Defining Elemental Music
by Nick Wild, Former ACEMM Founding Member and Past-President New England AOSA 

The term ‘elemental music’ is frequently used but rarely defined by Orff teachers, and there appears to be both disagreement and confusion among us as to what it actually is. Ask any assembled group of Orff teachers for a clear and concise explanation of the term, and more often than not you will receive a variety of vague or long-winded answers, or simply a collection of somewhat embarrassed and puzzled looks. We may know it when we hear it, but we can’t seem to define it. “I’ve never really thought about it…” is a disturbingly common response, considering that the concept of elemental music
is an ideological cornerstone of our approach!

I became aware of my own difficulty in defining elemental music when I was asked about it by my principal and other teachers and parents at my school. I was led quickly to the realization that I did not in fact have a satisfactory explanation to offer them. As a result, I set a goal for myself of developing a concise definition of elemental music that captures its essence in non-technical terms, and in a way that expresses its value as an educational tool to all the non-musicians and non-teachers who wonder what we are actually doing with our students (and why!).

I would encourage every Orff teacher who has not already done so to do the same: to try to develop a clear definition of elemental music to have ready at the tip of your tongue for those precious moments when you are given the opportunity to discuss your educational goals and philosophy. I have provided my own efforts below as a potential starting point, as well as a few quotes regarding elemental music that I compiled as a source of inspiration. Steve Calantropio’s writings were especially helpful and were a major influence.

My one-sentence definition (intended to provide a brief explanation for anyone unfamiliar with Orff-Schulwerk):Elemental music is pattern-based music built on natural speech and body rhythms, familiar melodic patterns, and simple forms that can be learned, created, understood, and performed without extensive technical or theoretical musical training.

Carl Orff:

“What then is elemental music? Elemental music is never music alone but forms a unity with movement, dance and speech. It is music that one makes oneself, in which one takes part not as a listener, but as a participant. It is unsophisticated, employs no big forms and no big architectural structures, and it uses small sequence forms, ostinato and rondo. Elemental music is near the earth, natural, physical, within the range of everyone to learn it and experience it and suitable for the child…

“Elemental music, word and movement, play, everything that awakens and develops the powers of the spirit, this is the ‘humus’ of the spirit, the humus without which we face the danger of a spiritual erosion.” (Orff-Schulwerk: Past & Future)

Brigitte Warner:

“…the music-making of the young child resembles in many ways the musicmaking of primal cultures. Stylistic similarities include the following: …the music is rhythm- and movement-oriented… it is not a separate art form, but rather combines the elements of speech and drama with those of sound and movement and with rhythm as the most vital force… it is not abstract but functional in its relationship to life’s experiences… it is not usually premeditated or composed… it is transmitted orally and therefore liable to change… it is “ensemble” music in the sense that everyone participates.

“Such music has been termed ‘elemental.’ In its stylistic similarity to primal music, Orff-Schulwerk is elemental. It speaks to the child in a language he understands and is able to respond to instinctively.”

“In 1923, [Orff] met Dorothee Gunther, who envisioned the founding of a school for movement, rhythmic, and dance training… The idea of a training in elemental music – a music which is not abstract, but which integrates the elements of speech, movement, and dance – emerged and took shape in his discussions with Gunther…”

“Orff began with rhythm as the basic element inherent in music, dance, and speech, combining and unifying them into one language. Improvisation and creation were at the center of his teaching… He made the ostinato – whether rhythmic, spoken, or sung – serve as the form-giving element in all improvisations.”

“At the core of this work is a kind of musical expression that is able to speak to children without the loss of musical integrity.” (Orff-Schulwerk: Applications for the Classroom)

Jane Frazee:

“The term ‘elemental style’ describes the unique treatment of musical elements introduced by Carl Orff in the musical examples presented in the original volumes of Music for Children. Characteristic features of the style introduced in Volume One include the use of repeated rhythmic or melodic patterns known as ostinati, tonic (pedal) or tonic and fifth (bordun) accompaniment, and anhemitonic (without half-steps) pentatonic melodies.” (Discovering Orff)

Steve Calantropio:

“It stresses the use of speech and movement as starting points in teaching, the use of the ostinato figure as the primary accompaniment, speech-based rhythmic motives combining to form larger patterns, melodic materials drawn from simple pentatonic idioms, and the use of tonal and modal music drawn from both composed and folk sources. These essential ideas outline the style we have come to know as elemental music.” (The Orff Echo, Summer 2004)

“Music that contains both small and large patterns of melody, rhythm, harmony, and form are easily broken down into smaller teaching units… Elemental music, by its very nature, is easily separated into its component elements and parts.

“The collected works of composer Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman provide examples of just such music. These pattern-based works form the core of what is collectively known as Orff Schulwerk. Both Orff and Keetman used the term elemental music in describing their work. The term implies a genre of music that is drawn from the basic elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and form. It is music stripped of intellectual complexities, closely related to speech and movement, and draws its inspirations from those human impulses that are common to all people.” (Pieces & Processes, 2005)