Along with rhythm, pitch is a basic part of music and one that kids respond to readily. As always, it helps to define what “pitch” is. At a scientific level, pitch is the frequency of sound. In the context of music education, it’s basically whether or not a note sounds high or low.
There are some really simple exercises you can do with young children to help them develop their sense of pitch. If you have access to a piano or keyboard, play a note at one extreme end or the other and ask them whether it sounds high or low. Once they’ve mastered that, play two notes right after each other and ask which is higher (or lower), note #1 or #2?
Matching pitch is a very important skill, and while some believe that this skill is either present or not, I think it can be developed. To match pitch, play a note on an instrument and ask the children to hum the same note. Keep them within a singable range (around middle C), but vary them so they get used to matching different pitches.
A child who might be “tone-deaf” (unable to distinguish different pitches) can show improvement with practice. I heard once that when a child can’t match pitch, the problem may possibly be that they can’t actually hear themselves humming or singing. Have the kids cup one (or two) hands behind their ears while matching pitch. The improvement can be quite dramatic. (I couldn’t resist this picture; isn’t she adorable?)
Once children have mastered matching pitch, you can introduce the idea of the 8-note scale (play every white note from C to C for a C major scale). They can also learn that musical notes span the alphabet from A to G, and that notes repeat on a regular basis – every 8 notes, you have an octave.
There are a variety of ways children can have some hands-on experience with pitch. If you are blessed enough to have the Montessori bells in your classroom, there are a variety of activities that can be done with them (usually suppliers who sell the Montessori bells have handbooks available too). If, like for most of us, the bells are financially beyond reach, you might want to try the Montessori Bells Online website (Google to find). Developed by a Montessori mom named Lisia Grocott, this is a great way for a child to experience using this material. She gives some suggestions for different ways to use them at her site.
For older children, pitches should be tied to the names of musical notes. The easiest way to do this is to get instruments for each of the kids. The most inexpensive is the recorder, which I have had success buying in bulk on eBay (just do a search for “plastic recorder”, stick with sellers who have 99% feedback and higher, and check shipping charges before you buy).
There are many beginning songbooks for learning the recorder – get one for yourself, and learn along with the kids. It’s easy and fun. For a school with a larger budget, xylophones (also called glockenspiels or Orff instruments) are a great way to learn and play different notes.
Children can learn to read notes using beginning songbooks, but there are also other materials like music flashcards and hands-on materials like felt boards with notes from Montessori ‘n’ Such. I noticed that they have quite a nice selection of music materials at their site.
I’ll share more about note-reading when I get to music theory, so that’s coming!