AOSA 03: Kodály approach, presented by Sandy Mathias

AOSA 13: Kodály Approach, presented by Georgia Newlin

Music Lessons: The Kodály Method in the American classroom (coming)


Jill Trinka, Ph.D.

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), a prominent Hungarian composer, musician, teacher, linguist, and ethnomusicologist, directed a significant portion of his creative endeavors to the musical education of the Hungarian nation–an interest that permeated his life. Such efforts were initiated with his folk song collecting expeditions, beginning in the early 1900s with his colleague, Béla Bartók. As he became aware of the musical illiteracy of his music students at the Liszt Academy and the great need to improve the general quality of singing and music training of music teachers and children, he began composing for children’s choruses in the 1920s, requiring his composition students to do the same.  Folk music was the inspiration, as well as the musical basis, for many of the compositions.

By 1929, Kodály was determined to reform the teaching of music and to make it an integral part of the education of every child.  Kodály encouraged his colleagues and students to travel throughout Europe in search of the best models for teaching music. Their findings formed the basis for what is now known internationally as Kodály Music Education, an approach that is more of a philosophy about the role of music in society and in the lives of children, youth, and adults than it is a “method” of music instruction. (Szönyi, 1973)

A significant portion of Kodály’s output as a composer was devoted to composing folksong arrangements and exercises specifically for nurturing musical literacy and understanding of musical forms and styles. This corpus is now known as the Kodály Choral Library, and includes such works as 333 Reading Exercises, Bicinia Hungarica Vols. I-IV, 77-, 66-, and 15-Two Part Exercises, Tricinia, numerous choral pieces, settings of nursery songs, and exercise books based on particular musical traditions.

Underlying Kodály’s compositional productivity was his fervent belief that education should not be measured in terms of the quantity of knowledge dispensed, but how capable it is of “bringing the basic mobilizing forces of the human spirit to life and turning them in a worthy direction.” (Dobszay, 1972, p. 31)  The Kodály concept is not about absolutism but the “the continuation of deep tradition, virtually a cry for help for the right to education in a true humanistic spirit, to complete humanity.” (Dobszay, 1972, p. 31)

Kodály Philosophy
The Kodály philosophy of music education is based upon a vision of the role of music in the intellectual, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual development of every child.  A central tenet of the Kodály approach is that music belongs to everyone - that an education in music is the right of every human being and cannot be left to chance.

Kodály believed that music is meant to develop one’s entire being – personality, intellect, and emotions.  “. . . music is a spiritual food for everybody.  So, I studied how to make more people accessible to good music.” (Kodály , in The Kodály Concept, 1966, p. 2)  Indeed, the Kodály approach integrates many of the best principles and techniques in music education history, drawing from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Hans George Nägeli, Hermann Kretsxhmar, Leo Kestenberg, and Robert Schumann.  Jenö Adám, an early and prominent colleague of Kodály stated, “The most important thing is to actualize the instinctive love of the child for singing and playing, to realize the changing of his moods through the songs, his feelings, his experiences. . . in other words, to bring about the miracle of music.”  (Adám, in The Kodály Concept, 1966, p. 2) 

Kodály believed that the future of a nation’s music is determined in their schools. Consequently, the Kodály approach places music as a core curriculum subject in the school setting.

Main Goals of the Kodály Approach
Fundamentally, a main goal of this approach is to develop, to the fullest extent possible, the innate musicality present in all human beings.  Thus, music experience and instruction must begin in a child’s life as early as possible. In fact, Kodály advocated that a child’s musical education should begin nine months before the birth of his mother.

Further, the aim is to instill within each child a love of music based on knowledge and understanding, stemming from first-hand, active music-making experiences, beginning with lullabies, childhood chants, folk songs, and singing games.

Kodály insisted that the musical materials to be used must be of the highest artistic caliber.  Therefore, only the most musically valuable and attractive material is good enough in music education.  Children should be led to masterpieces by means of masterpieces.  In the grand scheme, Kodály hoped to use schools to change society and transform culture by concentrating on the individual, providing the humanizing emphasis in an increasingly technological society that, for many pupils, may not be experienced elsewhere.

Principles of the Kodály Approach
In a word, the essence of the Kodály approach is singing. The human voice, the most accessible musical instrument, is the foundation of musical development.  “A deeper musical education can at all times develop only where singing forms its basis.  Instruments are for the privileged few.  Only the human voice – accessible to all, free of charge, yet the most beautiful of all instrumentscan be the fertile soil of a musical culture extending to all.”   (Kodály, in Eosze, 1982, p. 19)

Kodály believed that the folk music of a people contains all of the basic characteristics needed to teach the foundations of music and to develop a love of music to last a lifetime. Accordingly, the daily singing of folk songs of the students’ own musical heritage is the bedrock from which music of other ethnic backgrounds and art musics of the world are introduced, compared, and contrasted.

Inherent in the Kodály approach is Kodály’s belief that the path from musical illiteracy to musical culture is through writing and reading music, and that acquisition of musical culture by the masses is possible only through the use of moveable - do tonic solfa. Specific musical content and experiences are arranged according to developmentally appropriate practices, and much experience with music with music -- at the subliminal level -- precedes  naming and symbolization. In general, “doing” (experiencing) leads to thinking, which leads to understanding.

Materials of the Kodály Approach
The musical materials of the Kodály approach are:


  • Authentic children’s musical literature: nursery rhymes and songs; counting out rhymes; jump-rope game songs and chants; ring games; and singing games.
  • Authentic music of the child’s culture (reflecting the ethnic backgrounds in a given community), e.g., folk songs; singing games; play parties; ballads; lullabies and folk dances.
  • Authentic folk music of other cultures.
  • Reading examples and exercises based on music of oral/aural traditions.
  • The best art music written by master composers.

Methodological Tools
Methodological tools employed in the Kodály approach are:

  • Moveable-do tonic solfa.  Originating in the eleventh century, based on Latin chant, the syllables (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti) are more easily and reliably memorized than letters and numbers, especially at an early age.  Through aural memorization of intervals, the sense of tonal function is developed.
  • Curwen/Glover Handsigns.  Drawn from the tradition of chironomy (100-600 B.C. Vedas, ancient Hindu sacred books; 8th-c. Byzantine sources; and 10th-c. Gregorian Chant manuscripts), and developed by John Curwen (19th-c. England) as an augmentation of Sara Glover’s work, the handsigns are a tool for individualizing, visualizing, and physically representing solfa syllables, giving each tone a distinct personality in relation to the tonic.  By providing a visualization of relative spatial relationships of pitches, the handsigns aid aural memory of pitch patterns and interval relationships while allowing for music making without the encumbrances of standard notation.  HANDSIGNS CHART.
  • Rhythm syllables.  Adapted from Emile-Joseph Chevés’ rhythmic syllables (mid 19th-c. France), a set of verbal syllables are used during initial stages of rhythmic training. The syllables – meant to be voiced and not written as words -- are used as a tool for reading and writing rhythms.  Typically, “ta” is used to indicate a quarter note; “ti-ti” paired eighths; “ti-bi-ti-bi” for four sixteenths, etc.
  • “Stick” or Solfa Notation. Used as a short cut to standard staff notation, solfa notation (a combination of rhythmic stick figures and solfa) enables children to read and write music using a relative, rather than fixed system of notation, thus developing in their ears a firm grasp of intervals and tonal and rhythmic patterns.

Kodály Pedagogy
Instruction progresses from sound to sight, from the known to the unknown, from the simple to the more complex, and from the concrete to the abstract.  Learning occurs through problem-solving, comparison, and guided question-and-answer. The general order of instruction is hearing, singing, showing, verbalizing, deriving, writing, reading, and creating.

More specifically, musical elements and concepts are taught in a sequence based on the most prominent musical idioms of a culture’s song repertoire. Musical content domains are: rhythm, melody, form, harmony, expression, style (historical and emergent), and terminology and symbols.  Musical skill domains to be developed are singing and vocal development, listening, movement, memory, inner hearing, writing/dictation, reading/sight-reading, part-work, improvisation, composition, conducting, and instrumental work.

The teacher leads students to discover musical elements (content domains) and develop their musical skills (skill domains) through a five-phase instructional sequence: Prepare, Make Conscious, Reinforce, Practice, and Create. Assessment of student achievement is embedded within the activities present in each phase.

  • Prepare phase:  Students experience the new element or concept mainly through listening, moving, singing by ear, inner hearing, and part work. The teacher then uses group aural analysis to guide students to identify the presence of a new element and articulate its critical attributes.
  • Make Conscious phase:  Students name the element, revisit its aural context, and show its visual representation.
  • Reinforcement phase: Students write and read the specific pattern used to name the new element, and then explore -- through listening, singing, moving, inner hearing, writing and reading, etc.,-- the new element as it exists in very familiar patterns extracted from song repertoire presented in the Prepare phase. 
  • Practice phase: Students explore the new element or concept in familiar and unfamiliar patterns in unfamiliar materials such as songs, exercises, reading pieces, and listening examples. All skill domains are then plumbed, relative to the new element, in myriad musical settings.  Additionally, the new element is applied in familiar settings to instruments such as the recorder, barred instruments, rhythm sticks, etc. 
  • Create phase:  Students apply their knowledge by engaging in higher level improvisation, composition, and performance on instruments, thereby demonstrating mastery of the musical element or concept.

Finally, music instruction in the Kodály-based music classroom is based on Kodály’s guiding principle:  “A thorough knowledge of the material must precede everything, for anything else can be built only upon this knowledge.  Any efforts to achieve aesthetic results which either precede or discard knowledge are equivalent to building castles in Spain.” (Kodály, in Eösze, p. 18)

Dobszay, L. (1972). The Kodály method and its musical basis. Budapest: Academia Press.

Eösze, L. (1982). Zoltán Kodály:  His life in pictures and documents. Budapest: Corvina Press.

Organization of American Kodály Educators (1966). The Kodály concept of music education. [Brochure]. Moorhead, MN: Author.

Szönyi, E. (1973). Kodály’s principles in practice. New York: Boosey and Hawkes.

For Further Reading
Bacon, D. (1993). Hold fast to dreams. Wellesley, Massachusetts: Kodály Center of America.

Ittzés, M. (2002). Zoltán Kodály, in retrospect. Kecskemét, Hungary:  Kodály Institute.

Strong, A. (Ed.) (1992). Who was Kodály? Moorhead, MN: Organization of American Kodály Educators.

Jill Trinka, Ph.D., is well known by children, parents, and music educators as “a dynamic, winsome, and energetic teacher and performer.” Her performances bring new life to the musical and cultural treasures of American folk music as she accompanies herself on the dulcimer, autoharp, guitar, and banjo. She has recorded four CDs of folksongs, singing games, and play parties for kids of all ages and has three collaborative recordings with John Feierabend. Her latest publication is a DVD entitled Jill Trinka:  The Bass Hall Children’s Concerts (Ft. Worth, TX).

Dr. Trinka holds degrees from the University of Illinois, the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, Hungary, and The University of Texas at Austin. She has held full-time teaching positions in public and private schools and universities in IL, NY, CT, AR, TX, MN, and SC.  She ha directed Kodály Institutes at The University of Texas (Round Top), University of North Texas, DePaul University (Chicago), and Portland State University (OR), and has taught at Texas Tech (Lubbock), Holy Names University, Fresno State, and The Hartt School. Dr. Trinka is a Past President of the Organization of American Kodály Educators and received their Outstanding Educator Award in 2003.

Originally from Oak Park, IL, Jill currently resides in Pawleys Island, SC, and is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Music Education at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.  She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in music education, world music, musicianship, ear training, and elementary music methods.  She performs as a solo folk artist and sings in the Carolina Master Chorale and the Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Singers.  Dr. Trinka teaches workshops for music educators throughout the United States and is an artist-in-residence in elementary schools.  She is currently working on a CD of traditional Christmas music from the Southeastern United States and Volume 5:  Sing a Song of Sixpence.