Music in Montessori 4: Musical Instruments & the Symphony Orchestra

This is the next in the music series posts, and probably one of my favorite ways of studying music: learning about musical instruments.

A delightful way to introduce kids to musical instruments is to have them make some themselves. This can be as simple as putting beads in a container and shaking it, or as complicated as using a shoebox and rubber bands to make a homemade banjo. There are tons of ideas out there; Enchanted Learning has some great ideas for musical instrument crafts, but a quick internet search would turn up lots more.

One fun activity is to talk a little bit about what a musical instrument is (most basic definition: something that can be used to make noise) and then let kids have 10-15 minutes to look around the classroom or house and see what kind of musical instrument they can come up with.

Whether you plan a craft or let them roam around, take a moment to talk about the types of instruments. The four main categories are percussion, string, woodwind, and brass. If you start naming instruments, elementary age kids will probably be able to guess the correct category. Some are tricky (flutes belong with woodwinds, for instance), and others are disputable. Is a piano a string instrument or percussion? Good arguments can be made on both sides.

Here’s one way to classify instruments; I found in my research that there are several different ways of doing that. Here’s another classification system that’s often used.

I made a work back many years ago that was always a classroom favorite. Basically, I took a piece of posterboard and divided it up like a symphony orchestra. I laminated dozens of small pictures of musical instruments and put Velcro on the backs of the pieces. I put matching Velcro on the posterboard arranged in the correct way. Kids used a picture of a symphony orchestra as a guide to position the instruments, similar to this one:

Once they were all in place, the completed work was quite stunning. Unfortunately I lost the posterboard somewhere along the way. I made this work pre-computer, so I had spent hours copying pictures of musical instruments from books to make this work. Can you believe it? I’d like to re-create something similar to sell, but haven’t had the time.

Playing music for the kids is a great way to teach them about the sounds that musical instruments make. For instance, “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland is a fantastic example of the timpani and trumpet. Violin and piano concertos can be used to talk about those instruments, respectively, and Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is wonderful for string instruments and explaining a string quartet. I always like to play the theme “Gabriel’s Oboe” from the movie The Mission as a beautiful example of the oboe.

Naturally, The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens is a perfect example of almost all the common instruments. Montessori Services offers a book and CD combo of this composition. They also have many other music resources, including a beautifully illustrated book about the symphony orchestra.

If you have a chance to take kids to see an orchestra or band – even a high school or college one – do it! They love seeing all of the instruments playing together under the direction of the conductor. Another great activity is to ask parents or friends who play instruments to bring their instruments in and show them to the kids. This is a nice way to learn about the parts of a specific instrument and how it’s played.

Next time: teaching music theory!