Mary Shamrock, Ph.D.

The term “Orff-Schulwerk” identifies an approach to music making that has found application primarily with children but can be equally useful in other contexts. It began in Germany (Bavaria) in the 1920s with adult music and dance students, and was revitalized there around 1950--to a great extent through the efforts of Orff's colleague, Gunild Keetman--for use with school children of that area.

The impetus for Orff Schulwerk lies in children's natural group play behavior, utilizing various of its components (see Activity Components below) to awaken and begin development of the potential musicality inherent in all human beings. The tonal and topical content is to come from the child's surrounding folk tradition. Rhythm drawn from the child's native language forms the foundation. The Schulwerk approach provides a pedagogical model, or framework, that enables hands-on music making by participants of whatever age or experience level. The task of the teacher is to design and facilitate activities appropriate to the participants that will enable success, satisfaction, and—very important—joy and delight in the experience. There is opportunity for individuals of greater talent to utilize these abilities, but the emphasis is  cooperative group effort.

Music/movement activities in Orff Schulwerk are to be “elemental”; Orff defined this term as follows:

What is elemental? The Latin term "elementarius" means "belonging to the elements,"  to the origins, the beginnings, appropriate to first principles.” Further, what is elemental  music? [It] is never music alone; it is bound together with movement, dance and speech; it is a music that one must make himself, into which one is drawn in not as listener, but as participant. It is unsophisticated, knows no large forms or grand structures; instead it consists of small series forms, ostinatos, and small rondo forms. Elemental music is near the earth, natural, physical, to be learned and experienced by everyone, suitable to the child. (Orff 1973, p. 5)
The most important purpose for experiencing the elemental is the spiritual nourishment provided by fulfilling a primeval human need:
The child should accompany his/her rhythms, as they are danced, with his/her own musical possibilities. In order to provide child-appropriate possibilities, so desperately needed for spiritual growth, the original indivisibility that for all humans in the elemental sense was once a fact of life, should again be the goal in children's dance and music making, which for all humans in the elemental sense was once a fact. (Guenther 1976, p. 18)

Music and movement, the two primary art forms in the Schulwerk, are to be considered equal and interdependent. (As implied in the above quote, this relationship is drawn from traditional cultures in which music and movement are often inseparable.)  In music the elemental building blocks include components of all musical elements--melody, rhythm, harmony, form, texture, timbre, and expressive qualities. In movement the blocks include locomotor and non-locomotor movement, use of time, space and energy in free and patterned forms.

The goal is to develop individuals who have the competence and confidence to join and interact with others in simple group music/movement making—and to enjoy it! They also will have the tools and knowledge to develop further as students of music and/or movement. The Schulwerk does not concern itself with this further development; there are many and various paths available to be explored and disciplines to be followed.

Activity Components

Schulwerk lessons will explore and develop skills through the following means:

Speech. Children's play frequently involves little sayings and rhymes, with or without specific meaning, often accompanying a game in some way. The following example is one of many that can be used for choosing "it" for a game to follow:
Acka backa soda cracker, acka backa boo -
Acka backa soda cracker, out goes YOU.

This would be said rhythmically, with a feeling of steady beat; activities surrounding it can be expanded to stabilize sensitivity to beat and develop the sense of pattern. Later, more complex rhythmic/metric elements can be introduced with appropriate speech examples. A well-chosen word pattern in the mother tongue very naturally establishes the "feeling" needed to identify and execute the rhythm as a separate entity.

Singing. Children's group play involves simple little songs, often with accompanying games, that provide a basis for 1) strengthening the ability to sing, and 2) developing the sense of tonal relationships. Using appropriate song material drawn from folk sources, the relationships begin with the falling minor third, proceed to the "childhood chant" pattern (so mi-la so mi) found in children's group play songs from many cultures, then expand to the anhemitonic pentatonic scales, and finally to the diatonic scales - major, minor, and the church modes. The musical tradition of a particular culture may indicate the need for adjusting or changing this sequence.

Movement. In the early stages, time is spent in developing a vocabulary of stationary and locomotor movements that can be used in countless combinations and situations. Simple game forms provide many opportunities - for example, in a circle game children develop a sense for spatial relationships between themselves and others, for coordinating their steps to a steady beat, and for regulating step length to the group's  pace.

Playing Instruments. This category tends to be particularly identified with the Schulwerk approach:

  1. Body Percussion. The four basic sound motions (or gestures) are clapping, snapping fingers, slapping thighs (often called "patching," from the German term), and stamping feet; others can be added as invented and desired. These sound motions are combined in patterns and phrases, used alone and in combined layers, as accompaniment for speech or singing, and incorporated into instrumental ensembles .     
  2. Unpitched hand percussion. This includes the many small instruments often found in a  music classroom; however, each must be of a quality that will produce an interesting and satisfying sound. Examples are: maracas, claves, tone block, triangle, jingles, finger cymbals, suspended cymbal, tambourine, cowbell, and various sizes of hand drum. This list may be expanded with special items such as vibraslap, ratchet, wind chime, etc.      
  3. Orff Instruments. These special pitched percussion instruments were designed to be of a size readily accessible by children and to produce a satisfying musical sound with a minimum of technical facility. They include 3 sizes of xylophone (bass, alto, soprano), the same of metallophone (highly resonant thick metal bars), and two sizes of glockenspiel (soprano and alto, small metal bars). These can be supplemented by timpani and/or bass bars (each bar mounted individually on a resonating box). The bars supplied for each instrument are diatonic, starting with C and ascending upward an octave plus a sixth. Bars are removable; instruments come with F# and Bb bars that can be exchanged for F and B. Chromatic instruments are also available, but are needed only in advanced applications. The recorder is added as contrasting melody instrument to this percussion ensemble. Pitched instruments provide a means for tonal exploration, for playing and inventing melodies, for providing songs with drone and ostinato accompaniments, and for improvisation.


Schulwerk teachers refer to several general procedures for guiding students along the path of music/movement development:

  • A. Exploration - discovering possibilities with a given piece of material involving any of the activity components listed above. Examples: "Find different ways to make a circle - by yourself, with two people, with everyone”; “Experiment to see what sounds the triangle can make"; "Make your own melody using only so and mi."
  • B. Imitation - developing skills through "echo"- that is, repeating a pattern performed by the teacher or other leader. It is also the procedure used regularly for teaching songs, rhythms, and instrumental pieces one phrase at a time. 
  • C. Improvisation - making up new patterns and longer structures, based on exploration and the models learned through imitation.
  • D. Creation - combining material from any of the previous procedures into small forms such as ABA, rondo, and mini-suites. It also involves developing small multimedia performance pieces from stories and poems, using any or all of the performance tools mentioned.

The term “Orff process” is often used for the sequence of steps used by a teacher in developing a lesson utilizing the above procedures. The more all-embracing use of this term refers to developing student knowledge and skills in music/movement through these procedures. Guiding students toward success with each of these is much more important than developing  impressive end products. Discovery learning is highly valued; the anticipated outcome of a given lesson may shift a little or a lot, depending on "discoveries" made during the lesson time. As students gain in competence and confidence, ideally they will take increasing responsibility for working out music/movement tasks. The teacher then takes on a facilitative role. Ongoing teacher leadership is needed for further advancements in all areas.


The Schulwerk approach considers aural music learning to be legitimate and valuable. It also suggests that learning to read music is also valuable, but specifies no particular tools to use in developing that skill. Teachers frequently use moveable do solfege and some system of rhythm syllables in incorporating literacy development into their programs. However, making music together successfully, with confidence and joy, is the higher goal.


In the original Schulwerk model, the folk heritage of the child's own culture is considered the primary source for materials—songs, games, rhythms, forms, etc. Since the first adaptation of Schulwerk for children took place in southern Germany, the first published materials were built on materials of that tradition. The publications are called Orff-Schulwerk: Music for Children, Vols. I-V. The pieces and exercises in the volumes are intended as models for exploration rather than finished artistic products. The teacher is welcome to add, subtract, transpose, simplify, and modify to better accommodate the particular students and the lesson objectives. These volumes have been translated into many other languages as the Schulwerk approach has made its way into cultures around the world. The German material is most often replaced by songs and speech materials from the culture involved. There are also a great many supplementary volumes at this point, with materials from a great many cultures and points of view.

Cultural Perspective

The Schulwerk approach developed in a predominantly homogeneous cultural environment; the "traditional" folk material of the area was readily identified. In the classrooms of today in the U.S.A. and many other parts of the world, the cultural mix of students can be from somewhat to very diverse. Identification of any one tradition as dominant would be unrealistic and unfair to many.  Schulwerk teachers nowadays often draw upon materials from a variety of cultures that will introduce the elements needed to structure the projected growth in music/movement understanding and skills. This plan also serves as a springboard for introducing various cultures; lessons are coordinated with the classroom teacher so that many aspects of a particular culture can be explored.

The musical system introduced by the original Schulwerk model is the West European or "western" model, using tempered tuning, major/minor/modal scales, functional (albeit simple) harmonies, and specific metered rhythms. Nowadays the Schulwerk resources - exploration, imitation, and particularly the instruments—make the approach attractive for developing hands-on introductions to examples of musical traditions outside the western system. This activity can be very effective in helping participants listen to recorded or live examples with some understanding of its structure. The development of competence and confidence in using another musical system, however, takes a careful restructuring of processes and goals, possible only for someone thoroughly "musical" in that system.

Teacher Support and Training

The American Orff-Schulwerk Association (AOSA), founded in 1968, supports and promotes the Schulwerk approach to music teaching in the U.S.A. Its annual national conference offers intensive in-service training sessions to those who attend.  Its more than sixty local chapters around the country host daylong workshops throughout the year, focusing on specific aspects of Schulwerk practice. More extended training is offered primarily in summer courses, from a few days to two weeks in length. These are usually connected with a college or university, with academic credit available, and sometimes are co-sponsored by a local chapter of AOSA. There is an established sequence of three levels, consisting of two weeks each for three summers, that leads to a “Teacher Certificate.” For information on dates and locations of AOSA-approved courses, contact AOSA headquarters (; P.O. Box 391089, Cleveland, Ohio 44139-8089).


Carl Orff (1895-1982), a German composer, is noted primarily for his musical/dramatic stage works based on ancient and classic texts. The work most often performed is the "Carmina Burana." The pedagogical ideas that became Orff-Schulwerk (literally "school work") originated in the 1920s, influenced by the experimental "New Dance" movement of the time and by Dalcroze eurhythmics. Orff and colleague Dorothee Guenther, a movement teacher, in 1924 founded the Guentherschule (Guenther school) in Munich (Bavaria), providing an environment for musicians and dancers to gain understanding of each others' art forms through participation and especially through improvisation. Gunild Keetman, gifted in both music and movement, came to the school as a student and stayed on as a teacher. The school gained performance reknown in Europe at the time; the most noteworthy event was the design and execution of opening ceremony music and dance for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

The Guentherschule flourished until World War II; in 1944 it was bombed beyond use. In 1948 a recording of Guentherschule music making caught the attention of the education directors of Bavarian Radio; they asked Orff to develop this same kind of music making for and with children. He and Keetman set to work with a group of children, developing materials that embodied their ideas about "elemental" music. These sessions were recorded and then broadcast to German elementary schools, with the intent that teachers there would develop comparable music making with their own students.

The continuation of this work with children led to the publication of volumes I-V of Orff-Schulwerk: Musik fur Kinder (Schott, Mainz, 1950-54). A later volume, Paralipomena (1977) contains material considered essential to the original set but not included at that time. In most cases, these have been the materials first translated when other cultures became interested in developing the Schulwerk for their own children. Beginning in 1953, Schulwerk courses were offered at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria for its own students and for interested outsiders; children's classes were also offered on an ongoing basis. The first four-semester teacher training course began in fall 1961.

The program outgrew its facilities, and in 1963 a new, separate building called the Orff Institute opened. Dr. Hermann Regner was the first director; Barbara Haselbach was in charge of the movement department and Wilhelm Keller of the work with handicapped. Orff died in 1982, Keetman in 1990, Regner and Keller have retired, and there have been many changes in the program. However, the Orff Institute continues to offer courses for local students and for those from a great many parts of the world, and its faculty  travel abroad on request to offer introductory and continuation courses. A special division of the Institute's work, the Orff Zentrum, was established specifically to maintain contacts with Schulwerk people throughout the word, including many who have studied at the Institute.

Arnold Walter, an outstanding German music educator who became music department chair at the University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada), is responsible for introducing the Schulwerk to North America. In the 1950s he sent Doreen Hall, a young music education instructor, to Salzburg to study with Orff and Keetman. Upon return, she started children's classes and teacher training courses; in 1962 she brought Orff and Keetman for a special weekend during the summer course. Later the courses became organized as Levels I, II, and III, each three weeks long. A number of music educators from the U.S. attended these Toronto courses and then founded training courses built on this model at various institutions here. The three-level training course remains the U.S. standard, now with just two weeks at each level. These can be supplemented liberally by master classes, AOSA conference and chapter workshops, and other training opportunities that contribute to the ongoing development of the Schulwerk teacher.


Guenther, D. (1962). What does Orff-Schulwerk desire and accomplish with the music education of the child? Oesterreichische Musikzeitschrift 17, 422-430. In M. Shamrock (Trans., 1976), Orff-Schulwerk: Background and commentary. St. Louis: Magnamusic. 

Orff, C. (1973). Orff-Schulwerk: Past and future. Orff Institute Yearbook. Reprinted as Orff Echo Supplement Cleveland: American Orff-Schulwerk Association.


Frazee, J. (1987).  Discovering Orff: A curriculum for music teachers.  New York: Schott.
Keetman, G. (1974). Elementaria (M. Murray, Trans.)  London: Schott.
Orff, C. (1978). The Schulwerk. Vol. III of Carl Orff/Dokumentation. (M. Murray, Trans.) New York: Schott.
Orff, C. & Keetman, G. (1958-1966). Orff-Schulwerk: Music for children, Vols. I-V. (M. Murray, Ed. & Trans.) London: Schott.
Shamrock, M. (1997). Orff-Schulwerk: Brief history, description, and issues in global dispersal. Cleveland: American Orff-Schulwerk Association.
Steen, A. (1992). Exploring Orff: A teacher’s guide.  New York: Schott.
Warner, B. (1991). Orff-Schulwerk: Applications for the classroom. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Mary Shamrock is retired after a career teaching at West Virginia University and California State University, Northridge.  She holds a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology and Music Education from UCLA.  Dr. Shamrock has taught Orff Schulwerk teacher training courses at many institutions throughout the U.S. and abroad, and has served AOSA in many roles, including national president, national board member and editor of the Orff Echo.