An Introduction to Kodály

This is an essay that I wrote as part of my initial studies with the British Kodaly Academy in 2010/11.

2200 words

‘Kodály training is a holistic musical training for children: one in which the ear, the emotions, the mind and the technique are being attended to at the same time…’
Mannie Burn, BKA Newsletter, Summer 2002
The system of music education developed in Hungary during the twentieth century is named after Zoltan Kodaly (1882 – 1967).

In considering the name of this system, often referred to as the Kodaly ‘concept’ or Kodaly ‘methodology’, we should remember firstly that Kodaly created something new through a process of synthesis. That is to say most of the elements to be found in the Kodaly approach were not developed uniquely by Kodaly. Secondly it should be born in mind that while Kodaly led the transformation of music education in Hungary he was not the only person to influence its eventual form. As we shall see in this essay some critical aspects of the method were suggested to him by teachers who worked regularly with young children.
So what was it that influenced Kodaly to such an extent that he felt the need to develop a particular method of music teaching in his native Hungary? As a professor of music he noticed two serious flaws in the musical awareness of the students that he taught. Firstly, while they may have been technically accomplished on their chosen instrument(s), he recognised that many were unable to read or write music. Secondly he was shocked to discover that many were ignorant of their own musical heritage. At the same time he was also grappling with the difficult problem of making music accessible to all.
The insight that leads to the solution of all three problems is to think of the voice as an instrument. To sing accurately and in tune a child must develop the inner hearing. This is the ability to ‘hear’ music – a turn of phrase, a melody or even harmonies – in the mind. By removing the technical demands of playing an instrument (fine motor skills, holding a large instrument etc) children can begin to learn musicality from the very youngest age. Also by concentrating on the voice they cannot simply put their fingers in the right place to play the correct pitch. This ultimately prepares the pupil, through the rigorous and sequential teaching method considered in this essay, to read and write music before they have left primary school. The second problem of musical heritage is solved because the teacher will use only authentic children’s nursery songs and chants, folk songs and later on good composed music (music by recognised composers). There will be no exposure to what Kodaly calls ‘ponyvakultusz’, the cult of trash 1. His interest in promoting Hungarian folk music should also be understood within the context of a cultural movement that sought to express a Hungarian identity free of the influence of oppressive foreign powers. Finally the problem of making music accessible to all is neatly resolved as we all have a voice and it is free.
Before going on to consider the tools that are used in this method we should examine what Kodaly meant by the ‘cult of trash’ and why he wanted to help people avoid it. It is these aesthetic considerations after all that underpin the whole approach. He believed in educating people not just to produce outstanding instrumentalists but to produce a musically literate population, to educate the audience. Kodaly is very clear about this: trashy art is a prison that people must be rescued from. Only high art has value. Musically speaking this can include folk music, or even more fundamentally children’s songs and rhymes, as these lead to high art. But what is meant by ‘value’? Again Kodaly is very clear about this: good music ‘multiplies the beauty of life and all its values…will provide such strength, that it will help to overcome many difficulties…radiates responsibility and moral solemnity’2. This is art as something to strengthen the inner self against life’s afflictions and to lift a person up. Kodaly is not afraid to talk about the soul; he says ‘music is a spiritual tool for which there is no substitute’ 3. There is for Kodaly an invisible war between forces for good and forces of degeneracy. He refers to mass choirs as ‘private soldiers of art’. In fact he regarded choral music as the foundation of a musical culture.
Let us look now at the tools that the music teacher must use to teach not just musical skills but to develop an educated taste, to develop not just the ear but the whole intelligence of the student. We will then examine the crucial role of well-grounded, systematic and properly sequenced learning. The whole method could be said to orbit around the central idea of the ‘moveable do’ or tonic solfa. . This is a way of understanding music and reading written music that names each note of a melody with Guido d’Arezzo’s (c. 990 – c. 1050) note names : do, re, me etc. It is called ‘moveable do’ because whatever key the music is in the tonic is always ‘do’. If a piece of music transposes to a new key the new tonic becomes the new ‘do’. While this may seem like the obvious thing to do we must remember that there are systems of ‘fixed do’ where C is always ‘do’. This is the case in France. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) felt the French system of ‘fixed do’ was ‘extremely and needlessly difficult…it consists in removing the real meaning of things and putting in their place other meanings which only distract us’ 4. Centuries later Kodaly concurred. In learning to apply Kodaly’s preferred tonic solfa any student of music is given insights into how the European system of musical composition really works.
Added to this musical understanding are the hand signs that accompany each note of the scale. These serve two main purposes. Firstly they are an active way for children to engage with different pitches: they are not just singing the different pitches they can physically show them with their hands. The higher notes involve lifting the hand higher to reinforce basic notions of pitch. Secondly the hand signs help to develop the inner hearing: the teacher can show a melody using only these hand signs without even singing the tune. The pupils must use their inner hearing to ‘hear’ the tune and then they can sing it back. This can work the other way around with the teacher singing a musical phrase using not note names but ‘la la’ and then the class respond by showing hand signs for what they have just listened to. Both the moveable ‘do’ system and the hand signs are not Kodaly’s innovations. They are examples of good practice that he adopted.
As well as learning about pitch the student must have a well-developed sense of pulse and rhythm and ultimately must be able to read and write rhythms independently. This is developed by using rhythm notation or stick notation. Again, just like the moveable do system of naming notes, the different rhythms are given names. This allows rhythm to be considered independently. It can be read or talked about as a separate ‘ingredient’ of the whole. A crotchet is ‘ta’ while two quavers are ‘ti-ti’. All the common rhythms have names. For example a dotted quaver and semi-quaver is called ‘timka’ and so on.
The rhythmic understanding outlined above eventually leads to a use of this stick notation with the note names, or in fact abbreviated note names, written underneath each stick. To read this type of music one must have a well-developed sense of all the notes in the scale and the ways they work together. To be more precise one must be familiar with all the different intervals that can occur when working with those notes. With ordinary staff notation a singer can see the movement of the melody, upwards or downwards, because of the placement of the notes on the stave, higher up or lower down. Stick notation does not give this clue. The singer must have a well developed inner ear and be confident in knowing the particular intervals that are indicated.
With these tools in mind we should take note of the logical and sequential way that they are introduced. It should be understood that there are a lot of very thorough and finely graded sequences for introducing the various musical elements 5. For example a teacher would not introduce the first note names until it was clear that the class could distinguish between higher and lower pitches and they can sing simple songs in tune. Or, as another example, the teacher would move from teaching the notes of the 5 note pentatonic scale to the 8 note diatonic scale. There is not space in this essay to look at the many examples of this absolutely necessary attention to detail. Whatever the element of music is that is being taught the sequence can be characterised by three stages.
Firstly the preparation stage is when a new song is learned. The song is chosen by the teacher because it has a musical element that the class is ready to learn. Even in the earliest stages the teacher chooses songs that help to encourage the child to move to the music, eventually in time with the pulse and to the rhythm as well. The music lesson should be great fun, full of joy with favourite songs and games played again and again. Kodaly is very disparaging about dry, formal music exercises that dampen enthusiasm and perhaps put children off music permanently. A lot of the songs chosen at this beginning stage will feature ‘so’ and ‘me’. Interestingly this was not how Kodaly initially conceived the sequence of learning about pitch. The first exercises in Kodaly’s ‘333 Reading Exercises’ feature ‘do’ and ‘re’. It was Katalin Forrai (1926 – 2004), a kindergarten teacher, who suggested ‘so’ and ‘me’ to Kodaly because she noticed the prevalence of these two notes in children’s songs. This is a good example of how Kodaly did not work independently but rather he led a movement in musical education that was informed by many different practitioners in Hungary.
The second stage involves the presentation of the particular musical element. This can be referred to as making conscious the hitherto unconscious musical awareness. So for example a child may know a song with ‘so’ and ‘me’ and ‘la’ but only be aware of the note names for ‘so’ and ‘me’. The presentation stage would see the teacher explicitly teach the new note-name ‘la’. A good practitioner would no doubt do this by drawing attention to the note that ‘we don’t know’ and then help the class to recognise this and then specifically teach the note name and accompanying hand sign. At this presentation stage it is good practise to use an already well known song that has only one new musical element in: the one that needs to be taught.
The third stage involves practising the new learning in different musical contexts. This reinforcement involves consciously meeting the new element in new material. The basic sequence can be summed up with the three ‘P’s: preparation then presentation and then practise. Of course as one musical element is being prepared another is being presented while another is being practised so that any music lesson features well-known and well-loved songs and games as well as new songs and musical activities. An experienced Kodaly practitioner knows how to draw out everything that a song has to offer. There is a huge variety of worthwhile musical activities that can accompany the simplest song.
So how has my introduction – of only five months – to the Kodaly concept affected my own musical development? Firstly looking at music through the prism of solfa has already yielded some interesting insights: recognising the common ‘so’ to ‘do’ interval at the start of a lot of pieces of music (e.g. Schumann’s Traumerei or Away in a Manger); finding the key in a piece of pentatonic music by looking for do-re-me in the notes; understanding the relationship between do-major and la-minor; hearing and recognising the notes used in simple songs; being led towards an understanding of modes and keys through a study of pentatonic scales; realising that any pentatonic song can work in canon. This is not an exhaustive list so there is a feeling of enlightenment for me in discovering this way of approaching music. I have a sense of wonder and a desire to learn more. Secondly I have not played my ‘cello consistently over the last twenty years and Kodaly’s belief in the positive life-affirming force that is inherent in the very finest music has helped to rekindle an interest in my playing the ‘cello once more. Finally on a philosophical note I enjoy listening to a wide variety of music, ranging far beyond classical music and authentic folk music, and including styles that I am sure Kodaly would have considered appalling trash. I hold on to the belief that these types of music are also positive and life-affirming! Kodaly’s philosophy therefore raises some very interesting questions that are far from resolved in my own mind.
1. Kodaly, Z. ‘Music Should Belong to Everyone’ p.49
2. Kodaly, Z. ‘Music Should Belong to Everyone’ p.57 & p.53
3. Kodaly, Z. ‘Music Should Belong to Everyone’ p.51
4. Jean Jacques Rousseau ‘Emile’ Book 2
5. Choksy, L. ‘The Kodaly Method I’ p.38, for example, shows a list of the exact order to introduce crotchets, quavers and crotchet rests