Painting to music

PAINTING TO MUSIC — a class activity (60 minutes)


The idea is to present to the children a piece of music in a way that gives both context and makes it memorable. This activity can be flexible, and be used for further project work. For example, you may want to look at the history of the story or the composer. You can explore the geography too. The story is often from a different county to the composer.

The general idea is to paint or create art in time to the music (ie, speedily and with concentration). The children should start as the music begins, and finish when it ends. 


To begin with, you need to introduce the project with a simple storytelling, and some appropriate images. This will not only give the children something to imagine when listening to the music, but provide useful reference material for their own work. If the story is from Russia, for example, they will need to see examples of characteristic architecture or costume.

If you feel confident enough, you might even demonstrate how you would draw or paint to the children. Be prepared to try! Children are very forgiving and it might be fun. You can do this as the children listen to the music for the first time.

You will need a GOOD QUALITY sound system. A lot of classical music is quite subtle. If the sound is too quiet or poor quality, the project is already compromised. They need really to be able to hear the music!

After listening to the music once, you can then give the children their chance, and play the music a second time.

It is important for the children to consider COLOUR and to encourage them to follow the flow of the music. If it’s gentle and calm, they should mirror that mood in their mark making. If more dramatic, they may paint or draw correspondingly. Music is very often described as “colourful” or “chromatic”, and all the music chosen for this project is full of interesting sounds and effects which suggest images, colours and stories.

The children must paint an image that relates to this topic! And they should be quiet. They should just concentrate on their work for the duration. Any chatting disturbs their neighbours. 

Very often, there will be children who are not finished. This can be seen as an advantage, as they will be keen to hear the music once more (a third hearing), which helps them remember. If the music is short enough (around 10 minutes for example), there should be time, even with introducing the story, to play it three times.


They will have heard a piece of music two or three times, in a clear and appropriate context. The music will have meaning and significance now. They will have created art of which they can be proud, an image in which they have invested their creativity and time. This offers a direct memory of both story (literacy) and music.

You can follow up another lesson with a reminder of the music and see who can retell the story. Which piece of the story belongs to which piece of music? What else can you imagine? Perhaps find other related music by the same composer or on the same subject. Can you find a book with the story in it?

The children can retell the story, either from listening to the music or using their art – with is really an illustration of course – as a prompt. Perhaps exploring the story from another perspective works well.

You can try storyboarding too, and maybe even make animations for the music. Collaborative art on large rolls can work well too.


Time is of the essence, so easy and swift materials are best. Make sure they are ready to go, BEFORE the lesson. Cover tables for protection if necessary.


It can be effective to try using unexpected materials, like opaque paint or oil pastel on black paper.

We recommend the following:


Oil Pastels (NOT chalk pastels – too messy). These can be used on sugar paper or cartridge paper, black or white or coloured. If working on black, explain how bright colours show up best. Maybe practise on a sheet to demonstrate how different colours work; this can be part of your demonstration in the beginning.


Watercolours on cartridge or watercolour paper. You will need watercolour sets (cleaned and ready to use) and a selection of medium and fine brushes. Not coarse hoghair brushes, but decent brushes that give the children some control. 


Gouache on black paper (NB, NOT sugar paper, but back cartridge paper or card). Fine and medium brushes required.


If funding art materials are a problem in your school, there are other things you can do. Matt emulsion match pots or sample pots are great, affordable paint. Sometimes hardware stores will give out-of-date paints away. You can also ask parents to donate unwanted samplers (which makes this environmentally friendly too). You can paint on almost any surface with these paints. They are thick, and you’ll need palettes and water of course. If you cant source paper, collect bits of card from boxes or envelopes. The paints can stain so children will need protection for their clothes. Check no children are allergic to paints before beginning.


Using stories to inspire children’s compositions

Stage 1 — the story
The elements of music
Stage 2 — developing a rhythmic piece
Stage 3 — developing a melody
Stage 4 — creating a soundscape
Stage 5 — creating a song
Stage 6 — graphic scores
Painting to music
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