HomeEducationMusic Theory for Kids: How to Teach Music Creatively in 5 Lessons

Music Theory for Kids: How to Teach Music Creatively in 5 Lessons

The National Plan for Music Education claims creating music “is a core tenet”, yet this is rarely represented in resources and teaching practices. In this blog, Kit Massey unveils his groundbreaking approach to teaching music theory in his book, Music Theory for Kids.

Departing from traditional methods, Massey challenges the notion of music theory as a dry and disconnected aspect of musical education. Advocating for a dynamic and engaging approach that intertwines creativity with learning from the outset, and drawing from personal experiences and innovative teaching techniques, Massey shares glimpses into how music theory can be made not only accessible but downright thrilling for students.

Music Theory for Kids: An Introduction

Creativity. Fun. Two words that you wouldn’t usually associate with music theory. Too often, learning about the elements of music is treated like eating a plate of vegetables, good for us certainly, but really just a necessary entrée to the main course of learning our instrument. In fact, learning an instrument and music theory are frequently kept at arm’s length and handled as two completely different disciplines. This is neatly demonstrated by a story a violin teacher friend of mine told me:

Teacher: What key are we in?
Pupil: A Major?
Teacher: That’s right, well done.
Pupil: (beaming) You know what, it’s exactly the same in my theory class!

The pupil hadn’t even realised it was the same material approached from two different angles! The fault may lie in the resources available to teachers, many of which present Music Theory as a dry and dusty set of exercises, devoid of any creativity or, dare I say it, fun. Some of the textbooks still use Victorian methods of rote learning with exercises and musical references to match. The National Plan for Music Education claims creating music “is a core tenet”, yet this is rarely represented in resources and teaching practices.

Why should this be? We teach literacy to children by writing stories. We teach art by drawing pictures. The discussion of character, narrative, grammar, perspective, and colour theory comes later when the joy of creating is already instilled in the pupil. Surely, we can teach musical literacy by composing, improvising, and creating?

Perhaps because both of my parents were musicians, as were many of their friends, I was lucky enough to be taught music theory by a series of wonderful, engaging, and imaginative teachers. I still remember drawing graphic scores, of a monster climbing the staircase in early piano lessons. Gradually, standard notation was introduced, crotchets became his footsteps ascending the steps of the stave.

Later, when I went to Junior Trinity College of Music on a Saturday morning, everyone composed and improvised in our weekly musicianship class. We’d be given a starting few bars, perhaps inspired by a famous piece of music and be expected to complete it for homework. The (usually shaky) results would be shared the next week and gently refined by our teacher, who showed us other melodic and harmonic possibilities and ways of representing our ideas on the page. In this way, we were taught music theory by stealth and always in the service of creativity.

Music Theory for Kids

I wanted to capture some of that kind of fun in my new book Music Theory for Kids. Aimed at beginner students, moving through to Grade 1, this book places creativity at the heart of the teaching. At the beginning of each chapter the student receives an exciting brief:

  • Write a piece for a spy movie
  • Compose a fanfare for the opening of the local swimming baths
  • Make some spooky music for a creepy monster show
Music Theory for Kids - Picture 1

Students are then given just enough tools, understood and practised through a variety of exercises, to help them create the final piece. When the book is completed with the help of their teacher, they will several of their own pieces to play, perform and enjoy. I now teach musicianship at the same Junior and Senior department, and I’ve found this kind of work can really inspire children and give them a sense of fun, pride and ownership in their learning.

From years of teaching these classes and successive generations of young musicians, I’ve developed some techniques for teaching music theory creatively. In no order, here are five lessons from Music Theory for Kids!

1. Make stuff Up! AKA Improvise

Improvisation can seem daunting to teachers, but it can be as simple as playing with 3 notes. In fact, children are sometimes far more open to making stuff up than adults. I’ve seen classes of classical post-graduate music students terrified when I take the music away and classes of 6-year-olds who are only too delighted to improvise a haunted house soundscape. Here’s some tasks that work well in lessons:

  • Copy Cat. Play a simple 3 note tune and get the pupil to copy. Then switch roles and get the pupil to make up a tune. It can be fun to deliberately get it wrong and challenge the student to spot your mistake.
  • Question and Answer. I’ll play a short question phrase and you complete it with an answer using just the first 5 notes of the scale or a tonic triad. This can be a great way of exploring pulse, phrasing and cadences. Which notes make the phrase sound finished?

Both exercises can be used to explain scale “DNA” and tonic triads. Now we know what the intervals between the notes are, can we do the same exercise in different keys? This kinds of exercises are easier to see live. For loads more free resources, check out my YouTube channel No Such Thing As Music Theory, where you also get to admire my washing machine in the background.

2. Write stuff down! AKA Compose

Writing can start right from the beginning of instrumental lessons (I’ve found this works particularly well in piano lessons) with big, colourful graphic scores. Pick a theme: monster truck race, haunted house and encourage your student to improvise a sound score. You can write it down on a sheet of paper using lines and dots, big blobs of colour for loud events and dabs for delicate single notes. Writing and drawing can be useful for early years to introduce the idea of representing sound on the page. Gradual standard notation can be introduced, perhaps note shapes first and then situating pitches on the stave.

Almost any music theory concept can be taught through composition. Learning the musical DNA of a harmonic minor scale? Let’s write an Egyptian Mummies Tomb piece and label the intervals. Learning about triads and inversions? Write a fanfare using notes from the arpeggio and perform it on your instrument.

Music Theory for Kids includes many of these kinds of mini-composition games. Here’s an exercise focusing on semi-tones and accidentals:

Music Theory for Kids - Picture 2

The key here is creating strong guidelines and gradually making composition tasks more open ended. You might start with only a couple of different pitches over the course of a bar. Of course, where to place them sparks conversations about note lengths, time signatures and whether the melody is moving in skips or steps. Music theory should be heard, experienced and lived. Make sure that these mini-compositions are played, shared and celebrated!

3. OK then, YOU be the teacher AKA Review

Children love to tell you when you’re wrong! If you’re a music teacher, I’m sure you’re familiar with the look of glee on a pupils’ face when they’ve caught you contradicting yourself: “but last week you said…!”

We can harness this with a fun role-swapping game where the pupils get to be the teacher. I used to start junior musicianship classes by getting the children to mark my (deliberately) bad homework, spotting mistakes, suggesting improvements and giving me a grade and an emoji. Cue lots of red pen and general hilarity. They LOVED telling me how much my homework sucked!

Here’s an example from Music Theory for Kids focusing on stem direction and note values:

Music Theory for Kids - Picture 3

We can use this technique in instrumental lessons to promote aural skills, by playing a piece that the pupil is working on, deliberately making mistakes and challenging them to spot which note was wrong and whether it was too high or low.

4. Take stuff apart! AKA Analysing Pieces

I still remember the room where we had our junior musicianship class, the wood panelling, the chalk dust and the sense of fun and adventure in music making. Most classes would start with listening, sometimes to a student playing a piece they were working on or a teacher pulling something out of their repertoire.

One particularly memorable lesson focused on Grieg’s “Gnome’s Tune”, a colourful piano miniature about a malevolent forest-dwelling creature. We looked at the harmony: which chords does Grieg use and how do they the sense of evil playfulness? We studied the articulation: which performance indications does the composer use to make the music sound like spiteful laughing? The teacher then gave us a short beginning idea and set us the challenge of writing our own using the same tools. The set up was so imaginative and intriguing, we were all champing at the bit to start composing.

Here’s a simple exercise from Music Theory for Kids were we analysing melodic movement:

Picture 4

A friend of mine, a wonderful jazz pianist, often talks about the difference between following recipes and learning to cook. Sure we can follow the dots, but equally rewarding is the process of learning what makes music tick, how we can combine different harmonic flavours to create our own pieces.

5. Make it a game! AKA Gamification

I teach musical expressions with a game where I play a piece “cantabile” or “maestoso” and get the students to guess which one I’m representing from a list. You can develop this exercise by sending a pupil to walk around the room acting out the expression while the rest of the class (or the teacher) guesses the Italian term. “Maestoso” was the clear favourite here, pupils loved to parade about royally, lauding it over their subjects!

Good game designers know just the right amount of new content to introduce to keep the level challenging and engaging without being overwhelming. I’ve structured Music Theory for Kids with this in mind, and each chapter ends with a “How do you feel?” section, directing students to extra resources to support their learning if they need more practice.

Music Theory for Kids - Picture 5

Final Thoughts

Music theory is a set of tools. We can use these tools to take pieces apart and see what makes them tick or build our own compositions. For me, it’s vital to take these concepts out of the dusty, Victorian textbooks and put them to work in imaginative and fun contexts. Only then will pupils see their value and application.

It’s been a lot of fun and hard work writing Music Theory for Kids. I hope that your pupils get a lot of value and joy from exploring the ideas and using them to create their own pieces. And I apologies in advance for the Dad jokes.

By Kit Massey

About the Author

Kit Massey - Portrait

A fourth generation musician, Kit Massey studied with Michael Bochman at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Kit embarked on an eclectic career as both a violinist and pianist, spending a year playing violin with the Philamonia de Santiago, Chile as well as well as regular appearances with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Heritage Orchestra.  

Kit is a professor at both the senior and junior departments of Trinity Laban where he teaches musicianship and improvisation and holds a Fellowship of Higher Education. He has written for The Strad magazine, documenting his time learning Carnatic violin in India with Mysore V. Ambaprasad.

In 2019 Kit was invited to the San Francisco Conservatoire “Bach and Beyond festival” where he performed several improvisations in response to great works by J.S.Bach.

Interested in reading more about music and education? Check out other blog posts here!

Must Read