention?  I marvel at stories like Sheraz.  My kids and I would know hymns that way maybe and folksongs but not classical.  But I wonder if some kids just don’t grasp that better than others anyway?  Aren’t some kids wired for music?  I adore classical music (listened to it all my life because my parents were bonkers for it) but aside from my favorite opera pieces and a few popular others I can’t name any accurately.

    I hear you all saying that exposure and enthusiasm are the way to go and that their retention and appreciation will grow with time and with their own personal connections.  I like that … that I can do!  😉

    I’m going to add a small selection of books to our library for next year.  I’ll look up those mentioned.  Reading more about music will surely aid our appreciation.  I think I may take the trio of music studies out of our schedules and just make sure that they are in our weekly family calendar instead.  The LPO does are free concert series that I could make more of priority.  I think it’s felt a little forced and a little like something we’re trying to check off a list.



    I’m thinking it would be better to have the goal of a student being able to recognize the time period/historical period of a piece than the actual title of the piece…….or to recognize the composer’s characteristics than the actual title.

    However, I know from experience that the only way to learn that is to listen to a certain composer’s pieces over and over.

    My favorite game in the car is to turn on the classical station and guess the composer or time period of the piece being played.  (I’m not always right!!! I’m probably wrong more than I’m right……I sometimes get the time period right.)  But I can only do this after boku years of listening and studying for exams where we had to name title and composer in college.

    So I can’t expect that of my children……


    Aha!  My post showed up after all … sorry for the repetition.  😉

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