by Tamsyn

January 4, 2011

an essay by Tamsyn Spackman

Allow me to set the stage to illustrate what the Kodaly Method can do. Imagine entering a classroom and witnessing a group of students who have an amazingly balanced education in music. They can sing major, minor, and pentatonic scales, recognize all major, minor, and perfect intervals by sight and sound, are skilled in solfege and staff notation, can sight read in five different keys, are proficient in syncopated and dotted rhythms, and are adept at dictation to the level with which they can sing. They also have a firm grasp of basic musical form. They have learned about 80 songs during the course of the year, and they mutually delight in singing beautiful music. At first glance this classroom may appear to be a group of music majors at your local college, but the truth is, these students are much younger, and many of them have no special musical abilities. They are a group of 3rd graders at a typical Hungarian singing school.

His Story

After his work in the Hungarian schools, Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) is probably best known for his work with Bela Bartok collecting and compiling thousands of Hungarian folk songs in their purest form. Bartok and Kodaly met while they were both students at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. They became lifelong friends. Both shared a love for the music of the Maygar, which was the native folk music of Hungary. In Hungary, especially at the beginning of the 20th Century, it was typical to be born, marry, and die in the same town of city, and the music of each province was truly unique. Both Bartok and Kodaly had traveled as children and both had a strong sense of the rich musical heritage Hungarians have, but were alarmed at the populations general ignorance of that heritage. The schools taught primarily in the Germanic style. Publications of the folk songs that were available were often Hungarian texts set to German music, were undistinguished from popular music, or were simplified or otherwise altered so as to bear little or no semblance to the original. (1) In 1905, the two began the lifelong task of going to the Maygar people and recording the folk songs in their purest form. The recorded the music with the relatively new invention of Edison’s phonograph, which was a curious thing to the Maygar, but not as exciting as the cameras which the attending press brought. The wax rolls of the phonograph could only be played back in the laboratory, so its usefulness was dubious to the onlooker. Many of the peasants the composers interviewed doubted the authenticity of their mission. But despite the trials, the musicians collected thousands of folk songs and renewed interest and national pride in the true Hungarian folk song. Together, they were founding fathers in the field of ethnomusicology. Both Bartók and Kodály began to incorporate elements of this music into their compositions. However, where Kodály would quote the Magyar melodies verbatim in his compositions, Bartók chose to assimilate the style of the Magyar. Bartok went on to become a famous composer, and Kodaly, a composer in his own right, revolutionized the music education in the public schools.

Applying the Kodaly Method

Why is this history important to parents? An understanding of Kodaly’s intense involvement in gathering these folk song anthologies tells us who the man was and why folk music was important to him. Kodaly chose folk music as the vehicle to educate children. He did this because he felt that it was the mother tongue of music for the child, and hence the easiest to learn. For Hungarians, this meant Hungarian folk music. In Kodaly’s studies, he found that Magyar music was based on pentatonic and modal scales, was monophonic (meaning only sounding one note at a time), and was rich in 2nds, 4ths, and 7ths. He also found that folk music was developmentally ideal for teaching children to sing in tune as well as providing a good base for learning other music theory skills. The Kodaly method draws strictly from three sources;
  1. Authentic singing games and nursery songs
  2. Authentic folk music
  3. Good composed music by recognized composers (2)
This strict use of folk song is one of the elements which sets the Kodaly method apart from the others. Singing games are used throughout the curriculum to facilitate a joy in singing and a love for music. Nursery songs are primarily taught to the youngest children (many Hungarian children attend nursery schools beginning at age 3). Folk music is taught exclusively in the early grades and continues as composed music is introduced. In Hungary, the students learn only Hungarian folk music in the first years, then the music of surrounding countries, and finally the folk music of the world. In America this is not as practical as our musical heritage, like everything else, is a “melting pot” of different cultures. Many of our folk songs have foreign melodies, or were adaptations of foreign folk songs to begin with. Much of American folk music is European in nature, although our African-American spirituals obviously have African roots. So in an America, the origin of the folk music is more laid back, the developmental sequence of the melodies being of primary concern. In his studies with children’s choirs, Kodaly discovered (nearly simultaneously with other childhood music education specialists) a sequence of intervals that was especially effective in teaching children to sing in tune. The sequence is founded on primarily through child development. Kodaly touched on this briefly;
Music must not be approached from its intellectual, rational side, nor should it be conveyed to the child as a system of algebraic symbols, or as a secret writing of a language with which he has no connection. The way should be paved for direct intuition. (3)

Curwen Hand Signs

For teaching these intervals, the Kodaly method uses the Curwen hand signs. In schools where the Kodaly method is used, solfege is used exclusively in the early grades, with absolute names of the notes being taught around 3rd grade when students begin studying an instrument. It is with instrumental music that the absolute names truly becomes necessary. For the singer, solfege is easier to learn and all that is necessary for music reading. Since the ultimate goal of the Kodaly is for everyone to obtain musical literacy, the voice is the primary instrument because it is most readily available. Also, by learning to sing first, the musician learns to associate the notes on the staff as pitches, and not the fingering on the instrument of choice. In the Kodaly method (among others), Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti is shorthanded to DRMFSLT. Higher notes are written D'R'M' and the lower notes are written T, L, S, and so forth. Although other songs are taught by rote, music for the conscious study of music for reading is introduced with the following sequence;

  1. SM
  2. SML
  3. SMD
  4. LSMD
  5. SMRD
  6. LSMRD (in which the whole pentatonic scale is learned)
  7. MRDL, (a minor mode)
  8. MRDL,S,
  9. D,LSMRD(4)
Fa and Ti are introduced later and as needed. This is because the minor 2nd (Fa to Mi and Ti to Do) is especially hard for the younger singers to sing. Also, universal to most cultures is the heavy use of the pentatonic scale in their folk songs, which goes back to the idea of teaching in the native musical tongue. In Louis Choksy’s “The Kodaly Method”, there is a fantastic appendix of American-esque folk songs presented in this sequence. Many of the songs are singing games, and the book comes highly recommended if you choose to use the Kodaly method in your home. Up until now I’ve made little mention of some of the tools Kodály teachers use. Understanding the difficulties that young children have with writing, the Kodaly method uses a series of manipulatives and techniques to teach music reading and dictation to their students.

Rhythm Sticks

For rhythm notation, students are given a bundle of sticks, often popsicle sticks, pencils, or toothpicks. Note heads are ignored for this exercise, and the sticks make a nice shorthand for simple rhythms. │ represents a quarter note, learned through the French rhythm solfege as "ta". If the teacher said "ta, ta, ta, ta", the student would dictate it with four sticks laid out as │ │ │ │. Eighth notes are learned as "ti-ti" and are notated as ∏. A quarter rest can be notated as a sideways W, or with a Z. For a half note, add a dash after a quarter note. Beyond that, the stick notation becomes difficult to use with sticks, but is still handy with the pen, with note heads written for half and whole notes, and dotted rhythms being used. Combined with the sol-fa solfege shorthand mentioned earlier, we have a very useful combination, when learned, for notating melodies without a staff. Follows is an example for "Rain, rain, go away." Similar exercises to those used with rhythm sticks can be done with rhythm flash cards. Some of the common tools and aids in teaching are
  • Hand signs
  • Rhythm solmization
  • Flash cards
  • Echoes
  • Body signs
  • Picture symbols
  • Musical ladders
  • Musical shorthand or stick notation(5)
Stick notation as used in Kodaly method


1. Sr. Lorna Zemke D.M.A., Kodaly Concept: Its History, Philosophy, Development (Illinois: Mark Foster Music Company, 1977) 4-7
3. (Selected Writings, p. 120) http://oake.org/php/kodalyphilosophy.php
4. Sr. Lorna Zemke D.M.A., Kodaly Concept: Its History, Philosophy, Development (Illinois: Mark Foster Music Company, 1977), 40

About the author 


My name is Tamsyn and I love music. I got my bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from USU. I spent many years teaching private piano lessons until I had children of my own. I have attended several children workshops on how to teach children music. I really like the Kodaly method, but have adapted a lot of different techniques for my own children.

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