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Creating Differentiated Music Activities for Grades K-5

Several years ago, I had the privilege of listening to Jim Trelease, the author of “The Read Aloud Handbook”. (The eighth edition will be released soon!) One of the things he said in that seminar has stuck with me to this day, “If you can’t fit your kids into the same size underwear, don’t try to fit them into the same size book.” Children of different ages are not maturationally ready for the same activities, so HOW do you create music activities for grades K-5?

(Need K-5 differentiated lessons in a hurry. Click to preview these no-prep activities.)

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

Why Create Music Activities for Grades K-5

First, let’s talk about WHY you might want to create music activities for grades K-5. This is a broad age range with a HUGE difference in ability levels. But, sometimes there may be several reasons you might want to teach the same basic material.

K-5 Music Programs

When I came to my last school, a tradition had been established of programming a K-5 Winter Holiday program. I was expected to follow that tradition. Previous traditions spotlighted one grade at a time, leaving large numbers of children sitting and not participating for a long time. After the first year, I changed it up so that all grade levels performed on every piece.

Create a Sense of Community

There is no better way to build a sense of community, belonging, and togetherness than singing together as a school. We always opened every school assembly with a patriotic song and closed 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.

Establish a Small School-Wide Core Repertoire

I identified this need quite by accident when our students were sitting and waiting for an assembly to begin and our presenters were running late. As the music teacher, I grabbed the microphone and we sang together to fill time. However, there were very few songs that everyone knew. After that I established a small core repertoire that all students would know. Patriotic songs and camp songs make perfect core repertoire pieces.

Last Minute Performance Requests

Over my career, we have had a few last-minute performance requests. One of these requests came with only hours’ notice. The most important performance was when one of our kindergarten students died. There was no time to prepare, but we were able to perform a song we already knew at a memorial service held at our school.

Allow Students to Build on Previous Repertoire Year to Year

I have a small core of Winter Holiday Songs that we would repeat from year to year while adding/deleting others. The fact that most of my older students already knew these core songs allowed them to learn the instrumental melodies/accompaniments quickly.

Establish Levels | Graduated Difficulty

There are many different ways to vary music activities and establish levels of graduated difficulty. I divide my groups into three different levels and assign activities accordingly.

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

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

Ways to Vary Music Activities | Creating Graduated Difficulty

It is important to vary music activities in order for little ones to be successful and to engage older learners. Students in grades 4-5 will be engaged if activities are challenging and presented and taught with enthusiasm.

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 & rounds exception below)

Partner Songs and Rounds

I have successfully used many different partner songs and rounds in my K-5 programs. By teaching each class in unison, they are able to perform beautifully when added with other grades.

I divide grade levels into two “staggered” groups of grades K, 2, 4, and grades 1, 3, 5. I was 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 young level one students. Thank you, Sarah!

Add Movement for Little Ones

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

Add Sign Language

I LOVE using sign language. It is a surefire way to involve everyone. Even your reluctant singers will participate in sign language when presented positively. Consider spotlighting older students out front or using them as “assistant directors” to help lead the signs for the entire group while you accompany the group.

Add Rhythm Instruments | Patterns of Graduated Difficulty

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 is important to have additional directors, one for each part. Otherwise, you often lose the youngest students. I have often used student directors in this capacity.

Add Melodic Accompaniment | Differentiated Patterns

Level 1 students can play a simple bourdon while older students layer in more complicated Orff ostinati patterns.

Add Instrumental Melodies

Level 3 students can perform simple melodic patterns on barred instruments and/or recorder. I much prefer barred instruments because it is hard to balance 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 music activities for grades K-5. Start slow and make 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, check out the songs & activities below that all span multiple grade levels and include various activities.


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

If you don’t find what you are looking for check out more music activities for grades K-5 here. Need tips for Integrating Music Reading into Every Lesson? Check out this post.

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 perfect setting for using K-5 differentiated songs. Click to preview the diverse holiday songs below.

Silly Songs & 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 Orff arrangements in the video previews.

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