ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Haunting Music

Exploring the works of Hector Berlioz and Camille Saint-Saëns


Key Staff

Primary instructor with the opportunity to collaborate with the music teacher

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing


In this lesson about music inspired by the spooky and bizarre, students will learn about orchestra “program music” by exploring the works of Hector Berlioz and Camille Saint-Saëns. Students will learn about Symphonie Fantastique and Danse Macabre, identify and analyze the musical terms and concepts in each piece, and then write a short story and create a class mural based on their listening experiences.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore the genre of orchestral program music by learning about Romantic-period composers Hector Berlioz and Camille Saint-Saëns
  • Explore the literary inspirations for program music
  • Identify elements of music, including theme, tempo, and dynamics, and detect their use in music excerpts
  • Write a short story, based on their perceptions of the musical events in a symphony
  • Create group murals, based on their visual perceptions of the musical events in an orchestral tone poem

Teaching Approach

  • Thematic
  • Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection

Assessment Type



Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should familiarize themselves with the work of Berlioz, Saint-Saens and the Romantic Period and program music as a genre using the following sources:



  • Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Sadie, Stanley. The New Grove Dictionary of Music. 4th Edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Randel, Don Michael. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. 2nd Edition. Boston: Harvard College, 1986.


  • Hector Berlioz. Symphonie Fantastique. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan. DG. 429 511-2
  • Camille Saint-Saëns. Danse Macabre. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung. DR. 425 021-2


Teachers should be familiar with genre of Program Music, as well as the Romantic period and the type of music it produced. Teachers should also have general knowledge of how this music compares to music of other periods.

Prior Student Knowledge

Prior to this lesson students should have some familiarity with the instrument families in an orchestra, using basic musical terms, and how to practice active music listening skills.

They should also be familiar with the literary concepts of  exaggeration and hyperbole, simile and metaphor, and personification.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.



1. Begin class by playing excerpts from the two pieces. Lead students in a brief introductory discussion. Ask them questions such as: How were the two pieces alike or different? How does the music make you feel? What does it make you think of?

2. Present students with an introduction to the genre of “program music.” Songs that fall under the category of program music typically have a descriptive title and are meant to be accompanied by a program (text) that describes the images or message portrayed in the music (such as a poem, essay, etc.). The genre reached its epitome during the Romantic period. During the Romantic period, composers were greatly inspired by literature and theater and used melodies and themes in their music to represent specific characters, both from fiction and from their own lives.

3. Tell students that Hector Berlioz, one of the best-known Romantic composers, composed several program symphonies and orchestral works that were based upon the works of dramatists and poets who inspired him. At the time he wrote Symphonie Fantastique, his most famous work, he was fascinated by theater and the works of Shakepeare, particularly Hamlet and Macbeth.

4. Have students read about the background of Berlioz’s piece using the Listening to Symphonie Fantastique guide. Have students read only the Background and Story section. You may wish to explain the similarities between Shakespeare’s Macbeth, its first scene containing three grotesque witches, and the fourth movement, “Dream Of A Witches’ Sabbath”, of Symphonie Fantastique.

5. Tell students that Camille Saint-Saens is a famous composer from the Romantic period. His Danse Macabre is a symphonic tone poem, a single-movement orchestra work which expresses an idea or story. The atmospheric, spooky music was inspired by an old superstition common in France for many centuries. Have students learn more about the background of the piece by reading the Background and Story section of the Listening to Danse Macabre guide above.

Build Knowledge

1. Distribute the Music Vocabulary handout, and discuss the definitions. Encourage students to use music vocabulary in their discussion about the emotions and images evoked by listening to the music.

2. Using the Listening to Symphonie Fantastique guide, have students listen again to the piece. This time, pause the music several times, and instruct students to jot down adjectives and brief phrases that describe how the music makes them feel. Have students share their descriptors (you may find that students come up with the same or similar words). Write students’ descriptors down on an overhead or flip-chart.

3. Play excerpts from Danse Macabre. Explain that this work was inspired by a poem, by Henri Cazalis, based on an ancient French superstition: each year, at midnight on Halloween, “Death” emerges to play his violin, encouraging the dead to dance for him.

4. Distribute copies of Listening to Danse Macabre, and listen to the piece again, pointing out the particular parts of the poem and story synopsis that correspond to specific elements in the music. You may wish to have students view the video clip, Understanding the Music: Danse Macbre, in which NSO Assistant Conductor Emil de Cou shares some intriguing facts about how musical sounds effects are created.

5. Have students read through the questions in the listening guide and discuss their answers. One of the principles of program music is that a melody, instrument, or theme can illustrate a character or situation. In literary terms, this is called personification. For example, the solo violin in Dance Macabre represents Death; the xylophones represent the dancing skeletons; and the oboe represents the rooster, crowing to announce sunrise. Discuss with students how these vivid musical pictures, conjured up by unique combinations of sounds and instruments, might translate into actual pictures.


1. Explain to students that they will each write a short scary story, inspired by their perceptions of the musical events in the fourth and fifth movements of Symphonie Fantastique. Since they are writing “scary stories”, encourage students to use figures of speech like exaggeration and hyperbole, simile and metaphor, and personification. Students should also include the following elements in their story: description of the setting and mood, at least one character, and a conclusion.

2. Have students begin writing their short draft, using the list of brainstormed adjectives and images as a beginning point. Allow students to continue working on their story draft for homework. Remind students that their story ideas do not have to be far-flung and grand; many times, the best ideas for a scary story come from the details of everyday life, your own “backdoor”, so to speak. Examples may include a past experience from one’s own life, a family or local superstition, or a dream or nightmare. Tell students that if they use their own perspectives or experiences, their stories will be more vivid and original.

3. Have students continue working on their draft. Play Symphonie Fantastique in the background as they work. Remind students of rules of good writing, including proper grammar and punctuation. After students complete their rough draft, have students separate into small groups, and use peer review for suggestions and additions to their story draft. Remind students that feedback should always be positive and constructive so as to help the writer improve their story. Students will then continue working on their stories, incorporating any peer and/or teacher comments.

4. Once students have completed the final version of their stories, have them view the video clip Understanding the Music: Symphonie Fantastique. The clip contains details about the original story that was the inspiration for the music. Engage students in a discussion about the story elements (character, plot, etc.), and have them compare and contrast the actual story with their own short stories.

5. List on a large piece of butcher paper the main “characters” (death, the skeletons) in Danse Macabre. Have students discuss what each character looks like, what the setting (the graveyard) looks like, which elements are explained by the music (such as the wind) and which elements are implied (nightime). Write these items on the butcher paper.

6. Have students work in groups to create a mural. Divide students into groups of at least 4-5 each. Explain to students that each group will create a mural depicting their visual interpretation of Danse Macabre.

7. Have Danse Macabre playing in the background as students begin to work in groups on their murals. Give each group several sheets of large piece of paper on which to begin sketching the image for their mural. Students should only use pencil at this point.

When students are ready, they can use crayons and tempera paint to incorporate color, details, and depth to their murals. A helpful hint for creating “spooky pictures”: if students outline their drawn lines in white or black crayon, the paint will not stick to the lines because of the waxy surface, making the lines stand out. This is an effective way to create spooky images because the outlined elements really "pop out" in the mural.

8. Encourage students to incorporate imagery and emotion in their images. Are their images realistic or exaggerated? How? Guide students in discussions about how the placement of each image, color choice, shape, and emotional expression will affect the mural's emphasis, balance, and overall mood or theme.


1. Have students share their stories with the class.

2. Once murals are completed, display them on the walls in classroom. Have each group present and discuss their mural, and how they visually created different interpretations of the same piece of music, Danse Macabre.

3. Lead students in a closing discussion. Ask them to identify elements of the Romantic Period in each story and mural. Ask them to explain some of the characters they encountered in the story and the mural and what they represent.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 5-8 Music Standard 6: Listening to, analyzing, and describing music

Grade 5-8 Music Standard 8: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts

Grade 5-8 Music Standard 9: Understanding music in relation to history and culture

Visual Art

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 3: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 6: Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines

National Standards in Other Subjects
Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Language Arts Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Language Arts Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media



Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

Email Print Share


- +
Email a link to this page
Share This Page



Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  

ArtsEdge is an education program of

The Kennedy Center 

with the support of

The US Department of Education 

ARTSEDGE, part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, is generously funded by David Rubenstein.

Additional support is provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee
for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not
necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.
Unless otherwise stated, ArtsEdge materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that ArtsEdge and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

Change Background:

Connect with us!    EMAIL US | YouTube | Facebook | iTunes | MORE!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  
    Privacy Policy
| Terms and Conditions


You are now leaving the ArtsEdge website. Thank you for visiting!

If you are not automatically transferred, please click the link below:

ArtsEdge and The Kennedy Center are in no way responsible for the content of the destination site, its ongoing availability, links to other site or the legality or accuracy of information on the site or its resources.