Critical Thinking In Elementary Music

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“The music classroom is a perfect place to teach critical thinking and problem solving,” says MENC member Donna Zawatski. Instead of giving students the answers, she asks questions that will clarify the process and lead to better solutions from the students. “Students will define the problem, come up with solutions based on their previous experience, create, and then reflect on what they’ve created,” she says.

Analyzing and Composing Music

Zawatski plays several music works for students to analyze. John William’s “Jaws” is a favorite. She asks questions to get students thinking:

  1. “What picture was the composer trying to paint?” she asks. “Fear,” is usually the answer.
  2. “In your opinion, what expressive quality did the composer use most effectively to paint that picture?” The most frequent answer is “melody.” The low-pitched half step at the beginning of the piece creates fear.

    Students sometimes ask Zawatski to experiment with other intervals and pitch levels on the piano to see what the effect would be. “You know you have them hooked when they ask you to do this,” she says.

    Other answers:

    Tempo—by speeding up, the listener knows the shark is nearby.
    Tone color—an instrument played in the lower range is much more ominous.
    Articulation and dynamics—for various reasons.

After listening, students draw from their own experiences to compose. Zawatski asks them to predict what expressive qualities would capture audience interest, tapping into their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Other Tips

  • Accept many different solutions, and dispel the idea that there is only one “right way” to do things.
  • Encourage students to see themselves as composers. Motivate them by inviting a composer from the community to class or showing a video clip of a composer at work.
  • Loosen up your parameters. Solicit student-generated problems for the class to solve.
  • Allow for a variety of ways for students to express what they know, and encourage them to use their skills.
  • Call activities challenges, projects, or opportunities to avoid the negative vibe of “problem.”

Adapted from “4C + 1C = 1TGMT,” by Donna Zawatski, Illinois Music Educator, Volume 71, Number 3. Used with permission.

Donna Zawatski teaches teach K–5 general music at Thomas Metcalf Lab School on the Illinois State University campus in Normal, Illinois. She is the JEM (Junior High/Elementary Music) VP for the Illinois MEA.

—Linda C. Brown, August 17, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (

Critical Thinking: Practical Music Teaching Strategies

Incorporating the Socratic Method and Critical Thinking in music education in schools involves creativity and a break from traditional classroom teaching strategies.

What are the benefits of Critical Thinking?
The Socratic Method is based on the question-and-answer style of teaching accredited to the philosopher Socrates. Critical thinking in music education takes the basic premise of debate and inquiry and applies it to music education in schools. This teaching strategy encourages students to question each other, and removes the instructor from all-knowing professor to a fellow seeker of knowledge.

From the University of Phoenix to California’s public school system, educators and students alike have found the benefits of critical thinking strategies in the classroom.
As one student at California’s KIPP High School mentioned, “[Critical Thinking is] thinking beyond what you hear, what you know in your brain, in your heart, in your soul.”
Critical thinking puts the power of influence in the hands of the student, giving students the tools they need to function in college and in society (Edutopia, Geert ten Dam).

Critical thinking strategies extend from private lessons to the public university setting. In the United States, where an emphasis on standardized testing has changed the music teacher’s role in music education in schools, critical thinking strategies aid music classrooms by providing a framework that incorporates reading and writing requirements within an artistic scope.

Music Critique Circle (Secondary)
A key component of critical thinking and the Socratic method involves students learning how to critique each other in a constructive way. In the Music Critique Circle, students present a music project (ex. a simple composition, music performance, or paper presentation) to the class. After the presentation, students take turns responding to the performance or project with thoughtful questions. For example, a student may ask a piano student, “Is there a reason why you performed the Moonlight Sonata in a sad way?” or “What would happen if you played Beethoven’s piece allegro?”

The key here is to emphasize critical thinking, engaging discussion, and constructive debate.

Music Listening Exercise (Primary & Secondary)
Music educator can encourage age appropriate discussions at both the primary and secondary levels using music listening activities. The music educator selects several recordings in different styles and moods. After playing an excerpt, the music instructor engages students in a discussion using critical thinking questions.

Some sample questions include:
“Why do you think this song makes you happy?”
“If the musician played a drum instead of a flute, what would happen?”
“Does this type of music always have strings?”
“What do the lyrics mean to you?”

As a variation to these music teaching strategies for older students, the instructor can divide students into several small groups and give each group a series of critical thinking questions. After fifteen minutes, each group shares their responses to the questions. The music educator follows up with challenging questions that encourage students to view their discussion from alternate viewpoints. Questions like “Why do you think that?” and “Group A stated the opposite view. How can you support your viewpoint?”

Exit Tickets (Primary & Secondary)
Writer and educator Maria Stefanova encourages the use of “Exit Tickets” in her article “Developing Critical Thinking and Assessment in Music Classrooms”. The “Exit Ticket” teaching strategy requires every child to answer a critical thinking question before leaving the class. This strategy encourages the concept of “Asking a question instead of giving the answer,” a key component in another popular teaching method – the Suzuki Method (Stefanova, pg 30).

Incorporating critical thinking strategies in the music classroom promotes higher order thinking and engaging discussion. By involving students in the discussion process, you will prepare students for future success.

But now we want to hear from you!!How do you incorporate critical thinking in your music classroom? What are some of your favourite resources for learning more about critical thinking?

Edutopia. (2011, August 17). Critical Thinking Wins the Day at a KIPP High School [Video file]. Retrieved from website:
Stefanova, M. (2011). Developing Critical Thinking and Assessment in the MUsic Classrooms. American String Teacher, 61(2), 29-31.
Nobori, M. (2011). Ten Takeaway Tips for Teaching Critical Thinking. Retrieved from
Fisher, C. (2008). The Socratic Medthod. Socratic Method–Research Startes Education, 1.
Geert ten Dam, (., & Monique, V. (2004). Critical Thinking as a citizenship competence: teaching strategies. Learning and Instruction, 14 359-379.doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2004.01.005

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