What Are The Best Pitch Combinations For Teaching Our Youngest Children Singing?

2011Symposium_1_2The popularity and success of the Kodaly approach to teaching music in schools has resulted in a widespread practice of using songs and chants comprised of a minor third when beginning formal music education with young children. There is much to recommend this practice, including the ease with which a small interval can be sung, and the frequency with which one can observe children spontaneously singing minor thirds while at play. Beyond these two notes, so and mi in tonal sofa, how to proceed should be dictated by the characteristics of the musical culture to which the children belong. Because Kodaly was a musicologist and collector of folksongs, he knew that Hungarian folk music culture contained many pentatonic songs. For him, proceeding on to la next made sense, followed by do, and then re, completing the pentatonic scale. With no leading tone or subdominant, there is no consideration of tonal harmony. Instead, canons are introduced early on, to which the pentatonic scale is well suited, because the dissonant leading tone and subdominant tone of a major or minor scale are absent. All of this well represented the Hungarian Folk Song literature and so made perfect sense for use with Hungarian children. But what of teaching children whose folk song literature is predominantly major-minor, and not pentatonic? This is the case with American folk songs, and it demands an altered approach.



For major based folksong literature, harmonic considerations prevail over melodic ones. After teaching so-mi, the next logical tone is not la, but do. La is a relatively weak tone in the major tonality, whereas do, the tonic, is essential. It is also necessary to establish the relationship between so, mi, and do as the tonic harmony. Notice that harmonic function and not melodic consideration is the deciding factor. Establishing tonality with a tonic is more important in major-based literature than building off of melodic intervals. Do may not be melodically easier to sing than la, but it is easier harmonically to audiate as part of the tonic chord. There are plenty of American folk songs for teaching the tonic chord. Examples are Johnny on the Woodpile, Lucy Rabbit, Did You Feed My Cow?, Pitter Patter, Frog in the Meadow, Frog in the Meadow, Peep Squirrel, Grandma Grunts,Circle Round The Zero, Wake Up You Lazy Bones, All ‘Round the Brickyard, and I Have Lost The Closet Key.

By the same reasoning, there is no need to introduce la until the subdominant harmony is taught. With the tonic chord in place, next we introduce re, which makes the dominant harmony possible with re-so. American folk songs for teaching this include Do, Do Pity My Case, Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush, Bling, Blang, Risseldy Rosseldy and Old Bald Eagle. In a Hungarian approach, this would be unthinkable, because it introduces the interval of a perfect fourth, which is rare in Hungarian folk music. However, as part of a dominant harmony, it is a familiar chord function to American children, and can quickly be learned. After re, fa is added, making the dominant seventh chord possible. Songs like Cobbler, Cobbler, Little Bird, Go Through My Window, and A Tisket A Tasket are good for teaching the dominant seventh harmony. Patterns and songs using tonic-dominant chord changes are the focus, until both harmonies are securely learned. Then la is introduced, and in combination with fa and then do, forms the subdominant chord. Many American folk songs contain subdominant harmonies, so this combination of notes is more natural to American children than to those in Hungary. Examples include Aiken Drum, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, and Crabe dans Calalou. Take note that Kodaly song guides will list more songs as containing the fa element, but many of those use fa as the seventh in the dominant harmony, not as the root of the subdominant harmony. That is one more difference between the melody based Kodaly approach and the tonality approach. Basing teaching sequences and song selection on audiating tonality is more natural for children whose folksong culture is major-minor based. Although I have not discussed minor chords or songs, the same principles apply.


As regular readers of this blog know, I am a staunch supporter of using fixed do with my students. At this stage, before notation is introduced, I do use moveable do. It is an effective tool in teaching tonal functions of notes. I begin to use fixed do when I introduce notation, and begin in C major so there is a smooth transition.


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