Year 5 – Pentatonic Scales and World War II

(The lesson takes place in a classroom that has suitably distanced tables. This leaves practically no room for the teacher to move around. Moving from the teacher’s desk to the whiteboard means battling through a series of A2 sheets hanging from a washing line as if in a jungle).

In Year 5 we are waiting for a large delivery of xylophones. There will soon be enough xylophones for one per pupil in each Year 5 class of thirty. This is thanks to a grant from a charity called Restore the Music. You can follow them on Twitter @RTMusicUK. While we wait for these instruments to arrive the lessons feature a mixture of various musical challenges, certain songs related to the Year 5 topic this term and general musicianship development. Today’s lesson went very well and I felt like sharing it with the world.

I start by humming some simple pentatonic phrases for the children to sing back to me as a warm-up. I point to the five pitches (do, re, mi, so, la) written vertically as a ‘pitch ladder’ on the board.

“These are the pitches we’ve been humming. There are only five. What do we call a scale with five notes?” It’s a simple recall question from last week’s lesson.

I sing ‘Hello Everyone’ using different pentatonic melodies. The children respond with hand signs and the pitch names. One boy is particularly good at this and sings out confidently. Many in the class are following his lead. Few could do this alone but as a group they have more confidence. A table at the front has some children who are not really able to follow this exercise. It’s how the class is laid out as I am teaching in classrooms and not the Music Room. They would benefit from being next to more capable children. I keep the melodies mainly simple steps rather than larger intervals but I do a few bigger intervals at the end. Next, I point to the ‘pitch ladder’ and, giving a starting pitch, I point to different pitches for the class to sing back. Despite a six month break they do this very well. Maybe learning solfa in this way is like riding a bike? I invite a volunteer to lead the activity. He does so and I ask the class how this leader helped everyone to be successful: he did not make any large intervals and he kept a slow, steady beat to his ‘conducting’.

Continuing in this technical musicianship mode I produce some rhythm cards and the children read them: crotchets, quavers, semiquavers and crotchet rests all in 4-beat rhythms. Having done this I ask them to invent actions for ‘ta’, ‘ti-ti’ and ‘tikka tikka’. We run through the cards again with these new actions. They enjoy this more lively activity. And they enjoyed having a chance to choose the particular actions. As a general rule the more creative involvement the children have in lessons the more enjoyable they will find it. Even if it is just little choices like this.

Next everyone stands so we can run through a little song that has some moderately challenging actions that go with it. The song is called Bim Bam. Here is the song with the actions:

Most can do this. We start slow and do a faster version afterwards. It had been set as a ‘Musical Challenge’ last week i.e. something for the class to do with their teacher between music lessons but it had not been done.

Next we move on to look at a song related to the Year 5 topic of World War 2: We’ll Meet Again. We listened to an original Vera Lynn version last week, the one with all the male voices joining in halfway through. This week we practise singing the first four lines with a recorded honky tonk piano backing. The class sing it really well despite the quite tricky semitones at the start. Afterwards, the Teaching Assistant tells the class that she loves the song and explains that her grandparents, alive during the war, loved it too. It’s been 30 minutes now and, because of curious Covid timetables, the class have to go to break. As we walk down the stairs one girl tells me that she really likes the song. It’s interesting to me the way that music can speak to new audiences down through the years.

After the break I settle the class with a little listening exercise, again related to the World War 2 theme. It’s a recording of a nightingale from 1942 that features bombers flying overhead that completely drown out the sound of the birdsong. This recording comes from a website called It’s a curious listen and it only generates a small amount of discussion but it does settle the class after the excitement of playtime. This website is full of interesting recordings and I aim to make more use of it. In a world of intense visual stimulus it is a worthwhile activity to focus on simply listening.

We move on to something completely unrelated. I teach them a simple 4 phrase children’s song called Great Big House. It’s a pentatonic song and I’ve invented some actions to go with it. It’s ideal for younger children and I had been concerned that the Year 5s would find it babyish. They don’t. In fact they enjoy it. I want to make use of the song as a teaching tool relating to the children’s growing understanding of the ‘do’ pentatonic scale. It works as something lively after the stillness of the listening exercise.

We move onto another pentatonic song called Rocky Mountain. Like ‘Great Big House’ it appears to be American in origin. I introduce it by tapping out the tune on the pitch ladder that is still on the board. I introduce a challenge. I ask for a 4-beat rhythm and write the ‘rhythm sticks’ on the board. I then sing the whole song while clapping this rhythm repeatedly. I ask the class what I just did. Once it is established what the challenge is I sing the song while the class clap the rhythm throughout the song. Next we swap roles. Finally they have a try at doing both together. This is their new Class Challenge for the week. I tell them they need two brains to do it!

I throw another technical exercise at the class and I am impressed by their ability. I have brought along eight cards with simple melodies written on the stave that use only the notes from the pentatonic scale, this time in C. I have other cards for F and G as well. The phrases are all familiar from many repetitions over the years but they don’t have a lot of experience of seeing the notes on the stave. Also, some phrases make use of the very recently learned ‘re’. Their knowledge of the pentatonic scale (three together do/re/mi and then a gap and so/la at the top helps them to see the simple patterns that I am showing them). I am hoping to make much use of this pentatonic awareness when we start to work with the xylophones.

Finally we end by singing Ralph McTell’s Streets of London. At Rhyl Primary School the theme across the whole school this term is ‘Streets of London’. I wonder, if Ralph McTell wrote that song today, would he be accused of virtue-signalling? The class sing the first three verses quite well. I think this is because they like the song. They like the melodies and we’ve talked about the lyrics. They understand what the song is about. We’ve spent time putting the meaning of the song into context by talking about when they have seen homeless people in the streets of London.

All the lessons today went well but, as so often, it was this first lesson of the day that really stood out.