Kindergarten music is where we lay the foundation, the groundwork, the bedrock for everything we’re going to be doing with music language learning, for literally forever. Without these foundational elements and a repertoire of experience in place, we haven’t provided the rich environment needed for students to make connections and draw conclusions about their musical world, always moving from the known to the unknown.

Anne Mileski

Today on the podcast, I’m going to talk about music in kindergarten and why it is 100% it’s own beast. It’s a friendly beast that you want to kind of cuddle up with and spend a little bit of extra time with inside of your classroom but it’s definitely it’s own animal when it comes to what concepts to teach how to sequence and this whole idea of setting the foundation for what we’re doing in kindergarten and beyond kindergarten.


When I first started teaching and teachers would drop students off at my classroom door, it used to really frustrate me when teachers would say, “okay, have fun! Go play!”  I think the reason that that stung so much for me is because I spend so much time thinking about what to include and therefore what we’re going to be excluding in my music classrooms. And this is particularly the case in kindergarten when they are “just playing.” And now, after thinking and having time to consider what all of us are doing in our classrooms, PARTICULARLY in kindergarten, my response and feelings are completely, 100% different.


Because… well… absolutely. Isn’t that what you do in your classroom? Play is children’s work. And purposeful play is absolutely essential to lay groundwork for kids understanding of their world and their understanding of the musical world.


You ARE Music to Your Kids


One of the things that is essential to think about with kindergarteners, particularly at the beginning of the year is that you are very likely music to your kids. And that is a great responsibility, knowing that in their minds: you, the music teacher, and the class, are one in the same. You have no idea what type of musical experiences these kids have hand, and whether or not they’ve even had one in the first place.


The sad truth is that music is less and less of a prominent piece of our everyday home lives, for a myriad of reasons. From my observations, depending on where you teach and your school community, you might be the first person who has sang for your children. And it’s very likely that a lot of the songs, that we grew up with, are not familiar, well known and loved songs for your kids. And another important thing to note, is even if students have had those experiences, now it’s with a completely different person with a completely different intention in a completely different environment. So while this whole perception of “school” has shifted for them now that they are actually in it, the same is true of music.


Since so many of your students are coming to you with different experiences and different entry points to learning the musical language, it’s that much more important to focus on laying a foundation of musical experience.


Music as Language Learning


Receptive Phase


One of the ways the purposeful play facilitates learning about the world is with language learning. In thinking about music learning as language learning, it’s important to think about the different stages we move through with language learning. From the very beginning, when babies are first in their mama’s bellies, they are in the receptive phase. This is when we are 100% sponges, soaking up all of the rich language environment we hear all around us. Far before we have the psychological processes set up to make speech, we are forming an understanding of our world. The equivalent of this in music language learning is laying a wonderful foundation of musical experience for our students to soak up and create an understanding of their musical world.


In order to make this happen, that means the entire first half of the year in kindergarten is simply (or not-so-simply) purposeful play. The whole year and the following years are purposeful play in the music room as well, because all of this is cumulative, but when we are talking about laying the foundation for our students in the receptive phase of their music language learning journey, it’s all about PLAY in Kindergarten.


What that means is I’m being very intentional about the activities that I’m choosing and the singing experiences and musical play experiences I’m bringing my students. Not only to create a rich musical environment to provide that needed experience, but also so that I can draw on those songs and games later in the year when I start to get much more honed in on literacy and fluency components of music language learning. But at the beginning of the year, my predominant focus is creating a rich musical environment.


Babbling Phase


The babbling phase in language learning is when we start to try out different sounds and pitches that we’ve heard in the language around us. There is an obvious baseline understanding of language, but children are still experimenting with sounds until they have the capacity to assign meaning and become speech emergent, usually with words like mama or dada. Relating that to music language learning, we have to consider what some of the very first and accessible concepts that we want our students to “babble” with in the music classroom.


The very first concepts that I put a more concerted focus on are the two basic foundational music concepts that every other concept ultimately points back to: steady beat and vocal exploration. Arguably everything that we’re going to teach our students about the musical language, whether it’s a literacy/discovery lesson or experience through different modes of active music making is going to be undoubtedly tied back to steady beat and vocal exploration. This is never as blatantly true as in Kindergarten. Any comparative or beginning music literacy lessons 100% rely on and inextricably tied back to the conceptual understanding and embodied understanding of these concepts.


Remember: my entire first section of the year in Kindergarten music, up until about winter break, is all about focusing predominantly on laying the foundation through purposeful play and a rich language learning environment. Then, the next essential phase of “babbling” is when we come back from break and really start honing in naming and bringing the identification piece to embodied musical experiences. So since students have a rich bank of musical experiences, it’s easy to (1) name them: the foundational concepts of steady beat and vocal exploration, and (2) begin to explore the many different permutations of foundational music elements with comparatives.

If you haven’t spent a lot of time focusing on comparatives in Kindergarten music, or they are a brand new concept to you in general, they are exactly what they sound like. Rather than focusing on distinct extremities or definitive qualities of music, it’s about saying “this is faster than this” or “this is slower than this,” with the “-er” part being essential since we are literally comparing. Focusing on fast vs. slow negates the discrimination piece, which is essential for students to have anecdotal evidence or experience delineating between one thing or the other. Kids learn what something is by what it is not, and musical comparatives of essential to laying the foundation for music language learning.


We are still 100% focused on purposeful play in this phase, and again it’s worth saying, throughout all of Kindergarten music and beyond in elementary and early childhood music. Kids are still experimenting and trying different things through imitation and specifically in the music room, through different modes of active music making.


Speech Emergent


The final phase in Kindergarten Music is when things start to become more clear and refined in the direction of music literacy. This is what I would consider the speech (and reading and writing) emergent phase of the music language learning.


Since any rhythmic concept is going to be tied to steady beat and the different comparatives related to it, and any melodic concept is going to be tied to vocal exploration and it’s accompanying comparatives, and our students have had a myriad of experiences with different modes of active music making the entire year, they are ready. They are ready to start to explore musical concepts in a more distinct relation to fluency and literacy.


Take for example steady beat: we’ve explored faster and slower, shorter and longer, beat versus rhythm, and now are ready to start aurally, kinesthetically, and visually exploring one and two sounds on a beat. This is all of the preparatory work required for what are the first rhythmic elements in my sequence: quarter note and paired eighth notes. Similarly, with vocal exploration, students have explored the different ways they can use their voices, they have traveled on vocal pathways, and they have experienced when their voices are higher and when they are lower in varying intervals.  Now they are ready to start aurally, visually, and kinesthetically exploring higher and lower in distinctive patterns, which in my classroom is specifically the minor third and therefore prep work for so and mi, the first melodic elements in my sequence.


The important thing to note here is that we don’t have to “start teaching” quarter note and paired eighth notes and so and mi. Because of all of the groundwork we’ve laid with vocal exploration and steady beat and comparatives, and the experiences and environment we have facilitated for these Kindergarten kids, we can simply draw on those songs and games and vocabulary we’ve facilitated to identify, read, and write these first concepts in music literacy.


This is ESSENTIAL Work.


If you’ve ever doubted that the work in Kindergarten music is exactly that, my hope is that today I’ve shown you exactly why it’s essential. Kindergarten music is where we lay the foundation, the groundwork, the bedrock for everything we’re going to be doing with music language learning, for literally forever. Without these foundational elements and a repertoire of experience in place, we haven’t provided the rich environment needed for students to make connections and draw conclusions about their musical world, always moving from the known to the unknown.


So the next time a teacher drops off their class and says, “have fun, go play!” Simply smile and say, “we absolutely, purposefully will.”


Join the Community

Connect with your colleagues and get exclusive insider tips and tricks from Anne