Music With Mrs. Tanenblatt

Monday, February 5, 2018

Teaching Melodic Contour

Hello all, it's great to be back! I came back to work from maternity leave a few weeks ago. Baby Tanenblatt was born in October and is absolutely perfect. Now I'm learning how to navigate life as a working mom and every day certainly brings its new challenges. 

One of my favorite ways to tackle challenging teaching situations is through collaboration, and this month I'm collaborating with some fantastic music teachers to share our favorite tools for teaching melodic concepts. Today I'm going to share with you some of my favorite tricks for teaching melodic contour. Please note that this post contains Amazon affiliate links and I receive a small commission from items purchased through the links.

When teaching melodic contour, I find that a lot of young students get confused with the language. They hear high and low and confuse it with loud and soft. By actively engaging them in listening and singing, I find that this confusion generally clears up after a few lessons. I usually use a combination of the tools listed below to help my students understand what upward and downward melodic direction really means.

Slide Whistle

My slide whistle has been one of my favorite additions to my classroom this year. I introduced it to my Kindergarteners at the beginning of this school year and their faces just lit up the first time they heard it! 

Students always love listening to patterns that I play. I will play a glissando on the whistle and then ask the students to show the direction that the melody is going. Once I feel like they all understand the difference between upwards and downwards motion, I make each example more complicated, involving lots of high and low leaps. I ask students to act them out by standing/sitting or waving their arms to show the high and low sounds. If you're looking for an inexpensive slide whistle to play, you can try this one: 

Pitched Percussion

I love to use my pitched percussion instruments to reinforce melodic contour as well. I love to use Boomwhackers for this: I'll line up eight kids each with one scale degree and have them play up and down the major scale. We compare the size of the tubes to the pitch they produce to tie-in to the science of sound. I make them wait and only tap their tube when someone points to them, so one person gets to be the conductor and the eight kids playing love to "be a note" and play on their turn. We will do this along with simple songs that outline the steps to the major scale, such as The Snowman, Ebeneezer Sneezer, and Down, Down, Yellow and Brown. If you don't have Boomwhackers, the same thing can be done with handbells or tone bars.

Vocal Exploration

A great way to help students make a visual connection is by displaying vocal explorations. A friend of mine gave me these great pathways that she made out of paper and I have fun going "old school" using them. 

I typically designate one student to be the leader and he or she will guide us through singing the shape. I usually have students singing along on a neutral vowel, such as "oo." I will have my leader use a pointer or hold a manipulative (for example, a big foam snowflake in the winter time) to show where we are along the line.

I've been keeping these red shapes attached to my dry erase board with magnets and when they're not in use, I just push them off to the side. Then, my older students all want to know what those big red things are for and we have fun playing with them, too!

If you are more interested in a high-tech version, there are lots of vocal explorations available for download on TpT that you can project. 

One of my favorites is Flying Freddie, an animated version where students can follow the little aviator as his airplane goes up and down.


OK, I will admit that I have a bit of an impulse shopping problem. I saw a video demonstration of this little guy last year and just had to have it for my classroom:

It's an electronic instrument and has a crazy sounding timbre that kids love. You can play melodies on the neck of the instrument and it has a little switch on the back to change between low, medium, and high octaves. You can play distinct notes or glide up and down to create a flowy melody. Students can listen and respond by stretching up high or down low. No written explanation can really do this thing justice, so here's a video demonstration by the manufacturer:

The Otamatone is a fun teaching tool and also a great behavior incentive: as soon as students hear it they all immediately want to get their hands on it! (Can you blame them?) I'll announce to a class that when they line up, I'm looking for three students who walk calmly and quietly to their spot in line. Those three will get to play a short melody for their peers.

If you are as crazy as I am, you can get one on Amazon. There's several different sizes and colors available. This is the one I use:

Yarn Composition/Improvisation

A few weeks ago, my local Kodály chapter, MUSIK, hosted a free workshop at Loyola University. One of the presenters was the incomparable Amy Weishaar who shared a breadth of information on creating multisensory lessons for students with learning disabilities. One of the greatest takeaways for me was a demonstration that she led using yarn to compose and improvise. Every student gets a length of yarn to show their melody and she also suggests giving each child a felt square for a backing so it has something to cling to. 

After children have created their melody, they can sing it or play it on an instrument, exploring the high and low sounds they can produce. She suggested using the black keys of a piano keyboard so that it will be a pentatonic melody. You could also do this the opposite way and sing/play a melody, then ask the students to manipulate the yarn to show what they heard.

I hope this collection of ideas sparks something new for you. It's always great to find new ways to teach a basic concept like melodic direction. Do you have another kinesthetic, aural, or visual way to teach melodic direction? Please share in the comments!


  1. Ooooh, I love the idea of yarn on felt! Such a great idea! Thanks for sharing, these are all fantastic.

  2. Great post! I also use the slide whistle and have 3 (impulse purchases because I worry they might get broken or stop making them) silver metal ones! We use them for movement at the beginning of many classes, or for rewards at the end. Students listen as I play and move high (tiptoes, reaching for outer space) and low (how low can you go?) sounds. I love to "trick" them by playing a few individual ascending notes, then sliding back to the floor, the next time adding a few individually played notes moving up, sliding back down, etc. Of course, they love it when I play quickly up and down and the squeals and giggles are infectious!
    I also was introduced to the melodic direction yarn idea but instead of yarn, we used shoelaces! So fun and so meaningful! Thanks again!

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  4. so much fun! Trying these ideas this week in my 2nd grade class! Thanks for sharing