No-Prep Musical Exploration


  • Instructions: Follow the prompts or simply use them to inspire your own creative fun.
  • Degree of Involvement: Starts with a discussion, then independent activities.
  • Age range: Preschool through Middle School

Summary: What is Program Music?

Orchestra music and storytelling go hand in hand. Orchestra music that tells a story is called program music. Program music is a wonderful way for new listeners, young and old, to connect with the world of the orchestra- you can literally hear and imagine the scene as it unfolded in the mind of the composer. Now, let’s connect deeper with some of our favorite program music.


  1. Introduce the concept of program music: Ask if they can think of any songs that tell a story – songs that may come to mind could be “Itsy, Bitsy, Spider,” “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” or one of our favorites, “On Top of Spaghetti.”
  2. Talk about how music can tell a story without even having words! Listen to one or both of these examples and talk about what happens in the music to make the story come to life. Some guiding questions may be:
  • What was the speed, or tempo, of the music?
  • Were the sounds low or high?
  • Did it sound heavy or light?
  • How could you move your body to imitate what you hear in the music?


Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks In Their Shells from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky:

Imagine a bunch of tiny baby chicks pecking and shaking out of their eggshells as they stretch their tiny new wings to join the world.

In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg:

Listen as a young boy named Peer tries to escape from the lair of a scary mountain troll king. He starts off sneaking slowly away and by the end he’s running at full speed, jumping over every obstacle in his path.


Now let’s bring some musical stories to life!

This is a great time for kids to separate off on their own for self-guided work and reflection. First, listen quietly to each piece of music once through. Have them quietly listen again and use this time to brainstorm ideas of what they hear and how the music makes them feel. After they’ve got a grasp on the music, move on to any of the following activities

  • All Ages: Choose a piece of music and have your child(ren) create a dance or movement-based “play” to depict the story they imagine when listening to the piece. If you have multiple children at home, they can do this independently or together. Let them get creative to bring their story to life: put on costumes, draw and color masks or props, get their stuffed animals or toys involved, etc.
  • All Ages: Bring out the art supplies and have them draw the musical story they’re imagining. Older kids can take this a step further by creating multiple drawings depicting the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
  • Elementary and Middle School-Age Children: Have them write a short story or poem based on the music. For students in early elementary grades, their “story” may just be 2-3 sentences.

Have your child(ren) come back and present their art to you at the end of each activity. If you had multiple kiddos that worked individually or if you didn’t share with them the composer’s original intent prior to working on their stories, have them talk about the differences and similarities in what they created.


You can use the prompts combined with this playlist to take their musical storytelling even further.

  • Summer from The Four Seasons: Listen to the string orchestra depicting the frenzy of a summer thunderstorm.
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Most of us know this famous story from the cartoon Fantasia. A sorcerer’s apprentice creates a bunch of trouble and mayhem when the sorcerer is gone.
  • On the Trail from The Grand Canyon Suite: Listen to the braying donkeys and the clip clop of hooves as a donkey takes you on a scenic tour of the Grand Canyon.
  • Storm at Sea from Scheherezade: During this excerpt, listen as a wealthy prince’s giant ship encounters a storm on the open ocean.
  • The Swan from Carnival of the Animals: You can hear the graceful swan floating gently across the pond during this serene piece.
  • Storm from Overture to William Tell: Listen as the rain gets heavier and heavier until the thunderstorm is directly overhead. You’ll then hear the storm move on and get further away.
  • Die Forelle: This aria tells the story of a fisherman on the banks of the stream trying to catch the fish. Do you think he catches it?

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