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The Connection Between Music and Emotions

by Dr. Sue Snyder

Articles, Books, Research Recommendations


In a group list conversation, three colleagues have started a most interesting conversation on a broad topic. They each have independent perspectives, and bring their experiences to bear in their responses. The topic is "Music Without Mind", and began with Wendella's query. "I am wondering if any of you facilitate the creation of music from dance or pictures or real loose free form improv with your students and what your opinions are about facilitating thecreative process with children. I especially would like to know of successful activities for K-5."

The ensuing conversation entered into multiple perspectives, from deep therapeutic and psychological uses of the arts, to classroom activities that encourage creativity, to quotes from philosophers juxtaposing intuitive and conscious thought, and the interaction through which one becomes an inhibitor for the other.

Here are some thoughts.

First, "Music without the Mind" is perhaps a misnomer. Children spontaneously create songs, and make music, 2-6 songs per hour at age 2. (I think this research is cited in the Kassner and Campbell book Music in Childhood: From Preschool through the Elementary Grades (with CD) Or it might be from Wendy Sims' fine research on pre-school music making.) So there is some evidence that there is innate wiring for musical expression. This spontaneous music making apparently diminishes as expression through word language takes precedence over the broader world of sound, disappearing entirely by age 5 in many children. So now, there is additional evidence that spontaneous music making becomes extinct unless reinforced. Some reinforcement is other humans imitating and expanding what the child does. Additional reinforcement comes from a music rich environment, through which the child hears and assimilates musical ideas to try out and use. I would suggest that perhaps this is not Music without the Mind, but rather Organic Music Making, or Music from the SubConscious Mind. It is not a linear, calculated music-making, but rather a spontaneous, intuitive communication with oneself that might also be heard by others.

Now, what do we do with it as parents, teachers, or therapists? These are three different but related approaches to the relationship between spontaneous and innate creativity on one hand, and learning new skills and understandings on the other. All of us are teachers in this respect, whether formal or informal, and regardless of the end goal for the "client".


By the time children enter school, their natural musical mind has either been enhanced or eroded based on their environment. Parents and caretakers have a great responsibility for providing a nourishing and music-rich environment for the young child, in order to develop a music-ready brain. Gary describes how we have to first nurture feelings in children of freedom and fearlessness. These feelings will grow as children realize that our attitude to their initiatives is mostly YES. Children are so used to adults (including teachers) responding with a NO, ("Don't do that." "Stop it." "Sit down." Etc. Etc.) [that] we have to 'reprogram' them to expect acceptance so they will express their impulses spontaneously.If parents and caretaker kept the door open for musical expression and growth, we might not have to undo the inhibitors to innate creative efforts. So we work with parents, and caretakers in Head Start programs, helping them understand the value of music and the arts in early childhood. We also help them find the artist in themselves, and activities/strategies to keep kids' art smart.These activities and strategies require very little skill. They simply require awareness of the visual, aural, and kinesthetic worlds in which both they and the child live. Imitation and exploration of sounds, images, and movements should be part of every-day experience. Caretakers who imaginatively sing, speak,play, listen, draw, sculpt, collage, view, move, dance, and gesture with children are keeping the doors open. At IDEAS, we created an Arts Every Day Calendar that has one arts activity for each day of the year. Bridgeport ABCD Head Start just bought one for every parent with children in the program. Your Orff chapter might consider developing this type of helpful publication keep itsimple and jargon-free, with activities that can be done with readily available materials.

Elementary School

In early elementary school, I believe the music program should be experiential, just as every other aspect of the curriculum. Centering on children's interests, experience and exploration of the elements of sound should be part and parcel of every day. Also, making music together should be a part of every day, building a sense of community. The creative, spontaneous music making can happen any time children have independent playtime. Therefore, the more time for interactions and choice, the more opportunities for children to make music together.At some point, if teachers are observant, teachable moments can turn into mini-lessons that allow concepts and skills to be demonstrated and labeled.The learning sequence has become a foundation of my teaching. This sequence holds for any concept or skill, and includes experience/explore, describe, label, guided practice, independent practice, create, assess, maintain. Label is the only step done by the teacher. All other steps are prepared by the teacher, but done by the children.

Wendella's "Music Without the Mind" occurs, I believe, during the experience and explore stages, when students engage in the concept spontaneously without any understanding of what they are doing. The other times that this spontaneous creativity occurs is during the independent practice and create stages. This is the time after the concept or skill has been discovered, labeled, and practiced, and now has become part of the child's innate repertoire to be routinely used in improvisation or composition.The linear part "the teacher directed part" also has a role. Without that component of teaching, we run the risk of our students remaining at the babble stage of music, and never growing in skills and understandings. But it must be placed in the context of the whole learning sequence, growing out of spontaneous improvisation, and returning to improvisation that consciously uses the learned concepts and/orskills. In this way, the child grows into a musically literate adult, able to speak and communicate in the language of music.I believe this process is essential for all, but particularly important for urban and underprivileged children, who have less control over their lives than others. The opportunity to have some power, build positive relationships, and express emotions through music is crucial. Regardless of whether they are involved in Head Start, elementary music classes, instrumental lessons, or after school programs; it is the quality of these experiences that will make the difference. And one crucial component of that instruction is the ability of students to 'mess in the mucky-muck of music" through exploration, improvisation, and composition.


I once taught the "sixth grade from hell." I was new to the school, it was April, and they were going to have their way. I thought I might start with some small musical idea, and see if we could buildit together. One day, out of desperation, I had them pair up. With one instrument per pair, the directions were that by the end of the class they were to have one musical idea to share one short pattern. Directions were written on the board for those who did (could) not hear them.At the end of the class, only one pair had created a pattern that could be reproduced. It had two beats, which had been played on a conga drum non-stop for most of the class period. All other students were playing the entire period as well, but this was the only two-beat sequence that emerged! The next class period, I took that pattern, used it for echoing, credited the inventers, and we discussed what we could do with it. We tried out any suggestions. Then pairs or fours were invited to develop the pattern into a musical idea. Additional instruments could be bartered from me in exchange for any plan that could be explained.Weeks later we had a very rhythmic percussion piece, a Mozart four part canon that used the same idea the inventers had used, and an unmetered speech piece with sound carpet on Orff instruments. These kids were tough, but the invitation to invent, paired with encouragement and trust, led to a total turn-around in their attitude and production. Rather than resort to structure and punishment, I rather chose to challenge their clever,wily, intellects.

Middle and High School:
I believe middle and high school general music and appreciation classes should be structured with an emphasis on exploration (do you remember the Manhattanville spiral curriculum?),improvisation, and composition. This is the essence of the Orff process, but might fly better with a different name attached. I have written an outline for such a course “ a midnight musing. Someday, I look forward to implementing it!

Teachers Teaching Teachers

We have an additional responsibility to guide teacher training. We can reach non-musicians who are parenting or teaching children and encourage them to develop their own creative capacities, and to make times, spaces, and encouragement for the children in their care. For music teachers, we have the obligation to provide them with a different model, either with the name Orff-Schulwerk, or with its principles under a different name. Those teaching young children must make space for exploration, improvisation, and composition from the earliest years. This can happen in the languages of sound (music and/or words), image (visual art), or movement (dance). They can be synthesized into dramatic experiences (drama). This will only happen if these teachers are retrained themselves, and this process becomes a routine part of the way they live their lives and interact with music/the arts. Level Iand II Orff can fulfill this need if there is time for teachers to reflect and consider how their experiences will change with their musical lives and their teaching. I teach my Level III Orff course as primarily a composition and improvisation class, bringing the elemental rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and forms to the level of routine practice. The remainder of Level III is spent identifying the teaching and learning strategies that will allow teachers to guide their students to the same level of routine communication through creating, performing, and responding in and through the arts.

orff schulwerk |Music and emotion | music age 2 - 6 |creativity young child |Music K-12 | Music Makes You Smarter | music teacher training

There must be both divergent and convergent thinking as we plan, teach, and learn music if we are to become and produce a musically literate society of individuals Music without the mind, and Music with intentional thought. This is the stuff of the Orff-related creative path, and it continues to intrigue me. The longer I teach, the more I realize the power of starting with the seed and seeing how many different branches can grow!