Zoltán Kodály As Musician-Educator Exemplar: A Critique

October 1, 1980


Throughout the annals of recorded history relatively few composers of outstanding merit and magnitude have decidedly concerned themselves with the general musical education of the young—that is those masses of children who are beginning or in the early stages of their formal school studies, and about whom no definitive evaluation of musical aptitude has yet been made. Tangible demonstration of such concern would necessitate the accumulation and admixture of knowledge in several related matters, including the identification of appropriate music literature, human physical and mental growth patterns, learning processes and experimental procedures of a formal or informal nature which through assessment procedures yield valid data and conclusions. Obviously those composers who choose such a path are obliged to diversify considerably their thinking and productivity.

Perhaps the first outstanding example was Guido d'Arezzo, the Italian monk who lived circa A.D. 990-1050 and whose pedagogical endeavors, so far as can be ascertained, led to the placement of staff lines in thirds, the popularization of a workable and functional solmisation system, the development of a methodology with related musical examples to teach the basic skills of creative composition to the very young, and other valuable innovations.1 In more recent times, we think of composers such as Carl Orff, who conceptualized a methodology for the young progressing from rhythmic nursery rhyme chants accompanied by hand claps and foot stamps to exceedingly refined part compositions accompanied by an orchestration of finely constructed and tuned instruments especially designed and conceived by him for small children. His pedagogical endeavors are primarily documented in Schulwerk.2 The distinguished nationalist Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, as head of the Superintendência de Educação Musical e Artística, supervised the musical education of a whole generation of students and teachers alike through his nationwide program. It entailed a cappella singing, solfeggio, and an ingenious system of hand signals which indicated simultaneously rhythm, dynamics and pitches. Thus taking into account pressing economic factors, there existed no necessity for purchasing individual copies of the score or teaching sight singing.3

There are of course other composers who have made significant contributions along these lines. Perhaps foremost is Zoltán Kodály, whose pedagogics have variously affected the content and activities of music classes not only in his native Hungary and a number of other countries throughout the world, but most particularly in the United States. Indeed, his influences have been far reaching. As a composer-musicologist, Kodály's legacy includes, among other things, a great amount of significant choral and chamber music, Psalmus Hungaricus, the opera Hary Janos, and an incredible amount of research into the folk music of his native land.



As an educator Kodály conceived for young children in the 1940's, after years of preparatory work, a systematic approach to a cappella sight singing and musical dictation which relied heavily on the folk music he researched, children's games and nursery songs, and composed songs of superb quality. His method was highly sequenced and organized with extraordinary concern for the isolation of learning tasks and ample reinforcement via follow-up materials. Although not exhaustive or detailed, the following points serve well as basic indicators of his approach: (1) rhythmic chanting on a system of mnemonics equates the long and short consonant-vowel durations to note durations (thus, ta equals a quarter note and ti equals an eighth), (2) the movable do syllables are sung and proper vocal production and nuances are emphasized, (3) rhythmic notation, with only the initial letter of the syllable to be sung placed underneath, is presented in the early stages without a lined staff, (4) a modified version of John Curwen's hand signals (1870) is used to give visual representation of the scale tones being practiced, (5) rhythmic reading and writing commences with simple duple meters and progresses ultimately to irregular and intermixed meters and (6) melodic reading and writing begins with the minor third interval (sol-mi), since it is considered the first and most natural interval for small children (also for the musical development of the various primitive races), on toward the addition of la, then the five-tone scale (which, in this case, lacks half-steps and thus supposedly can be sung in tune more easily) and its octave displacements, and finally the major, minor and modal scales. Accidentals of various kinds are intermittently introduced along the way, particularly as they relate to modal music.

Through zealous efforts Kodály and his associates promulgated his approach quite effectively. By 1950 he had persuaded the Ministry of Education to allow experiments with teaching music daily to children in one class. From this modest beginning, which produced positive attitudes and unexpected academic achievement elsewhere in the curriculum, the experiment turned into a movement which quickly swept across Hungary as specialized teachers were produced.4 Indeed, the incident and ensuing effects bring to mind and parallel the introduction of music, on an experimental basis, by Lowell Mason in the Hawes Grammar School of Boston in 1837. Much of the aftermath reported has a similar glow and essence,5 hinting that music may be a worthy curricular offering after all, owing however, to its extrinsic rather than intrinsic values.

Within a short period after 1950 Kodály's methodology had spread far beyond the borders of Hungary, culminating in several exposures at meetings of the International Society of Music Educators (Vienna 1958, Tokyo 1963 and Budapest 1964). To date numerous published materials, workshops, clinics and societies are in the broad sense testaments of endorsement, and in the United States hybrids (so-called "Americanizations") abound. In spite of the enthusiastic popularity of these one will find in numerous classrooms of the United States Kodály's original textbooks being used. Among them are Bicinia Hungarica (1937-42), 333 Reading Exercises (1943), and 441 Melodies, collected in four books (1945-48).



It is now more than a decade since Kodály's death, but his methodology in one form or another and in various intensities seems to continue. We can assume that particularly in the United States it fulfills certain needs perceived by the teaching profession. But what are these? What has this method provided that was not readily available in the past? One has only to turn back the pages of history to find the various indigenous components of his methodology embedded in numerous textbooks and philosophical statements.

To begin with, early music education in our country was primarily vocal in orientation and its basic practical purpose, in spite of the idealistic preachings uttered by Mason and his successors everywhere, was to produce sight singers of merit for the local church choirs, which were in desperate need. Therein lay not only the political power necessary for subsequent curricular implantation but also the bases for the curricular activities themselves—the singing and writing of music. Sight reading skills were considered requisite. At this time, roughly the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, school children did not have access to the great variety of classroom instruments, record playing equipment and the supplemental teaching aids available presently. Moreover, few thought of school music as a purveyor of music appreciation and general cultural enrichment. Life was simple, frequently rural and centered around the local church.

With a genius that has perhaps never again been surpassed, American singing teachers set about the task of devising methodologies and materials at a fierce pace. The earlier colonial singing school masters, who centered their pedagogical endeavors around song versions of the Psalms of David, prepared and forged the way remarkably well. And the basic goal later adopted was that once a pitch was sounded, each school child, individually and in turn, would stand and accurately sing at sight, usually on syllables, a given melodic exercise. The noted historian Edward Birge summarized the accomplishments thus: "the solution of the reading problem, the discovery of the child voice and the individual singing child were three outstanding achievements of the period."6 Such a statement could appropriately be applied to describe the status of music education in Hungary during the present day and age.

What, we might ask ourselves, were some of the indicators of these various early American methods—the syllables, rhythmic study and rhythmic chant, simplified notation presented first on a one-line staff, the use of colored lines to fix key center, the use of hand signals, charts, scale ladders, and last but not least, a great deal of music found in the cultural heritage (church hymns), folk and art songs. The methodologies usually progressed from one key to the next and were totally sequential. We find no specific mention, as in Kodály's method, of commencing musical study with the minor third interval or the pentatonic scale; however, these early methods were for the most part conceived for older beginners of grammar school age. Primary schools were then just coming into existence and much about their curricula remained unsettled. Once beyond this period, as the child study movement got underway, these two musical "deities" found their way into the mainstream also. The implications for comparison to Kodály's method are clear.

Sequentially organized, formal reading programs were continually presented in the music textbooks of the United States until, roughly, the 1940's.7 For example, as late as this The Singing School, Book II began its program with the sol-mi interval and songs centered around first line and first space do. Progression through the total grade-by-grade reading program was formidably challenging.

Likewise, American Singer, Book II began with the sol-mi interval and first line and first space do. The program here, however, was even more expanded and intricately reinforced by means of rote, rote-note and pure note reading songs.

New Music Horizons, Book IV, after much preparatory work in the earlier grades, developed a reading program which was systematically correlated with keyboard studies. Thus, the key of C was introduced first, and the circle of fifths was gradually explored to an appropriate extent. Interlaced within the reading program were numerous folk songs and art songs of high quality, many of which were to be taught by note rather than rote procedures. It must be admitted, however, that in each of these textbook series there appeared within the reading program an inordinate number of editor-composed songs of questionable value.



A curious thing happened at this point in history. While follow-up editions of these textbook series were placed on the market in the 1950's, there existed a general tendency to supplant them with newer series which stressed variety, correlation and integration, enjoyment, and creativity to the exclusion, or at least the reduction, of routinized sight singing drill. The slogan might well have been posted everywhere in bold letters, "Music is caught, rather than taught." While undoubtedly there exists an element of truth in this, the folly of such wholehearted endorsement, strikingly apparent in retrospect, was doomed to rebound and make itself blatantly obvious.

Russia's launching of Sputnik in 1957, heralded most ominously and dramatically a shocking change of mind which to a great extent still continues as contemporary education returns on its ecliptic to the "basics," as children are constantly test-norm rated by percentiles, and as formalized, even threatening, systems of accountability permeate all educational matters to the point where many now believe everything capable of being taught, communicated and experienced must reside exclusively or be defined within the realm of verbiage and numbers—nothing else.

But as the 1960's commenced what were music teachers to do to meet the impending challenge? They did not have access to appropriate materials unless they created their own, and the younger crop of teachers had not really been exposed to sequential reading methodology. The panacea for many was to adopt the materials and methodology emanating from Kodály and his followers.

In my opinion it was this incredible stroke of fortuitous timing (perhaps coupled with a goodly measure of ignorance of past accomplishments) more than anything else that created much of the landslide adoption and adaptation that followed. More important, however, is the fact that teachers found the ideas workable and respectable to the point where renewed confidence was restored. At last they had something tangible to teach that was cast in a ready-made and well-presented plan.

The arguments against exclusive adoption of Kodály's methodology in the general music curriculum of the United States are many. Foremost is the fact that such adoption would limit severely the scope of the curriculum, excluding a broad coverage of music literature, instrumental and rhythmic activities, and the more creative and enriching endeavors. As we have seen, the emphasis would be placed solely on a cappella sight singing, ear training, and the performance study of the vocal literature therein contained.

While performance is exceedingly important to the musical education of our nation's youth, we must ask ourselves whether or not it alone provides the best path to adult usage. Contemplation of this question is especially important in the light of recent studies which indicate that even those adults who performed in ensembles as high school students seldom perform in ensembles as adults (about one percent for instrumentalists and five percent for vocalists8). Obviously the majority of adults enjoy and use music as listeners. In my opinion, therefore, a broad study of music literature, from elementary through high school, with emphasis on the structural elements, is paramount to a quality educational program and it may be approached through a variety of activities.

Should we in the schools of a nation whose youth enjoy such home luxuries as television sets, sophisticated stereos, electronic equipment of all sorts, orchestral instruments, folk instruments and the like be content with a school music program that is limited to the constraints of Kodály's reading program? Could we implement such a program in the wake of strong parental influence, particularly during the teenage years when statistics indicate that a vast majority either play, or wish to play, instruments?9 Again my answer would be negative. In a nation whose youth from early childhood have access to music of all types via well developed mass communication—folk, symphony, opera, popular, and jazz to name only a few—does it seem reasonable to limit the early school singing experiences or reading experiences for a lengthy time period to materials built solely on the constituents of the pentatonic scale which lacks half-steps?

From a historical point of view we know that composers skillfully and rather typically used this scale to produce bland, understated, impressionistic effects lacking vigor and spice. In my opinion an extended children's repertory of short songs exclusively constructed thusly would lack worthy musical distinction and limit considerably the full range of aesthetic and musical delight children are capable of experiencing through vocal performance. Granted, research studies conducted by the Boston Children's Hospital and the Kodály Musical Training Institute indicate that children who have been exposed to Kodály's methodology read scores better than those lacking such training.10 We must ask ourselves at what price? Further, does this necessarily mean that Kodály's methodology works better than others of an equally systematic, sequential, and tightly controlled nature, or merely better than what is indicated by a random sampling of elementary school children undergoing a variety of teaching approaches?



The immediate and great contribution of Kodály's pedagogical endeavors, in my opinion, is that in an era when well-designed and sequentially-planned reading programs for children had been literally laid aside (all but forgotten in this country), he single-handedly and brilliantly revitalized interest in the matter—single-handedly because more than anyone else his personal ideas and convictions were at the helm of the internationally acclaimed phenomenon that ensued, and brilliantly because these ideas and convictions were supported and implemented by his impressive musical and pedagogical research, his superb musicianship, keen interest in the well-being and education of youth, and ability to amass the political resources needed to carry out a viable program.

In view of these considerations his contribution is exemplary, to say the least. He caused all of us to reevaluate our thinking and reestablish the principle that every child, regardless of musical potential, deserves the opportunity to become musically literate. Moreover, he provided ample proof of the feasibility and practicality of his pedagogical theories. These in all likelihood are as successful as any to be found in the entire history of music education. As an outcome of this phenomenon numerous others have now set about the task of designing reading programs, either based on his method or entirely new, and these are finding their way into our schools.

The overriding significant contribution of Kodály, however, and one from which we can all learn, lies elsewhere in my view. It is the fact that this established composer and musician accepted the challenge to bridge the higher and lower levels of musical accomplishment and learning by his activities, thus conspicuously wiping away the rigid boundaries separating the musician's world from that of the music educator. He fluently produced and worked in both, making them one. He had equal interest, evidently, in composition and music as it relates to children—even of the youngest age.

While other composers and musicologists have also wiped away this boundary, his accomplishments have been particularly telling and reciprocally beneficial. Clearly, Kodály has demonstrated the need for teachers to be musicians of merit and for musicians to be actively involved with the education of our youth.

In our nation such involvement could produce new compositions, special editions, curricular innovation, and the power to insist that all youngsters have appropriate opportunities to study music. Unfortunately this latter condition is far from being met, as evidenced by the current pitiful overall school music enrollment figures and the meager variety of curricular offerings, particularly at the secondary level where, interestingly, studies indicate that 97 percent hold a decisive interest in and liking for music, and more than 50 percent own sophisticated stereophonic equipment.11 Unfortunately, in spite of these facts, at this level less than 10 percent are enrolled in music classes. Rectification of this sad state requires a massive unified effort so that today's youth may become the fine composers, performers, and enlightened audience of tomorrow. With the type of vision and special genius evidenced by Kodály, and with our collective efforts, it should be possible actually to meet this goal rather than merely verbalize it.

1Samuel D. Miller, "Guido d'Arezzo, Medieval Musician and Educator," Journal of Research in Music Education, Fall, 1973.

2Carl Orff, Schulwerk, English adaptation by Doreen Hall and Arnold Walter (Mainz: B. Schott's Söhne, 1961).

3David E. Vassberg, "Villa-Lobos as Pedagogue: Music in the Service of the State," Journal of Research in Music Education, Fall, 1975.

4For a more complete account, see Lois Choksy, The Kodály Method: Comprehensive Music Education from Infant to Adult (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974), chapters I and III.

5Edward Bailey Birge, History of Public School Music in the United States (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Oliver Ditson Co., 1937), chapter II.

6Birge, p. 143.

7Foremost among these were Benjamin Jepson, New Standard Music Reader (1867); George B. Loomis, Loomis Progressive Music Lessons (1868); Luther W. Mason, National Music Course (1874); Hosea Holt and John Tufts, Normal Music Course (1883); Frederick H. Ripley and Thomas Tapper, Natural Course in Music (1895); C.H. Congdon, Congdon Music Readers (1901); Hollis Dann, The Hollis Dann Music Course (1915); Horatio Parker, et al., The Progressive Music Series (1915); Osbourne, McConathy, et al., The Music Hour Series (1927); McConathy, et al., New Music Horizons (1945); Peter Dykema, et al., A Singing School (1946); and John W. Beattie, et al., The American Singer (1946).

8National Assessment of Educational Progress. Report 03-MU-00, The First Music Assessment: An Overview. A project of the Education Commission of the States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1974), pp. 34-35.

9Gallup Poll, Youth Survey, as reported in The Houston Post, Nov. 15, 1978.

10Michael L. Mark, Contemporary Music Education (New York: Schirmer Books, 1978), p. 103.

11Gallup Poll, Survey.

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