Exploring Extremes: Music to the Max!

When it comes to creating music, composers like to push the limits. Get ready to hear how!


Exploring Extremes

Good for: Grades 3 and up

Estimated Time: Give yourself some time! The Listening Activities run about 45 minutes.

Key Technology: You can choose to stream this program on a computer using the player above, or you can subscribe and download it and load it onto your computer or mobile device to listen anytime.

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The Power of Music

An orchestra is extremely powerful. It can capture a specific time or place, inspire an emotion, tell a story, or paint a picture—all with music. It can sound big and grand—and then small and soft. It can switch in an instant from super-slow to super-duper-fast. It can reach deep down for low notes or soar way up for high notes. How can an orchestra have such incredible powers?

It’s all in the music. Composers, the people who write or “compose” music, use a special toolbox to make their music sound as dramatic as possible. Throughout our Learning Activities and at the concert, you’ll hear more about these unique tools and how composers use them to explore musical extremes.

The Fast and Slow of Tempo

Tempo is a tool composers use to control the speed of the music. It might be fast, slow, or anywhere in between. The tempo can stay the same—or it can change again and again before the music ends. Composers put directions in the sheet music so the conductor and the musicians know the right tempo to use. For example, they use Italian words like:

  • adagio (ah-DAH-zhee-oh) for slow
  • allegro (ah-LEY-groh) for fast
  • presto (PRES-toh) for super-fast!

During the concert, watch how the conductor communicates the right tempo to the musicians.

Wait, Who Is the Conductor?

The conductor is the person who leads the orchestra. Using hands and sometimes a thin white stick called a baton (buh-TAHN), a conductor sets the tempo for the musicians. Notice how the musicians stay focused on the conductor and are able to start or stop at the conductor’s command. The best conductors bring out the emotion in the music to make the orchestra’s performance more enjoyable for the audience.

Dancing with Swords

Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (A-ram kah-chuh-TOOR-ee-uhn) wrote his Sabre Dance to describe Russian warriors who danced with their swords. A sabre is a curved sword with a fancy handle. Since then, Sabre Dance has been used to capture the crazy energy of circus acts, acrobats, magicians, and jugglers. During the concert, listen carefully for extremes in tempo and pitch during Sabre Dance.

The High and Low of Pitch

The second tool a composer uses is pitch—selecting high notes and low notes and many notes in-between—and stringing them together. When you hum or sing to music, you are following the melody, or the pitch, of high notes and low notes.

Sometimes a composer moves from one note to another by taking simple steps up or down the scale. Other times, the melody leaps to a much higher note or drops to a much lower one. You might also hear the notes slide up or down from one note to the next.

If the melody contains notes that are really high or really low, the composer can pick from all the musical instruments in the orchestra to reach these notes. Certain musical instruments handle pitches better than others, just like singers. Some are high; some are low.

The Orchestra

When Big Is Better

In An Alpine Symphony, German composer Richard Strauss (REE-card STRAUS) describes a difficult mountain climb that begins before dawn and ends just as night falls. In between, the climb is filled with beautiful sights, adventure, and a terrible storm. Strauss chose a full orchestra to recreate this journey. He even added instruments not usually part of an orchestra, including cowbells; a glockenspiel (GLOCK-en-shpeel), which is like a large xylophone; and wind and thunder machines.

The Power of Musicians

When it comes to writing music for an orchestra, composers have another extreme tool to choose from—size. They can go big by writing music for a full orchestra—sometimes as many as 120 musicians. Or, they can go small—by writing for a smaller orchestra or a soloist.

Wait, What Is a Soloist?

Many composers write music to feature one instrument over all others. When that happens, an orchestra can showcase a particular member or include an additional musician who is not a regular member. Even though a soloist is only one person compared to a big orchestra, he or she performs with extraordinary skill.

Calling All Players

A composer picks from many instruments in an orchestra—from extremely big ones to extremely small ones. There are lots of choices because an orchestra is big. In fact, it is so big that it is divided into four sections, or families:

The string section is made up of violins, violas, cellos, and basses. These instruments can sound soft and sweet, or soaring and majestic.

The woodwind section gathers flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. Woodwinds can carry the melody over the quietest and the loudest parts of a piece. Some think they come closer to the human singing voice than any of the other instruments.

The brass section includes horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba. Brass instruments are important in the loud, exciting parts of the music. They also can be used to create epic swells and sudden bursts of sound.

The percussion section is home to drums, chimes, gongs, cymbals, and whistles. These instruments are used to provide pounding rhythms, booming drum rolls, and driving energy.

The Extremely Talented Violin

The violin might well be the favorite instrument for composers because it sounds so much like us. And even though it is the smallest of all the stringed instruments, the violin makes the highest sound.

Made of wood with four metal strings, musicians play the violin using a bow (a wooden stick strung with a tight ribbon of horsehair) in their right hand and pressing the string with the fingers of their left hand. The body of the instrument has a hollow center. This center is called a resonating chamber, and it makes the sound of the strings loud and strong. That sound comes out of the two f-shaped holes. During the concert, watch for NSO violinist Marissa Regni perform and listen how a small instrument can make such a powerful sound.

Thunder Mountain!

Here are five easy steps to building your own thunder machine. (Make sure you get a grown-up to help!)
  1. Take a cardboard tube from an empty paper towel roll and stretch a rubber balloon over one end.
  2. Stand the other end of the tube over a piece of cardboard. Trace the round outline of the tube’s end. Cut out that circle and poke a small hole in the center.
  3. Unwind the wire spring from an old spiral notebook. Insert one end of the wire spring through the hole in the cardboard circle. Twist it four or five times so the spring is divided into a short end and a long end.
  4. Use glue to attach the cardboard circle to the open end of the tube so the short end of the spring is inside the tube and the long end outside. Let it dry overnight so the circle is securely attached.
  5. Paint or decorate the tube. Once dry and secure, hold the thunder tube so the spring hangs downwards. Shake the tube. The spring inside will vibrate creating a thunderous sound!

Making Music Matter

From Big to Small

Sousaphone vs. Piccolo

The string bass, the harp, and the timpani are among the largest instruments in the orchestra. The smallest instruments include the triangle, castanets, and the piccolo. The piccolo is a smaller version of a flute, but don’t let its size fool you! Piccolos are powerful!

The Loud and Quiet of Musical Dynamics

Another tool in the composer’s toolbox—musical dynamics—controls whether music is loud or quiet. While dynamics focus on the music’s volume, there’s more to it than simply sliding the dial on the volume control.

The funny thing about music is that sometimes loud is fun and exciting, but it can also be dramatic or sad or spooky or any number of things. In the same way, quiet music can be soft and gentle, but also dramatic or sad or spooky. It all depends on the types of dynamics used when musicians perform the work.

Wait, How Do Musicians Know How Loud or Soft to Play?

Just like choosing tempo, composers include directions for musicians in the sheet music. And again, just like with tempo, different Italian terms are used to describe musical dynamics. For example, here are a few:

  • crescendo (kreh-SHEN-doh) becoming louder
  • diminuendo (dih-min-yoo-EN-doh) becoming softer
  • forte (FOR-tay) loud
  • fortissimo (for-TEE-see-moh) very loud
  • piano softly
  • al niente (ahl- knee-EN-tay) fade to nothing or silence

Extreme Emotions

Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (GOOS-tahf MAH-ler) is celebrated for tackling thoughtful ideas and emotions in his music. His music often considers the biggest questions: What is life? What is death? What is love?

Mahler is considered one of the greatest Romantic composers, but the word “romance” here doesn’t mean hearts and flowers. In Mahler’s case, it describes a musical style that is filled with thoughts and feelings.

During the concert, you will hear excerpts from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 5. In both pieces, the composer expresses his concern over life’s extreme conditions. Listen how Mahler uses musical dynamics to make the music more emotional and thought-provoking.

Did You Know?

Sousa is also the only composer to have an instrument named after him. The sousaphone is a large brass instrument like a tuba that wraps over the musician’s shoulder. You often see a sousaphone in a marching band.

Strike Up the Band

American composer John Philip Sousa (SOO-zuh) is most famous for his rousing march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," which was recognized by the U.S. government as the official march of the United States. It’s not a long piece of music—but its belting brass, crashing cymbals, and piercing piccolos are sure to get any audience clapping and cheering.

For The Educator

Before You Go

Your classroom teacher may have shared a Concert CD with you so that you could listen in advance to the music included in the Exploring Extremes program. Listen to the CD and do all the activities. You will enjoy the concert more if you are already familiar with the music.

Things to Know

An orchestra is a group of musicians who play different instruments. There are 96 members of the National Symphony Orchestra. Many of them will be playing at the concert.

The conductor is a person who leads the orchestra. Conductors use their right hand to tell the orchestra the tempo (speed) to play, and use their left hand to indicate the dynamics (loud or soft). Some use a slender white stick called a baton as they conduct. At the concert, watch how the conductor communicates with the musicians.

After an orchestra is seated, the leader of the violins, known as the first violinist or concertmaster, bows to applause and takes his or her seat. This person then asks the principal oboist to sound an “A” note, to which the entire orchestra tunes. Watch for the first violinist at the beginning of the performance and clap to welcome him or her to the stage.

Enjoy the concert!

Students (and their teachers!) will get more out of the NSO Young People’s Concert when they are prepared for the Exploring Extremes program in advance. Here are some tips for using these resources:

  • The media player (above) contains Listening Activities designed for grades 3 and up. The activities may be presented by the classroom teacher or music specialist.
  • Many students will require at least two opportunities to engage with the content of the media player. We suggest this approach to the Listening Activities.

    Engage Students > Play Track > Reflect > Repeat as Needed > Go to the Next Track

General Tips

  • Listen for yourself. Spend some time alone with the activities and other resources. This prep time is invaluable as you bring these resources into the classroom.
  • Allow enough lead time. Some teachers introduce students to the material weeks before the concert.
  • Prepare not only for the music but for the event. For many students, this will be their first time at a concert with a full orchestra. They’ll be more comfortable if they know what to expect.
  • Most importantly, bring your own creativity to the process. Change these activities to fit your classroom and add your own variations.

The activities presented in the media player connect to the National Content Standards for music, and other subject areas such as science and language arts. Click her for more about the standards.

1. Introduction (4:20)

Students are introduced to the concept of musical extremes and opposites, and how a composer uses these special tools to make their music sound dramatic and powerful. Specifically, students will learn about tempo, pitch, size, and musical dynamics.

During the concert, students will hear an excerpt from German composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 with his exploration of musical opposites, Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s stirring (and speedy) “Sabre Dance” from the ballet Gayane, Richard Strauss’ musical climb up a mountain in An Alpine Symphony, and Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s thoughtful and emotional Symphonies No. 2 and No. 5. They will also hear music by other composers including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Joseph Haydn, Johannes Brahms, among others. The concert program will end with a rousing rendition of American composer John Philip Sousa’s "The Stars and Stripes Forever" March.

2. Fast-Slow, High-Low (10:37)

Students are introduced to two pairs of musical extremes that a composer chooses from his toolbox to create music—tempo and pitch—through the music of Aram Khachaturian’s wild “Sabre Dance.”

Direct students to pages 2–3 of Cuesheet. Read how tempo, or the speed of music, can run from extremely fast to extremely slow and how pitch, or the high notes, low notes, and all notes in-between, make up the melody of the music. Have students prepare supplies (pencil and paper) for the “pitch” Listening Activity.

While playing these music excerpts, encourage students to listen for the extremes in tempo and pitch in Khachaturian’s music. Have students read page 3 of Cuesheet to understand the different ways notes can move when determining pitch. Remind students that pitch travels in leaps, simple steps, or slides.

Encourage students to share their understanding of tempo and pitch. Discuss where they may have heard Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” prior to the concert.

3. Big and Small /Meet the Orchestra (8:43)

Students will learn about the third extreme composers consider—size—referring to both an instrument’s size and that of an orchestra. Students will also be introduced to the four families or sections of an orchestra. Students focus on Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony.

Direct students to pages 4–5 of Cuesheet. Read about the size of a full orchestra, a soloist, how a violin creates sound, and the four families of the orchestra: string, woodwind, brass, and percussion. Prior to listening, tell students how Strauss’ composition tells a story, paints a picture, and creates emotion.

Ask students to listen for the four orchestral families during Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony. Encourage students to listen for how the music tells the story of a mountain climber’s adventurous day and how his journey takes him from early morning to night through a wicked storm.

Encourage students to share their understanding of instrumentation and extremes in size. Ask students if they “heard” the storm’s wind and falling snow? Are they able to articulate the emotions they had while listening to the piece?

Optional Activity: Direct students in the building of their own thunder machines.

4. Loud and Quiet /The Deal with Dynamics (11:34)

Students learn that composers use musical dynamics or extremes in volume to create music. By listening to Gustav Mahler’s Symphonies No. 2 and No. 5, students also experience the role extreme dynamics plays in expressing big emotions and ideas.

Direct students to pages 6–7 of Cuesheet. Read about composer Gustav Mahler and his interest in exploring serious ideas and emotions in his music. Introduce students to the Italian words composers use to describe dynamics.

Remind students to listen for the sudden bursts or reductions of volume and what they think and feel during these moments. Ask students to imagine Mahler’s concerns about life and death when listening to Symphony No. 2 and about longing and heartache during Symphony No. 5.

Encourage students to share their thoughts and feelings about each piece of music. Discuss what other big topics composers might want to tackle in their music?

5. Stars and Stripes and Everything We’ve Learned (7:59)

Students review all four of the musical extremes featured on this CD through John Philip Sousa’s "The Stars and Stripes Forever" March.

Direct students to pages 6–7 of Cuesheet. Read about Sousa’s exploration of extremes, including tempo, pitch, size, and musical dynamics.

While playing this track, ask students to listen and identify the musical extremes from the composer’s toolbox. Alert students to the use of the piccolo that plays a large part in this piece.

Encourage students to share their listening experiences during "The Stars and Stripes Forever" March.

Excerpts from the program of the NSO Young People's Concert Exploring Extremes are provided without listening prompts at the end of the CD.

Preparing for the Concert

Before you depart:

  • Remind students that no eating or drinking is permitted in the Concert Hall.
  • Suggest students bring a light sweater or jacket in case the hall is cold.

When students arrive:

  • Encourage students to visit the restrooms in the lobby before the concert begins.
  • Remind students to sit still in their seats and not to reach between rows, kick the seat in front of them, or otherwise distract from anyone else’s concert experience.
  • The Concert Hall acoustics provide an opportunity to remind students to remain quiet during the performance—and to demonstrate how extreme sounds travels from musicians to audience.

During the performance:

  • Students will know to clap hands and applaud the musicians when the conductor silences the orchestra and turns to acknowledge the audience.

The Concert Program

At the concert, students will hear the following works:

Beethoven Symphony No. 4, first movement (excerpt)
Mahler Symphony No. 2, first movement (excerpt)
Mahler Symphony No. 5, Adagietto (excerpt)
Tchaikovsky Suite No. 4 “Mozartiana” third movement
Khachaturian “Sabre Dance” from the ballet Gayane
Haydn Symphony No. 94, Andante (“Surprise”)
R. Strauss An Alpine Symphony (excerpt)
Brahms Più Andante of Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (excerpt)
Sousa "The Stars and Stripes Forever" March



Doug Cooney
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Richard Paul
Audio Producer

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Art & Music

Illustrations by Jim Caputo

Music courtesy of Naxos America

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