The New Traditionalism: Kodaly and Hirsch Compared

Kodaly Stamp

One day, Hirsch will be on stamps too.

In my ‘About the Author’ page, I stress the excellence of my academic qualifications to show that I am not attacking a system that has hurt me in an obvious way. I am attacking a system that has heaped praise upon me, a system in which I have excelled, and despite all of the laurels I have won, it is a system which has left me ignorant of many things which are vital to a proper education. It is a system which allowed me to pick up bits and bobs of intellectual and literary history, and manipulate them into impressive arguments, all the while leaving me ignorant of most of the great heritage of Western civilisation, and hardly even aware that such ignorance was a problem. If I was getting the grades, what did it matter? I roamed freely, and I could dazzle with a touch of Proust here, and a smattering of Biblical quotation there, but I lacked foundations. It wasn’t even a house made of sand; it was a beat-up old camper van, destined to break down at some point and leave me stranded in the wilderness.

My wife has been through a similar journey. As a talented pianist, she had been through university and, despite doing very well, always felt that there was something fundamentally missing from her education. She could play the piano in an impressive way, and even won first prize for her recital one year, but she couldn’t sight sing or make sense of harmony. These skills are fundamental to real musical literacy, and yet no-one was insisting that they were vital to becoming a musician, or providing classes or material to help. She was like someone who has learned to read mostly by guessing or memorising words, but their lack of phonic awareness constantly hampers them, and eventually places an insuperable barrier to further progress. Trying to learn very difficult piano works without real musical literacy was so arduous that despite all of her achievements, my wife lost interest in becoming a performing pianist. She tried teaching the piano, but didn’t believe in it, because she was still operating in the same system which had failed her. How could she hand on this stunted education to the next generation?

Then, at the age of 33, my wife discovered Kodaly, the musical equivalent of proper phonics instruction. As a composer and performer, Zoltán Kodály had a longstanding interest in folk music traditions. This awareness of the power of an oral tradition influenced his work to improve school methods in his native Hungary. When he became aware of the poor state of music education, he started collecting best practices in music teaching when on tour around the world. These best practices were then gradually compiled by Kodaly and his friends to make what is known as the Kodaly method, or concept. It is a systematic way of teaching musical literacy, understood as being the skill of ‘hearing what you see, and seeing what you hear.’ Musicianship is developed by singing. Children first learn basic concepts of pulse and pitch through lots of singing games, and progress through learning sol-fa hand-signs and letters to reading staff notation.

There is a committed body of Kodaly enthusiasts in Britain: they come together at workshops and classes to be introduced to the concept, or to learn more, or just to get encouraged. These workshops are full of music teachers who aren’t quite sure why they feel music education is a bit off track, but they know something is wrong, and are looking for an answer. Sounds a bit like the Saturday education conferences that are springing up around the country . . .

My wife was an enthusiastic convert to this systematised version of traditional methods, as I was a year ago when I read Christodoulou and Hirsch and realised the importance of core knowledge and direct instruction. She immediately perceived that the Kodaly method, if studied properly, would provide her with the missing heart of her own musical formation. If a school had the courage to adopt a Kodaly based programme, then with careful and faithful implementation, they would achieve impressive results after a few years. It would also prove the ineffectiveness of what otherwise passes for good practice, and would challenge people to expect far more out of music education than they ever thought possible.

If you are interested in finding out more about Kodaly, here are a few links:

The Kodaly Centre of London is David and Yuko Vinden’s project. David is Britain’s most distinguished Kodaly educator and he runs courses from his base in Northwood Hills, Middlesex, but he also does workshops tailored to the needs of groups which approach him. My wife went to a one-day introduction on Kodaly in Manchester, which was excellent.

The Len Tyler Music School in Farnborough and its vicinity is, in some ways, the musical equivalent of Michaela. It teaches music classes to children according to the Kodaly principles. Len has written his own courses, just as Michaela have found it necessary to put together their own materials. He has a lot of time to give people interested in implementing Kodaly practice. After my wife had been to one of his workshops, she sat in on some of the classes at his music school. It was soon clear that the children had core musical concepts in place, and their level of musicianship was better than many older, more technically accomplished instrumentalists. Is this sounding familiar to anyone who has visited Michaela?

The Kodaly Method could be seen as part of the new traditionalism. Perceiving the desolation of modern education, some brave souls have worked to revive traditional methods. They have found it necessary to add a level of systematisation to enable the restoration of something that previously depended upon a shared culture, much of which was oral. But there are still remnants of traditional traditionalism which have survived into the modern era, in the training of Anglican choristers. The level to which choristers are trained exposes the lamentable mediocrity of standard musical education. They can sight read; they can sight sing; they can harmonise. They are in a class of their own. Choristers develop thorough musicianship skills because, as well as all the singing they do, they receive regular musicianship classes. The success of choristers as musicians (as well as the positive impact it has on them in other ways) testifies to the effectiveness of their training and the importance of lots of singing.

Thorough oral drill survives in some places as a thread of a great tradition stretching back into antiquity. But for the rest of us, we need evangelists like Kodaly, Hirsch or Engelmann and their disciples to revive it, and to create materials and institutions which bring to our modern educational wilderness what had previously flourished within a shared traditional culture that did not need codifying.

Given the proven success of the systematised traditionalism of the Kodaly method and of traditional choral training, one might wonder why such approaches are not more widely adopted by county music services. Perhaps there is a fear of being shown up? My wife has herself experienced the humiliation of recognising her own inferiority next to those who have been properly trained, and do not have to struggle as she does. The resentment frequently expressed against Michaela may have similar roots. Better methods are certainly not universally welcomed with open arms. There are many reasons why the status quo prevails, however compelling the evidence for reform. In the end, we must overcome our resentment at those who do better than us, and resolve instead to learn from them.


20 thoughts on “The New Traditionalism: Kodaly and Hirsch Compared

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    An interesting article about offering children musical literacy. Imagine if all children were offered classes in Kodaly. What a musically literate nation we would be! Thanks Traditional Teacher.


  2. There are a number of comparisons here that need attention. The Kodaly Method is compared to Phonics when one is a ‘ traditional’ approach with no (scientific) evidence base and the other is modern with a strong evidence base. However, the standard approach to piano tuition followed today would probably be called traditional by most people and the Kodaly Method might be labelled progressive.


    • Please explain why the Kodaly method might be labelled progressive. I’ve never seen a progressive advocating thorough, incremental oral drill. The developmentalism associated with Kodaly seems very superficial: just a trendy label from the mid twentieth century which has no essential bearing on the method itself. Calling it developmental probably just helped to convince people it was good. Really it is incremental.

      The singing schools in Hungary provide an evidence base for the effectiveness of the Kodaly method. It was widely adopted and achieved impressive results.


      • I agree that the labelling of the Kodaly method as progressive might well be superficial (my knowledge of music itself is superficial) it is just that the current most common method of learning piano (one-one lessons, lots of scales, theory of music) would definitely be seen as a ‘traditional’ way of teaching music by most people – or certainly not modern or progressive. I’m just not convinced by your comparison of Kodaly & Michaela.


      • The comparison is interesting and deserves to generate valuable thought not hurried responses. Thank you.

        Is it the case that Michaela deploy Kodaly? I haven’t seen this in what has been written about their music teaching. I may have missed this.

        The genius in Kodaly and inherited from Rousseau, Glover, Curwen and Dalcroze is the psychological principle made clear by Bruner in his theory of repesentational modes – the enactive, the iconic and the symbolic modes working reafferentially. The hand sign (firm fist=dohness and status of the tonic), its iconic label (doh, a rounded sound) and its place on a stave as conventional notation. In this way the musical mind is built and staff notation invested with feeling and meaning (thus reading music is not a matter of decoding). The psychological process brings together kinaesthetic, visual and aural imagery. I think this is some way from phonics, although I recognise your broad point. Kodaly is systematic and linear.

        But let me introduce Eddie Harvey’s ‘Jazz in the classroom’ (1989). This works with the Jazz tradition.

        The ‘master’ calls, the pupil repeats. This is call-echo. In distinction to call-echo there is then call-response. Here the child transforms what is given while respecting phrase length and pitch parameters. Improvisation from the outset is nurtured unlike Kodaly.

        Perhaps this could work alongside Kodaly as part of a child’s understanding of the power and significance of different traditions.

        In that Kodaly leads the child to make their own musical mind the psychological principle involved chimes with Bruner’s social constructivism. Piagetian constructivism has been a contender as well foucsing on the sensory-motor foundations to the concrete and symbolic levels of cognition derived.

        I hope this is reasonably clear.


      • Any good teaching method will lead to the pupil possessing the material, to their internalising it. But we have to distinguish between the recognition that all understanding involves this process of internal construction, and the notion that understanding is hampered by explicit instruction, which tends to be the form that constructivism takes when it is abused to justify ineffective ‘child centred’ non-teaching.

        The Kodaly method is one of explicit instruction, so it cannot be labelled constructivist in the sense in which that term is normally used in education.


  3. Our music service had annual Kodaly training for many years. It’s definitely not progressive, it is a systematic method. I use it all the time in my teaching because it works really well and improves the children’s aural and notation skills. I do think some of the materials need to be updated though.


    • I thought you might enjoy John Curwen’s account of his visit to Sarah Glover’s classroom as set out in this Music Mark Magazine. I hope the link works and forgive if you have read it already.

      I wonder whether the use of pupil leaders was considered progressive at the time.

      On the question of updating material (and please note I have never been inside the Kodaly world and will need your advice), is it the case that the dated folk songs you refer to persist in some part because they cohere with the ‘logical musical necessity’ of the material prescribed? That is, songs of the correct metre, phrase lengths etc. etc. which may not be easily found in the general repertoire of folk songs or the contemorary vernacular.

      David Vinden’s point In holding to the ‘dated folk songs’ supports the case for ‘tradition’.

      Not a fair parallel, but there is the case of updated french rhythm names to ‘coffee, tea’ etc. most versions of which have an inauthentic relationship with the rhythms represented. Updating these things need careful consideration.


      • Yes, I would agree that use of a pupil leader was a progressive idea for that time. As far as updating the materials go, I agree that we have to be careful with how we go about it. With my Year 1’s we learn the rhythms as mini beasts so we have “fly”, “spider”, “caterpillar” etc. I am thinking of next year doing a little experiment where I teach one class mini beasts and the other the “tees, taas and tiki tikis” and see which system works the best. I certainly do not want to lose folk songs but I’ll probably get sacked if I taught the children the song about old women being fond of smoking even if it is a good example of singing down a major triad!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this post, Anthony. Thought-provoking as ever. I am no Kodaly expert and am more than ready to be corrected by someone who knows more of his work and ideas than I do- of whom there will be many. I am also guilty of over-simplifying issues in the course of this post.

    This is probably going to seem pedantic, but it is important to understand that Kodaly did not think of his ideas as a method but rather as a concept or, perhaps more helpfully, a pedagogical approach underpinned by a set of principles. What people (both teachers and pupils) experience then is a particular interpretation of these principles. Plummeridge (no progressive!) writes: ‘ Kodaly always insisted, teaching is not only a skilful but an artistic activity; it depends on the individual being able to transform materials and bring them to life in encounters with children’ (Plummeridge 1991: 71). So, for example, if Pepperdog’s experience of Kodaly ‘training’ is that the materials need to be updated then it is not Kodaly’s fault but rather the fault of those who seek to reify his work by turning it into a ‘method’. S/he is perfectly free to update these materials or develop new ones, informed, hopefully, by an understanding of Kodaly’s principles.

    Your allusion to music of the Anglican liturgy brought to mind Maurice Greene’s, ‘Lord let me know mine end, and the number of my days’ one of my favourite anthems as both chorister and organist. I have reached the age where the ‘number of my days’ are insufficiently numerous for me to wish to spend any of them engaging in an inevitably futile debate about progressivism and traditionalism; ‘though Pepperdog I must have missed the moment where ‘progressive’ and ‘systematic’ came to be seen as mutually exclusive 🙂

    What it is perhaps worth doing however is to examine Kodaly’s principles in terms of some of the tenets of what I suppose is, in ‘sundry places’, characterised as a progressive approach to music education. Below are four tenets or principles which for me lie at the heart of music education and which I believe would be shared by many/most music teachers (though I don’t claim that these are comprehensive):

    1: Music making and the making of music well should lie at the heart of music education. As I heard Janet Mills once say: ‘a music lesson where there is no music is probably not a music lesson’.

    2: Sound before Symbol. This tenet is that theory/literacy/rudiments of music (call them what you will) should be built on, and follow on from, immersion in music making. ‘…Kodaly rightly believed in the importance of children learning about musical concepts and processes through a thorough immersion in song at an intuitive level. On the basis of this immersion he felt that ‘technical’ and theoretical aspects could then be taught’ (Philpott, 2001: 84). The important principle here is that learning ABOUT music- its histories and theories- are important but Kodaly recognises that knowledge of these is not a pre-condition for making music well and that the learning of them will be more fruitful if they build on immersion in music.

    3: Embodied learning and knowledge is an important aspect of musical learning: Simplistically put this means that musical learning is not just (or primarily) about the facts about music (e.g. how many symphonies Bernstein wrote or being able to write out a G major scale) but is about the way in which the body and mind work in unity and where the body ‘knows’ how to act. This is evident in any fluent musical performance. John Finney explains this quite clearly on this occasion:
    Embodied learning is central to Kodaly’s approach and is influenced by and builds on the work of Dalcroze. A Kodaly approach will almost always involved children moving to music – music becomes part of them.

    4: Children can engage creatively with music from the very beginning as improvisers and composers. Kodaly recognises that children are able to improvise from a very young age but argues that they need the necessary resources to enable them to do this. There are numerous examples of teachers drawing on Kodaly’s principles to underpin a structured and systemised approach to composing and improvising.;;

    I think that you are perhaps wrong to dismiss out of hand the constructivist aspects of Kodaly’s approach. There is a significant amount of literature that argues for connections between ‘constructivism’ and Kodaly’s approach. See Sheila Scott’s article in the Australian Kodaly Magazine: But, yes, this is an interpretation!

    One of the purposes of your blog seems to be to make connections between Kodaly and the approach that is being adopted at Michaela- to lend it legitimacy, perhaps. Like John Finney, I struggle to identify more than the most superficial similarities between Michaela their approach to music education and Kodaly’s principles.

    The music staff at Michaela are clearly fine musicians and deeply committed teachers but are also very inexperienced and I don’t get the feeling that they are being encouraged to reach out to the wider music education community other than proselytising for their own approach. It might be that the purpose of your blog is to lead them gently to an approach to music education which might help them realise their beliefs about music education in a musical way and which doesn’t run too counter to the Michaela ethos. If so, it is a noble thing that you do. If, however, your purpose is to legitimise their present approach (as evidenced in their writings), then you do them, Kodaly and the children they teach, something of a disservice.

    I hope this is a useful contribution to the debate. If it is not I shall return to Maurice Greene and console myself with the knowledge that ‘man walketh in a vain shadow and disquieteth himself in vain’.

    Philpott, C (2001) ‘Learning to teach music in the secondary school’ (first edition) London. Routledge.
    Plummeridge, C (1991) ’Music Education in theory and practice’ London. The Falmer Press.


    • You’re right that the method was developed by Kodaly’s disciples, rather than Kodaly himself. This method was then used across many singing schools in Hungary, with remarkable results. Teachers are most interested, I suspect, in how the principles are actually applied in teaching.

      There seems to be an unhelpful confusion in your comment between learning about the history of music and learning the skills of music making. They are separate but complementary activities, like learning about the history of literature and learning to write well. The Kodaly method, like Engelmann in his ‘Expressive Writing’ programme, is focused on developing the skill.

      I’m afraid that in practice, progressive and systematic tend to be mutually exclusive, because progressive ideas have led to the promotion of naturalistic methods that shun systematic approaches as ‘drill and kill’. Systematic drill is actually highly effective, and enjoyable too, as long as you have not been thoroughly indoctrinated to reject it out of hand because it’s not ‘creative’ enough.


      • I agree what we know as Kodaly is different now to what Kodaly himself advocated. In England it has more to do with John Curwen (from my hometown of Plaistow, London) and a youth leader from a church in Norwich many years ago. When I say the materials in some of the books need to be updated I am talking about using folk songs like “Old woman, old woman are you fond of smoking” that can be found in one of the books. I have no problems with the musical notes but some of the lyrics need a rethink! There are songs about cobblers mending shoes and hob shoe hops and stuff like that which I think detract from the music. I did talk to David Vinden about this a few years ago. He said they are folk songs and have been around for years so I guess he has a point. There are links with phonics, Vinden again has worked together with Jolly Phonics on a book relatively recently. I am a bit surprised about Gary’s comment that progressive education can be systematic. I will give that some thought but I have certainly not come across that. But what Anthony is saying is completely correct, it’s whether this works in practice that counts with teachers. And it does. I currently teach Early Years and Key Stage 1 Music, they love our Kodaly activities and it really has made a difference. The children can sing in tune, their aural skills have improved, they are sight singing, more confident and can read notation pretty well. I was a sceptic at the start but I was won over and I am very grateful our music service gave us yearly Kodaly training.


  5. Thank you for accepting my response. I agree that teachers are most interested in how the principles are applied in teaching which is why I supplied a number of links to examples of how teachers use Kodaly principles in their work with children. The four tenets/principles I outlined are also about how principles might be manifest in classrooms.

    I agree that making music making is central to Kodaly’s approach which is why it remains relevant today; however theory and musical histories do pay a part. The point I was making is that in some schools (Michaela, for example) the relationship between music theory and music making is the wrong way round according to Kodaly’s principles; and you were drawing parallels between Michaela’s model of music education and Kodaly’s approach. Incorrectly, in my view.

    I wonder whether the rise of historically informed performance practice suggests a closer relationship between musical histories and musical skills than you suggest? Perhaps not and a side issue, anyway.

    On the matter of drill, what is most important is what is being ‘drilled’.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s