Vocabulary Instruction in Music Classrooms: It’s Not Just ‘Music Words’!

As I’ve been contemplating vocabulary in my future music classroom, all my ideas (and my peers’ ideas, when I ask them about it) are creative ways to teach music words. There is so much tier-3 music vocabulary that students must learn; many call it a language of its own. I doubt it would be hard for any music teacher to come up with 50 tier-3 music words, and only feel like they are scratching the surface. Because of this, music teachers tend to forget that teaching tier-2 words is also an important part of any classroom.*

There are a lot of ways that music teachers can help students start to think in new ways by teaching tier-2 vocabulary throughout the rehearsal instruction. One effective way I found to do this is getting students to find ways to describe the music using specific adjectives, emotion words, as well as personifying the music in order to describe it in creative ways. Here are a few lesson ideas I had to get started:

1. Simply ask the students how they would describe the music. Prompt them to give creative answers and not repeat the same word twice. This can be anything from “dramatic” to “bouncy” to “melancholy”. This is a good way to get students initially thinking about how to talk about music in new ways.

2. Give a simple synonym assignment. Have the students brainstorm words that describe the music (either emotion words or style words would work!) and make a list on the board, split up the words (perhaps give each section a word or a few words), and have each student bring in a list of five adjectives that still fit the music the next day.

3. Write a short story that personifies the music. An idea for a prompt in a band/orchestra classroom could simply be, “If this music was a day in the life of a person, what would their day look like? On a separate sheet of paper, cite specific reasons for each part of your story (For example, they would wake up frantically because of the tempo and fast woodwind runs at the beginning of the piece).” This could be a simple in-class, writing-to-learn assignment, or it could turn into something that is peer-edited and reviewed for presentation to the whole class. It just depends on your learning outcomes!

These are just a few ideas of how to incorporate literacy, and specifically vocabulary learning, into a music classroom. Through these outlines, many more can be created and utilized no matter what type of music classroom you have.


*Tier-3 vocabulary refers to content-specific words that can’t be readily applied to other subjects, such as concerto or allegro in music. Tier-2 vocabulary refers to words that aren’t considered basic words, but can be used across the disciplines and have several meanings, such as contrast (being strikingly different from something else, or in art, the arrangement of opposite elements).


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