Music -- Guiding Principles

This material was prepared by Rev. Lisa Martin for Trinity United Church of Christ, Pottstown, PA. It may be used by churches and copies may be made for internal church use only.





I am sure you can remember all the lyrics to some obscure song that you learned in your youth. And haven’t we all had an experience of trying to shake some (usually annoying) tune that we keep replaying in our head?

I can remember banging my head on my desk in college wishing there was some way to erase from my memory all the lyrics of “Never Smile at a Crocodile” from a first grade performance of Peter Pan and replace them with the names, dates and places I needed to pass my Western Traditions exam.

Without getting into neurological biology, let’s just say music gets into our heads in a permanent sort of way. So when we want to teach the children the Bible, it just makes sense to use music. Think about it: which do you have more of in your memory – Bible verses or verses of hymns?

One of the key things to remember is that using music as a tool for teaching the Bible is not the same thing as preparing for a performance.

There is certainly learning that goes on when you prepare for a performance. But realistically, we have only one hour session with each group in rotation – not enough for a performance. And simply learning music written by someone else is not the most active teaching style.

Certainly there are times where we have a great song, or a couple of great songs, that we want to teach the class so that they will learn the Bible story. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but the reality is there are a lot of very important Bible stories that don’t have a song to go with them – or the song is too tough for children to learn, or doesn’t really teach anything about the story. We need to expand how we think of music beyond simply learning songs.

It is also a reality that the first thing that gets cut when school budgets have problems is the music program. After elementary school, music goes from a required part of the curriculum to elective status, which excludes many children even in schools with strong music programs. As a church, this should concern us, since music is so central to who we are as worshipers, and how we express praise. We need to honestly consider that for some children, if they are going to learn anything about music, they are going to learn it in church.

The ideas expressed below are not a limit on what we can do, rather they are ways to increase and expand the way we use music to teach.



Purpose and Goals of Music Rotation



In the music rotation we seek to teach the Bible, using a child’s own creativity, through the medium of music, and in so doing lead the child to offer God praise.

The primary purpose of the music rotation is to use music as a means of teaching the Bible story to children. Music as a creative process is an excellent tool for learning and we recognize that talent or skill is not necessary for a quality experience. Children with no musical background and those with substantial musical background should be on the same footing in the creative process and their ideas and creativity be given equal time. Emphasis is placed upon knowledge and sequence of the Bible story and interpretation of the feelings and motivations of Bible characters, not upon the quality of the finished piece. It is not our intent to learn or create music that will be performed, and indeed that is impossible in the single 50 minute class period available. Music for performance will be part of choir practice, not rotation class.

The secondary purpose is, along with choir and worship, to provide opportunities for children to experience what it means to praise God. To accomplish this purpose it is our intent to expose children to a wide variety of music, and in so doing help them find their own voice in praise.




Music Theory Workshop



Note recognition

ABC, clefs, sharp/flat.
Discuss: That’s how we recognize notes -- how do we recognize Christ in our midst?




You could teach scales to go along with Jacob’s Ladder, Chords can be part of a discussion about the Body of Christ (harmony). Move between major and minor chords to display change of mood through the events of Holy Week.




What would happen if we tried to sing a 4/4 hymn in 3/4 time?


How to read sheet music


Teaching children to read sheet music teaches rules. Apply to a lesson about doing things our own way vs. doing things God’s way (Jonah and the whale).




Listening Skills



Mood and Movement

Play a sampling of classical and contemporary music that is written for the Bible story you are learning. Listen and discuss what you hear, including mood and tempo. What actions would seem to be taking place at each point in the music? This works well for the Passion or Easter.


Adding Background Music

Prepare a dramatic reading of the scripture text to a musical background. You can select the music and the children read the scripture at times you, or they, decide are appropriate.


Bring in a musician or soloist to perform a work for the children and then discuss it in the context of the lesson being learned. Great for discussion of spiritual gifts.


Another way of tying music to a “many gifts – one body” discussion would be to try and identify different instruments in a recording. Better still, if you have a keyboard that plays different “instruments” on multiple tracks, listen to a pre-recorded song as one piece, and then listen to tracks separately.

Contemporary artists

Even if it’s not your cup of tea, try and stay in touch with contemporary artists, both Christian and secular, and pull in music that fits the story or theme being discussed. (You will score big points with the kids.) Discuss the lyrics and how the music relates to them.




Fun with Hymnals



Name that tune


Hum or play part of a hymn and encourage children to find it in the hymnal. If they get stuck, give them the first word. Use their knowledge (or lack thereof) to tie into a discussion about attending worship/being attentive in worship. (Works with story of Martha & Mary – Priorities; Jeremiah/Prophets – I will write my word on their hearts).

Find a hymn

Give children each a copy of the hymnal or song book your church uses in worship and give them some basic orientation of how to find hymns. Ask the children to find a line in a hymn that says something about the story in question. For example, if you are teaching the Good Samaritan encourage children to find passages in the hymns that express love of neighbor. In the last 15 minutes of class, sing the hymn verses found by the children.








Listen to simple vocal harmonies, then try to reproduce harmony with the children. Use with any discussion where harmony/differences are a teaching point. Rounds (i.e., “Three Blind Mice” or “Row, row, row your boat") also create harmony.


Utilize “Jazz Chants”


The story is set to rhythm and everyone learns it. Once it is learned, half the children say the story rhythm. The others divide into groups that sing/say a key phrase over and over again. For example, while the main story about the Good Samaritan is being chanted, a couple kids keep chanting “Samaritan, Samaritan” or “Love Your Neighbor” in rhythm, while a few others repeat an appropriate phrase from a 4/4 hymn.

This technique is also helpful toward teaching Nebuchadnezzar, the place names in the Pentecost story, and books of the Bible using music, rhythm, and rhyme. It is much easier to learn pronunciations this way than simply by reading.

Voice lessons


Bring a singer in to discuss how to support your breath. Tie in with a discussion about breath/wind/spirit and Pentecost.




Write your own song



Create it from scratch

Give children a melody and invite them to study the Bible story and make up their own words. Different groups of children can make up different verses.

Give children a poem and encourage them to make up a melody. This can be done vocally or with instruments.

Use other tools


Did you know that the hymn Amazing Grace can be sung to the theme of Gilligan’s Island and vice versa? Learn a song and then help children find other melodies that fit. Which music best fits the meaning of the words?


No, not Verdi and Puccini, although you may want to utilize them to make children aware of the genre. Basically do a drama, but instead of speaking the lines, all lines must be sung. Insert short songs in key places (which like real opera can be a few key phrases repeated over and over again in stylized form). You could do this over two weeks – week 1 drama rotation, week 2 music.


Begin with an existing song and have children fill in words using a mad-libs formula. For instance in “For the Beauty of the Earth for the glory of the skies” leave out the word “beauty” and ask for an adjective (descriptive word) and leave out “skies” and ask for something you see when you look up. The kids will love it. Practically speaking, you can either pre-write the song with blanks on large pieces of paper (don’t let the kids see it) or type it in as you go on a computer and print out and distribute to each child.

After you’ve had your fun, go back to the original words.


Again, something that may not be the teacher’s preference, may really resonate with children (particularly older boys – one of the more challenging groups to teach music). Kids can easily create their own song.


You know, the drill sergeant song, where the sergeant barks out a line and the troops sing it back. It teaches the story, is easy to make up new lines for, and is something the children will enjoy. Children can then teach their verse to the rest of the class.



Instruments 101



Biblical instruments

Learn about Biblical instruments – harp, lute, timbral, etc. bringing in pictures or (better yet!) the actual instruments. Use modern equivalents of the Biblical instruments if needed.


Make or use rhythm instruments. Some ideas:

  • Drums: regular drum set, drums from around the world, make drums.
  • Maracas: traditional, toy, make your own.
  • Sticks: smooth for hitting together, textured can be hit or rubbed
  • Woodblocks: strike together; cover with sandpaper and rub.
  • Hands, feet, fingers, click tongue: use different combinations.

Rhythm instruments can be used to help children keep a steady beat while other music is played or sung, can be used to add sound effects to a story, or can be the main musical instruments.




Divide into groups of no more than three per piano or keyboard.

  • Write your own song. Have students write their own melody using only black keys. Number the keys beginning with middle C#/Db and ending high D#/Eb with numbers 1-7. Have children write out their tune numerically. You can have up to 3 students playing simultaneously low-middle-high. Using these keys gives an oriental flair to the music, so use it for stories where you want to impress the foreign nature of the story, i.e., Esther, Daniel, Ethiopian eunuch.
  • Do the same with white keys, assigning numbers 1-5 for keys C-G. For a variation, the child on the lower part of the keyboard can be assigned G-D for 1-5, so they will always be playing a fifth harmony.
  • Get earplugs for the teacher, and actually encourage those annoying songs that kids learn on the piano, such as chopsticks, finding ways to tie it into the lesson. For example, the incredibly annoying “Heart and Soul,” can be tied into the Great Commandment where we are encouraged to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength. (Encourage them to make up their own music and tune for “mind and strength” once they’ve learned the original.) “Chopsticks” where the fingering begins together and moves to an octave apart is kind of like the apostles, moving out and away from the center to spread the word, then returning to Jerusalem.



You probably have a lot of would-be-Beatles who still have a guitar hanging around. See if you can borrow it, or even if they’d be willing to donate it to the church. If you are making a purchase keep in mind that guitars that are really inexpensive (less than $150 new) tend to be impossible to keep tuned, because the neck bends with the tension on the strings.
If you use only three or four strings instead of all six, many chords become very easy to learn.

Some ways to utilize the guitar:

  • Pair children up and give each pair a single chord to learn. One can even do the fingering as the other strums. Play a song with each team playing their chord at the right time.
  • Strum to different rhythms using a single chord or no chord.
  • If you have an electric guitar, try strumming and sliding to add dramatic effect to a story reading. Creation, Noah. Be sure to keep the amplifier down!



Another instrument that you might find hanging around the church, simple recorders are quite inexpensive and relatively easy to get a good sound out of. Note that there are fingering differences between English/Baroque and German Recorders – know which you have and buy all one kind as they are not interchangeable. (NOTE: be sure to have one per child and sanitize between uses.)


Another instrument you may have hanging around a church closet, they were quite popular a few decades ago and are making a comeback. Basically any tune you might strum on a guitar you can play using the chords on an autoharp, with a lot less skill needed. If you are looking to buy, they can range from under $100 to well over $500. As with guitars, really cheap instruments are hard to keep in tune.



Again, you’ll need a teacher with some tolerance, but kids love harmonicas and can make up a tune relatively easily. There are tons of resources on the web for learning to play and teach with harmonicas (simply type “harmonica” into a search engine). The cost for harmonicas range from $10 to several hundreds of dollars. Cheaper toy harmonicas can be fun, but will not produce quality sounds. As with recorders, make sure you have a system for sanitizing between use.


Children are fascinated by bells. Have a bell choir in for the children to listen, let the children play with easier to learn instruments – Kristal Bell method, or chimes.



Okay, you probably don’t have one for each child, but especially if you have a big pipe organ, it can be fascinating to children. It is also a good way to get young people vested in this instrument, especially important if it is your primary instrument in worship.

  • Take a trip to visit the pipes (if possible) being sure to notice both the very big ones and the very small; then invite the children to listen and hear the difference when only the big pipes are played and when the smaller ones are added. (apply to David and Goliath; Jeremiah “I am only a boy” etc.).
  • Watch the organist play using all hands and feet (apply to Bible stories about commitment of whole self such as Great Commandment’s heart, soul, strength and mind). If you are really brave, you can let the children try to play with hands and feet at the same time so they can see how much skill it requires.
  • Use the organ to make sounds that might go along with the days of creation, or the events of Holy Week.
  • Listen to a piece of music that was written for the scripture you are studying – for example the Magnificat (Mary’s song in Luke 1) Ask the children to identify moods and movements in the story.


Teach about instruments

Teach about different instruments and how they work, bringing in different instruments as examples and allowing the children to examine them closely and try them out. For example teach about the piano and tie it into the lesson. For example in the story of Daniel, prayer to God was the centering point of his life (find middle C). His faith sustained him in exile (learn about the pedal that sustains the song). He was thrown into the lion’s den (a hammer hits the string to make a tone) which led to God’s name being proclaimed throughout Babylon.



Groove to the Music





Some traditions probably do this naturally, but many are pretty static in worship. Try choreographing a simple move – step left, clap, step right, clap – to some of the music.

A more advanced choreography could be used to tie in a story with many different movements such as Joseph or Moses. Do a different dance step for each part of the story. For instance, through the Joseph story, movement can go between proud strutting, to slow and sad, to rejoicing.


Bring in sheets of plywood and clip taps or noisemakers to the bottom of kids shoes. Use some simple steps to make sound effects at certain points of the story or song. For instance if you were singing “Rise and Shine” for Noah, the stompers would have a role in the verse where “it rained and poured for forty daysies daysies.”

This is a good technique for engaging active children, making a little kids song palatable for older kids, or getting boys to dance (without telling them that’s what it is).

Streamers (Scarves)

Add streamers and wave them through the air. This works well to make a rainbow (Noah) or for a lesson on praise (Psalm 150). Scarves also work.


Singing a song as you walk to the beat is a way of teaching rhythm skills and keeping the attention of a fidgety group.

During a Moses rotation, try teaching a simple song as you have the kids walk and walk and walk in circles. Keep going until the inevitable complaining begins. Stop and discuss what wandering around in the desert for 40 years would have been like for the Israelites.


Free movement

Encourage children to move (dance) in any way that the music makes them feel like movement. This could be done in body socks.



Music and Art





Have children illustrate a part of the song, especially if the song is directly about the Bible story.

For an added twist, illustrate a transparency sheet that has the lyrics on it. If you are really good technically, you can also create illustrations on the computer and set up a slide show to the music.

Free drawing


Encourage children to draw (eyes open or closed) as music plays.




Memory Work


Let’s face it, if you want kids to remember the books of the Bible or the names of the disciples, music is the best way to cement it into their memory.

Techniques include:

  • Start by working from a paper with lyrics and gradually take away lines.
  • Start by working with lyrics on a chalkboard and eliminate words, or all but the first letter, as you go.
  • Work backwards. Learn the last few measures, then add the few measures before that, etc. For some complicated neurological reason it is easier for some children to learn this way.
  • Never give children a script to begin with. Repeat a phrase until they have it, then learn another. If needed, give a few key words, but not the whole sheet. This is a good way to reach children who are not very good readers to begin with. And for some children, particularly good readers, work is memorized faster if they don’t have the written word as a “crutch.”

Do be careful, however, that music that is supposed to teach the story accurately reflects the Bible story. Alter the lyrics you teach if the story is incorrect or misleading.



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