Basic structure and terminology
The content of the music curriculum is set out in four levels: infant classes, first and second classes, third and fourth classes, and fifth and sixth classes.
The content is presented in three strands at each level:
- Listening and responding
Within each strand the content is organised into strand units, which provide a means of listening and responding to music, singing and playing music, reading and writing music, and making new music.
The musical elements are presented in progressive steps at each of the four levels. They provide both the teacher and the child with a means of thinking and behaving musically while engaging with the strands of the curriculum.
The integrated nature of music
While the curriculum presents Listening and responding, Performing and Composing as three areas, these are not discrete categories. Listening is an essential activity in both performing and composing, and indeed the listening response itself may inspire a performance or composition at another stage. In a similar way, while performing, the performer will listen to the music he/she is playing, considering the expressive and technical qualities of the music and the structure of the composition. Later, he/she may adopt similar approaches when improvising, arranging or composing something new.
Content strands and strand units
Listening and responding
In the Listening and responding strand, new emphasis is placed on the range and depth of experiences in listening to music, and on becoming an 'active listener'. The child is encouraged to explore and listen to a range of sound sources, from ordinary household sounds to a variety of percussion and melodic instruments, as well as music in different styles and traditions. Chief among these is Irish music and folk music of other cultures, along with music in the classical and popular vein. While younger children respond instinctively through movement, the importance of a movement response is encouraged at all class levels. Several approaches to listening and responding in a variety of ways are exemplified. These extend into the process of performing and composing, where the child is encouraged to be an active listener while playing with, improvising or arranging his/her own music.
The teacher may set targets for the child to focus his/her listening specifically in the two strand units 'Exploring sound' and 'Listening and responding to music'. Listening activities that require 'listening for' (a structure, a specific feature or an associated idea) may be described as more active listening than 'listening to', which may be considered a more passive activity.
In the strand unit 'Listening and responding to music', the teacher may use recorded music as a focus for the child's listening, although the experience of listening to live music will be of immense value to the child whenever this is possible. The range of responses that the child can make, such as gesture, movement, speech, written or graphic forms, will allow for active involvement with the music and encourage the child to sustain concentration throughout the listening period.
The Performing strand emphasises the importance of active music making, beginning with the voice and later including instruments, as a means of developing musical understanding. The importance of experiencing a wide range of musical activities before the introduction of musical literacy is also emphasised in this strand. Opportunities for the children to make music, as individuals, groups or as a whole class, will occur in two strand units: 'Song singing' and 'Playing instruments'.
The approach adopted in the music curriculum seeks to build on the familiar song-singing aspect of music making in a number of ways. Firstly, the musical elements are developed through a range of simple activities, which gradually increase in difficulty, for example tapping a steady beat while singing, showing when the pitch moves from high to low or vice versa, or feeling the tempo as fast or slow, or the dynamic level as loud or soft. Secondly, simple part singing, which is introduced in third and fourth classes, is prepared in the early classes through simple activities, again incorporating the elements of pulse, rhythm, dynamics, tempo and so on. By fifth and sixth classes, children will have experienced song singing in innumerable and exciting ways and will enjoy the further challenges of part singing while seeking to achieve a more expressive singing quality.
The third and most important departure in the performing strand is the inclusion of music literacy as an integral element of song singing. The simple tunes learned and practised in junior classes are given new meaning in more senior classes, when the child is guided in the discovery of their rhythmic and melodic elements. While specific intervals are not prescribed, several examples of melodic patterns are suggested that may be used to develop an integrated approach to interval training. However, participation in music making at all levels is not contingent upon knowledge of or fluency in musical literacy, and the teacher may run a literacy programme successfully in parallel with an aural approach.
As in the Listening and responding strand, playing instruments in infant classes will begin with simple percussion (for example wood blocks, drums or triangles and home-made musical materials such as shakers) to support rhythmic elements. In addition, tuned percussion instruments (for example chime bars or xylophones) are introduced to show how a simple song can be represented on different media. As listening and singing skills improve, the child will be enabled to perform familiar tunes on a melodic instrument, such as the recorder or tin whistle, and by fifth and sixth classes will have acquired sufficient knowledge and skill to attempt playing simple tunes from sight.
The importance of developing the child's own creativity through music making is central to the Composing strand. In many ways too the composing strand could be considered the ideal listening response and the best way of gaining an understanding of performing activities. Additionally, through the process of composing, the child is given opportunities to recognise the purpose of recording and notating music: to store sound patterns for future revision or retrieval and to enable others to read and interpret what has been previously composed.
Many simple tasks can be easily and effectively incorporated into the music programme as an introduction to composing. In infant classes, improvising rhythmic or melodic 'answers' to given 'questions' can take place as a natural extension of song singing, while selecting appropriate instruments to create a sound effect can also link successfully with familiar songs and games. As the child grows in confidence, so too will the need to express his/her ideas independently, as in language and other arts areas. Listening to a wide range of musical styles and traditions, singing and playing will extend naturally into composing activity. Graphic notation, invented notation, simplified notation or standard notation may be used to record ideas, in addition to electronic recording.
The musical elements
The development of concepts in music is outlined for each level of the curriculum in the section titled 'Concepts development'. The musical concepts are based on the musical elements, which are the building blocks of music and are interrelated in any musical activity. Children will not be required to learn these from memory, but for teaching purposes it is useful to isolate each one and then experience them in the context of holistic listening and responding, performing and composing.
Pulse is the underlying 'throb' in music, which may be felt throughout any music with a strong beat, such as a march or a jig. Beats may be strong or weak, or grouped together, for example in threes or fours.
Duration is concerned with the length of a sound, whether long or short. A resonating instrument such as a gong makes a long sound, while wood blocks produce short sounds. Long and short sounds (and even long and short silences) may be combined in a pattern to make rhythm.
Tempo refers to the speed or pace of music. It is determined by the nature of the music, the dexterity of the player, and the complexity of the instruments. Selective use of tempo can create impressions of fear, excitement or calm.
Pitch is concerned with the height and depth of sound and the arrangement of sounds, which produces melody. The concept of pitch, of 'higher than' and 'lower than', is one that will take time to absorb.
Dynamics is concerned with the level of sound, loud or soft. It can be determined by the number of players or singers involved and by the degree of energy that is used. Use of the full range of dynamics requires considerable control, but selective use of dynamics can contribute to an expressive performance.
Structure refers to how a piece of music is organised. Young children become aware of structure from an early age through listening to stories, solving mathematical problems or simply arranging their toys in a certain order. In music, structure is achieved through the use of repetition, pattern and contrast.
Timbre (also known as tone colour) refers to the quality and variability of sound. Instruments produce different sounds, and voices do not sound identical, even when the same words are spoken or sung. The way in which a voice or an instrument is used affects the characteristic tone and produces differing responses in the hearer.
Texture is concerned with layers of sound and with how sounds are put together, ranging from a solo instrument to several sound sources together.
Style is the application of all other musical elements: the selection of instruments (timbre), the combination of sounds (texture), the speed (tempo) and degree of loudness (dynamics) with which they are played, the melodic (pitch) and rhythmic patterns (duration, pulse) and the manner in which the music is organised (structure).
Teaching and learning through the musical elements
At each level, the teacher builds on the listening and responding, performing and composing activities of the previous year, with the musical elements in mind. For instance, a sense of pulse is developed through keeping the beat by marching or tapping, until the point is reached where the child plays or sings with an internalised regular pulse. Imitating, recognising and performing rhythm patterns in chants or songs advances the child's sense of duration, while listening and responding to music that changes in speed helps the child develop a sense of tempo. The most effective means of developing a sense of pitch for the young child is through imitating simple songs. This also helps the child to develop a sense of pulse, duration and tempo, while selecting the appropriate levels of loud and soft when performing these songs enables the child to develop a sense of dynamics. A sense of structure may be developed through identifying a contrasting or repeated section in a simple song, for example verses and a chorus. Developing a sense of timbre for the child means being able to recognise sounds with a marked difference, such as a drum and a glockenspiel, and using them singly or combined to achieve a particular effect.
Listening and responding to a wide range of musical genres, therefore, while performing and composing new music will lead the child to an individual sense of style and taste and to an increased awareness and enjoyment of making music.