March Madness: The Music Edition


So it’s March.

Two-thirds of my students are boys.

Many of my girls love sports.

Next up is teaching music vocabulary and critiquing performances.

What’s a middle school music teacher to do?

Call it March Madness and throw in every basketball connection possible!

And that’s how we arrive at March Madness: The Music Edition.

The Music Edition of March Madness is divided into two basic parts: (1) learn music vocabulary and (2) apply music vocabulary. Each part involves practice and varying levels of application – the final application being the March Madness Tournament.

We spent 3 days a week on this unit – week one was building vocabulary strength.

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The “strength training” component was completing guided notes to define specific vocabulary words.  I also gave demonstrations on the piano and drums of what each word sounded like in action.

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After getting down definitions, we had a “shoot around” with the vocabulary words. I explained that a shoot around is used for warming up and the goal is for everyone to make as many baskets as possible. Students got into teams of 2 or 3 and I passed out cards with the vocabulary words.  I then played an example on the piano or drum and students would hold up the card that correctly identified the musical element. When I gave a team a thumbs up for a correct answer they would say “swish!” as they “made their basket”.  Some even figured out that if they got it wrong they could “rebound” and try again.

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Once I felt students had a handle on identifying one term at a time, we had a scrimmage. I played another example that demonstrated several vocabulary words. Their teams pulled out all the cards that correctly described what they heard.  As I visited each team, the students had to use the words in sentences to describe what they heard. Each word was worth 1 to 3 points, depending on it’s complexity.  Teams added up the points for words they used correctly to compete in the “scrimmage”.  Below you can see the terms we used and their point value.

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I rolled out these terms over three days and followed the same routine each day – note taking, shoot around, scrimmage.  Since some terms were familiar to the students and some were new, I tried to pair new and old concepts so students weren’t overwhelmed with all new concepts all at once.


Next, we were on to week 2 –

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In Week 2, we worked on applying vocabulary to write about an entire piece of music.  For this first exercise I chose Brahm’s Hungarian Dance, No. 5.  It’s full of musical elements to identify, isn’t too long, and is usually well-received by students.

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We start out writing an introduction that includes the composer, title, and background information about this music. I provided a short paragraph of background information where students could pick one or two bits they thought the reader would find interesting.

The body of the paragraph is where the music is described in a much detail as possible. I remind students to give a “play by play”, being sure to help the reader “hear” what happens in the beginning, middle, and end of the piece.  Students underline the vocabulary words they use and “score” their paper just like they did in the vocabulary scrimmage.

Before writing the body of the paragraph, students listen to the music and collect evidence on a paper similar to the vocabulary list above.  This way they can focus their listening without having to formulate their writing at the same time.

Finally, they write a conclusion where they restate the composer and title, and give their opinion based on the evidence they heard.


Week 3 brings us to tournament time!

Screenshot 2016-03-11 at 2.09.55 PMI created a tournament bracket where students have one “game” a day in which they listen to two pieces of music, identify what they hear, and write their opinion based on the evidence they collect when listening. Along with their opinion, they choose the piece of music they like best as the winner.  The piece with the most votes moves on to the next round.

We take 4 days for the first round. Since students have already heard the music when we move on to rounds 2 and 3, we re-listen to remind them of the music and allow them to choose another winner. During this time students choose one piece from all the selections to write a complete critique with introduction, body, and conclusion. (I originally thought I’d have students write a complete critique for every piece they chose as a winner but very quickly realized that was way too much writing and time consuming. Revising it to identifying the elements/vocabulary, writing their opinion, and one critique seems better balanced.)

Here’s what our bracket looks like …


Just for fun, we invited staff to vote on the music in the bracket, too. I kept this separate so we could compare tastes in music. The kids always love to see what their teachers like and it creates the opportunity for conversations about what’s going on in class.

One more extra – we usually do world music drumming on Fridays, but during this unit we brought in basketballs to use instead! I knew it would either be a great success or a disaster – luckily the kids loved it and did and awesome job!  I led them through using the balls to actively demonstrate tempo words (bouncing the ball at the appropriate tempo) and meter (creating strong beats on one and adding the appropriate number of beats afterward.)

Finally, students picked a form or concept to demonstrate, such as call & response, theme & variation, and complimentary rhythms (or moves in this case.)



I’ve done March Madness brackets before where students write about and vote on their favorite music but I was very pleased with how we incorporated learning music vocabulary into this unit.  The students were very motivated to use as much vocabulary as possible when they earned points for every word.  Obviously, anyone can take as much or little from this to use in their own classroom and make it work for where their kids are.

Have fun!


3 responses »

  1. awesome! So glad I found your blog. I’m a new music teacher, so I need a lot of inspiration. I really want to be an effective teacher. Thank you for this wonderful site!

  2. Is there any way you could share the strength training document? I can’t see it very well, and am trying to recreate it.

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