Key elements of the Kodály Concept by Benjamin Westley

An essay submitted by Ben Westley as part of the Springboard HE1 Certificate Course 2010 – 11.

What are the key elements of the Kodály Concept and how has what you have learned and experienced affected your own musical development?

According to the Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, the ‘Kodály Method’ is:

‘A way of training children in music, devised by Zoltán Kodály, which is based on giving them a thorough grounding in solfeggio (using a ‘movable doh’ system), aimed at developing aural ability with emphasis on sight-singing, dictation and the reading and writing of music; a progressive repertory of songs and exercises, based on Hungarian folk music, is used.’ (p.430)

This essay will be an attempt to both elucidate the ideas within this definition and to consider some ways in which ‘Kodály’ is reconsidered and understood by music educators working across the world in the twenty-first century.

Zoltán Kodály’s (1882-1967) dissatisfaction with the state of Hungarian music education stemmed from his observations of students entering the Zeneakademia – the music college at which he taught in the 1900s – who appeared to have no genuine ‘feel’ for the music they were attempting to play. Further, they could not sing in tune or accurately sight-sing simple melodies, despite arriving at the academy as accomplished instrumentalists. Kodály felt that music must be felt internally before being played on external instruments and that the way to cultivate this musicality was through singing, which would provide a more direct experience of music than, for example, learning to mechanically play sequences of notes on a piano. Through singing, students would develop a better ‘inner hearing’ and consequently increased musical understanding and sensitivity.

Kodály (1952) claimed that keen pitch discrimination cannot be cultivated by students simply singing melodies in groups:

‘Those who always sing in unison never learn to sing in correct pitch. Correct unison singing can, paradoxically, be learned only by singing in two parts: the voices adjust and balance each other.’ (p.2)

A direct result of this conviction was an emphasis on the importance of choral singing in two and more parts. Although not mentioned in the Grovedefinition, choral singing must be viewed as an indispensable part of Kodály’s Concept for music education.

Kodály believed that authentic folk music in the mother tongue should be the material with which children’s experience of music should begin. Through the experience and study of folk songs and games, access would be given to examples of Western art music. Kodály was keen that a reclaiming of folk music should take place as children would become primarily aware of their musical and linguistic heritage: this, he felt, was necessary before moving onto ‘music’ in a wider sense, a movement from the known to the unknown.

Our original definition of the Kodály ‘Method’ hinted at the centrality of Hungarian folk music and this is a site at which a significant misconception about the nature of Kodály’s vision occurs. DeVries (2000), writing about his experiences as a primary music teacher in Queensland, Australia, explains how he regarded a Kodály approach irrelevant and ‘unrealistic’ for his students because of the way the curriculum was constructed:

‘It’s just too far removed from the sort of music (children are) hearing a lot of the time. English folk songs and… Hungarian folk songs… it’s just a little bit far-fetched for them.’ (p.169)

This understanding of Kodály education is glaringly incomplete. Kodály believed Hungarian children should be schooled with Hungarian folk song precisely because this was their cultural heritage: the idea was not to transmit Hungarian culture across the world. Australian children would need to sing authentic Australian songs so that they may equally become well-versed in their own musical heritage. The apparently misinformed Australian attempt to recreate the Hungarian model precisely was doomed to failure: after all, as deVries goes on to point out, Australian folk songs do not lend themselves to precisely the same sequence of musical skill development, as many are in 6/8 time (a rare meter in Hungarian music) and are not necessarily dominated by pentatonic melodies. It would be in keeping with Kodály’s concept that teachers working in countries with a significantly ‘different’ musical heritage to Hungary would need to work out their own priorities and progression of understanding with the material they have at their disposal. From this, access to other music, including art music, should still ultimately be possible.

Another charge levelled against a Kodály-based music education is the somewhat postmodern argument that the approach necessarily seeks to privilege Western music over music of other, potentially marginalised cultures. Mansfield (2002) writes of a ‘politics of representation’ (p.191) in which music education is viewed as incomplete if it does not seek to give equal access to music of all cultures and to view these as artistically equal. However, just as it would be illogical to teach a child a different alphabet (or a mixture of alphabets) before they learned their own, it makes little sense to begin a child’s musical education with only passing reference to their country’s musical traditions. Access to other ‘musics’ is by no means precluded by this: in fact, it is more than likely that access will be opened up through a general appreciation of ‘music’ that this progression – beginning from the ‘known’ – involves. Further, the ‘prioritisation’ of Western art music – of Handel, Haydn, Beethoven and others – provides a vehicle through which other music may be understood. Popular music is not studied because it is simply pedagogically less valuable for teaching about the features underpinning the whole of Western music such as harmony and form: the fact that the above-named composers’ works endure is surely testimony to their aesthetic – as well as their historical – significance. Rather, through such study an understanding of a much wider range of music (including popular music, if desired) is arrived at.

The approach Kodály advocated is thoroughly child-developmental in its design and, as such, follows a careful, logical progression. In the early stages, a bank of songs and related games is built up, largely from authentic folk material, which gives children a thorough ‘feel’ for the rhythms and melodic nature of their musical cultural background. A lot of time is spent working on concepts of pulse, rhythm and pitch before more advanced work on pitch names and literacy.¹ Once children are ‘enculturated’ into these ideas and can relate to and use the terminology accurately, they have established necessary foundations for future learning in music.

Games are vital throughout, as the movement activity links together the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic elements that result in a deeper understanding of the material and development of musical memory and, consequently, the ‘inner hearing’. Teachers make conscious certain elements (such as rhythm or pitch names) only after the actual element has been experienced directly in different song contexts. Once made conscious, the new concept is reinforced through practice and children become able to apply their learning independently; for example, through improvisation, dictation or sight-singing. Having progressed in the earlier stages from a basic understanding of ‘high’ and ‘low’, children will learn songs involving solfa pitch names, initially so and mi. They will learn physical handsigns to support and reinforce their experience of these pitch names and positions before learning ways of notating these and then recognising the interval between the pitches as a minor third by singing solo and chorally and through listening exercises. This will be carefully built up over several years and the result will be a deep understanding of these musical elements that would not be derived from technical instrumental study alone.

Kodály methodology can be seen as an amalgamation of best practice from different systems of music education. Key elements are modified French rhythm names (for example, ta and te-te or ti-ti to represent rhythms commonly known as crotchet and quaver) which match the duration of each rhythmic element; relative solmisation (using the syllables do, re, mi etc. for degrees of the scale in which the position of do, the tonic or ‘home note’, can move depending on the key or tonality of the music being sung) and handsigns relating to each pitch syllable. Combined, these elements result in a powerful ‘tool kit’ for the teaching of music and the physicality of the actions involved ensures deep musical understanding and memory development.

It must be remembered, however, that these are the teacher’s tools: the overarching aim in employing these tools is thorough musical sensitivity and understanding. Writing a Marxist-informed critique of Kodály teaching, Benedict (2009) argues that the ‘strict and unmindful’ use of solfa and handsigns that she perceives constitute ‘Kodály teaching’ makes Kodály work an exclusive and self-perpetuating system that is detached from other forms of music making in education. Her assumption is based, however, on the idea that solfa and handsigns are an end in themselves, rather than intermediary tools for developing musicianship.² A system that prioritises such tools might well be detached and exclusive, but Kodály methodology is simply not this: as Gillian Earl (1992) writes, ‘handsigns should indicate legato singing,’ (p.79) not a robotic punching out of pitches devoid of musicality. Benedict’s misunderstanding of the place of musicianship tools in Kodály-based training highlights well the problems that can occur if this type of education is viewed as a strict ‘Method’, rather than a flexible set of guidelines to develop high-order musical understanding: this results in a similar problem to the scenario evidenced in the Australian example above, and is perpetuated by narrow or incomplete definitions of the Kodály Concept in seemingly authoritative texts.³

Benedict’s confusion about the real purpose of Kodály-based teaching means she perceives it as esoteric and élitist. In fact, Kodály’s hope was that with musicianship development through singing – using the tools described above – the people who would most thoroughly benefit would be the future audiences of music, not just the élite performers. His claim that ‘music should belong to everyone’ has perhaps become the maxim of Kodály educators in their drive to raise the standard of musical appreciation and literacy. So, in fact, Kodály’s principles can much more convincingly be read as serving the needs and interests of the many and not, as Benedict’s politicised agenda would have us believe, the few.

It is difficult to give an overview of Kodály’s concept without making reference to the historical context in which he was working. Hungary had been politically and culturally oppressed for centuries and the emphasis Kodály placed on national folk material is clearly a nationalistic move, seeking to empower the Hungarian people. This also has an ethical dimension, however: by uniting the people through a common cultural pursuit, music is seen as a ‘socialising agent’ (Gifford 1988, p.123) and the choral experience becomes one of social solidarity and collective action for the common good. This interesting idea gives rise to the question of linguistic and cultural diversity in modern times: if there is indeed an ethical dimension to social singing based on cultural solidarity, what implications does this have for today’s teachers? While we may find ourselves in a more ‘global’ context, it is perhaps more important than ever to seek ways of connection and inter-cultural understanding and exchange. Someone teaching a class made up of children from different cultural or linguistic backgrounds must work hard to find authentic material from the different cultures. Rather than having a detrimental impact on children from the dominant culture, music can be seen as offering a way to unite rather than divide and this is surely in keeping with Kodály’s ethical imperative.⁴

My own musical education seemed to involve three seemingly unconnected activities: playing, listening and an abstract and unconnected thing called ‘theory’, a list of facts to be memorised and which I had to learn from a book. Discovering the Kodály approach and working on my own musicianship has led me to realise that these elements are all much more fundamentally connected. For example, my sight-reading has improved as a result of developing my inner hearing through singing and the use of solfa syllables to highlight the tonal function of each note within scales. My hearing and understanding of musical intervals is much improved in both listening and playing and I find it hard to believe that these were never ‘taught’ in the course of a musical education which went up to diploma level.

¹ This is important, as terminology used in musical discourse relating to, for example, pulse as ‘heartbeat’ and pitch as involving ‘high’ and ‘low’ are ultimately metaphors: music does not literally have a heart that beats in the way that humans hearts do, and we talk of high and low pitches that do not necessarily involve an object moving physically up or down (a cellist’s fingers, for instance, might be perceived as going down the fingerboard towards the floor as the pitch goes up). Children therefore need a significant amount of time to absorb these difficult ideas on a practical level.

² Just as Cecilia Vajda criticises Bernarr Rainbow’s understanding of ‘Kodály’ as ‘only solfa and hand signs.’ Vajda (1991, p.73). The point is neatly summarised by Kodály himself: ‘The more ardently we use sol-fa at the beginning, the sooner we can abandon it.’ (quoted in Kocsár 2002, p.29)

³ Such as the Grove definition with which this essay began.

⁴This idea is seemingly evident in a number of authoritative British Kodály-related publications such as Waterhouse et al (2007) and Vinden and Vinden (2008). A cursory glance through these books reveals a wealth of non-native material for use in musicianship classes, including music from Japan, Ghana, Poland, Virginia and Congo and elsewhere, as well as English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh material.

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Choksy, L. (1974). The Kodály Method: Comprehensive Music Education From Infant to Adult, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall
DeVries, P. (2000). “Learning how to be a music teacher.” Music Education Research vol II no 2 pp 165-178
Earl, G. (1992). “Letter to the Editor.” British Journal of Music Education vol IX no 1 pp 79-80
Finney, J. (2000). “Curriculum stagnation: the case of singing in the English National Curriculum.” Music Education Research vol II no 2 pp 203-210
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Houlahan, M. and Tacka, P. (2008). Kodály Today: A Cognitice Approach to Elementary Music Education, New York: Oxford University Press
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Stock, J. (2003). “Music education: perspectives from current ethnomusicology.” British Journal of Music Education vol XX no 2 pp 135-145
Vajda, C. (1991). “A reply to the article by Bernarr Rainbow ‘The Kodály Concept and its Pedigree’.” British Journal of Music Education vol VIII no 1 pp 73-76
Vinden, Y. and Vinden, D. (2008). Songs for Singing and Musicianship Training: Introducing the Kodály Concept of Music Education London: Kodály Centre of London
Waterhouse, C. et al. (2007). How Can I Keep From Singing! Songs and musical activities from around the world for 8-13 year olds London: British Kodály Academy