Published with Permission
Written by Marcia Washburn

Homeschooling parents are busy people—so much to teach and so little time. Important subjects such as music are often delegated to others or relegated to “when we get around to it.” Yes, there is evidence that playing an instrument improves a child’s spatial-temporal ability and physical coordination. And yes, the Bible says to make music in our hearts to the Lord, but how can you fit music into your already overloaded school day? What if you are musically illiterate? What if private music lessons are out of reach? Here are some ideas to start you on your way toward making music a part of your family’s life.

• Enjoy great music together. God created music as a means for us to voice our love and adoration of Him, both here on earth and in heaven. Start each day with quiet worship music. Sing together during your family devotions.

In addition to songs of the faith, every child needs to know the folk and patriotic songs of his country. Wee Sing 1 has great selections if you’re not comfortable teaching the songs yourself.

Classical music is another important part of your child’s education. If you’re not familiar with music of the great composers, consider purchasing CDs that narrate the composer’s life story and include examples of his music.2 When you find a composer whose music you especially enjoy, listen to more examples on YouTube and then build your own musical library. Titles such as Best of Beethoven or Greatest Hits of Mozart are easy to find.

Another great option is the book Meet the Great Composers, available with or without a CD. Four pages of text, illustrations, and games are devoted to each composer. Permission is granted to make copies for your group, so this could be used as a support group activity too.3

Attend live performances whenever possible. Local concert associations, colleges, and symphonies sometimes have special concerts for children. Folk festivals and other events provide great opportunities to hear music of other cultures.

• Integrate the arts with music. Some music tells a story. Encourage your children to act out the story, make paper sack puppets to dramatize it, or use paint or chalk to record their feelings about the music.

 Children naturally move with music. Encourage them to march to a John Philip Sousa piece, dance to a waltz, and stomp to a square dance tune. “London Bridge Is Falling Down” and “Looby-Loo” are popular folk dances that can be done with as few as three or four people. Or invite a square dance caller to teach families in your homeschool support group to dance—great intergenerational fun!

• Play simple instruments. Invest in commercial rhythm instruments,4 or make instruments for your own family rhythm band. Partially fill a bathroom tissue tube with rice or dried beans and then tape the ends shut, to make a homemade maraca (shaker). Use an empty cardboard oatmeal container as a drum, playing it with your hands or a wooden spoon. Cover blocks of wood with sandpaper and rub them together. String pairs of metal bottle caps around the edge of a doubled paper plate to create a homemade tambourine.

The soprano recorder is an inexpensive, easy-to-learn instrument. I once taught a group of moms to play it in one hour. Most of them had never read music before, but they taught their children to play at home. We had one rehearsal for the children the following week and then presented four songs at an end-of-year celebration. There is a wealth of both easy and challenging music available for those who wish to explore the recorder in more depth.5

 • Use simple games to teach basic music terminology. Since the Italians developed our modern system of musical notation, most words found in printed music are Italian. For example, the terms for dynamics—how loudly the music is performed—are piano (soft) and forte (loud). Forte is pronounced FOR-tay. Variations include pianissimo (very soft) and fortissimo (very loud). Mezzo (MEHT-zoh) means medium, as in mezzo-piano (medium soft) or mezzo-forte (medium loud).

Children can learn these terms, and how to control the volume of their singing, by playing the Dynamics Game. While one child is out of the room, hide an object in the room. When the child returns, help him find the object by singing louder when he is close to the hidden object and quieter when he is farther away.6 A further benefit: You can remind your children that fortissimo voices are for outside play only.

Use the Tempo Game to help children understand terminology that describes tempo—how fast music moves. Musical tempo markings, beginning with the slowest, are Largo (LAR-goh), Lento, Adagio (uh-DAW-zhee-oh), Andante (awn-DAWN-tay), Moderato, Allegro (uh-LEG-groh), Vivace (vih-VAW-chee), and Presto. Write the tempo words vertically on a poster. Then sing a simple song, preferably with motions, beginning with Largo and singing faster with each repeat of the song until you reach Presto. Our favorite song for this activity is “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”7 By the time you’ve sung it eight times, everyone falls to the floor in a pile of giggles. This is a great break-time activity between academic subjects.

The Clapping Game is fun and teaches attentiveness. One person claps a short rhythm pattern and the others try to duplicate it. You don’t have to be able to read music to clap a rhythm—just make one up. Gradually lengthen the pattern. One mom gained her children’s attention to change activities by clapping a pattern for the children to echo.

• Investigate music notation. Study a page of written music together. Borrow a hymnbook from your church or library, if necessary.

Notice that music is written on horizontal lines and spaces called a staff. Notes are the symbols that tell you which pitch to play and how long to hold it. Notes will always have an oval-shaped note head. The more you change the basic note head, whether by adding a stem (straight line) to the side, blackening the note head, or adding flags or beams to the stems, the less time the note is held. Thus, notes that have white note heads are held longer than black ones connected by many lines across the top. When the note head is higher on the staff, the music is sung or played higher in pitch.

Excluding those at the very beginning of the staff, symbols on the staff that don’t have note heads are called rests. Rests may look like rectangular blocks or squiggles. Rests tell the musician not to play or sing during those beats.

The notes are named alphabetically as you move upward on the lines and spaces. We only use the first seven letters of the alphabet in music: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. If you wish to learn to name the notes, purchase a set of music flashcards from your local music store.

This introduction to music reading is enough to get you started as you look at the music while singing along with a CD. You will be surprised by how quickly you begin to see the relationship between what is printed on the page and what you hear on the CD.

Many families become quite skilled in a cappella singing (singing without instrumental accompaniment), just by singing hymns together during family worship times. Pretty soon some of the singers figure out harmony parts and begin to make exciting music together.

• Share your music with others. Grandparents, nursing home residents, church members, and others are blessed when children sing for them. Share your music with those who need encouragement. You need not have a polished performance—just learn some songs and invite your audience to sing along. We have found that people who can no longer remember how to speak, due to dementia, can often still sing along with the hymns and songs that they learned in their youth.

It is a wonderful gift for children to study music with a professionally trained teacher, but don’t cheat them, or yourself, of the joy of making music together on your own. Select an activity or two to try, and pretty soon music-making will be a regular part of your day.

Marcia K. Washburn homeschooled her five sons for nineteen years. Marcia holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education and is the author of Talent to Treasure: Building a Profitable Music Teaching Business. This article is based on excerpts from her new E-Book, Teach Your Child Music Even If You Can’t Read a Note, available at

 Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.


1. See for book and CD sets for under $10. Sung by well-trained children’s voices.

2. One great series includes Story of Bach in Words and Music and others, available at many online stores. See for a complete listing. At this printing they sell for $4.95 each.

3. Available at and other stores.

4. See for good quality instruments for children.

5. Want to know how she taught those moms to play in such a short time? Check out Teach Your Family to Play the Soprano Recorder by Marcia Washburn, available at

6. To expand this game, read Marcia’s free article at

7. Write to Marcia for a free copy of the music for this song at

“I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given mankind by God. . . . (N)ext to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in this world. . . .This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself of the fact that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God.”—Martin Luther

Overview of Western Classical Music History

What we call classical music was the popular composed music of its day. Liszt’s audiences were as wild as any popular band’s audience is today. We call it classical because it has stood the test of time. Note that “Classical Music” refers to all of the periods below, including the Classical Period. Yes, it can be confusing.

Try studying one composer a month to really get familiar with his style. Use a notebook to keep all of your music papers together. To get you started, here is a summary of the four most recent periods of music.

• Medieval Period (A.D. 70–1400) Primarily vocal music sung in unison (also called Gregorian Chant) until about 1100. More voices were added as the Renaissance approached and written notation developed.

• Renaissance (1400–1600) Method of writing down music (music notation) develops, permitting music to be played the same way every time, even if the composer isn’t present. The invention of the printing press greatly expands use of written music. More complex instrumental music composed. Corelli and Gabrieli are well-known Renaissance composers.

• Baroque Period (1600–1750) Like the art and architecture of the time, baroque music is very intricate. Keyboard instruments (clavichord and harpsichord) of the day do not permit changes in volume, so composers provide interest by adding ornaments such as trills and mordents. Often one melody begins, with another and yet another imitating the first in copycat fashion. Johann Sebastian Bach was master of the baroque style and a devoted Christian. Others include Handel (Messiah!), Purcell, Pachelbel (Canon), Scarlatti, and Telemann.

• Classical Period (1750–1820) Music of this period rejects the highly decorated style of the baroque period, instead opting for simplicity and clarity. It is characterized by balance, elegance, clarity, and contrasting themes. The architecture of the day also presents clear, straight lines; uncluttered looks; tall windows; and deep porches. The sonata allegro form is developed during this time and is widely used in symphonies, sonatas, and concertos. Well-known composers include Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Clementi.

• Romantic Period (1820–1900) The term Romantic does not refer to romantic love but is a reaction to the formalism of the Classical Period. It reflects the political changes that led to more freedom of thought and expression. Composers now express their emotions more freely. The piano becomes very popular, and many of our best-loved hymns are written during this time. Composers discard the old rules and make daring shifts between major and minor keys; melodies are especially expressive. Program music (music that tells a story or describes a scene) becomes popular. Well-known composers include Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Grieg, Schubert, Brahms, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Strauss.

• Contemporary or Twentieth Century (1890–2000) Contemporary composers show great independence in style, form, rhythm, and harmony as they reject the assumptions of the Romantic Period. Some of this music is very dissonant—the notes sound strange together. Prominent composers of the period include Debussy, Ravel, Kabalevsky, Bartok, Stravinsky, Copland, and Bernstein.

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