Once Upon A Time

In the most famous scene from Psycho – as a shadowy figure rips open the shower curtain to murder an unsuspecting motel guest – a languid clarinet solo would have drained all the horror from the images on the screen. Instead, the screeching and stabbing strings stretch tension to breaking point.  Hitchcock acknowledged, “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music” – needlessly precise, but (given he had originally wanted the shower scene to be music-free) an acknowledgement of its power. Similarly, at the start of Jaws, as a young girl swims in moonlit waves, a jaunty sea shanty or driving surf guitar track would have made for a very different experience. Little could herald the unseen menace like John Williams’ ominous and relentless two-note phrase, yet Steven Spielberg is reported to have initially laughed at the Jaws theme, thinking it a joke. Those two notes are now almost synonymous with a sense of foreboding.

The importance of music in film cannot be overstated. Music has the ability to manipulate emotions at a very primal and sub-conscious level. Studies show all people around the world recognize happy, sad and scary music, regardless of previous exposure to music and cultural background. Film-makers are well aware of this and spend a great deal of time and money ensuring the audience feels the story. Music also has a narrative power, taking the listener on a journey where ideas return, interact and develop, just like words. One of my favorite things to do with Dorian serves as an introduction to the emotional and narrative power of music: I simply read a story while he provides musical accompaniment. I recommend Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a great place to start.

Before reading the story, choose a sound to accompany each character. Perhaps use a big sound for Papa Bear, a medium sound for Mama Bear and a wee little sound for Baby Bear. We use three different sized drums, but tapping three different saucepans or bowls would work just as well.  Alternatively, low, middle and high notes on a piano or guitar. Older children might compose a theme for each. No need for anything complicated; if two notes imply a man-eating shark, a few notes or a basic rhythm could easily represent Papa Bear. Importantly, it must be simple enough to remember and play each time Papa bear appears. Goldilocks might warrant a totally different instrument or a different way of playing. It’s completely up to the young musical director and you may find yourself retelling the story several times as it is a lot of fun to try new sounds. Once the characters are set, you can begin…


“Once upon a time, there was a little house in the forest, and in the house lived a Papa Bear [play large drum/large saucepan/low piano note/yellow shaker/Papa Bear theme, etc…], a Mama bear [middle sized drum, etc] and a Wee Little Bear [small drum,etc].  The three bears [all drums!] went for a walk while their porridge was cooling. On the other side of the forest lived a little girl called Goldilocks [harmonica blow/ ukulele tune/ high singing/ clapped rhythm, etc] who was out walking when…”

And so on, throughout the story.

Every time a character is mentioned, encourage your child to play the appropriate music. When this is easy, move on to interpreting the mood of the characters. For example, when Papa bear is happily walking through the forest, tap the drum lightly, maybe with a skipping rhythm. When Papa Bear is angry with Goldilocks, beat the drum harder. When Goldilocks falls asleep, play the music slowly and quietly; when she runs scared from the bears, play fast and manically.

If you have the opportunity, record the performance so you can both enjoy it as audience  members.

Any short story with a few characters will work well – Fairy Tales are particularly well suited – and this makes for an activity you can return to again and again.


~The End~

Leave a Reply