Once Upon a Time….Storytelling in the Music Classroom

by | Elementary Music, Pitch Hill, Storytelling

Music itself is like a story – it is has the power to bring people together and to take us to the outer edges of our emotions. Storytellers have passed down their stories through song for generations. Even when there are no words, composers use the elements of music to express their thoughts and feelings. However, storytelling has a place in the music classroom beyond analyzing the story of the music itself.

Here are a few ways I use stories in my classroom:

Personal Connections

We are finishing up Unit 1: Rhythm and I feel like I have brought out all the “old material,” already tried some cool new material (like centers!), but was still missing something. I have great rapport with my kids, but sometimes have a hard time reaching my “too cool for school; all I love is sports” kiddos.

My daughter on the first day of K this year!

I use stories to let students know about me as a person. I tell them about my life, my kids, and my own experiences in music. This helps make the deep personal connections that are essential for any educator, but is harder for me to do as a specialist since I see my kids once a week.  When I teach lessons on identifying solfege (singing notes), I tell students about my struggles in college as a instrumentalist. I spent a lot of time driving around my college campus practicing the Curwen hand signs and singing solfege patterns. Students love to hear that their music teacher struggled with this once too and was able to master it with practice!

Classroom Management

Early in my career I discovered whenever I told students I had a story to tell them, classroom management problems disappeared. When a lesson begins with “Once Upon a Time,” kids are all eyes and ears. Kids stop fidgeting and stop talking because they want to know what happens next. If I have a lesson that has great content, but for some reason is not engaging for students, I find a way to weave a story into it.

Teaching Difficult Concepts


Teaching students to read solfege notes (Do, Re, Mi, etc.) can be very challenging. My students had no frame of reference for these “weird” old Latin words the notes are named for. In addition, students are expected to learn hand signs (like sign language) as a kinesthetic representation of pitch. My first attempts at teaching solfege to my students failed. They were miserable and confused, and so was I.

Then one day I decided to turn the notes into characters and BAM! – Pitch Hill was born! Students were captivated by the stories of Fa, who hates green and Re, who likes to climb up on the roof!  The Pitch Hill stories provide a concrete reason for the hand signs as well help explain relationships between individual pitches.  Students in my class beg to visit Pitch Hill!  


One of the most difficult music symbols to draw and understand for young students is the quarter rest.  Most kids draw a little squiggle and will call it “shh” but have a hard time understanding that it really means silence in music.  In my class, we drew it, looked at it, played it, moved to it but kids were not really getting the function of the rest nor were they able to draw anything that looked like it.

Then I told them the scary story of the Zebra Cat – a funny looking cat who will only be nice to you if you show him you know how to be quiet and respectful by writing his special symbol – a Z on top of a C which we call a quarter rest in music.  If you make any noise on the Zebra Cat’s symbol in music, he will come growl at you!  All of a sudden, kids could draw the symbol perfectly and had no problems identifying what it is.  Yes, for a while my kids call the quarter rest the Zebra Cat, but we easily make the terminology transition to quarter rest.

Bring Folk Songs to Life

To help my students connect more with nursery rhymes and folk songs from long ago, I created a series of Folk Song Storybooks.  The storybook bring these classic songs to life.   Not only does each storybook illustrate the lyrics, but it also provides fun facts that make why we are singing these songs more relevant to my kids.  My kids thought they were too cool for these songs that have lasted for generations until we made a story out of them.   Now they can’t wait to learn all about them!

I hope this give you some ideas to build storytelling into your classroom routine!  How do you use stories to connect or teach?

Wrapping Things Up

My final advice? When in doubt, bake cookies! (Pillsbury makes an excellent pull apart cookie dough, I must say). A dozen cookies on someone’s desk can make them feel warm and gooey inside (pun intended). This strategy has been around since the beginning of time and is a tried and true method.

If you are new at school and looking for lessons for the first day, you might also enjoy this post on first day lesson plans! 

Who did I miss? Any other key people in school we should add?



picture of Shelley Tomich

I'm busy mom of three and music educator in Atlanta, GA. My passion is helping busy music teachers deliver time saving, engaging lessons so you have more time to enjoy your life! Click my photo to learn more! Teach music. Love life.

Find it Fast

colorful dot border

Let’s Connect

colorful dot border

Visit My Store

colorful dot border

picture of TpT logo

Popular Resources

colorful dot border

The cover includes a cartoon drawing of three students creating a maypole. The text on the cover says "Marvelous Maypole: Historical Facts, how to make a DIY maypole, dance instructions, lesson plans, and more!


colorful dot border



colorful dot border



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Free stuff!

Want free resources? Enter your information to join my email list and get exclusive access to my freebie library!

You will also receive regular emails with tips, resources, freebies, and updates on paid products.

You did it! Check your email for more information!