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How to Create Differentiated K-5 Music Activities

Children of different ages are not ready for the same activities, so how do you create K-5 music activities? Take a peek at these ideas.

“If you can’t fit your kids into the same size underwear, don’t try to fit them into the same size book.” This unusual quote is from Jim Trelease, whom I had the privilege to meet several years ago. Jim is the author of The Read-Aloud Handbook. (The eighth edition of this book was released in September 2019.)

Children of different ages are not maturationally ready for the same activities, so HOW do you create music activities for grades K-5?

Before we answer this question, let’s talk about WHY you would want to create differentiated K-5 activities.

How to Create K-5 Music Lessons of Graduated Difficulty | Elementary Music Classroom

5 Reasons to Create Music Activities for Grades K-5

Grades K-5 represent a broad age range with a HUGE difference in ability levels. But, sometimes there may be several reasons you may want to teach the same basic material.

1. K-5 Music Programs

At my last school, they had an established tradition of presenting a K-5 Winter Holiday program. I was expected to follow this tradition. Previous traditions spotlighted one grade level at a time. This left large numbers of children sitting and not participating for a long time. After the first year, I changed the structure of this program so all grade levels performed on every piece while a specific grade level was highlighted on instrumental parts or other special activities.

2. Create a Sense of Community

Singing together as a school builds a sense of community, belonging, and togetherness. We always open every school assembly with a patriotic song and close each assembly with our school song. If you do not have an energetic school song that you and your students are proud to sing, write one! Build some school spirit.

3. Establish a Small School-Wide Core Repertoire

I identified this need quite by accident with 400 students sitting on the floor waiting for an assembly to begin and there was NO PRESENTER! He was running late. As the music teacher, I grabbed the microphone and we sang together to fill the time. However, we only had a few songs all grades knew. After that, I established a small core repertoire that all students would know. Patriotic songs, rounds and canons, and even camp songs are perfect core repertoire pieces. Choose a variety of styles and genres.

4. Last-Minute Performance Requests

Over my career, I have had a few last-minute performance requests. One of these requests came with only a couple of hours’ notice. The most important performance was upon the unexpected death of a student. We had no time to prepare but we did perform a song we already knew. That spontaneous performance added immensely to the ceremony.

5. Allow Students to Build on Previous Repertoire Year to Year

I have a small core of Winter Holiday Songs that we repeat from year to year while we add and delete others. The fact that most of my older students already know these core songs allows them to learn the instrumental melodies and accompaniments quickly.

Establish Levels of Graduated Difficulty

Divide your classes or grade levels in a way that works for you and your students. This will allow you to vary music activities and establish levels of differentiation. I divide my classes into three levels and assign activities accordingly.

  • Level 1 – Grades K-1
  • Level 2 – Grades 2-3
  • Level 3 – Grades 4-5

I do NOT label the activities within my lessons to provide for differentiation within grade levels. If necessary, I can use simpler activities to help students of various ability levels to be successful.

7 Ways to Differentiate Music Activities

It’s important to vary music activities for young students to be successful and to engage upper elementary students. Students in grades 4-5 will be engaged if activities are challenging and presented and taught with enthusiasm.

1. Add Harmony

Level 1 students can (and should) sing in unison while older students may add a descant or other harmony part. (See partner songs and rounds exception below.)

2. Partner Songs and Rounds

I have successfully used many different partner songs and rounds in my K-5 programs. I teach each class in unison. Then when groups are combined, students are able to perform beautifully with the other grades.

I divide grade levels into two “staggered” groups of grades K, 2, 4, and grades 1, 3, 5. I have been fortunate to have a musical librarian to help lead one group while I led the other. Having two directors for partner songs and rounds is imperative for early elementary students. Thank you, Sarah!

3. Add Movement for Early Elementary Students

I teach my grade K-1 students a simple step dance to African Noel to get them up and moving and to break up our class rehearsal periods. They NEED to move.

4. Add Sign Language

Sign language is a perfect pairing with music. This is an effective way to involve everyone. Even your reluctant singers will participate in sign language when presented positively. Consider spotlighting upper elementary students out front or using them as “assistant directors” to help lead the signs for the entire group while you accompany the group.

5. Add Differentiated Rhythm Instrument Patterns

Level 1 students can play simple steady beat patterns on tambourine or on other rhythm instruments while older students layer in more complicated patterns on bongos, etc. Again, it’s important to have additional directors, one for each part. Otherwise, you may lose the youngest students. I have often used student directors in this capacity.

6. Add Differentiated Melodic Accompaniment Patterns

Level 1 students may play a simple steady beat bourdon. Older students may layer in more complicated Orff ostinati patterns, play recorders, or a ukulele accompaniment.

7. Add Instrumental Melodies

Level 3 students can perform simple melodic patterns on barred instruments and/or recorders. I much prefer barred instruments because it’s hard to balance voices with recorders. They usually end up covering up the voices.

Create Your Own K-5 Music Activities

At first, it can be daunting to create differentiated music activities for grades K-5. Start slow with one lesson. Modify it as you find what works for you and your students. If you don’t have time to create your own or you need an example to model your lessons after, take a peek at the songs and activities at the end of this post. Each resource spans multiple grade levels and includes various activities to meet your students where they are.


Of course, your K-5 students do NOT all wear the same size of underwear. And we’re NOT trying to squeeze them into activities that are not appropriate for their grade level. We ARE creating grade-level appropriate activities around the same core song.

Only a small portion of your lessons should be K-5 activities. But, YES, there’s a place for school-wide core songs and activities. Check out some of the resources below if you need some inspiration.

No-Prep Ready-to-Use Resources

Black History Month Activities

Black History Month provides a perfect opportunity to integrate K-5 activities into your curriculum. Click to listen to each arrangement and preview the differentiated spirituals with Orff accompaniments below.

Winter Holiday Activities

K-5 holiday programs and assemblies offer another ideal setting for using K-5 differentiated songs. Click to preview the diverse holiday songs below.

Silly Songs and Activities

Camp songs can become challenging music learning opportunities when you add graduated difficulty Orff accompaniments or simple harmonies. Click each song to listen to the Orff arrangements in the video previews.

Looking for More Differentiated Resources

If you don’t find what you’re looking for check out more differentiated music activities for grades K-5 here.

Related Post – 10 Tips to Integrate Music Reading into Every Elementary Music Class

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