Musical Puzzle Pieces by Joanie Calem

Member Joanie Calem wrote this detailed breakdown of using basic musical concepts in an early-childhood music class.

Joanie Calem
Joanie Calem

I begin all of my music classes by introducing what I have called “The Musical Puzzle Pieces.” Though there are many possibilities, I chose to focus on the following five elements in my pre-school and elementary music programs:

Tempo (is the music fast or slow?)

Dynamics (is the music loud or quiet?)

Texture (e.g. is the music smooth or jumpy?)

Pitch (the actual notes and their musical range)

Mood (e.g. is the music in a major or a minor key?)

In my movement studies with Anne Lief-Barlin, an early member of CMN and a talented, retired dance teacher who studied dance and movement with the founding teachers of the Dalcroze method in New York City in the 1920’s, she taught us to respond to the contrasts in music. This felt like the obvious way to provide children with a kinesthetic experience of these musical elements. For each of the musical elements, I found associated songs and puppets to present the topic in a clear manner for young children. I have listed a few of the songs that I use, but there are of course many other wonderful options.

• For Tempo, I use Allegro (fast) the horse and Andante (slow) the turtle.

There are many public domain songs about horses, but some of my favorites that use both fast and slow tempi are:

Walk Old Joe, Ride Away On Your Horses, Bell Horses, So Fast, Hop Up My Ladies.

Turtles appear less frequently in old folk songs. I use Malvina Reynold’s You Can’t Make A Turtle Come Out, and a number of my own turtle songs.

To combine fast and slow tempii, I use the tune to Paw Paw Patch, and change the words for fast and slow animals that the children suggest, e.g. “Everyone crawl like a turtle (3x) way down yonder in the paw-paw patch..”

• For dynamics, I use Forte (loud) the elephant and Piano (quiet) the mouse.

Hey Betty Martin is a favorite play-party game in my classes. The children love the contrast between the tip-toeing part and the loud part where Betty Martin just cannot be quiet any longer! I also use The Ants Go Marching, and we plug in mice and elephants marching with relevant movements and volume.

• For texture, I use Staccato (jumpy) the frog and Legato (smooth) the fish

Frogs, like horses, are a favorite theme in public domain songs. My very favorite is Keemo Kimo, with lots of opportunities for mixing swimming frogs and jumping frogs. Tom Paxton’s At The ‘Quarium is a favorite fish song. Floating Down the River is also a wonderful play-party game which naturally mixes legato and staccato.

• For pitch, I use Basso (low) the lion and Soprano (high) the bird.

Scale songs and playing with glockenspiels are excellent ways to present pitch. Birds are featured in many folk songs, so there are lots of options to choose from. I use Two Little Blackbirds with different animals and modulated voice to help present this concept. The Zulu Warrior is a well-loved traditional song, and I have changed it into a song about lions rather than warriors.

• For mood, I use Major (happy) the rooster and Minor (sad) the owl.

There are wonderful rooster songs throughout the traditional folk songs, but many of them are in a minor key, which is counter-productive in this case! I use All Around The Kitchen in a major key as one example (I have heard both minor and major versions of the song and love both but for this teaching I use the major.) Old Joe Clark is a wonderful old traditional song that modulates between a minor key in the verse and a major key in the chorus.

I introduce the “musical puzzle pieces” in this order for the following reasons:

• Children immediately respond to tempo. Babies and toddlers will bob and bounce along to the beat of quick music, while pre-school children have the automatic response to run. Moving slowly often needs to be taught, simply because it is not a natural tempo for young children. Guiding children to slow their bodies and their breathing down has numerous side-benefits beyond music.

• After tempo, the next contrast that is easiest for children to hear and feel is the dynamics of music, especially if it is simply loud (forte) or quiet (piano). Most children will automatically respond with large, stomping movements when they hear loud music, but often do need to be guided to do the reverse for quiet music, i.e. small, delicate movements to quiet sounds.

• I have found that while texture needs to be explained and demonstrated, when I hand children a scarf and instruct them to let the scarf dance to the music, their responses are accurate and clear. From there, it is an easy extension to move the contrasts of smooth or jumpy movement into their kinesthetic response.

• Pitch is actually the most difficult element for children to translate into movement. Small children (and people in general) do not discern pitch unless they are guided to pay attention to it. Also, when a child hears the terms “high” and “low”, they often think about volume rather than pitch. Through guided listening, children can be taught to hear pitch and respond kinesthetically in numerous ways.

• Major and Minor scales are generally very easy for children to discern, and I introduce them through instrumental pieces and stories. This contrast was part of my program in Israel, however, while Middle Eastern children are very familiar with minor keys, many Western children find music in these tonalities frightening. Because of this, since moving to this country, I generally introduce these elements through select pieces of music only after children are in kindergarten, when I am well acquainted with them and I can be fairly certain that no one will be frightened by a piece of music in a minor scale.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I know that all of us in CMN recognize that every child is a musician as well, and the same problem applies to one’s musicianship; i.e. how to remain a musician once s/he grows up? How do we remind people of the joy and spontaneity that music effortlessly and naturally brought to them as children? Music often gets confused with musicianship, and people think that they cannot make music because they aren’t “good” enough. How do we reassure people that music is about exploring and expressing one’s self through song and instrument playing, not necessarily about playing the music of other composers? One important way to do this is of course by sharing the joy of music and movement with children throughout their childhood in age appropriate ways, so that as they grow, their inner music grows with them.



  1. brilliant and eloquent, Joanie!

  2. Thank you, Joanie. A nice look at key musical elements with a beautiful and thought provoking ending!

  3. Great article! Having taught early childhood for over 30 years, I love your multi-sensory approach to these concepts. What a firm foundation for the kids you work with!

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