Introduction to the Orff Schulwerk Approach

by Christoph Maubach
(This text has been revised for the 2006 Orff Schulwerk Level courses)

This guide assists those who are curious about the Orff Schulwerk Approach and wish to further their understanding of this educational concept. It is widely acknowledged that the best way to learn about the Orff Schulwerk Approach is through activities in music and movement. Nevertheless some historical and educational facts will help to connect the experiential with philosophical and historical context.

This approach developed originally in an adult education setting in the nineteen twenties in Munich. The German composer Carl Orff began to develop a new field of creative activities when he co-founded the Günther School in 1924 together with Dorothee Günther. This school became a centre for education in gymnastics, rhythm, music and dance. In association with his co-worker Gunild Keetman, Orff developed the Orff Schulwerk, a new model for teaching music and movement. Later on Gunild Keetmann extended the concept for the education of children and youth. It has always been, and still is an artistic concept that is based on the notion that children and adults learn about music best when they play, dance, create and improvise music. There has been an extensive proliferation of this concept world wide especially since the opening of the Orff Institute at the University Mozarteum in 1961.

The following basic principles are fundamental for this approach:

  • Music, speech and dance are seen as integrated domains
  • Music, dance and speech complement each other and at the same time provide starting points for creative activities.
  • Rhythm is the common origin to all of them.
  • Singing, playing and dancing provide stimuli for the group.
  • Communal music and dance making is an essential ingredient of this approach. It involves leadership and educates our abilities to listen and follow others.
  • Music and dance models provide starting points for improvisations, creations and compositions.
  • The Orff Schulwerk Approach includes singing and instrumental playing with percussion instruments, Recorder and Body Percussion. Instrumental playing is also integrated with movement, singing and speech.
  • Theoretical aspects of music and dance are revealed through creative work, practice, and performance and then, based on the learning experience, discussed, recorded and written.
  • Educational activities are always undertaken with the intention to create and present music and dance artistically. Therefore the degree of aesthetic responsibility is high and must be applied both to the chosen content and the proposed learning outcomes.

Five books: ‘Orff Schulwerk Musik für Kinder’ 1950-1954
The starting point for the Orff Schulwerk Approach is the music contained in Orff-Schulwerk Musik für Kinder. This music collection includes examples for children linking instrumental playing, speech and dance. The aesthetic value, the musical transparency and the creative ideas that this music has brought about have helped to shape an elemental music education with music and dance at its core. The approach is often called Orff-Schulwerk or the Schulwerk. The opening of the Orff-Institute in Salzburg, Austria in 1961 marked a new phase that over the past forty years saw the development of the Orff Schulwerk into a pedagogical concept, a way to be involved in teaching and learning. In the context of the world wide interest in the development of this pedagogical concept it can be argued that the term Orff Approach or Orff Schulwerk Approach is appropriate.

Several historical phases are significant in the development of this music education approach:

The approach began with creative music and dance practices and studies in the Guenther School in the German city of Munich in 1924. Musical skills and knowledge were developed through elaborate music and dance improvisations that sometimes merged into compositions and choreographies. The Guenther School developed its own performance group. The unity or juxtaposition of music and dance was explored and practiced in considerable depth. The participating students were all adults. This first phase concluded with the closure of the Guenther School in 1944 for political reasons.

The second phase includes the publication of five volumes of music originally entitled Orff-Schulwerk Musik für Kinder by Carl Orff (1895-1982) and Gunild Keetmann (1904-990). In 1948 Bavarian Radio made a request to Carl Orff to provide a series of music examples to be played to children on air. Orff and Keetmann composed and re-arranged German children’s rhymes, songs and folk songs for xylophones, glockenspiels, metallophones, voices, recorders and some string instruments. The radio program became very popular and as a result much more music for children was written for the radio series.

These musical works were then published between 1950 and 1954 in five volumes entitled ‘Orff-Schulwerk Musik für Kinder’. They were then adapted by Margaret Murray for the English language.

The third historical phase began in 1963 with the opening of the Orff-Institute at the University Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. The establishment of the Orff Institute for the purpose of pedagogical study and practice that emanate from Orff Schulwerk Music for Children did contribute to a pedagogical approach that can be seen as the Orff Approach to Music Education. Developing, refining and researching these pedagogical practices continuously pictures Orff Schulwerk as a music pedagogy that nurtures creative activities and learning by doing. The original idea by Orff and Keetman has become an artistic education with music at its core.

A great number of institutions, music education colleagues, followers and supporters of Orff and Keetmann have influenced the Orff Approach to Music Education in many parts of the world. In the twenty-first century these ideas continue to fall on fertile ground. Carl Orff himself expressed the philosophical basis for his work thus:

“As a musician I was interested in trying out a new way of teaching music…. This meant that the starting point was an artistic one rather than a purely educational one” (Carl Orff, 1976 p.13)

Orff-Schulwerk Music für Kinder
Orff-Schulwerk Musik für Kinder is the title of five volumes with printed sheet music which first appeared in Germany in 1950. The books contain musical arrangements for melodic and non-melodic percussion instruments, for body percussion as well as speech, chanting and singing voice, recorder and some stringed instruments. There are even some non-conventional sound sources notated in the early volumes, involving glasses. The music in these five books ranges from German nursery rhymes, chants, folk and children’s songs to instrumental pieces. Carl Orff and his collaborator Gunild Keetmann composed the arrangements. The musical language used in these five books is sequenced from simple rhythmical chants and rhymes to more complex rhythmic-melodic music in the later volumes. All of the items in these books are designed to inspire others to play and create their own music.

Orff-Schulwerk Music for Children
In 1957 Margaret Murray from the UK created an adaptation (not a translation). The title of the five volumes was “Orff-Schulwerk Music for Children”. Although there are very few music-pedagogical annotations relating to the many musical pieces in these five volumes, it is possible to extract some music-pedagogical principals from the books. Many cultural regions in different parts of the world have taken on board the Orff-Schulwerk principals for music education. Although these principles are expressed in many different languages and different ways, it is possible and necessary to distil the most important features of Orff-Schulwerk Music for Children. In 1995 Mary Shamrock provided a succinct and fitting description of what Orff-Schulwerk contributed to music education at that time:

“The pedagogical model identified by the term ‘Orff Schulwerk’ or often simply ‘the Schulwerk’, is a framework for designing learning experiences in music and movement.” (Shamrock, 1995, p.1)

Playful Discovery
Through playing with elements of music, through moving to music, through music and dance making and musical improvisations children and adults can learn how music works. They can delve into the music as they listen, engage, create and perform and thus develop a range of competencies that enable us to understand music better. One of the unique qualities of the Orff approach makes it possible for participants to be transfixed and mesmerized in their music and dance creation while they explore and develop artistic solutions at the same time.

Music Pedagogy
The word pedagogy has its roots in the ancient Greek language and culture. The word pedagogue derives from the Greek paidagogos, which literally means ‘child leader or child accompanist’. The Greek word pais means boy or child and the verb agein means to lead. In the ancient Greek culture the pedagogue was the slave who took the child from home to school and back again. In the modern educational context the word pedagogue has the meaning of ‘accompanist to the learner’. The teacher in this learning model is facilitator, nurturer and animateur. The Orff-Schulwerk makes a contribution to music pedagogy because it sets a particular tone for the musical education of children.

Orff-Schulwerk and the Orff Schulwerk Approach to Music Education
From the nineteen fifties onwards the educational work with Orff-Schulwerk Musik für Kinder and the considerable interest that sprung up created a need for music pedagogical signposts. This kind of music pedagogy grew slowly but surely through Keetmann’s work with children in the nineteen fifties and through seminars in Salzburg and elsewhere. All these developments eventually lead to the inception of the Orff-Institute in 1961. The Orff-Institute became the pedagogical centre for study, research and dissemination of what the Austrians and Germans then called Elementare Musik und Bewegungserziehung (elemental music and movement education). Today the degree course (German language) at the Orff Institute is called Elementare Musik- und Tanzpaedagogik (elemental music and dance pedagogy).

There are a few fundamental educational principles that underpin this kind of music pedagogy:

  • Music can be learned through creating and playing.
  • Music play is an essential part of life.
  • Speech, music and dance are fundamental forms of human expressions.
  • Through practical experiences theoretical truth can be found.

Music Pedagogy and process oriented learning with the Orff Schulwerk Approach
All creative music making, musical improvisation, arranging and composing of music, dance making, recorder playing, singing, speaking (speech) and should be guided by very attentive listening. The more the music makers listen to themselves and to each other the higher the chances are that their music will become meaningful and artistic.


  • Singing
  • Body Percussion
  • Movement
  • Speech
  • Classroom Percussion
  • Recorder
  • Personal instruments

Processes useful in music lesson planning with the Orff Schulwerk Approach:

  • Imitation
  • Exploration
  • Improvisation
  • Composition
  • Literacy

Processes and musical features that support improvisation:

  • Pedal note as accompaniment
  • Drone (also referred to as Bordun) as accompaniment
  • “Sound carpet”
  • Tremolo
  • Glissando
  • Rhythmic and later melodic ostinato
  • From simple to complex
  • Text to rhythm
  • Body percussion to instrument
  • Improvise with fewer notes first, with more notes later

Classroom Percussion
The classroom percussion instruments have clearly contributed to the popularity of the Orff approach. There are non-melodic (the literature also refers to these as un-tuned or un-pitched) and melodic (tuned or pitched or barred) percussion instruments in the traditional Orff Instrumentarium (Instrumentarium is the term for the whole ensemble of traditional Orff instruments used in the five books of Musik für Kinder).

The non-melodic percussion instruments include Hand Drums, also called Frame Drums or Tambours. Also: Triangle, suspended Cymbal, Tambourine, Claves (commonly referred to as rhythm sticks), Shakers (Shaker Eggs), Guiro and Finger Cymbal. Nowadays a large number of Latin Percussion instruments such as A-Go-Go Bell, Cabassa and other ‘ethno’ percussion instruments are also part of the non-melodic percussion section.

The melodic percussion instruments include: Bass Xylophone (BX), Bass Metallophone (BM), Alto Xylophone (AX), Alto Metallophone (AM), Soprano Xylophone (SX), Soprano Metallophone (SM), Alto Glockenspiel (AGL) and Soprano Glockenspiel SGL). The Greek word ‘Xylos’ means wood and it is therefore easy to understand the difference between a Metallophone and a Xylophone (‘Wood-Phone’). The difference between a Metallophone and a Glockenspiel is a little harder to spot. The Glockenspiel has small, quite thin, metal bars; the Metallophone has larger and heavier metal bars.

In recent times the traditional melodic percussion instruments have been enriched and the selection of instruments has been enlarged with self-built Marimba instruments. Originally from Africa idea and design aspects of the Marimbas have been brought to Australia by teachers and musicians and can now be found in schools and communities in Australia, USA, New Zealand and Europe. One Marimba instrument accommodates several players. Marimba instruments come principally in two versions: The Bass Marimba for two players and the three to four octave Marimba for three players.

Some selected references: (* signifies resource is available from VOSA Sales)

  • Choksy, L. (2001). Teaching Music in the Twenty-First Century/ New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  • * Frazee, J. (1998). Discovering Keetman. Rhythmic Exercises and Pieces for Xylophone by Gunild Keetman. London: Schott.
  • * Frazee, J. (1987). Discovering Orff. A curriculum for music Teachers, with Kent Kreuter. New York: Schott.
  • * Gill, R. (1981). Have You Any Wool? Three Bags Full! 17 traditional rhymes for voices and Orff-instruments. A Supplement to Music for Children. London: Schott.
  • * Goodkin, D. (2004). Sing Play and Dance. London: Schott.
  • Haselbach, B. (191). Dance Education. Basic principles and models for Nursery and Primary School. London: Schott (currently out of print)
  • * Keetmann, G. (1974). Elementaria. First acquaintance with Orff-Schulwerk London: Schott
  • * Keller, W. (1963). Introduction to Music for Children. Orff-Schulwerk. Translated by Margaret Murray. London: Schott.
  • Orff, C. (1976). The Schulwerk. London: Schott.
  • * Orff, C. & Keetman, G. (1957). Music for Children. Vol. 1. Pentatonic. English version adapted by Margaret Murray. London: Schott.
  • * Regner, H. (1982). Music for Children. Orff-Schulwerk American Edition. Volume 1. Pre-School. New York: Schott.
  • * Regner, H. (1982). Music for Children. Orff-Schulwerk American Edition. Volume 2. New York: Schott.
  • * Regner, H. (1982). Music for Children. Orff-Schulwerk American Edition. Volume 3. Upper elementary. New York: Schott.
  • Regner,H. (2000). Orff-Schulwerk Recorder Book. Pieces for Descant Recorder and Piano from ‘Music für Kinder’ Mainz: Schott.
  • Schnebly-Black, J. & Moore, S. (1997). The Rhythm Inside. Connecting Body, Mind and Spirit through Music. Portland: Rudra Press.
  • Shamrock, M. (1995). Orff Schulwerk: Brief History, Description, and Issues in Global Dispersal. Cleveland: American Orff-Schulwerk Association.
  • Shehan Campbell, P.& Scott-Kassner,C. (2002). Music in Childhood. Belmont CA: Wadsworth/Thomson.
  • * Solomon, J. (1997). The Body Rondo Book. Lakeland: Memphis Musicraft.
  • * Solomon, J. (1995). Conga Town. Percussion Ensembles for Upper Elementary and Middle School. Miami: Warner Bros.
  • * Solomon, J. (1998). D.R.U.M. Discipline, Respect, and Unity through Music. Miami: Warner Bros.
  • * Solomon. J. & Solomon, M. H. (1997) The Tropical Rocorder. Accompaniments for Orff Instruments & Piano/Guitar. Lakeland: Memphis Musicraft.
  • Spurgeon, D. (1991). Dance Moves. Marrickville NSW: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • * Steen, A. (1992). Exploring Orff. A Teacher’s Guide. New York. Schott.
  • * Wuytack, J. (1994). Musica Activa. An approach to music education. New York: Schott.

Christoph Maubach © 2006