The Kodály method, a singing technique for all

No child is devoid of musicality. That’s what Zoltán Kodály thought when he first set up the musical teaching method bearing his name. And the best way to develop it is to sing along.

The Kodály method, a singing technique for all
La Maîtrise de l'Opéra de Lyon suit les cours de formation musicale selon la pédagogie Kodaly, © Blandine Soulage/Opéra de Lyon

When he first developed this concept in 1950s Hungary, Zoltan Kodály placed singing at the heart of his teaching method. The most natural means of expression is also the most accessible instrument to all children, regardless of their musical potential. Because, according to Kodály, no child is devoid of musicality, he just needs to go and bring it out in the most appropriate way. "In this way, he will have developed the most direct relationship with music that he will be able to approach, practice and understand throughout his entire life", wrote Kodály. From the first school he founded in 1950 in Kecskemét, his hometown, the Kodály method spread to Hungarian public schools and conservatories, with the aim of struggling against musical illiteracy: "In schools, we do not train future professionals, but an audience for concert halls".

And indeed, seventy years later, the Kodály method has spread beyond Hungary's borders. In Denmark, it is integrated into schools’ music education, as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Latin America, Australia or the United States. In France, on the other hand, the reach of the method remains rather confidential: French association "La voix de Kodály" provides courses throughout France and brings together music teachers trained in this method. But these are not recognised by the official musical teaching structures: only the Lyon Opera’s masters degree applies the Kodály method in its teaching. Laure Pouradier Duteil, professor of music at the Lyon Opera, tells us: ‘’When Serge Dorny was director, he wanted to reform the master’s degree according to the English or Hungarian models, with a real teaching tradition. We chose the Kodály method, which we set up along with the Swiss pedagogue Edouard Garo, who introduced the Kodály method in Switzerland. Today, our students follow the Kodály method for musical training from Year 3 to 10." Laure Pouradier Duteil was trained in Kecskemét, at the Kodály Institute. "This is a very complete method that requires teachers to have a solid knowledge of vocal techniques. They must be able to lend their voice to musical training, while putting singing at the heart of learning, and radically change the way music is taught. This is not an approach that is easy to implement for teachers trained in France, which is, together with Italy and Spain, one of the only countries in the world where this method is not yet practiced."

The Kodály concept: much more than just a method

Grégory Hérail, director of Lyon’s school Bouge et chante, was trained in Hungary and now teaches French contributors. "The Kodály concept is much more than just a method; it is a comprehensive teaching approach. The student is fully active in his own learning process and must be from start to finish. Singing is the best way to do this. While you don’t have to constantly check accuracy with an instrument, you have to constantly listen when you’re singing: to yourself and to others, in order to adjust. Singing is the most accessible practice for all children, regardless of their musical predispositions. It requires little technical skill to provide result.And it's a source of enjoyment for all children, which remains the main motivation’’, adds Gregory.

In Gregory Herail's school, introduction to music begins even before the age of three. "It's never too early to start, as long as you adapt the approach and the repertoire" he explains. The sooner we start, the better the chances are that the child will develop musical abilities to their fullest, Kodály said so himself, adding that it would be best to start nine months before birth... So with which priorities, tools and methodology? "Every age has its own approach. The aim is to develop the child's melodic and harmonic ear, his ability to situate himself in a melody and position himself in relation to other voices. From there, he can develop his inner ear, this ability to read the music as if reading a book, and ability to hear music in his head."  

Mobile scale solmization

To educate their musical ear, students are led very early on to first sing polyphonic songs. "The work is very progressive", explains Gregory. You first set the pulse, then the rhythm, then an ostinato, and finally you superimpose voices, one by one." To fix the intonation, Kodály introduced a very ingenious principle which is the relative solmisation: the scale’s different degrees are sung with the corresponding syllables, regardless of their absolute pitch. A major scale will thus always be sung Do-Ré-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si-Do, in regard with the height of its absolute tonic. This way, each note has its own function and is sung in relation to another note. Intervals become formulas that children can easily reproduce.

Grégory Hérail présente la phonomimie lors du stage de la formation à la pédagogie Kodaly à Paris
Grégory Hérail présente la phonomimie lors du stage de la formation à la pédagogie Kodaly à Paris, © Radio France / Suzana Kubik

To make intonation easier, teachers use the phonomimic technique. This is a way of visualising the sung notes’ height by assimilating them to a specific hand gesture. This is a system invented by John Curwen, later drawn upon by Kodály, as represented here:

Dans la méthode Kodaly, la phonomimie est régulièrement utilisée pour faciliter l'intonation
Dans la méthode Kodaly, la phonomimie est régulièrement utilisée pour faciliter l'intonation

Harmonic ratios and intervals in the melodies that are sung are taught first and foremost, explains Gregory Hérail, "In France, we tend to sing note by note. The Kodály concept makes it possible to position oneself permanently in relation to a tonic. This enables you to sing polyphony quite quickly, and also to learn the harmonic sequencing’s typical formulas, which then appears in art music, jazz, pop, etc."

But this mobile scale solmisation is also the main obstacle to a better understanding of this method in France, according to Laure Pouradier Duteil. “What is difficult to integrate into our French system is that we first educate the ear and then we move on to coding. With the Kodály method, children learn to sing a major third in tune, for example, before they can even draw a key of G or situate notes on a scale"

Even if the primary objective of teaching is singing, teaching obviously involves the integration of clearly identified musical concepts, according to Gregory Hérail. "As soon as the students are able to sing properly, we start to introduce writing. You note the rhythm, and then the height of the notes. There are no music theory exercises as such, all the notions are studied via the musical examples that we sing: progress is made only from the repertoire, the music brings forth a concept and not the opposite. First we sing it, then we verbalise."

A familiar repertoire

Particular attention is given to the repertoire. When he started teaching, Zoltan Kodály drew from the repertoire of traditional Hungarian songs, a heritage he had spent years identifying, writing and recording with Bela Bartók."Traditional songs have a double advantage", explains Gregory Hérail. "They are part of each child's imagination, they sing them easily and they correspond to the mother tongue’s prosody. Moreover, they are built on melodic formulae that easily find their way into the children's ears. Formulae that they can later easily reconstruct in other types of repertoire. This is therefore a direct route to all types of music, modal and tonal: classical, but also medieval, renaissance or jazz."

Laure Pouradier Duteil studies the traditional repertoire, but also works from the great repertoire: Mozart, Gounod, Schubert... The teacher must constitute his catalogue of works according to the children's age and the established learning objectives, requiring substantial research. Once in class, all musical games are allowed: "Children love to sing traditional songs, it is a repertoire that speaks to them, resonates within them and is close to them. In class, these songs are performed in unison, canon or ostinato, and that amuses them regardless of their age. After a few sessions, they remember the songs and even play the same vocal games during recreation."

Despite its obvious success with children, the basic repertoire of Kodály's method has been met with reservations in France: "Traditional songs have a somewhat outdated image in our country, whereas in countries with strong vocal traditions, it is rooted in their musical practices" explains Gregory Hérail. “France has lost its bond with vocal traditions, we no longer sing, despite the fact that this repertoire can give us access to all the other musical registers." And although Kodály's pedagogy was originally conceived to develop musical practice of children through singing, it is now available for instrument teaching with the Colour Strings method, founded by Géza Szilvay, violinist, pedagogue and fellow countryman of Zoltan Kodály. But this is a story for another time…