Carl Orffs Philosophies In Music Education

Word Count: 1819 |

While Carl Orff is a very seminal composer of the 20th century, his greatest

success and influence has been in the field of Music Education. Born on July

10th in Munich, Germany in 1895, Orff refused to speak about his past almost

as if he were ashamed of it. What we do know, however, is that Orff came

from a Bavarian family who was very active in the German military. His

father’s regiment band would often play through some of the young Orff’s

first attempts at composing. Although Orff was adamant about the secrecy of

his past, Moser’s Musik Lexicon says that he studied in the Munich Academy of

Music until 1914. Orff then served in the military in the first world war.

After the war, he held various positions in the Mannheim and Darmstadt opera

houses then returned home to Munich to further study music. In 1925, and for

the rest of his life, Orff was the head of a department and co-founder of the

Guenther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich where he worked

with musical beginners. This is where he developed his Music Education

theories. In 1937, Orff’s Carmina Burana premiered in Frankfurt, Germany.

Needless to say, it was a great success. With the success of Carmina Burana,

Orff orphaned all of his previous works except for Catulli Carmina and the En

trata which were rewritten to be acceptable by Orff.

One of Orff’s most admired composers was Monteverdi. In fact, much of

Orff’s work was based on ancient material. Orff said:

I am often asked why I nearly always select old material, fairy tales and

legends for my stage works. I do not look upon them as old, but rather as

valid material. The time element disappears, and only the spiritual power

remains. My entire interest is in the expression of spiritual realities. I

write for the theater in order to convey a spiritual attitude.1

What Orff is trying to say here is that he does not use “old” material, but

material that is good enough to be used again. If one eliminates the fact

that this material was written many years ago, then there is nothing to stop

that material from being any less legitimate in recent times.

Orff’s work in Music Education has been astounding. In the early 1920’s,

Orff worked with Mary Wigman. Wigman was a pupil of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze,

another very influential name in Music Education. In fact, Orff’s approach

to music is very similar to Dalcroze’s, but Orff focuses on education through

percussion instruments. In 1924, Orff joined Dorthee Guenther and together

they founded the Guenther School. The schools focus was coordinated teaching

of gymnastics, dance, and music. Orff believed that music, movement, and

speech are not separate entities in and of themselves, but that they form a

unity that he called elemental music. When Orff refers to elemental music,

he means the music, movement, or speech created by children that requires no

special training, or in other words, the things that children do without

really thinking about it. The basis for the Orff method is the belief that

the historical development of music is reenacted in the life of every

individual. This means that, when a child is young, he is similar to a

primitive human being – at least musically – in that both are naive and rely

primarily on natural rhythms and movement to make music. Although this

theory has not been very widely accepted by most music educators, this is

where the Orff method of teaching music begins. The Orff method was so

impressive to the public that the Ministry of Culture recommended the

adoption of the Guenther-Orff experiments in the elementary schools in

Berlin. Unfortunately, the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of war stunted

the growth of these plans. Finally, in 1948, the German broadcasting

authorities urged Orff to resume his educational activities.

The Orff approach, not unlike the Suzuki method, begins with the idea that

music should be learned by a child the same way a language is learned.

Suzuki calls this the “mother tongue approach”. A child learns to speak

simply by listening and then imitating and then, later in life, the child

learns to interpret symbols as a written form of that language. So, then, a

child should learn music in the same way. At an early age, a child is

exposed to music and learns to sing and play percussion instruments, then,

later in the child’s musical development, he learns to interpret the symbols

on a score as music. The music a child learns during this time of his life

is very simple melodies that involve a lot of moving. Orff believed that

rhythm was the most important part of music. This is because rhythm is what

movement, speech, and music all have in common. Rhythm is what ties these

all together to make what Orff called elemental music. Orff uses this

approach because it is believed that children must feel and move to music

before they are asked to conceptualize about it.

Speech is one of the key elements in the Orff approach not only because

speech is an inherently rhythmic action, but because Orff was the only one of

the major educational philosophers (Dalcroze, Kodaly, and Suzuki) to use

speech in this way. Orff’s thought was that a transition from speech to

rhythmic activities and then to song was the most natural for a child. So,

the student moves from speech to body rhythms such as clapping or tapping,

and then finally leads to the playing of an instrument. Orff’s philosophy

continues on in this way even after a child has developed a skill for an

instrument. For example, concepts such as meter, accent, and anacrusis are

introduced in speech patterns, reinforced in other activities, and then

studied in a musical context. A specific example of this is the teaching of

the concept of a canon. A simple yet varied chant or other form of rhythmic

speech is taught to the class. The students then use the idea of a “round”

to explore how each entrance by each different part is achieved. Finally,

the teacher notates the rhythmic pattern and shows how each part of the

pattern works with the other parts.

Orff’s approach to Music Education notes that speech, chant, and song are

all points along the same line. That is to say that one leads directly to

the next. Children’s experiences with singing follow directly from speech.

This means that melody is actually an extension or an outgrowth of rhythm.

When children begin to learn to use their voices as musical instruments,

they enter another pre-planned part of Orff’s method. There is a very

specific order in which students learn to use solfege. As with most other

theories that involve singing, the descending minor third, sol-mi, is the

first interval that is taught. Other tones follow in succession in this

order: la, re, do, to complete the pentatonic scale, and then finally fa and

ti. The Orff method uses the pentatonic scale because Orff believed it to be

the native tonality of children. This is cohesive with Orff’s belief that

music history is relived in the development of each individual because he

considered the pentatonic mode appropriate to the development of each child.

The use of the pentatonic scale also gave the students confidence. After

all, it’s very difficult to improvise and sound bad when the only notes

available are those in the pentatonic scale. This kind of constant

affirmation is crucial to a child’s development.

The last part of Orff’s elemental music is elemental movement. As stated

earlier, the word elemental in this sense refers to the kind of action, in

this case movement, in which the child participates with no prior training or

instruction. Orff said that this kind of activity made it easier for

children to become expressive. This is because children are more able to

express their thoughts and feelings through movement and painting than

through words. Allowing children to express themselves in this way allows

them to use their imagination because, as we adults often forget, children

have the most vivid imagination. After observing these actions, the teacher

then relates them in some way to music and build musical concepts out of

them. Unfortunately, many of the activities that adults scold their children

for are the same ones that are the most suitable for expressing feelings,

such as walking on tiptoe, hoping over imaginary obstacles, or spinning to

the point of dizziness. These are actions that adults would react to as

being ‘fidgety’ or ‘squirmy’ when, in fact, they are simply natural movements

that children use to express themselves. The ideal Orff educator would

encourage these behaviors and use them to teach musical concepts.

The end goal of the Orff method is to develop a child’s musical creativity.

Where traditional Music Education dictates that a child must learn to read

music right away in order to be a self-guided and independent musician, the

Orff method focuses on the creative and expressive side of music.

The instruments that are commonly associated with the Orff method

distinguish it from other methods. Orff uses xylophones and various

metalophones that use removable bars. This allows an educator to change bars

for different modes or to remove unnecessary bars to keep from confusing

young students. The Orff instruments are modeled after and are closely

related to the Indonesian gamelans. These instruments allow great

flexibility for children who have handicaps. For example, students with

visual handicaps or hearing handicaps can hit just about anywhere on an Orff

instrument set up to use a pentatonic scale so he can feel like he is being


In conclusion, the Carl Orff has been a very influential person in the field

of Music Education. He has demonstrated to us that the way to teach music to

children is to let then go back to the basics, or elements, of speech,

movement, and singing. He has reminded us how much we really expect children

to learn music differently in the traditional method than it is natural for

them to learn.

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