Listening Activities: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Day Twenty-Two of Homemade Music)

Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from being an active participant in music making. To read more posts in this series, click here.

Today, we will be having a listen to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, written in 1946. The title of the piece suggests that it is music meant for children, but in reality anyone who is unfamiliar with the orchestra can benefit from it.

This piece has an impressive subtitle: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell. What this means is that Britten took a short section of melody (the theme) from a work by English Baroque composer Henry Purcell (remember him from our Listening Through History post?), changed it up in several ways (that’s a variation) and composed a fugue on that melody. But Britten himself didn’t concern himself too much with the “Variation and Fugue” title- he referred to the composition simply as “Young Person’s Guide,” so I believe we should follow suit.


Here’s the piece itself. Have a listen- you’ll hear that main theme right away:

Did you hear the theme, and did you hear it being repeated? Britten uses that theme as a tool to introduce his listeners to the four main families of the orchestra, then to individual instruments. If you don’t know already, the four instrumental families are as follows:

  1. Woodwinds (clarinet, flute, saxophone, oboe, bassoon, etc.)- an instrument played using a reed.
  2. Brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn, etc.)- an instrument played by buzzing one’s lips onto a mouthpiece.
  3. Strings (violin, viola, cello, bass, etc.)- anything that sounds by drawing a bow across or plucking strings.
  4. Percussion (drums, xylophone, piano, etc.)- anything that must be struck to produce a sound.

Now, listen to the Young Person’s Guide again, and listen for the introduction of families and individual instruments as described below:

“In the introduction, the theme is initially played by the entire orchestra, then by each major family of instruments of the orchestra: first the woodwinds, then the brass, then the strings, and finally by the percussion. Each variation then features a particular instrument in depth, in the same family order, and generally moving through each family from high to low. So, for example, the first variation features the piccolo and flutes; each member of the woodwind family then gets a variation, ending with the bassoon; and so on, through the strings, brass, and finally the percussion.

After the whole orchestra has been effectively taken to pieces in this way, it is reassembled using an original fugue which starts with the piccolo, followed by all the woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion in turn. Once everyone has entered, the brass are re-introduced (with a strike on the gong) with Purcell’s original melody.” (Thanks Wikipedia, for saving me the trouble!)

If you like to have a visual of the orchestra lay-out, Miriam-Webster has provided this helpful map:orchestra

Here’s some suggested listening activities for you:

  • Pick out the main theme by ear on your instrument of choice. This may take some time, but have patience- it’ll be fun once you finish!
  • Sing along with the main theme whenever you hear it.
  • Identify when the theme changes. Discuss how it changed- did it go higher? Lower? Get more complicated? Simplified?
  • Play a game of “name that instrument.” See which of you in your family can pick out individual instruments. Make a guess if you don’t know, or use the video and above picture map as a cheat sheet.
  • Try sketching or painting as you listen to this. What does the theme sound like to you? What type of imagery comes to mind as you listen? If the music had colors, which colors would it have? What type of movement does the piece have? Try to convey these ideas and characteristics in your artwork. (This can be a great exercise for any piece of music.)

If you want to have your own copy, you can download an mp3 file of it here for $ 0.89. Woot!

Over the past few days, we have visited three major pieces frequently used in children’s music education, all written within 65 years of each other. Often found together in musical collections, they offer much to the young child or to the inexperienced listener in the way of introduction to high art and music making.  What’s your favorite of the three?

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