Singing – playing – understanding. Three ways of music in school

Benedikt Burghardt

With this thought the philosopher Plato two thousand years ago in his dialogues explained the connection between the educational value of music and the innermost being of a person. This “excellent” interplay between the power in the sound of music and soul experience has not only remained constant since then but has even intensified in the way that music has developed in the West.

In a school context, too, the musical presents itself as a unique, overarching artistic and social force. Its profound qualities which deeply affect the human soul while also strongly connecting human beings give music its particularly great educational value.
With regard to the three basic soul forces of feeling, thinking and the will, three paths can be marked out during the developmental phases in the period of schooling which accompany and support the child and adolescent in their changing fields of experience and abilities: singing as a primarily feeling-orientated activity; playing an instrument through which the will is particularly addressed and cultivated; and musical understanding which explores the musical connections through the thinking. All three paths go through age-appropriate metamorphoses which will be outlined below.


In the first years of school the focus is on singing in unison alongside basic instrumental experience. Here the first task is to practice listening and thus to train the senses, attention and empathy.

A further-reaching stage of singing is reached in class 3 when the forces for understanding and creating polyphony are released. Now it is no longer a case of singing together in unison out of a natural musical disposition but the individual forces are challenged through attentively experiencing music in several tones at the same time. A new wealth of sounds is discovered and may be experienced as downright exhilarating. This also now reflects the newly perceived diversity of the class community. That lays the foundation for a middle school choir in which singing can be experienced as a further enhancement of class singing through the greater richness of tone.

In upper school – having passed through the dip of the voice breaking – the wealth of mixed male and female voices then opens up in polyphony. Here once again new sounds and colours, dialogues and voice connections can be experience in the music which becomes the image in sound for differentiated and refined coexistence in a larger community.


Instrumental playing equally follows a graduated path of development in which simple instrumental progressions are practised in the class community in the first years of school. The care and respect for the instruments accompanies the musical happening which still takes its cue from the pictorial world. We experience a uniform sound in the class. Here one of the basic requirements is to awaken the fine motor skills and pay attention to healthy breathing processes when playing the recorder, drawing narrative sounds from simple wooden, metal or skin instruments, and listening attentively when playing.

In class 3 every child chooses their own instrument. Now great circumspection is required from the class, music and instrumental teachers and the parents in individually supporting each child. Once the right instrument has been found, a long path of musical practice – and thus also self-training – begins!

With a great deal of patience, willpower and devotion the first instrumental pieces can be learnt and presented at smaller occasions. The instrumental abilities which are acquired then enable a path via the class orchestra into the middle school orchestra in which even with simple pieces an enormous diversity in the harmony of the various instruments can be experienced. Here – as subsequently in the upper school orchestra whose programme sets new goals with larger works – weighing up one’s own commitment and devotion to the music presents ever new challenges. A successful orchestral sound or work allows us ultimately not just to experience aesthetic enjoyment of artistic and social achievement but also the “image in sound of the whole human being”.


In the field of the understanding of music we encounter a wholly independent and inspired form of “musical intelligence” which has its foundation in the connection between musical and human feeling. These forces of intelligence awaken gradually in the course of class 3 where the previous purely listening experience is now joined by the visual grasp of music. With written notation, progressions which before were experienced in a dreamlike way can be understood and named for the first time. Elementary musical events are subject to auditory and visual inspection. Then the individual tones are joined by the other notation when writing music such as the stave and clef.

In the following years at school the focus is on the length of tones and on intervals – the intervals with their different narrative gestures. In middle school a new level of musical understanding opens up with the attempt to approach musical progression and its narrative world in words or colours. In this context another level of musical understanding follows in the course of upper school. This is more closely linked to the musical happening with the challenge to frame what has been experienced in a differentiated and clear way in words or pictures. What is demanded here is neither emotional clichés nor theoretical cleverness but a conscious listening inside oneself, reflection, and a precise grasp of what has been experienced in the musical work. In conclusion, supplementary motifs initiate the consideration of music history as well as questions about the being and reality of music.

Between the current misconception which considers pale concepts of music theory to be an understanding of music and subordinating musical judgement to personal taste alone, a meaningful path can be embarked on in this way which can communicate qualities to the young person which promote their development.

Using singing, playing and understanding, “education through music is the most excellent” in this way when it is supported by an educational intention which is guided by the growing human being.

About the author: Benedikt Burghardt is a composer, conductor and lecturer at the Hamburg Seminar for Waldorf Education and was for many years a music teacher at Waldorf schools.