How to Teach the Basic Expressive Elements of Music to Children

Music without emotion is just a bunch of notes. Even young players can convey a mood by adding what is called “expression” in music -- often notated with dynamics, or volume, and tempo, or speed, techniques 1. When you teach young musicians the basic expressive elements in music, you help your child bring the music to life.

Point out dynamics or other expression marks, such as ritardandos or fermatas, in a piece of music, and explain what each one means. It’s ideal to find the marks in a piece of music because your child will be able to apply expression to a tune rather than learning the marks without any reference. It is important to focus on these marks before learning the piece, so your child doesn’t ignore them or get distracted because he doesn’t know what they mean. If your child is younger and not yet reading sheet music, draw the expression marks on a dry erase board. Teach your child how to draw the marks and explain what they mean -- be expressive when you describe the marks. For example, speak loudly when describing the dynamic forte.

Explain how to play a particular expression on the instrument your child is learning. For example, to play forte, or loud, on the piano, you press the key with more force and you push it quicker. To play the dynamic piano, or soft, on the keys, you sink your finger into the key more slowly and with a lighter touch. Depending on your child’s age, you might want to come up with a metaphor or way to explain how to press the keys on a piano, for instance; tell your child to pretend his fingers are like hammers to play forte, and they become like feathers to play piano. If your child is not learning an instrument, he can still practice playing expressions on instruments like the drums or by clapping or tapping his legs.

Play the conductor game to practice playing with various dynamics. If your hands are above your head, your child plays forte; if you bring your hands low by your waist, he plays the dynamic piano. Don’t be afraid to make the game silly at times by moving your arms up and down quickly. You can also hold a shaker and shake it fast to tell your child to play at a quick tempo, or your can shake slowly to instruct your child to play slow. He can play on any instrument and can perform or improvise anything he wants.

Listen to a piece of music and ask your child questions about it. For example, ask, “At the end of the piece, did it slow down or stay the same speed?” or “How long did they hold the last note?” You can follow up by explaining at the end of some tunes, the musicians play a “ritardando,” which means they gradually slow down, or explain how sometimes they put a fermata on the last note to tell the musicians to play it a bit longer.

Play a call and response game with your child. Play a short piece, and you can demonstrate an accelerando, when you gradually get faster, a ritardando or crescendos and diminuendos. Encourage your child to listen and repeat the same expression when he plays. You can play this game with any instrument or simply with clapping or tapping.

Improvise with various expressions. Try to “describe” a character by making up music with your child, or tell a story just using music. For example, tell the tale of a bunny (encourage your child to make music that sounds like hopping) who gets tired and decides to take a nap (make the music slower and softer). The bunny wakes up and discovers his carrot is gone, so he runs around the meadow to find it (the music gets faster and louder). He finds his carrot, takes a bite and smiles (hold the note with a fermata to signify the end of the story).


Make learning expressive elements fun for your child, and find ways to compare expression to things your child is already familiar with.