Paul Fehrenbach
School of Music
Pennsylvania State University  Dubois Campus
College Place
DuBois, Pennsylvania 15801

Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, music, musical

Music education in home schools is an area of curriculum that is somewhat vague and presumably less requisite than other disciplines of study. The reasons for this include the issue of significance of one subject area over another as well as time management. Time is a variable that is given much emphasis in music education. Music educators in conventional schools often feel that there is never enough time, or find it apportioned in such a way as to make effective instruction difficult. As a result, music teachers, through no fault of their own, sense the need to provide many experiences to the child in a comparatively short time. Similar situations often are encountered in the home education environment with respect to instruction in music and the arts. However, a better way would be to let the children progress at their own pace and, in effect, teach themselves. Armstrong (1991) claims that “children are born learners” (p. 4). There is a great deal of truth in that simple statement, the sort of truth that prompts one to question much of what is done in institutionalized education today.
A rooted curriculum for music is an issue that has eluded music educators for some time. The problem dwells in securing a solid, universally agreeable philosophy of music that can be implemented and nurtured nationally. This is a difficult hurdle for any education association, particularly one as diffused as home schoolers. Curriculum requirement outlines vary from state to state; curriculum philosophies vary, therefor, as well. Many states use criteria pertaining to private schools in delineating “equivalent instruction” to home school participants (Boose, 1984, p. 8), then allow the local districts to clarify the required standards. Problems arise as districts try to address the phenomenon of home schooling (Konnert, 1988). Music is usually categorized in the comprehensive directory of fine arts which leaves the parent to decide upon the appropriate method of music instruction.
To some parents this does not pose a problem if they are proficient, to some degree, in music. To other parents, however, just knowing where to begin to teach music becomes an issue. There are many catalogues of curricular material on the market from which home school parents may choose. The music sections of these curriculum guides consist primarily of a variety of listening activities. Some parents ask for recommendations from parents who are actively involved in music and others begin to experiment (Burkhardt, 1991). The curricular material itself is not as important as the method used in music instruction. The children should be allowed to develop their musical skills as naturally as they develop language. It is to this natural system of learning that John Holt (1989) devotes an entire book. Holt feels that the strings of letters that children are so fond and proud of producing should be “read” by the parent to enhance the child’s creative self-esteem. Similarly, when children are exposed to a variety of music and musical situations, they often enjoy creating strings of abstract music notation symbols which should be “sung” by the parent (Gordon, 1993).

The Music Curriculum

Traditional music education has distributed its activity in two directionsCgeneral music and performance. The premise of this method of instruction is that general music teaches the cognitive concepts of music while performance lets the child put those abstractions into practice. While performance is an important part of any music curriculum, many educators feel that there has been an over emphasis on this aspect because it does not directly effect the majority of the students in the school. Students who do not study an instrument or voice often receive no immediate benefit from the general music education they receive. Students soon forget the lessons learned in class because they are not putting their knowledge and experience gained from their general music activity to practice in some way. To reverse this problem, one direction taken by some music educators today is to institute a three-way approach to music learningClistening, composing, and performing, with creativity as the unifying thread among the three processes. Parents should encourage their children to listen, compose, and perform music with the simple goal of thinking sound. Listening, composing, and performing becomes a formula of music instruction that 1) stimulates the mind by emphasizing creativity; 2) addresses problem solving techniques and social interaction needs of children; and 3) recognizes music to be an important part of the total education of the child.
The home school, as a venue for beginning to understand music, produces an ideal atmosphere for thinking sound. Home-learners have the advantage of receiving music instruction tailor made to their interests and abilities. There is also ample opportunity to integrate music into other subjects, since the various curriculums are all under the auspices of the parents. The following background information and instruction suggestions can be used to develop a child’s listening, composing, and performing abilities. It is important to realize that the three approaches can operate sequentially or simultaneously depending on the interest and ability of the child. These activities can be used effectively with children between the ages of five and fourteen.


Children are exposed to music in a variety of ways every day. Ruth Beechick (1988) feels that we live in a society that deposits music merely in the background of everyday life. This forces us to perceive music in an environment where it becomes less important and subsequently less interesting. Such a climate for music sounds the death knoll for the future of serious music. Children need to learn to listen to music, and to do that they need to listen creatively.
Active and expressive music listening should be the first stage of understanding music. Active and expressive music listening requires one to listen and think sound holistically. In music, as in language, the evolution of understanding should be more important than the resolution. Experimentation, exploration, searching, and, on occasion, inquiry should be the focus of the child’s pursuit of understanding and creating music. Creative listening requires the child to examine, investigate, ponder, and question a composition as a whole and then gradually analyze its parts.
An effective technique to direct creative listening is to have children draw a song or composition as they hear it (Fehrenbach, 1994). One should begin by having the children draw the subject matter of recordings of music that are interesting and familiar. Recordings of such artists as Raffi and Tom Chapin contain a great deal of imagery and instrumental variety which inspires a child’s imagination. The drawings can be whatever the child chooses to create. The child should begin by drawing the subject matter that is depicted in the songs. Gradually, the child should be encouraged to incorporate more of the sounds occurring in the music. Such sounds as specific instruments that the child can identify, high and low pitches, and loud and soft dynamic changes should be brought to their attention as they draw their pictures. The purpose of this activity is to enable the child to listen beyond the lyrics of a song and begin focusing on other properties of sound.
At this point the child should begin listening and drawing pictures to instrumental classical music. There is a wealth of programmatic music in the literature that will spark the imagination of children. Programmatic music should be used at this stage because of its emphasis on nonmusical ideas that children can understand and appreciate. The titles of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons violin concerti (Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall) are often enough to inspire perceptive drawings from children (see Figure 1A and 1B). However, Vivaldi wrote short descriptive poems for each of these concerti which explains exactly what is occurring in the music. These poems can be found in the liner notes of the recordings and can be used for additional incentive

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for the children’s drawings. Without the aid of specific lyrics in the music, the children are forced to listen discretely to obtain subject matter to draw. Other popular programmatic compositions are Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale”, Holst’s The Planets, and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. These are considerably long compositions, but single movements of these works would provide a great deal of listening and drawing motivation.
A number of compositions have been written that are intended to educate children with the instrumental sounds of an orchestra. Among these are Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Britten’s piece isolates each instrument of the orchestra, instrumental family, and instrumental combinations in a pleasant theme and variations form that is tasteful and informative. Prokofiev’s piece is written for small orchestra and narrator and presents specific instruments with animal characters in a fairy tale setting. These pieces are excellent for astute listening because the children can draw the instruments they recognize and learn about the ones they can not identify (see Figure 1C).
As the children develop their listening skills they can listen and draw to absolute music. Absolute music is a composition that is not associated with a story, poem, or any nonmusical idea. Much of the music of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms falls into this category. Here the children are free to associate their feelings and expressions into the music and draw their pictures accordingly. It can be very educational for the children to develop abstract drawings based on the movement and the sound of the music to which they are listening. This activity will lead to the development of their personal system of notation which can be used in their composing activities.


Research into the effectiveness of compositional activities for children has been active for over thirty years. The results of all this research clearly imply that children learn to understand the meaning and complexities of music when they are actively involved in its creation. Since music composition is a creative act there are no “wrong” compositions or “bad” songs written by children. Each piece of music a child develops hones their skills and increases their awareness of the subtleties of music.
Among the many important resources to come out of compositional research is the importance of group participation. Social interaction in the creative music environment has been shown to produce significant improvement in conceptual understanding (Mathes, 1961). In terms of home schooling, the group activity can be defined as family or support group participation. Parents who become involved in their children’s music compositions are able to assist their children as well as learn from the experience. Community and home education support groups can provide many interested participants who would benefit from such creative activity. Although it is difficult to conceive of music as being segmented or put together in a fragmented manner, group activity can be very advantageous and practical to the child who needs assistance in understanding certain musical concepts. Children should be encouraged to collaborate on each of the compositional activities affiliated with writing a song thus ensuring the continuity of the piece. This also guards against the notion that music is a number of smaller parts that are pieced together to form a whole.
Another aspect of children’s composition that has received a great deal of attention, particularly of contemporary research, is the problem of music notation. Most researchers agree that strict notational practice is not necessary for music written by children. In fact, some researchers have found that standard notational practice can be counter-productive (Upitas, 1987). When children have to deal with all the symbols and conventions of music notation, they no longer think sound, but rather think about marks on paper. In today’s music instruction texts and curricula, rarely are children allowed or encouraged to think about and compose music with their self-fabricated notational systems.
Many studies have investigated the theory that children learn to write music long before they are able to read music (Bamberger, 1982: Hildebrandt, 1984, Upitas, 1987). Children “write” music based on their current understanding of musical concepts. Researchers agree that children should develop their own notation as they become better at thinking sound. Most music educators believe that the children should be encouraged to create and manipulate sound patterns and not be concerned with notation. The purpose of notation is to represent sound visually, with the intention of performing it at a later time. Parents should encourage their children’s playing with sound, sound patterns, melodies, and rhythms, and let the representation of these musical ideas develop at a rate commensurate with their understanding. This is where the benefits of home education are significant and where we can address the difficulties of those parents who do not have a musical background and feel they are unable to teach music to their children. Parents who home school place high value on learning and not only value teaching their young but also enthusiastically learn themselves (Ray, 1986, p. 46). John Holt, a talented amateur musician as well as a major influence in home education, felt that one could and should begin a music pursuit any time in their life (Pride 1987, p. 194). This suggests that parents can learn to understand music in a creative way right along with the children. Parents must realize that it is the ears that make music, not the eyes. Any parent that appreciates a song on the radio or values a concert in the park can certainly encourage their children to think and create sound. One must not be in a hurry in this manner of instruction. The goal should be a gradual, but progressive understanding of musical concepts, which in turn facilitates thinking sound.
Nevertheless, studies have shown that children are often preoccupied with the belief that notation is an important step in the composition process (Bamberger, 1982; Davidson and Scripp, 1988; Gromko, in press; Upitas, 1992). As a way of introducing music writing Armstrong suggests:
Obtain a roll of white or beige wrapping paper at least eighteen inches wide and several yards long. Give your child about four feet of this paper and a pencil or other marker. Suggest that she sing a simple song such as “Happy Birthday to You.” Then ask her to draw the song on the paper using a single line. Suggest that the line might go up on the high parts of the song and move downward when the melody dips. However, let your child create her own unique notation for the song. Then ask her to sing the song as she moves her hand along the diagram showing the parts of the song that correspond to the different curve of the line. Finally, suggest that she act out the song as if her body were the line or drawing, rising and dipping to the contours of the melody. Then, let her come up with her own songs to diagram and dramatize. Do this as a family and let each individual illustrate his or her favorite songs (p. 148).1

In trying to reconstruct this model of musical creativity, parents could also suggest a topic that will serve as inspiration for a musical composition. This motivation should be used as a stimulus only, and the children, and parents should tackle the problem using any method of notation that they feel is appropriate. It is important that the parents realize and relate to their children that it is the sound of a musical composition that is of primary significance in a musical work. A composition that is impeccably notated but is melodically, rhythmically, harmonically, or formally unorganized is not as satisfying or profound as one that is artistic, thoughtful, and originally transcribed.
These compositions can be written independently with the outcomes of each participant compared and discussed. A more fruitful procedure would be to make the composition a group project. The family or group could work on the piece as a team; developing the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and form together. By collectively listening and forming ideas about the composition, sketches can be developed and refined. Such interaction is very valuable for the child’s social well-being, as well as very possibly producing some fine pieces of music.
The compositions can be musical settings to preexisting or original poems or instrumental in nature using a wide variety of home implements that can serve as instruments for this project. Regelski (1986) recommends that each composition emphasize listening, composing and performing. He suggests that the compositions be written for “found sounds”. These are timbres and instrumental sounds found in the house such as metallic (pans and utensils), glass (cups and bottles), and ceramic (plates, and bowls) percussion sources. Regelski calls such compositional activity “action learning” and believes such learning “strives to derive much of what will be expressed musically … from students’ present lives and experiences” (p. 86). He states that a compositional activity should be set up as a problem solving task. For example, parameters for the composition might be (a) three-part form (beginning section, middle section, and a return to the beginning material), (b) each of the three sections be 15 seconds long, (c) the musical sounds should represent two contrasting feelings (happy – for the first and last section and sad – for the middle section), and (d) use only metallic, glass, or ceramic sound sources. Such musical problems as these can be thought of as variables in a scientific experiment. The children’s compositions become their hypotheses because the results are audibly observable. The limitations are important to keep the children focused and prohibit them from thinking in too many directions at the same time.
The third parameter listed above is concerned with expressive contrasts. One could change the type of learning that will occur by changing this parameter. For example, contrasts in loudness (intensity) could be emphasized by limiting the dynamic range of the composition from soft to medium soft. Contrasts in pitch could be experienced by limiting the sound sources to those which produce extremely high and extremely low sounds.
Regelski refers to such compositions as “soundscapes.” He points out that they may or may not be notated. He encourages the use of improvisation in these activities. Improvisations are compositions which are not notated, but rather are developed freely within the specified limitations. He feels that improvisations are particularly advantageous during the early stages of compositional activity. However, he strongly recommends that notated compositions, using invented symbols, are the most effective because it controls all the dimensions and details of the composition and provides for its replication at a later time.
The compositions are consummated when they are produced for a listening audience. Regelski recommends that the performance of the compositions include as large an audience as possible and always be audiotaped. He feels that such a performance atmosphere makes the performers more serious about the composition and its production.
Sound sources do not have to be limited to “found sounds”. Having the children make simple stringed and percussion instruments is another way of sparking their creativity and gives them an extra sense of pride when the composition is completed. As the children progress they may wish to apply their understanding to conventional instruments such as a piano, electronic keyboards, recorders, autoharps, and other instruments that have been traditionally used in music education. If the child decides to create a vocal composition, the topic chosen for the project can be integrated into language arts,

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such as writing the lyrics to a song they wish to compose, or a narration that would accompany the music. The issue or topic that is being considered can also be combined into social studies, or a historical perspective might be appropriate. There are a number of ways to associate an undertaking such as this with other educational disciplines, all of which should be explored. Integration of music with all the disciplines is encouraged as this emphasizes the influence that music has on our lives.
An important aspect of composition and of music understanding is the editing and re-editing that must be realized before the child moves on to another composition. These revisions should be aimed at improving: 1) the audible attractiveness and effectiveness of the music, and 2) the method of representation. Since the parents are involved in the compositional process they can learn and develop their own notational skills. Notation is not a crucial phase of instruction at this level of musical understanding but should be a naturally maturating function of compositional development.
Musical concepts such as form, texture, and harmony, should only be introduced when, through the editing process, the children find themselves at a cessation or ask for a better way to compose something. In this respect, time should not be an issue in the exploratory process of music understanding. The philosophy underlying this approach is based on the precept that it is better to develop music awareness at a slow, productive, confident and secure pace than try to impose too much material too soon. The later method creates a very thin base of musical knowledge. Such a foundation is (a) difficult to build upon, (b) easily forgotten, and (c) remote from the children’s livesCthree fundamental teaching problems that must be addressed in any educational environment.


As stated earlier, the compositional process is not complete until the music has been performed. A child’s performance, or participation in the performance, of his or her original material can be an extremely rewarding experience for both the child and audience. The communication of one’s thinking of sound completes the aesthetic experience, provides an approach to musical self-discovery, and can be an invaluable source of learning for the child. The children can participate individually, as in a recital atmosphere, or in groups if the compositions are written for ensembles of instrumental sounds or voices. The children can participate by singing their songs with another person accompanying, performing percussion parts in their instrumental compositions, or even conducting an ensemble who is performing the composition. It is not only the actual performance that is important here, but the rehearsals and preparation that really refines their social skills. It is important that the parents emphasize the presentational value of the performing activity and encourage the children to “produce” their show. Stage setup, planning, direction, and program design are among the demands of a successful performance in which children should be involved.
Home school support groups and area associations are a very popular and valuable vehicle for assistance in performance as well as instruction for those families that feel somewhat deficient in a certain subject area. These cooperative teaching locales are very good places for those parents who wish to learn more of the rudiments of music and seek clarification of certain details. Furthermore, it is an ideal environment for children to perform their original compositions and to seek constructive criticism from both the adults and their peers. Perhaps the most extraordinary use of such an association is a comprehensive group project incorporating all the arts and related disciplines such as a play or musical production, particularly if the undertaking is written and produced by the children.
Effort should be made, in productions such as this, to embrace as many of the exigencies of music education that are appropriate in each situation. For example, bringing together circumstances relating to composers and compositional style with historical situations offer the child an abundance of meaningful learning opportunities. A musical play could be written and produced by children that depicts some aspect of the life and times of a composer such as Beethoven. The children would benefit in an exercise such as this by researching Beethoven’s life and the Viennese culture of that time. Although none of Beethoven’s music has to be used in the play, the children could write and perform music relating to the subject matter of the play. Such a production would require music, language arts, visual arts, history, and social studies skills. The production would be a rewarding experience for children of all ages. Correlating music with activities such as this creates a stronger music program which in turn helps children “develop an appreciation for various types of music, learn a variety of songs and hymns, understand the elements of music, identify and appreciate various musical instruments, and become familiar with various composers” (Lopez, 1988, p. 189).
Many studies have found that religious convictions play a major role in why parents choose to home school (Mayberry, 1988). Since religious activity is important to these families it follows that music should be absorbed into this practice. Music suitable for use at religious assemblies is an ideal outlet for the fertile minds of children. The very foundation of Western Art music was fashioned from music for worship. The children should be exposed to the lineage of religious music, and as their compositional skills progress they should be encouraged to create their musical forms based on the music of antiquity. Performance of children’s compositions at worship services can have a profound effect on both the child and congregation. Music holds an important place in most religious services, and there can be no greater reverence than a child’s musical offering.


Integration of children’s “thinking sound” with their inventiveness brings about music understanding. Music created by a child is of the purest genius and of a higher caliber than anything that possibly can be found in the undervalued musical mainstream that is predominate in our culture today. “Children represent the essence of innovation and ingenuity” (Armstrong, 1991, p. 5) but must be given the opportunity to exploit their extraordinary abilities and invention.
Ronald Thomas (1991), director of the Manhattanville Music Curriculum Program, believes that all children have orderly musical skills even if they can not read notes (p. 28). Many music educators today hold that compositional methodology is a potentially powerful approach to music study in contemporary school systems. A growing number of music educators feel that addressing the compositional process establishes a “sense of authenticity and relevance in [music] appreciation” (p. 27). Beyond the actual composing, Thomas (1970) finds the students profit greatly from working with their pieces in rehearsals for performance and “constructively criticizing their own and fellow classmates’ productions” (p. 16).
Research is needed in the area of music in home education. Much of the mainstream music educational research can be interpreted in the domain of home schooling. However, specific investigation and review of home instruction could disclose essential information necessary to improve teaching techniques, compositional procedures, learner outcomes, and assessment.
Anyone can compose. Everyone should try. Igor Stravinsky (1970), one of the foremost composers of the twentieth century once said, “Since I myself was created, I cannot help having the desire to create” (p. 49). A progressive understanding of music is available at every level of the learning ladder. Each rung makes the next not only easier to reach but a great deal more fun.


Armstrong, Thomas. (1991). Awakening your child’s natural genius. New York: Tarcher/Pergee Books.
Bamberger, Jeanne. (1982). Revisiting children’s drawings of simple rhythms: A function for reflection in action. In S. Strauss (Ed.), U-shaped behavioral growth. New York: Academic Press.
Beechick, Ruth L. (1988). You can teach your child successfully (grades 4 -8). Pollock Pines, CA: Arrow Press.
Boose, Robert E. (1984). Guidelines for equivalent instruction through home-schooling. Augusta ME: Maine State Department of Educational and Cultural Services. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 274 049).
Burkhardt, Cathy. (1991). A note on music. Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, 35, 22.
Davidson, Lyle & Scripp, Lawrence. (1988). Young children’s musical representations: Windows on musical cognition. In J. Sloboda (Ed.), Generative processes in music: The psychology of performance, improvisation and composition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Fehrenbach, Paul. (1994). Music composition for kids: Developing a child’s personal theory of music. Unpublished manuscript.
Gordon, Edwin. (1993). Learning sequences in music. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc.
Gromko, Joyce. (in press). Children’s invented notations as measures of musical understanding. Psychology in Music.
Hildebrandt, Carolyn. (1984). Children’s representation of time in music. (Paper presentation). New Orleans, LA: American Educational Research Association.
Holt, John. (1989). Learning all the time. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
Konnert, William. (1988). Here’s what your board should know when parents ask about home schooling. American School Board Journal, 175 (5), 43-44.
Lopez, Diane. (1988). Teaching children: A curriculum guide to what children need to know at each level through sixth grade. Wheaton IL: Crossway Books.
Mathes, Bernadine. (Ed.). (1961). Creative music education: Original composition by students. (Report to the Polk County Board of Education). Des Moines, IA: Polk County School District. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED 001 252).
Mayberry, Maralee. (1988). Characteristics and attitudes of families who home school. Education and Urban Society. 21 (1), 32-41.
Pride, Mary. (1987). The next book of home learning. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books.
Ray, Brian D. (1986). A comparison of home schooling and conventional schooling: With a focus on learner outcomes. (A paper presented to the Department of Science, Math, and Computer Education, Oregon State University, 1985). Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Science, Math, and Computer Education Department. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED 278 489).
Regelski, Thomas. (1991). A sound approach to sound composition. In D. Hamann (Ed.), Creativity in the musical classroom (p. 85-91). Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference.
Stravinsky, Igor. (1970). Poetics of music: In the form of six lessons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Thomas, Ronald. (1970). Sound of a revolution. Catholic School Journal, 70 (4), 14-18.
Thomas, Ronald. (1991). Music fluency: Manhattanville Music Curriculum Program and today’s curriculum. Music Educators Journal, 78 (4), 26-29.
Upitas, Rena. (1987). A child’s development of music notation through composition: A case study A paper presented to the American Educational Research Association, April 24, 1987, Washington, DC.
Upitas, Rena. (1992). Can I play you my song? Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books.

Endnote: 1. Used by permission. Copyright 8 1991 by Thomas Armstrong.

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