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Keyboard Launch Students into Music

Originally Published: Music Educators Journal

Group keyboard instruction provides a positive and motivating environment for elementary school students. Each student has the opportunity to explore the keyboard and to discover his or her musical talent, as well as to be part of a team that succeeds in meeting class goals. By providing opportunities for both individual and class practice and achievement, the teacher can encourage students to cooperate with and to help their peers. The teacher can also nurture self-esteem by helping each student succeed at his or her own level of ability and interest.

Ear training for rhythm and pitch is very effective with small keyboards in a group setting (battery-powered keyboards that have a two and one-half octave range are adequate). Students can play in ensembles, combine melody with chords, sing while playing, take listening tests, and listen to each other as they create. During a program that includes eight-to-twelve keyboard lessons each year, elementary students can explore the properties of sound, scales, intervals, chords, and composition, and can learn to play small-range melodies from music notation. These students can also share a sense of accomplishment in performing and recording their own songs and accompaniments. The keyboard lessons become a positive addition to the elementary general music program.

(Pictured left: I carried two-dozen 2½-octave battery powered keyboards from room to room on a cart.)

Lower Elementary

The teacher can begin by giving several short lessons in both the fall and spring to students in the first and second grades. Each keyboard lesson lasts for about ten minutes at the end of a half-hour music period. In the fall, the students learn fingerings, respect for the instrument, and how to play with the rest of the class. They learn to find high and low pitches on the keyboard and to use different pitches to add sound effects to a story. For example, they improvise high pitches for a bird and low ones for a shark. They explore length, volume, and timbre in the same manner. Students also learn to ascend and descend the C major and A minor scales and to create their own music using these scales. They learn to play the black key pentatonic scale and to improvise music by using a sustaining timbre, such as a vibraphone.

In the spring, the students review musical elements that were presented in the fall. They learn to play the C major chord with one or two hands and an F and C ostinato to accompany a song learned in class. This song is then transferred to Orff barred instruments and timpani. If time permits, students learn a simple three-note melody to be played with the right hand.

Upper Elementary

The teacher gives four keyboard lessons in the fall and spring to students in the third and fourth grades. The lessons are presented during one of the two half-hour music periods each week. The sequence of the course content over a two-year period is as follows:

  1. C, D, and E pitches; whole, half, and quarter notes; C chord (fall, third grade).

  2. F, G, and A pitches; dotted half notes; F chord (spring, third grade).

  3. G, A, and B pitches; eighth notes; G chord (fall, fourth grade).

  4. Review of all pitch groups; transposition (spring, fourth grade).

Each course includes a review of previously learned musical elements. This allows slower and new students to participate effectively and builds a strong foundation in basic musical concepts over a two-year period. Each set of lessons follows a similar sequence becoming familiar with the keyboard, experiencing the properties of sound, learning scale and chord concepts, and playing three three-note melodies.

With the first melody, the teacher has the students learn the three pitch names, direction, interval, and note length by rote. The second melody, the core melody of each course, uses the same three pitches as in the first melody and includes all the note values taught in a particular course. For example, in Course III (which covers the G, A, and B pitches), the core melody contains whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes.

Figure I shows an example of a portion of a core melody. Students learn the first and last sections of the melody by seeing up, down, and repeated pitch motion without a staff. The instructions and graphics are shown on a newsprint sheet – a large sheet of white lined paper, two feet high by three feet wide – which is tacked up on a bulletin board or wall in front of the class (an overhead projector could be an alternative). In the next lesson, students practice playing and singing the same melody from staff notation. Finally, a chord is played as accompaniment by the students to the more difficult middle section of the song.

The third melody is composed by the class, which uses the core melody as the model. For example, the class practices writing the three notes G, A, and B in any order, ending on B for the “question.” The pitch group is repeated with an ending on G for the “answer.” Figure 2 shows an example of a “question” and “answer” created by a class.

Although short phrases are used for class practice, individual students will create longer and often very interesting questions and answers. The teacher can play the students’ melodies on a full-size keyboard with different chords and rhythms, and students can describe the similarities and differences of each example.

Students play melodies or chords an octave apart as often as possible. Students also perform the keyboard melodies with Orff pitched and non-pitched instruments. The teacher assigns workbook pages and gives quizzes to reinforce the music theory that is being taught. The procedures for each class include five minutes at the beginning and end of a half-hour lesson for creativity and exploration. During the initial free time, each student’s hand position and finger movement are checked. Students then read the lesson from newsprint charts. The class first practices the particular melody or musical element together. Next, they practice separately, and the teacher assesses their individual problems and progress. Finally, the class practices in ensemble several times.


The most important aspect of the keyboard curriculum is creativity. After each musical element is presented, students do creative keyboard exercises demonstrating the concept they have learned. They improvise within certain parameters and write down their improvisations using letter names. An important goal, if time permits, is to have students notate their original melodies.

As students use the keyboards, they internalize musical elements with greater understanding. As students learn to play, they feel more connected with the sound that is being produced. With this type of experience, students can become genuinely involved in the process of making music.

With the help of the elements they’ve learned in the keyboard curriculum, small groups of students can learn to combine computer and keyboard skills using a five-octave keyboard to make sequences with computer software. Students of all musical levels and abilities have expressed great delight in using a variety of sounds to create and change their original compositions.


The four courses taught to third and fourth graders use melodies with a three-note range of do, re, and mi in their A sections. Three notes require a minimum of dexterity for beginning students playing in a group. Different note values and time signatures are gradually introduced over a two-year period.

(Pictured left: Paired students practicing note lengthsin a 5-octave equipped keyboard laboratory.)

Identifying suitable melodies has been one of the most critical aspects of developing a successful curriculum. Melodies should be selected for their compositional elements, such as repetitive pitch and rhythm patterns. It is often difficult to find three-note melodies that consist of two phrases or one phrase with a first and second ending. Generally, the A section of melodies is used. The middle, or B section, which is usually outside of the three-note range, is sung and accompanied by a chord. Melodies that sound good on the keyboard and have easy finger movements, such as “Hot Cross Buns,” generally work best.

Along with technical and compositional considerations, it is important to choose melodies that seem worth the effort to learn. Each third- and fourth-grade class receives a limited number of hours of group keyboard instruction each year, so every piece of music should challenge students and motivate them to learn. Good students will generally do well regardless of the specific curriculum; the real challenge is reaching and teaching all the students in the class.


Students in each course learn how to build a chord on the white keys by starting on a root and “skipping” keys. This helps them to become familiar with additional letter names and letter-name combinations. Students learn fingerings for the chords, but a number of students will use their own fingerings anyway. It is more important that students “feel” and “hear” the chords rather than finger them properly.

Each course emphasizes a particular chord. Students improvise this chord in broken and block styles.They use the chord to introduce, end, or accompany a melody or other songs they have learned in class or as part of an Orff instrumental ensemble. For example, groups of students are assigned to different instruments. They practice the melody first and then add chord and bass notes. Students may then switch instruments.

In the winter, if it can be scheduled, a special four-lesson unit on the basic blues chord progression is taught in the key of C in third grade and in the key of G in fourth grade. Selected students add percussion and bass accompaniments to the blues chord progression using xylophones and electronic drums.

Keyboards as Springboards

Another aspect of group keyboard instruction is that by successfully playing on one instrument, students are motivated to try others. The basic musical skills students learn on the small keyboard provide a foundation for the recorder, band instruments, and other keyboards, such as the piano or synthesizer. These instruments also combine nicely with Orff pitched and non-pitched instruments, sequences for synthesizers, and the teacher’s keyboard accompaniment to make a complete ensemble.

Other Considerations

The small size, lightweight, and low cost of these instruments have made it feasible to provide group keyboard instruction. Twenty-five keyboards can be carried on a small cart, and students can play them on their laps or on a desk. Batteries for these keyboards require changing only twice a year. An important feature of the small keyboard is its gentle sound. The volume of twenty-five keyboards does not penetrate into the next classroom as a level that is disturbing or disruptive. For example, in one school, the keyboard class has been taught on cafeteria tables in a central area surrounded by classrooms and the school office.

There are some disadvantages to the current models of the two and one-half octave keyboard. A model that has only volume control and a variety of timbres would be more useful in the classroom than keyboards with automatic demo and chord capacities, which can be distracting. In addition, the soft sound of small keyboards, while good for the classroom setting, is barely audible in a performance. It is, therefore, necessary to add other instruments to reinforce their sound. It would be helpful if these keyboards could be plugged into an inexpensive amplifying system for performances, but currently they cannot. Group keyboard classes can be conducted very effectively without the use of earphones, but it would be useful if earphones could be plugged into these small keyboards for private practice sessions.

Each year brings new challenges and endless possibilities for keyboard instruction. Some goals are achieved and some are not, but what a joy in the adventure! Every teacher should consider adding keyboard instruction to his or her elementary music curriculum.

Originally published: Music Educators Journal, July 1995, Page 29

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