Ear Flaps Up Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brahms
By Don Kaplan
Back in the day, students were required to take music appreciation classes. The course generally included an introduction to notation and a brief history of music, highlighting important composers and compositions along the way. Unfortunately most kids didn’t appreciate music appreciation and would rather have tried doing ten pull ups or climbing the dreaded ropes in gym than study classical music. Who cared about notating and reading music? Or memorizing the names of composers? Or hearing a Brahms symphony? Put your ear flaps down and go someplace in your mind where you can daydream instead.
Art classes didn’t provoke the same resistance because they included hands-on activities right from the start. The same was true for drama classes: students were involved almost immediately. What got lost among the ledger lines in music classes were enjoyable experiences that would encourage students to lift their ear flaps and play with all kinds of sounds.
Music as a required subject was cut from the curriculum many years ago. To make up for that, the following games and activities are designed to reintroduce music appreciation by helping children focus on sounds without first having to know a G clef from an F. They are also designed to develop listening skills — skills that are not only essential for understanding how music “works” but for developing organizational skills and the ability to concentrate as well. The games can be played in pairs or with a larger number of children led by an adult. They are easy to use, can be modified any time in any place, and are especially useful as an enjoyable break from today’s distance and virtual learning environments.
Ask children to close their eyes and listen quietly for anything they can hear outside the building. After a minute or so, have them open their eyes and make a list of the sounds they heard. Repeat the activity, this time focusing on anything that can be heard inside the building but outside the room. Repeat, focusing on sounds inside the room, without intentionally making a sound. Finish the activity by focusing on anything children can hear inside themselves.
How many different kinds of sounds were children able to hear outside the building or room? Did everyone hear the same sounds? What kinds of sounds could they hear inside themselves (like a heartbeat, bones “popping,” breathing, stomach rumbling)? Variations:
- Listen from the same place at different times on the same day. Do children still hear the same things?
- Listen from the same place at the same times as above but on another day.
- Listen for sounds that are distant, then close by. Discuss which direction children think each sound was coming from.
Sound scavenger hunt
Print the following list and hand a copy to each child. Give kids a time limit of about 10 to 15 minutes. Have them find as many of the sounds as possible inside or outside your home, note what produced each sound, come back and share the sounds they found, then invent their own scavenger hunts for each other.
Point out that every sound has the following qualities: duration (how long the sound lasts), pitch (high or low quality), timbre (the “color” of the sound), and volume (loud or soft quality). If anyone doubts this, have kids choose any sound of their choice and imagine it without one of these qualities.
- A sound with a crunchy timbre
- A sound that makes you laugh
- An absolutely awful sound
- A scratchy sound
- A hum or buzz with a long duration
- A clicking sound
- A sound that starts then suddenly stops
- A sound that reminds you of how chocolate tastes
- A sound you’ve never noticed before that has a soft volume
- A sound you’ve never noticed before that has a deep pitch
- Sounds you can hear over your head; sounds you can hear below your knees
- Sounds that are made by two objects striking each other
- A sound made by something being shaken
- The strangest sound you can find
- The most beautiful sound you can find
Partners tell each other what they’ve done so far that day. Don’t be polite. Both partners talk at once. Set a timer so partners can stop after a minute or so then take turns telling each other what the other person said. Were partners able to talk and listen at the same time? It’s better to do this late in the day so partners have something to talk about.
Working in pairs, have one partner (A) sit at a table or on the floor blindfolded or with eyes closed. Ask the other partner (B) to put a kitchen timer or other object that can make a sound someplace close to (A) where she or he can reach it. (A) should listen, then try to touch the sound without seeing where it is. Move the object several times so (A) can practice locating where sounds are coming from. Reverse roles. Every blindfolded partner should try for a direct hit.
The sound of silence
Sometimes we don’t listen to soft sounds because loud ones get all the attention.
Take a sheet of paper. Try to pass it back and forth between you and another person as quietly as possible. Keep in mind that any sound made by touching or moving the paper, tapping or rubbing it — no matter how soft — will disrupt the silence. For something even more challenging try passing a page from a newspaper, supermarket ad, or any other large sheet of paper you can find. Ask: Did you ever think a sheet of paper could be this noisy?
Tell children to imagine they have been blindfolded and taken someplace where they hear the following sounds: water running, dishes banging, and bacon sizzling. Then in another location they hear water splashing, seagulls calling, and foghorns sounding.
Kids would realize, in the first example, that they were most likely in a kitchen. Of course they could hear dishes banging in a lunchroom or restaurant but would only hear this and the other two sounds if the location was in or near a kitchen. The second combination of sounds would tell them they were at the ocean but not whether they were on the beach or on a boat.
Working in pairs have children think of a few places they have been (maybe a zoo, amusement park, in a subway or on a bus) and write down three sounds that would identify each place. Can partners identify each other’s locations? Or name combinations of sounds that are used to help establish locations on TV shows they watch?
Putting it all together
The found sounds orchestra
A found sound is a non-instrumental sound made by a common object found in the environment.
Ask children to collect objects that can be made to produce sounds (e.g., plucking the wires on an egg slicer, pressing the keys on a computer keyboard so they click, opening and closing the zipper on a school bag, biting into a carrot). Avoid sounds that can’t be repeated reliably, like those made by the family dog. Have each child choose a found sound to use as an instrument and demonstrate it so everyone can become familiar with all the sounds that will be used.
The conductor’s (leader’s) role is to improvise a piece by directing sounds in and out. As a demonstration conduct the first improvisation, then give each child a chance to lead.
- Point with your finger for a “musician” to start playing, and point again to repeat the sound.
- Wave your hand quickly to the side to stop a sound, raise or lower your hand up or down for a musician to play louder or softer, move your hand quickly or slowly in front of you (like you were turning a crank) to speed up or slow down the response.
- Place a finger on your lips so the musician will produce a soft sound.
- Very young children can conduct by pointing at a musician to start a sound, showing the palm of their hand to stop the sound, and using both hands as much as they’re comfortable with to combine sounds.
Conductors should consider the following: Which sounds do you want to hear alone? Which sounds do you want to hear together? How long do you want each sound or combination of sounds to last? How loudly or softly, and how quickly should the musicians play? How do you want to end the improvisation?
Follow up by playing a recording of Benjamin Britten’s well-known The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra to demonstrate how the sounds of instruments and instrumental families are used to build a musical composition. Although written for children, don’t put you ear flaps down: Adults will enjoy Britten’s composition, too.
Adapted from See With Your Ears: The Creative Music Book by Don Kaplan (Lexikos Press)
This article originally appeared in Copper magazine.