Sounds of the city

25th August 2000 at 01:00
Most schools have some percussion instruments - untuned ones, such as shakers, scrapers, simple drums and maracas, and tuned ones, such as xylophones, chime bars and metallophones.

In this project, Gerald Haigh shows you how to use your percussion instruments to put together some tunes to make a short piece of music based on the sounds of London. There is plenty of opportunity for you and your class to add your own ideas.

You will find the project easier if you can read a very simple line of music, but even if you cannot, you should be able to work most of it out and have fun.


Here is a tune that is really intended to be played on quite a low-pitched instrument. If you play it with one, or all, of the other tunes it acts as a bass line, so if possible it ought to sound lower than the other parts.

The picture shows Big Ben slightly changed in appearance. Think of this music as the Big Ben tune slightly changed.


The music shown here is the tune that Big Ben plays.

Play it on hand chimes if you can. If not, on chime bars or a medium-sized metallophone or a glockenspiel. You will find a xylophone doesn't sound quite right, so save it for later. Keep the playing slow and steady - not much more than one beat a second. Keep the speed steady: the rest of the piece will depend on this being done accurately.


This is a simple tune. In the picture a cello is being played, and this tune would sound good on the cello if you have a player in school. A recorder would be fine too. However, a glockenspiel or metallophone will be all right if you can't manage another instrument.


This tune needs a tighter, shorter sound, so try a xylophone. Try hard and soft beaters and see which you prefer. It is important that you get the speed right - about three seconds a bar.


Now you have several tunes. Do lots of experiments with different combinations. Never forget how effective it is to have a quiet solo in between two busy sections.


There are quavers, crotchets, minims and dotted minims in this tune. Make sure you give them all their correct value - half, one, two and three beats respectively. Play as smoothly as you can.


This tune has three beats in a bar, with about one beat a second, like the Big Ben tune. It is mostly made up of quavers. A quaver lasts half as long as a crotchet, so two quavers last as long as a crotchet. Because there are now two notes to play on each beat, the tune sounds quicker.


This tune has three beats in a bar. Bars one, three, five and seven each have three crotchets. Bars two, four, six and eight each have one dotted minim. A minim lasts as long as two crotchets. A dotted minim lasts as long as three crotchets.


Like the jogger's music, this tune is mostly made up of quavers but it is different in mood. It is important to give full value to the dotted minims - make sure you hold them long enough.


This tune keeps moving steadily, like the London Eye. Because it is quite gentle and flowing, it will sound good on a metallophone with soft beaters. The metallophone has the mellow sound this tune needs.

If you have to use a glockenspiel, use the lowest pitched one you have (that's the biggest one) and play it gently with soft beaters.



The project has a musical theme centred on the Big Ben tune or "Westminster Chimes" and four other tunes - "variations" - derived from it. You can play the tunes together in groups of two, three or even four or five. So, let children explore these combinations.

Talk about the qualities of the various combinations. Forexample, although you can play all four tunes together, the effect may be too busy for some ears. It is important to emphasise that the ear is the only judge here. Let the children make up their minds.

Help the children to try as many combinations as possible, discussing which sound best and which are less satisfactory.

Also try different combinations of instruments and mixtures of instruments of different pitch. By repeating the tunes with different textures of instrumentation you will get a lot of music from the small amount printed on these pages. And you will be following the example of all the great composers!

Remember that Big Ben sounds the hours after the chimes. So you can stop your music and introduce chimes if you like.

Things to do * Opportunities for untuned percussion instruments vary from one tune to another - this is more obvious in the case of the jogger tune than it is for the busker music.

* Look for other themes in the illustrations. Movement is an obvious one: there is movement in all of the pictures. Help the children to list some key words, such as hurrying, darkness, loneliness. Can they reflect these in their performances?

Tuned percussion * Glockenspiel: has bright metal bars.

* Metallophone: has matt alloy bars.

* Chime bars: like glockenspiel bars, but they come singly so you can arrange them as you like.

* Hand chimes: single-note instruments that are swung in the hand.

As with all instruments, the bigger the instrument the lower the pitch of the sound.

Notes on the tunes Big Ben chimes If you find it difficult to keep the children playing together for this slow tune, try counting them in: one-two-three, at the speed they are going to play the tune. Don't let the speed increase as the tune goes on. Give full value to the long notes.

Jogging along When the playing of this tune is steady and accurate, put it together with the Big Ben chimes. Also think of adding some untuned percussion.

Encourage the children to use their imaginations. Think of the jogger's feet hitting the pavement and their rhythmical breathing. Think of background noises. Experiment with different instruments. You could even use the sound of real trainers on the floor - but don't drown out the music.

The London Eye Again, it is important to keep the rhythm steady and the long notes long enough. The temptation is to come in early after the dotted minims.

If you use untuned percussion or other effects, think of the excitement of people on the wheel and the background sounds of traffic and boats on the river. You might use swirling sounds by brushing a beater along a glockenspiel, but do this quietly.

You have three tunes now. Start to put them together in different ways.

The busker You can play this tune on percussion, but it is worth recruiting someone who plays a more sustaining instrument - strings or wind. Be careful with brass, though, because it might overwhelm everything. Take the chance to practice playing softly. If you also want to use untuned percussion, be careful not to interfere with the tune's mood. You might go for quiet brushing sounds - a wire brush on a cymbal, perhaps.

* The busker is playing Bach's Six Suites for Violoncello Solo. Bach's music for unaccompanied cello is worth exploring. You could play a recording to the children and use it before assembly. This suite is available on CD in many versions.

The rhythm of life Try playing all the music together. The music on this page is essentially a bass line to go under each or all of the other parts. Experiment with it, but it is probably best kept to a low-pitched instrument.

Thanks to John Dean of Percussion Plus, The Mill, Great Bowden Road, Market Harborough LE16 7DE. Telephone: 01858 432010.

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