Image Map

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Chinese music in elementary music class

I'm back with another post in my series on music from around the world, and this week I'm sharing my ideas for teaching music from China! I focus on one culture or country with each grade that I teach, so you'll find links to the articles I've written on other countries at the end of this post. Be sure to read to the end for more world music lesson ideas!

Although I use music from a variety of cultures and traditions regularly in all grade levels throughout the school year, I spend about a month focusing on the music from a particular culture in each grade. I teach music from China to my 4th graders because it is a great way to teach minor modality and pentatonic scales.

I know this is not exactly a traditional way to start, but I usually kick off our study of Chinese music by showing them a clip or two of the Twelve Girls Band, like this one:

Also this:

I of course discuss with the students which instruments are traditionally Chinese and which or not- that part is pretty clear- but it is a great way to showcase many of the instruments from China, see how they are played and what they sound like, and also get a taste of what Chinese music is like while still sounding somewhat familiar for students- this is like the gateway to exploring the traditional music that will sound more foreign and strange to their ears. Plus it is so much fun!

I use these recordings as a starting point to jump into a discussion of Chinese instruments, including the erhu, xiao, dizi, pipa, guzheng (duzheng), and yangqin. After showing one of the "Twelve Girls Band" videos, I usually show them pictures of each instrument, tell them the name of each one, and see if they noticed how each one is played, or what familiar instrument it is most similar to. Then we watch one more video and I have them point out and identify each instrument as we see it. I use that as an introduction to Chinese music as a whole, but in subsequent lessons I will show them short clips of each instrument in a more traditional setting. This one is great for showing both the yangquin and the erhu:

I have used a lot of different songs in my classes over the years. There is so much that is included, both historically and geographically, when we talk about "Chinese music", that it's honestly hard for me to pick one song! The last few years I have used "Cowboy" (I know, you're already thinking what? stay with me...). I don't generally like to teach songs from other cultures with translated lyrics- I think it takes away from giving the students an authentic presentation of the song- so I always try to find songs that have fewer lyrics while still being interesting. This one fits the bill (although, let's be honest, we are talking about a rather difficult language for English speakers- it will still take some time!) and has some great possibilities for discussions about Chinese history, architecture, and/or geography. You can find the original lyrics, the translation, the notation, and a sung recording on Mama Lisa's website here. I always go by the sung recording rather than the music notation as my guide here- I'm sure, since it is a folk song, it has been sung many different ways over time, but I can know for sure that a Chinese person learned it that way, I will go with that one! I usually just teach one verse for brevity's sake, and I teach by rote. I find that having students read from English letters makes them pronounce it more like English words instead of listening to the sounds and copying them that way. If you aren't comfortable modeling yourself, you could use the recording in your class to teach it- just pause after each phrase and have students echo.

Another example of a song I have used is Gong Xi. This is a song for New Year's and the chorus is very easy to learn because of the repeated lyrics- I usually start by having the students learn the chorus, then teach them some instrumental ostinati, and have them play while I sing the first verse. After hearing me sing the verse a few times while they are practicing the instrumental parts it's much easier for them to learn the lyrics to the verse as well.

With any of the songs that I use, I will usually add some percussion ostinati, along with a simple bordun on the xylophones and/or metallaphones. Here is an example of some of the percussion parts I might add (this one has tambourine, hand drum, and finger cymbals):

Gongs, triangles, and rhythm sticks would also be good choices for adding some quick instrument accompaniment. Since I am working with 4th graders, I have them come up with their own arrangement of the song using the sung melody and instrument parts- often we will have each instrument come in one at a time, layering on top of each other, then have everyone sing while playing, then play the song with only instruments, then sing one more time (or something like that). This is a great way to practice ensemble skills, inner hearing (if you do a verse with only instruments), and arranging.

As I said before, there are so many songs to choose from, and you can easily teach them in the same way, adding instruments and arranging them in different ways. Two online sources for more songs include Mama Lisa's website and this collection- as with anything, it's important to "fact check" any songs before using them in class by making sure you can find a reliable native source for the music!

One more thing that I like to cover is Beijing (Peking) Opera. I don't introduce this genre until we are well into our study of Chinese music, because I don't want students to immediately start laughing or draw back in disgust, but it is such a significant part of Chinese music that I think it is important for students to at least be exposed to it when they study the music of China in general. I usually use a clip from this video to show in class (it is nice because it has the English translation underneath- so it is important to check and make sure the material is appropriate before you show it! I haven't come across anything that is not, but I haven't watched the whole thing so please do check beforehand):

I usually introduce the genre by telling students that Beijing opera is one of the most famous forms of Chinese music historically. I also tell them in advance that it is going to sound and look very different from what they are expecting, but that I want them to tell me what they notice after watching. Most students tell me that they notice the performers moving with the instruments, their makeup and costumes are very dramatic, and they sound like they are half-singing and half-speaking. We often end up having a very good conversation about what the definition of music is, because there are usually some students who question whether or not this "counts" as music at all! You can learn more about the genre here and here.

That's everything I teach for music from China. Do you teach Chinese music in your class? I'd love to see any additional ideas and resources you have in the comments below! And don't forget that there are tons of posts related to world music being linked up the whole month of February. Check out the posts below and be sure to keep checking back this month for more ideas.

1. Brazil
9. Japan

Want more? Subscribe here to the Organized Chaos newsletter and get music teacher ideas and resources sent straight to your inbox!


  1. Thanks for sharing!! Do you know what the translation for "Yahu hei" is? I could not find any information about this song on other websites.

    1. My understanding is that it is nonsense syllables, similar to "heave ho", for the boatmen to vocalize and stay synchronized. However the source I had appears to be gone now, so I cannot say this with 100% certainty, unfortunately.

  2. This is a fantastic resource and very useful for classroom teaching. Thank you for putting it together!

    1. Thank you so much for the comment! I'm so glad you found my ideas useful for your teaching. I hope you and your students enjoy exploring Chinese music and culture together!

  3. Hello! Thank you so much for sharing this information. Do you know of any videos or sheet music that have the melody/chords for Yahu Hei? I want to use this song in a unit that I am planning but am not able to find anymore information on it. Thank you!

    1. I'm glad you found the post helpful! The melody is above, and I have students play borduns on E minor for the entire song (one of the reasons it's great for the classroom).

  4. Hello! Thank you so much for these wonderful resources. Do you still have the music for Yahu Hei? I was interested in using it for a lesson.

    1. Hi! I have switched that song out for Gong Xi, because I haven't been able to verify the source that I had found at the time I first wrote this post. You can accomplish all the same goals I had with that song with Gong Xi! If you want to talk more about other song options, or how I use Gong Xi, please email me: