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Orff Approach

Carl Orff (1895-1982) was a German composer and educator who developed an innovative and unique approach to music education together with colleagues Dorothee Gunther and her student Gunild Keetman. Orff defined the ideal music for children as “never alone, but connected with movement, dance, and speech—not to be listened to, meaningful only in active participation.” Orff said, “Experience first, then intellectualize.” Based on this ideal, the Orff approach builds understanding of concepts and skills through connecting students with the music by experiencing it in multiple ways. These include speech/chants, movement, singing, drama, and by playing pitched and unpitched instruments. Melody and rhythm are explored through speech, singing, playing instruments, and movement–sometimes referred to as elemental style. The Orff approach is not a method, but a process, often referred to as the Orff Process, and is used in many music classrooms worldwide.

The Orff philosophy encourages children to experience music at their own level of understanding. Children are given opportunities to be creative, share ideas, move, improvise, and explore the many possibilities of musical engagement in a natural, playful environment.

The music used in the classroom is based on the children’s own heritage with a combination of folk and composed music. Orff’s philosophy embraces the folk music of all cultures; a large portion of it is based upon the pentatonic (a 5-note scale of whole steps, for example, C D E G A) and other modes. scale. This is the most common scale used in Orff teaching because it is easily used with the Orff instruments. Repeated melodic or rhythmic patterns (ostinati) on instruments are used as accompaniments to songs.

A peek into an Orff classroom: (one 30 minute class)

“Tell me, I forget…show me, I remember…Involve me, I understand.” — attributed to Carl Orff

An Orff lesson may begin with the children listening to a short story. The children are asked how they would interpret some elements of the story. A group of children are asked to go to the unpitched instruments and pick out something to make a rain sound. Another group could be asked to pick out a happy sounding instrument. Other groups are asked to pick out sounds for the sun and the moon. The teacher reads the story again, adding the sound effects to the story.

She asks the children if they would like to add an accompaniment to the story. She brings out some Orff instruments, a bass xylophone and metallophone, a couple of alto and soprano xylophones and metallophones, and some glockenspiels. These she already has set up in C pentatonic so that the students will be successful with whichever notes they randomly choose. The class then separates into two groups – the unpitched and the pitched percussion. The teacher demonstrates a simple drone of C and G alternating on quarter notes to give the character in their story some walking music. As the character does other parts of the story, the teacher and/ or class decide to add something else (another drone, a triangle note for example, or low C on the bass instruments to signal a strong moment) The class “performs” their story with their “orchestra.”

The class divides again to make a group of players who will act out the story using movement as the rest of the group “plays” the story. The entire class is involved. There is something for everyone at their own level. Children are given opportunities to change parts. Notes may or may not be written down for the instrumentalists. If they are written down, they are placed in a simple way in large print on the wall so that reading the music does not get in the way of experiencing the music first. They are learning to read the music, they are learning the rhythms, they are learning the names for the different instruments. They are learning by doing. A motto attributed to Orff explains it best, “Tell me, I forget…show me, I remember…Involve me, I understand.”

The Orff Approach (Process)

The Orff philosophy is a music education process for the whole person; it is an active music experiential approach. Orff encourages creativity through the student’s natural responses to music. An essential component to the Orff approach is improvisation; Orff believed in allowing the children to be the composers. The teacher sets up parameters in which the child can successfully create his or her own rhythm, melody, or movement/dance. 

  1. Rhythm
    Orff begins with rhythm because it is the most basic of all the elements. He teaches this through natural speech patterns. For the child, speaking, singing, music and movement are all naturally connected. The teacher then leads the students through their own creative process. By connecting speech patterns to the rhythms, the child can internalize whatever meter or rhythm is needed. This naturally also leads to body rhythm patterns and movement to the music. Example: The student has 8 beats to create his or her own rhythm, perhaps with body percussion. The teacher facilitates use of the rhythms in a larger musical form.
  2. Melody
    Melody is taught in the same way. Simple intervals grow out of the natural pitches from the words. These intervals combine to make a melody that can be sung; this melody can later be put onto instruments. Orff said, “Experience first, then intellectualize.” After playing, the notation is taught. Example with singing: The student uses So, Mi, and La to create a song, which is then accompanied by ostinato patterns on instruments. Example with playing: Set up the instrument in C Pentatonic. This enables the player to improvise without hitting a “wrong” note. The student has 8 beats to create a melody on an instrument set up in C Pentatonic, allowing improvisation without hitting any “wrong” notes.

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Example for rhythm
The student has 8 beats to create his or her own rhythm.

Examples for melody with singing
Using the notes from “do” to “sol” create a song

Example for melody using an Orff instrument
Set up the instrument in C Pentatonic. This enables the player to improvise without hitting a “wrong” note. The student has 8 beats to create his song.

Example for movement
The student has 16 beats to create some movement for a given piece of music or a given part of a story.