Music Theory Exercises for Young Children

Young boy learning to play the guitar.
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Music theory sets children on a lifelong journey that enriches their lives by opening them up to the vast world of music and gives children the foundation to create, perform and analyze music, without investing in expensive teaching tools and materials. A 2013 study by Yunxin Wang, from the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University in China, showed that early training in music -- before age 7 -- helps children develop brain areas involved with language and reasoning skills.

1 Identifying Pitch

Young children might not yet have the ability to read and write, but they can recognize the location of notes on a board. Draw a musical staff and place moveable notes on the staff. Explain that notes at the top of the staff sound high, while notes at the bottom sound low. Play two contrasting pieces, with one piece in a high range and another in a low range. Ask the children to point to the top or bottom of the staff to indicate where the notes would fall in the piece. Once you teach the basic concept of high and low pitch, grab instruments of varying sizes and ask them to guess which instruments give off the highest pitch when played. Explain that bigger instruments like tubas produce low pitches, while smaller instruments like trumpets create high pitches. Take this a step further and fill several equal-sized glasses of water with varying levels of liquids. Show the students how the pitch of the glass sounds lower as you reduce the water level.

2 Rhythm Counting

Teach students about quarter notes by playing a song and walking around the classroom in time to the music. Explain that each step is a quarter note. Teach other note values in relation to the quarter note. For example, take two steps for every beat of the song to demonstrate eighth notes. Take one step every other beat to give an example of half notes, and once every four beats for whole notes. Model this activity with the children and have them walk around the room with you, stomping on the main beats and walking lightly on the weaker beats. As the children improve, choose songs with two or four beats per measure and count the beats out loud so the students can begin to internalize the beat.

3 Musical Accents

The four basic types of accents include strong accents, normal accents, staccato accents and legato accents. You can combine these accents to create additional accents, such as a strong accent and a legato accent. Write a simple rhythm on the board and place accents throughout the piece. Teach the students how to clap the rhythm. Then, show them what a normal accent looks like and model it for them. Ask the students to play the rhythm as you did and then move the accent to different places in the rhythm. Once the children can play the rhythm properly with normal accents, introduce strong accents, followed by staccato and legato accents. By teaching the children how to recognize and perform accents, you can increase their ability to perform music accurately.

4 Dynamic Markings

Dynamic markings determine the relative loudness or softness of a composition. The four main dynamic markings used in music include "piano" or soft, "mezzo-piano" or medium soft, "mezzo-forte" or medium loud, and "forte" or loud. Write the four symbols that represent the dynamic markings on the board -- “p,” “mp,” “mf” and “f.” Give the students a simple rhythm and point to one of the markings on the board. Model the rhythm for the children and ask them to play the rhythm back at the dynamic you select. As they play, point to different dynamics to change how loudly they perform the music.

Avery Martin holds a Bachelor of Music in opera performance and a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian studies. As a professional writer, she has written for, Samsung and IBM. Martin contributed English translations for a collection of Japanese poems by Misuzu Kaneko. She has worked as an educator in Japan, and she runs a private voice studio out of her home. She writes about education, music and travel.