The Orff Approach

ANCOS logoWe asked Dr Anne Power, UWS lecturer and member of Australian National Council of Orff Schulwerk, about the Orff approach and its application in schools.

What is ‘Orff’?

Orff Schulwerk is an approach to music education that was developed in the 1920s and 1930s by the German composer and educator Carl Orff and his colleague Gunild Keetman. People often shorten the name to ‘the Orff approach.’ This approach encourages the student to develop their own compositions from their thoughts and creativity. In a sequenced music education program, the Orff approach recognises the importance of rhythm in children’s early musical experiences. This is fostered through movement and dance as well as singing, speaking rhythmically and instrument playing.

The unification of music and movement, so natural to the young, is the centre of Orff’s concept of music education. The focus is on the development of good listening skills, as fundamentally important to performance, reading, writing and composition skills. It is a holistic approach that empowers the student to take ownership of their learning and is aimed at creative expression.

How is this used in Australian schools?

In many curriculum revisions (including the current Australian curriculum), Orff practitioners have been involved. Consequently, the staged aims are catered for in an Orff approach. Students are engaged with a musical problem, such as what kind of dance music might emerge from a series of short musical ideas, and are expected to improvise their own solutions[i].

The students commence a process of discovery, trying out a rhythm, or a particular sound or a combination of phrases. Their creations are shared with the group[ii] and in that sharing, young students learn about musical language and develop their vocabulary. Older students will develop their critical thinking and writing skills.

Orff instrumentsWhat age groups is this approach most suitable for?

The Orff approach is suitable for all learners because it utilises what the learners bring at their stage of development. It is a gradual cumulative learning experience. As such it sits comfortably with contemporary ideas of personalised learning and facilitates accommodation of different learning abilities and styles in the classroom.

At the same time, it is an approach that acknowledges that rhythmic understanding underpins music in every society in the world and that there are sequential learning experiences in pitch understanding that commence with the 5-note scale. The Orff approach enables learning in high schools to focus on the development of superior aural skills for senior classes as well as freeing the creative energies of those in middle school years. Orff practitioners have adapted the approach to contemporary pop with great results, encouraging the arranging skills of their students.

In each state, there is an Orff Association and nationally, the approach has been developed to reflect contemporary Australian culture. The members of the Association are teachers who share their resources with each other through regular e-bulletins and through professional learning opportunities. Consequently, these teachers are regularly upskilling themselves in understanding the needs of young learners, in early childhood, primary and high school settings.

What are the benefits of using the Orff approach in schools?

Examples of what schools have achieved may be useful here. In one K-6 school in Western Australia, two Orff teachers were employed. The school began to hold performances at school assemblies and lunchtime concerts. Their choral program developed. A broad base of musicianship developed with students moving on to string, wind and percussion instruments.

Links with other learning in the school were made. Specifically, the Japanese language classes in the primary school recorded a CD of songs[iii]. This is typical of the impact that an Orff approach to music can have in a school. In one high school in NSW, students utilised iPods, YouTube, tabulation from the internet and compositional software as a natural follow-on from activities based on Orff’s rhythmic and melodic improvisation[iv].

The benefits of the approach lie in its adaptability and its natural engagement of students in what Goodkin called ‘relentless curiosity and unbridled imagination’[v].

What kind of training does the teacher need?

Teachers in Australia are generally non-specialists in primary schools. There are some exceptions to that. Nevertheless, there are training courses for the Orff approach, called Levels Courses[vi][vii]. Wherever the Orff approach occurs in the world, these courses also happen. They are in all states in Australia and the training at each level is intensive. Teachers do this in their own vacation time.

The intent of the Levels is to provide training in the techniques and teaching strategies that make up the Orff approach to music and movement education. These training courses come under the auspices of the Australian National Council of Orff Schulwerk (ANCOS) and its guidelines operate nationally.

What does it involve?

Teaching Orff-style in the classroom is helped by having a range of instruments. Orff designed barred instruments (xylophones and so on) from the Indonesian balophons. They are meant to be light enough for children and adolescents to carry. They are also meant to have an engaging and varied sound. Non-melodic instruments, such as hand drums and egg shakers, help students develop an understanding of the role percussion has played in the music of different cultures.

Many schools that use Orff instruments try to accumulate their class sets over a period of time. It is in the interests of the children that the quality of instruments can last for many, many years. The beginnings of rhythmic activity are done with body percussion and every classroom can make use of that.

Do the students learn to play any instruments that they might play for their whole lives?

In the San Francisco school, where Goodkin teaches, concerts that involve Orff barred instruments, bass guitars, clarinets and saxophones regularly take place. In Australian schools, Goodkin’s Orff jazz courses have prompted a number of teachers to move in this way and arrange jazz standards for a mix of Orff instruments and jazz ensemble instruments.

As was mentioned previously, schools with Orff teachers have frequently moved their students into an instrumental program in which they could play in different ensembles. Of course, the experience of the melodic percussion prepares the way for orchestral percussion particularly well.

Where can teachers, parents and principals find out more about Orff?

The website of the Australian National Council of Orff Schulwerk is

Each state has a website that can be accessed, as shown on the national site.

Is this for primary and secondary schools?

This approach is for everyone.

Is this for government and non-government schools?

It is an approach that is across systems. A number of schools that have adopted the International Baccalaureate program have also used the Orff approach.


[i] Frazee, J. (1987). Discovering Orff. Mainz: Schott

[ii] Goodkin, D.  (2001). Orff-Schulwerk in the new millennium. Music Educators Journal, 17-23.

[iii] Kerkovius, A. (2005). Orff approach changes profile of music in school. Musicworks 10, 26-28.

[iv] Augustyniak, S. (2009). From here to modernity: Formal to informal oral music practice and back again – influences of a Carl Orff approach.Musicworks 14, 55-59.

[v] Goodkin, D. (2009). The legacy of Carl Orff. Orff Echo.

[vi] Aitchison, G. (2010). Fostering creativity in children: What teachers need to understand about the Orff approach and its application to ensure this outcome. Musicworks 15, 67-72.

[vii] Power, A. (2004). The Levels courses in the context of research on ‘School Music Education Provision in Australia’ and the formation of Professional Standards for teachers. Musicworks 9, 7-10.

Stay in the loop

Music Australia updates straight to your inbox

Follow Like
Quick Links


  • National clearing house for policy & development

  • Music Journal

    Features articles about the Music Industry Sector

  • Music Talks

    Series of seminars exploring music