Listen Up! Music Is a Language

Without any words at all, music is a language that anyone can understand

Music Talks

Listen Up! Music is a Language Podcast

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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Did you know music has a lot to say? Without any words at all, music is a language that anyone can understand. It tells stories, expresses feelings, and even makes us think. Get ready to hear how!

Imagine an orchestra, a group of 96 musicians playing all sorts of instruments. Each instrument has a different sound or “voice.” But instead of sounding like a bunch of noise, a composer, or someone who writes music, blends these unique sounds into a beautiful and amazing “conversation.” How? Because music is a language.

So Who’s Talking?

There are four sections, or families of instruments, that make up an orchestra. Each section has different qualities—just like people.

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.

All Eyes on Me: The Conductor

The conductor faces the orchestra with his or her back to the audience. Marking time with a baton, the conductor starts and stops the musicians at the right moments, and makes sure they play together. The best conductors bring out the emotion in the music to make the orchestra’s performance more enjoyable for the audience.

Hey Me, Too! The Soloist

Many composers write music to feature one instrument over all others. When that happens, an orchestra can perform with an additional musician who is not necessarily a member of the orchestra. Performing with extraordinary skill on his or her instrument, this musician, or soloist, shows how dazzling their instrument “speaks.” Violinist and host Nick Kendall is this concert’s soloist.

Match the Music

Download and print the four flashcards with this Cuesheet, each one representing a different section of the orchestra. As you listen to a Listening Activity, “match the music” by raising the flashcard that shows the instrument family you hear. Perk up those ears because you’ll need both hands: You just may hear all four sections of the orchestra at the same time.


Composers and musicians are able to express feelings, tell stories, and exchange thoughts and ideas through music—without any words at all.

Tell Me a Story

Once upon a time, Russian composer Mikhail Glinka (pronounced mi-kah-ELL GLEEN-kuh) wrote Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila (ROOS-lahn and lood-ME-lah) to tell a famous Russian folktale. The story introduces Ruslan, a knight who braves monsters and dragons to rescue the princess Ludmila from an evil sorcerer. Sit back and listen to Glinka tell this story through his music.

Show Some Emotion

The finale of Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s (ILL-ee-itch cheye-KOFF-skee) Violin Concerto (kon-CHAIR-toh) expresses a great mix of emotions. Listen closely and see if you hear the sound of someone who has overcome sadness and confusion, and who now embraces joy and a new enthusiasm for life.

Think About It

French composer Jules Massenet (mass-uh-NAY) wrote Meditation for Solo Violin and Orchestra to be included in his opera Thaïs (tah-EES). The music plays during a quiet moment when Thaïs, a young woman, thinks about the choices she has made in her life.

Music Speaks!

Every composer uses the same basic tools to write music and speak to musicians. One tool is pitch which refers to the high notes and low notes. Another tool is rhythm or the long notes and short notes. Once you mix pitch and rhythm, you’ve written a melody.

Other tools the composer uses include tempo, dynamics, and major and minor keys. The tempo refers to the speed of the music; dynamics focuses on the music’s volume—how loud or soft the music sounds. And composers can change the mood of their music by switching from a major key to a minor key.

Composers use some tools (with Italian names) to tell musicians how they want their music played including:

Through the Listening Activities and at the concert, you’ll learn how composers use these tools to create funny, dramatic, thoughtful, and emotional conversations through music.

Violin & Nick

Know Before You Go

Before the concert, your teacher will share musical selections from the program. Listen to the music and do the listening activities. You’ll enjoy the concert more if you’re familiar with the music.

Things to Know About a Concert

  • 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 (buh-TAHN) 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 performance!

Small, But Mighty

When the violin was invented in Italy about 500 years ago, people quickly fell in love with its ability to sound similar to the human voice. Made of wood with four metal strings, the violin was also compact and the perfect size for a suitcase. As musicians travelled, they spread the sound of violin music around the world.

While the violin is the smallest of all the stringed instruments, it makes the highest sound. 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.

To play a violin, a musician places one end of the instrument under the chin and the other end in one hand, which is also used to press the strings against the fingerboard. By using those fingers to change the length of the vibrating string, the player changes the highness or lowness of the notes. The other hand “plays” the violin by using the right hand to draw a bow made of horsehair across the strings—or by using the fingers to pluck the strings.

Meet Nick Kendall

Nick KendallGrowing up in a family of musicians, it’s no surprise that Nick picked up a violin at age three. In fact, it was his grandfather who introduced Japan’s successful Suzuki method of early music education to America—the theory that pre-school children can learn an instrument the same way they master a language.

Nick proved to be a “prodigy,” a young person with exceptional talent. Every day, he carried his violin to school for after-school lessons and practice. He admits that sometimes he got teased, but “my biggest memories are of how much joy and pleasure there was to be making music by myself and [with] friends in large groups.”

Nick’s hard work paid off. When he turned 17, he won the National Symphony Orchestra’s Young Soloists’ Competition. The following year, he was a featured guest soloist with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra before studying at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Today, Nick is an award-winning soloist performing classical recitals in major cities across America and around the world. He is also a member of the string trio Time for Three that performs all kinds of music—from hip-hop to Bach, Mozart to country western. Besides performing, Nick enjoys working with students and sharing classical music with young people.

For the Educator

Tips for Using This Guide

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

Using the Listening Activities

The Listening Activities are 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 activities. 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 four 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 connect to the National Content Standards for music, and other subject areas such as social studies and language arts. For more about the standards, click here.

Introduction (4:32)


Students are introduced to the concept of music as a language and how music is able to tell stories, convey emotions, and invoke thoughts. Students also learn how stories, thoughts, and emotions can be communicated without words.

During the concert, students will hear Russian composer Mikhail Glinka’s rousing overture to his opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s stirring Violin Concerto finale, and French composer Jules Massenet’s thoughtful Meditation from his opera, Thaïs. They will also hear works by other composers who “spoke” through their music including American composer Leonard Bernstein and Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, among others.


Direct students to pages 4–5 of Cuesheet. Read how music utilizes the communicative powers of language in its sounds and structure; can “paint” a story and make it come to life, stir our emotions, or trigger our thoughts. Learn how pitch, rhythm, melody, tempo, and musical dynamics contribute to music.


Encourage students to share their understanding of the expressive powers of music. Discuss the concept of voices, dialogues, and conversation and how they apply to music.

Who’s Talking? (9:02)


Students learn about the composer’s selection of the right “voice” or instrumentation from the four sections of the orchestra: string, woodwind, brass, and percussion. Students are introduced to music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Leonard Bernstein.


Direct students to pages 2–3 of Cuesheet. Read how each section of the orchestra has its own distinct sound, and how the conductor and soloist participate in an orchestral performance. Have students cut out the four flashcards from Cuesheet packet for this Listening Activity.


The Listen Up! flashcards represent the four sections of the orchestra (string, woodwind, brass, and percussion) and their distinct voices. The Listening Activity asks students to identify the various instrumental families they hear in a musical excerpt. Students can participate individually at their desks, or teachers can divide the classroom into four groups, each representing a different section of the orchestra. Group members listen for their assigned section and respond collectively by raising their flashcards.


Encourage students to share their understanding of instrumentation and the “conversation” between instruments.

The Voice of the Violin (8:09)


Students learn about the history of the violin, its distinct role in the orchestra, and its ability to resemble human “singing.” Students will also be introduced to “pizzicato,” the quick, light rhythmic technique created by plucking the strings. Students listen to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.


Direct students to pages 6–7 of Cuesheet. Read about the popularity of the violin and why it plays such an important role in the orchestra. Students will learn about soloist Nick Kendall and his life as a child prodigy; about the ability of music to convey emotion; and Tchaikovsky’s efforts to compose music that showcases the violin.


Connect students with pages 2–3 of Cuesheet which provides descriptions of the four sections of the orchestra: string, woodwind, brass, and percussion. Direct students to page 6 of Cuesheet and discuss the particular skills a violinist needs to play this instrument.


Encourage students to share their understanding of instrumentation. Are students able to articulate the emotions they had while listening to the work?

Tell Me a Story (7:04)


Students learn that composers sometimes use music to “paint” or depict the action, characters, and setting of a story by listening to Mikhail Glinka’s opera, Ruslan and Ludmila. Students also experience how the music inspires creativity when designing their settings and costumes.


Direct students to pages 4–5 of Cuesheet. Read about composer Mikhail Glinka and the folktale origin of Ruslan and Ludmila. Introduce students to the roles of the set and costume designers in theater productions.


With paper, pencils, and markers, begin the set and costume design Listening Activity. Remind students to let the music inspire their drawing while being faithful to the Russian story.


Encourage students to share their drawings and how the music influenced their creativity.

The Sounds of Silence (7:37)


Students learn composers often write music to inspire listeners to think or meditate. They are introduced to different types of listening through Jules Massenet’s Meditation for the opera Thaïs.


Direct students to pages 4–5 of Cuesheet. Read about Massenet’s efforts to create a musical moment that conveys solitude and reflection. Provide students with paper and pencils or pens so that they can write down “key words” that describe the various types of listening.


In this Listening Activity, have students list words that describe different kinds of listening. Teachers can also create a meditation space in the classroom by moving desks, tables, and chairs so students can lie down. Ask students to create “stars” on the floor by having a small group of students lie down with their heads united at the center of a “star” and their bodies pointing out in different directions. Teachers can lower or eliminate overhead lighting to facilitate a meditative space.


Encourage students to share their listening experiences during Massenet’s Meditation. Ask “how” they listened to the music. Were they passive or active listeners?

Wanted: Pirates! (5:34)


Students are introduced to musical scoring for films—music specifically composed to assist storytelling, underscore emotions, and stir ideas. Students are introduced to composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his music for the movie The Sea Hawk.


Direct students to pages 4–5 of Cuesheet to revisit the idea that music can tell stories, express emotions, and instill ideas. Remind students of the composer’s basic tools in making music expressive: pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and instrumentation.


Ask students to describe the story they “hear” in the music. Students may also identify the elements of musical dynamics and instrumentation, plus changes in the music’s tempo.


Encourage students to share specific musical elements like pitch or dynamics that made the music expressive. Ask them about the sections of the orchestra. Did the woodwinds sound like wind or ocean waves; the brass like clashing swords or the hero’s courage? Could the strings represent the emotional life of the characters?

The program of the NSO Young People’s Concert Listen Up! is provided without listening prompts in the media player.

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 sound 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:

Brahms - Academic Festival Overture (excerpt)
Glinka - Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila
Reich - Pieces of Wood (for percussion)
Massenet - Meditation from Thaïs
Tchaikovsky - Scherzo from Symphony No. 4
Bernstein - Mambo from West Side Story
Korngold - Overture to The Sea Hawk
Tchaikovsky - Finale from Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky - Finale from Symphony No. 4 (excerpt)



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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