What is The Orff Approach to Childhood Music?

Learning to make music is a wonderful opportunity for growth throughout life. And the best way to reap all the rewards associated with music, as we have discussed at great length before, is to start early. An early childhood education in music is associated with all kinds of long lasting benefits, including improved social skills, better self-esteem, and even better academic success.

This week we’re going to focus our attention on one child-centered form of musical instruction in particular. Called the “Orff Schulwerk” or simply the “Orff Approach,” this technique for introducing young children to music has been around since the early 1920s, and has helped countless children all over the globe take their first steps into a larger world of music.

What is the Orff Approach?

Simply put, this technique of musical instruction is a way to introduce and teach children about music on their own level, in a way that is familiar to them, and therefore easy to understand. A wide variety of musical concepts are taught through things children instinctively do every single day: singing, chanting, dancing, moving, and drama. Simple percussion instruments are added, and improvisation, composition, and the natural sense of play that is inherent in every child are encouraged.

Who is Carl Orff?

The Orff Approach was first developed by the German composer and educator, Carl Orff. Prior to the development of this style of teaching music, Mr. Orff was best known for his composition of the oratorio “Carmina Burana.”

He developed and worked to refine this new technique throughout the 1920s and ’30s while he was working as music director of a music, dance, and gymnastics school he had co-founded in Munich. It was his experience working with students at this school that led him to develop the program. Probably one of his biggest breakthroughs when working on his new technique was the realization that kids just don’t like to study:

“Since the beginning of time, children have not liked to study. They would much rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they play; they will find that what they have mastered is child’ play.”

He also felt that music and movement where unavoidably linked, and so using both would be the best way to teach:

“Elemental music is never just music. It’s bound up with movement, dance, and speech, and so it is a form of music in which one must participate, in which one is involved not as a listener but as a co-performer.”

He based his teaching ideas on the belief that rhythm and movement play an important role in learning. He first shared his ideas on musical education in a book he titled Orff-Schulwerk, which was later revised and translated into English as Music for Children.

What Types of Music & Instruments are Used?

The most common musical genre used in the Orff Approach is folk music. Songs are usually pretty short with a fair amount of repetition, are easy for all the students to sing, and can be played and sung as a round. Folk music is usually used because of the deep connection to the students’ cultural background. That being said, improvisation and composition are key components of this teaching style, so much of the music used is created by the students themselves, as they have fun exploring their instruments, voices, and creativity.

The instruments used are mostly varieties of percussion instruments, some pitched, some not. This is because Orff felt that rhythm is a basic form or human expression, and children would come to it naturally.

Some of the instruments that are used most often with the Orff Approach include smaller versions of the xylophone, marimbas, glockenspiels, and metallophones; all of which feature removable bars, resonating columns to project the notes they make, and are easy to transport and store. It’s also very popular for teachers using the Orff Approach to include different sized drums, recorder flutes, and other non-pitched percussion instruments. But even with all this variety of interesting instrument for children to play with and learn, singing, clapping, dancing, patting, and finger snapping along to melodies and rhythms is still an important aspect of every lesson.

What Does a Lesson Look Like?

While the Orff Apporach is used all over the world, and Orff teachers use many books as a framework, there is no one, standard Orff curriculum. In fact, each Orff teacher designs their own lesson plan, and has the flexibility to adapt it to suit the size and average age of their classes.

That being said, there are specific elements of the Orff Approach that are universal. Here is an example of how a lesson might go for young children enrolled in an Orff program:

At the beginning of the lesson the teacher will have chosen a poem or story to read to the class.

Then the class recites the poem again with the teacher. Everyone keeps a steady beat by tapping their hands on their knees.

Next the teacher chooses students to play a few instruments. Students are asked to play a particular note on a particular cue word in the reading. It’s important that the instrument matches the words, and the students must keep the correct rhythm and learn proper mallet technique for their drums.

Which each repetition, new instruments and cues are added. And to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate, other children are asked to act out the actions of the characters in the poem or story.

The class begins to wrap up with a discussion of the day’s lessons. Students talk about what was easy or difficult, and the teacher assess the students’ understanding of the lesson.

And finally there is a cleanup session, and all the instruments are put away!

Concepts Learned

The main focus of the Orff Approach is to help students learn about rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, form, and other basic elements of music. Children learn these by experiencing them through speaking, chanting, singing, dancing, movement, acting, and playing instruments.

These new concepts can work as an excellent jumping off point for more creative pursuits later in life, like a more in depth education in music, or simply the ability and confidence to improvise on the fly, outside of music entirely.