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Zoltan Kodaly: Kids, music, and the brain

Music is all around us. We sing songs from movies, hear music at the supermarket, and learn new tunes from the radio, concerts and friends. Young children, in particular have a kinetic response to music. The smallest baby will wiggle its body to the music we play for them and as they grow older will sing and dance to music at the drop of a hat. Zoltan Kodaly, the Hungarian musician and teacher observed these phenomena and built his teachings around his observations of this delight in music.

Kodaly, through observing small children understood this instinctive love of music and the mind-body connection. He noticed the happiness young children receive from movement to music, especially singing and clapping to rhythms.

Kodály had a big influence on early childhood education. Many of his ideas are imbedded into our culture, popping up from time to time in unexpected ways. Remember the thrilling sequence in the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” where the aliens communicate to humans for the first time through music with hand signals and tones? John Williams, the composer, was using Kodály’s method adapted from John Curwen and Sarah Glover’s work in the UK.

Kodaly’s idea was to introduce music through experience and to start young. He saw music in terms of language acquisition.  He thought the child should be learning to read music and books around the same time.

Here are some of Me-j’s tips for the family at home to encourage the development of the musical brain in young children.

  • Sing together. Remember how much you loved to sing as a child? Pass that feeling on!
  • Dance with your children. Show your kid you’ve still got the dance moves and let them show you a thing or two in the process.
  • Play clapping games. Kids love to physically interact with music and what better, easier way is there than clapping your hands together?
  • Make a game of your children’s favorite stories. Instead of just reading the story, try and make it interactive! Bring the book to life.
  • Clap the names of your family or friends ­– names, like Ben-ja-min, are best.
  • Also does your child have favorite words they like to say and can sing? Make up nonsense words. Be silly with sounds and it will pay off. Remember supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins and the amazing outburst of nonsense words from Yivis in their song “What does the Fox Say?”

Check out this YouTube Me-j found of this little girl that loves to sing “what does the fox say,” https://youtu.be/M77DPqRVSng

When you look for schools for your children, whether kindergarten, nursery or primary school ask about their music program. Try to find a nursery like the one Me-j visited in Palo Alto, California where the nursery teacher created a gathering space for children around a huge metal drum. Every morning she would greet the children singing their names as they entered the room, beating the drum with her hands as the children settled around her. Think how good this warm greeting is for a shy newcomer to the group.

Here are some of Me-j’s favorite Kodály quotes.

 “What we produce by ourselves is better learned; there is a stronger feeling of success and accomplishment.”

 “If we ourselves sing often, this provides a deep experience of happiness in music.  Through our own musical activities, we learn to know the pulsations, rhythm, and shape of melody.  The enjoyment given encourages the study of instruments and the listening to other pieces of music as well.”

 “We should read music in the same way that an educated adult will read a book: in silence, but imagining the sound.” (1954)

 “And I would advise my young colleagues, the composers of symphonies, to drop in sometimes at the kindergarten, too. It is there that it is decided whether there will be anybody to understand their works in twenty years’ time.” (1957)

 “The characteristics of a good musician can be summarized as follows: 1. A well-trained ear. 2. A well- trained intelligence. 3. A well-trained heart. 4. A well-trained hand. All four must develop together, in constant equilibrium. As soon as one lags behind or rushes ahead, there is something wrong. So far most of you have met only the requirement of the fourth point: the training of your fingers has left the rest far behind. You would have achieved the same results more quickly and easily, however, if your training in the other three had kept pace.” (1954)


Zoltan Kodály was born on December 16th, 1882 and lived until 1967. He was a composer, musician, teacher and philosopher. He is well known internationally as the creator of the Kodály Method.

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