Review article 
Invitation to Creativity:
A Brief Survey of Volume I of Music for Children
by Catherine West, Toronto

Link to the Pentatonic Music Collection
- an extensive site with lots of music examples!

Introduction by Carl Orff, January 1950

Music for children has grown out of work with children.

The traditional Nursery Rhymes and Children's Songs were the obvious starting point for this work. Most of the texts in this book. are taken from these sources. The tonality is limited to the pentatonic scale. In this, where the musical limitations correspond to their own mentality, small children will be able to express themselves easily without being in danger of leaning on the strong examples of other music.

The tonality begins with the two-note call (Cuckoo, Name-calling); then other notes are added. The melodic Row finds its natural accompaniment in Ostinato and Drone (which are diametrically opposed to the use of all cadences of the major scale) the use of which leads quite naturally later to a simple polyphony.

The use of special instruments facilitates the entry into this early world of sound. The following form the basis:

The glockenspiel is played with wooden sticks the xylophone (unless marked otherwise) with rubber covered sticks.

For their use In pentatonic music the F and B keys (metal or wooden bars) are removed.

Ordinary drinking or wine-glasses of different size and thickness are used. Should it not be possible to find glasses giving the exact pitch, those sounding slightly sharp can be tuned down to the extent of about a semi-tone by filling them with water. Glasses are also played with wooden sticks.


If some instruments are not available, similar ones may be used.

TRIANGLE in various sizes

TINY CYMBALS in various sizes

CYMBALS in various sizes

(These can be made by sewing tiny bells to rubber or leather strips.)


DRUMS (with one or two skins; with and without snares)

WOOD BLOCKS (in various sizes)

(easily made from wooden. earthen-ware or tin-boxes, filled with sand etc.)



RECORDERS, LUTES and GUITARS may also be used.

To keep the ensemble together and for the playing of drones a bass instrument is added, preferably a viola da gamba or violoncello, possibly a viola or violin. This is always just called "Bass".

The use of the piano (as against the old keyboard instruments such as harpsi-chord, clavichord or spinet) is to be deplored as it bars the way towards the tonal and stylistic originality of this kind of music-making. Even more so mouth-organs or accordeons.

The three parts 1) Nursery Rhymes and Songs, 2) Rhythmic and Melodic Exercises and 3) Instrumental Pieces are complementary to each other and should be used together from the start. Thus immediately after the early nursery rhymes (Cuckoo, Pat-a-cake, Tinker tailor etc.) the first speech exercises, clapping and ostinato exercises should be attempted.

In order to achieve freedom in performance the children must play from memory. The teacher should nevertheless instruct them in musical notation right from the beginning, starting with the speech exercises where only rhythmic notation is necessary. At first musical notation should primarily be used to write down original inventions of melody and rhythm.

The playing of even the simplest instruments requires proper instruction and practice. Especially a sense of sound and ensemble must be aimed at and practised. In this way a basis for all later music-making and interpretation will be achieved; that is to say, a proper understanding of the language and expression of music. This volume represents the first steps towards this aim.

Preface by Walter Jellinek, London 1957

In the 1930's Carl Orff had occasion to give music instruction to children. Out of that work the idea of this volume originated. Its aim can be summed up as follows:

1) It is intended for all children of all grades of musical intelligence.

2) It is in no sense purely musical instruction but represents also a natural outlet for the energy stored up within the ever-growing bodies of children. At the same time it require the child to use its mind.

3) The demand on the child's faculties is graded to suit individual capabilities. Thus an exceptionally gifted child can invent a melody on one of the more difficult instruments, while the others can be occupied to the same extent of their ability, keeping a simple accompaniment going, if need be, by just clapping their hands once in a bar. In this way a cooperation among the group of children is obtained which practically no other work with children can achieve.

4) The exercise of rhythm, which belongs to all life, is beneficial to all children. They are moreover encouraged to listen to the sounds which they themselves produce, thereby developing a sense of tonal beauty, which is sadly missing in this age of noise. A sense of form, humour and the spoken word is also inherent in this work.

For those children who are exceptionally musical this volume will provide an in-valuable basis when they come to take up other musical activities in the usual way.

No attempt has been made in this English. version to keep rigidly to the original German texts or to traditional English tunes. No apology is made for either, because a way has been sought to follow the principle of Carl Orff's theories.


The second volume of "Music for Children" deals with the first two parts of the exercises in the major scale: Drone bass and triads. It follows volume one "Pentatonic", which repre-sents the basic introduction for the present volume. It is scored for the same instrumental ensemble, and it is important that real musical instruments, and not musical toys are used. This volume contains mostly songs and instrumental pieces. For "Rhythmic Exercises" those in volume one should be continued.

December 1951 Carl Orff


Volume III of "Music for Children" explores the realm of the dominant and subdominant triads. The use of these triads has been implied in many of the exercises in the earlier volumes, although these were built on drone bass and ostinato figures. Now, the use of the dominant and subdominant is consciously opposed to a drone bass foundation without entirely excluding the latter.

Practice with the dominant leads to familiar musical ground, nevertheless it is taken for granted that the previous exercises have so developed and established a feeling for style, that it will be possible, particularly in the field of improvisation, to avoid slipping into con-ventional patterns.

The rhythmic exercises in volume one should now be further exploited.

December 1952 Carl Orff


The fourth volume of "Music for Children" introduces a new world of sound: Minor. The choice of texts demonstrates a wider range of experience and feeling. Material suitable for early childhood has been left behind and there is considerable use of folk song.

Practice in minor keys begins with drone bass and triads just as it did in major keys. In the fifth volume the progression is continued with the dominant and subdominant triads and is then brought to a conclusion.

While in the volumes dealing with the major scale only the lonian mode form was used, in the realm of the minor scale the Aeolian, Dorian and Phrygian modes, with their special significance within the diatonic framework of Schulwerk, are thoroughly explored.

The rhythmic exercises in volume five should be practised concurrently with this volume.

Carl Orff


The fifth and last volume of "Music for Children" covers the use of the dominant and subdominant triads in minor keys; with this we have completed the elementary harmonic foundations of the seven-note scale.

The exercises using the leading note over a drone bass, that are to be found in the instructions and notes, require particular attention. The further development of rhythmic exercises and pieces using speech material are complementary to the previous volumes and complete the whole work.

The five volumes contain the experiences from nearly thirty years' work. Nevertheless this first attempt to lay the foundations in print can only include a fragment of the inherent possibilities. To avoid the danger of diffusion, and in order not to disturb the structural unity of the work as a whole, many ideas have been barely suggested, and countless sources of material have had to be omitted.

May this be a stimulant and starting point for those teachers that follow. It has been written for the young and to them it is dedicated.

Easter 1954 Carl Orff

Carl Orf with Gunild Keetman 1980

from Carl Orff Fotodokumente by Werner Thomas

Invitation to Creativity:
A Brief Survey of Volume I of Music for Children

by Catherine West, Toronto

Reprinted from the Canadian Orff Newsletter Vol.26 No.3, April 2000

References are to the Margaret Murray edition except where noted.

As a teacher of both children and level one pedagogy at the Royal Conservatory's Orff Levels Courses, I have explored the enchantments of this Volume many times - yet there is always something awaiting me on the next occasion that I hadn't noticed before. The book is full of orchestrations which are worth playing exactly as notated, and we often do this in the teachers' course.

One piece that I love to do with students is "Unk, unk, unk" (p. 12) - especially at Hallowe'en, usually with grade fives; the children love this lugubrious song and willingly sing the solo for the water witch (boys too!).

The elaborate orchestration is quite magical; it switches with each section of the piece but is based on simple time values which do not present great difficulty. I can imagine fitting this piece into a dramatic presentation of a fairy tale or just presenting it on its own in dramatic form. Another piece which bears learning in total - or almost - is the marvellous "Allegro" on page 123, which most of us know affectionately as "Hiya" Students who learn the soprano xylophone part invariably play it ever afterwards whenever their hands stray near an instrument (think of it as "Heart and Soul" for Orff lovers!). Any students who find this part difficult are able to take a less demanding part of which there are plenty in this marvellous piece.

However, like most teachers, I rarely teach the pieces as written. We know that these books were written in the spirit of invitation; indeed many of the pieces such as the rhythms, nursery rhymes, etc. come with the command that we "do something with this". There are many pieces in question and answer form, and changing the answer to something else through improvisation is always an option. Look at "Little Boy Blue" (p. 20), "Where are you going to, my pretty maid?" (p. 29), or many of the instrumental pieces, for example, the one on page 98. The "Melodies to be completed" (p. 79), give us many models for responses. By confining the improvisation to the pentatonic tone set, the results are guaranteed to be acceptable and students can be encouraged to listen for the most effective solutions. Improvisations can be sung - children love to sing Wee Willie Winkie's excuses for not being in bed when he is supposed to be (p. 7) - or played on an instrument, pitched or nonpitched.

Orff teaches us a lot about preparing opportunities for improvisations and solos; looking again at "Little Boy Blue", notice the four bar gap between the tutti and the solo. We find this gap in several of the rondos, for example, on pages 111, 113 and 116. It is hugely helpful for children not to have to leap into the improv. straight from the theme - the little break gives them time for mental clarity and to feel the beat before their entry (I think of how many times I have had to introduce a breather like this, into pieces that do not have one already). Of course, the gap does not have to be very different material as it often is in these pieces - one can just drop out some ostinati and continue with a bass line or something equally simple.

The rondos are quite clearly written, with improvisation examples as episodes - seethe note on page 143. The melodies are often infectious and the suggestions for episodes imaginative, such as the whistling episode on page 116. Always teach the theme in skeleton form (i.e. just the macrobeats) and then encourage students to decide for themselves when they are ready to add the divisions of the beat, passing notes etc. This way all the students can play a version of the whole piece which is acceptable, and all students should be working at a level which is a personal challenge. Remember to include as many types of improvisations as possible and to exploit whatever talents your students possess - this is the place to try a non-Orff instrument solo, some creative movement or some student poetry.

I would like to draw attention to the wonderful canons in this volume. Most teachers are familiar with the marvellous "Ding, dong, diggidiggidong" canon on page 24 (how could we teach sixteenth notes without it?!). Do not overlook some other treasures - most have an irresistible hook for kids - the glissando on page 131 or the challenge of a canon at a one beat delay on page 122. This canon also invites a solo improvisation (replace bars 9 and 10), which the other students echo in bars 11 and 12. For an added challenge have the soloist repeat his/her own improvisation at 13 and 14 and the other students echo it again. Return to the canon and repeat the whole process with a new soloist.

The "Rhythmic canons" (p. 74) and "Canon exercises" (p. 91) have footnotes (pp. 142, 143), which ask us not to teach the canon as a whole but to treat it immediately as an imitative exercise. (These canons all have long held notes which allow students to "hear ahead"). They may be clapped, sung or played and clearly both teacher and students are encouraged to improvise similar canons.

Use these canons to develop in students an awareness of what makes polyphonic texture interesting - the complementary design. To put it simply, when something happens in one part, perhaps a quarter note, something contrasting should be happening in another part, perhaps two eighth notes. Have students write pentatonic canons and listen for places where the complementarity succeeds - or where it collapses into unison sound for lack of contrast. Once students start to explore canon this way, they become highly critical listeners and are eager to try all sorts of things in canon, poems, songs etc. Allow them to explore different lengths of delay and to listen critically to the results, what is most effective and why I extend this activity into our listening work and have students listen to one of Bach's two-part inventions while following a score; the design is spectacularly regular in contrasting elements of rhythm, pitch etc. (It is worth noting that Bach wrote these to teach his sons how to write, not how to play, imitative textures).

I cannot leave this quick survey of the treasures of this book without a mention of the rhythmic accompaniments. Pages 53 to 78 are full of wonderful ideas and should not be overlooked. The body percussion accompaniments for "My little pony" (p. 72) and "Old Angus McTavish" (p. 73) are highly effective - but the schemes are over-elaborate for most of our purposes and beg to be simplified.

There are some beautiful song materials in the Doreen Hall/ Arnold Walter edition which do not appear in Murray's, and some preferable words for songs that are found in both. Orff teachers should own both editions.

On revisiting the Hall/Walter edition, I find song after song which I use regularly. "Little Robin Redbreast" (p. 10) is a cherished game in my kindergarten classes. The children sing the solo "Thank you for my tea", and then fly away to the cherry tree. "Mother may I go and bathe?" (p. 13) appeals to children's love of corny jokes. Tell other jokes as interludes. I used "Dame, get up and bake your pies" (p. 15) as the A section of a seasonal rondo which included "Little Jack Horner", "I saw three ships" and some glockenspiel improvisation, plus a few appropriate props such as mixing bowls and aprons'.

"A star" (p. 17), and "Riddle, riddle, riddle me" (p. 38) invite creative settings of old riddles and sayings, an ideal junior class activity. (Fowke's Ring Around the Moon is an excellent sourcebook.) "The day is now over" (p. 19, Hall and Murray), is a beautiful lullaby which appears in both editions I use nonreligious words:

The day is now over, the moon shines so bright
All the children are going upstairs for the night.
Little birds in the trees hide their heads in their wings
While Mama (or Papa) comes up to the bedroom and sings.

I have no record of whose version this is - let me know if you know! An improvised conversation (in pentatonic) between parent and child is a natural interlude.

"The bells in the steeple" (p. 36, Hall) is an exquisite version of the song that is Murray's "Farewell to the old year" (p. 32). Both have the same enchanting orchestration and a B section of rainstorm sounds can be developed. Both editions feature the rollicking song (with pitched percussion or body percussion accompaniment), which is "Old Mister Mulrooney" in Hall (song p.40, bp p.75)) and "Old Angus McTavish" in Murray (song p.37, bp p.73). There are many more wonderful songs in the Hall/Walter edition - if you do not own it, you should!

Songs such as "Boomfallera" (p. 44, Murray) may be transposed if your classroom choir sounds less than wonderful on high G. Often, moving songs up from C to D or even F major is preferable in terms of children's vocal register. Remember that Orff and Keetman had no bass xylophone or metallophones when these orchestrations were written - give the "glasses" parts to metallophones and add or adapt bass lines as needed. Orff mentions in his introduction that "The use of the piano … is to be deplored…" and "Even more so mouth-organs or accordions."!

In deciding what to use, and how, Music for Children gives us plenty of ammunition and permission. Cut the cloth according to your own cloak, and only teach the parts from the book which support your goals. If improvisation is the experience you want your students to have, make sure that you do not spend six weeks learning ten different ostinati for a song so that in week seven the children are allowed to improvise only once. I speak from personal experience and regret! However, if reading notation is a goal for your class, the time will be well spent reading those ostinati, or perhaps writing others. (It is worth noting that Orff specifies, in his introduction, that the teacher should teach students musical notation from the very beginning, with the emphasis being on writing down their own creations.) Spend the time on the most important learning and minimize the time spent on other aspects.

In closing, I want to draw attention to the lyrical beauty of some of these settings, a beauty that is found widely in the other volumes, but is a greatly needed antidote to so many witty little themes in C pentatonic here in Volume 1. The "Tranquillo" on page 106 is lovely, as is that on page 110. These melodies sound well on recorder and are also open to adding lyrics.

The challenge Orff offers us as teachers is a wonderful vocabulary to imitate. Use and enjoy it!

Catherine West, B.A. Hons, B. Ed., A.R.C.T., Orff Cert., is a music specialist with the Toronto District School Board where she teaches in two K-6 schools. She trained as a piano and early childhood music teacher at The Royal Conservatory of Music and has extensive experience in private music schools and as an Orff Specialist for the former Toronto Board of Education. She teaches Orff pedagogy Level One at The Royal Conservatory of Music every summer and is an active advocate for music education. Catherine is past president of the Ontario Chapter. Her infectious enthusiasm as a teacher and for the Orff approach is very evident in this article.

Back to VOSA Home Page