3rd Grade
PURPOSE: To give students exposure to a uniquely American music and its instruments.
CD Player
Photos of bluegrass instruments – see below
Optional: if you can bring a DVD or who a youtube video of a bluegrass band in action,
all the better!
Introduction: Much of the music we’ve played for you in music appreciation has been
classical music that started in Europe. But many forms of music come from other places,
including the United States, that sound completely different from classical music.
Today we’ll be listening to a music that started here in the U.S. in the 1940s, just after
World War II. It’s called Bluegrass Music. (Write word on board)
You know how states have nicknames? Illinois is sometimes called what? The Land
of…Lincoln. Wisconsin is called the Badger State. Does anyone know what state is
sometimes called The Bluegrass State?
Kentucky. Kentucky actually shares a boarder with a state you’re familiar with. Illinois!
Bluegrass music is a sort of mixture of country music, jazz and ragtime, influenced by
Scottish and Irish folk music. Its beginnings can be traced to Appalachia and a band
called “Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys”. Guess what state Bill Monroe came from?
They named themselves after the Bluegrass state of Kentucky.
(Does anyone know the name of the large mountain range in the Eastern United States?
The Appalachian Mountains. So when we say Appalachia, we mean the mountain areas
of Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolina’s and other states).
Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys created their own style of music and eventually the
music caught on and other bands started playing it as well. Bluegrass put a new twist on
country music, and though it started in Appalachia, it eventually became popular in cities
as well.
What makes Bluegrass music different?
Bluegrass is played in a band made up of string instruments. These instruments are often:
5 string banjo
6 string acoustic guitar (not electric)
String bass
options: spoons, washboard, harmonicas, special guitars
In Bluegrass, these instruments often improvise - improvising means creating something
on the spot – playing notes that haven’t been written down and haven’t been rehearsed.
Bluegrass is sort of like that “jazz” of country music.
We’ll listen to each instrument separately first, all in the style of bluegrass.
The Mandolin (show picture) is a type of guitar originally from Italy. It has eight
strings, is smaller and has a higher pitch than a guitar. It was a popular instrument in the
Play CD track one: Four Guys Waltz- Chris Thile).
Next we’ll hear an acoustic guitar – I didn’t include a picture of a guitar, but you’ve seen
them before, right? Does anyone play the guitar? How many strings does a guitar have?
(6) How is it different from the mandolin? (shape, size, # of strings) How do you think
the sounds will be different? Let’s listen to some Bluegrass style guitar. The strings are
strummed and picked with a pick or with one’s fingers.
Good Bluegrass players are known for their amazing “pickin” – it can be very fast. There
are two types of guitars in this next piece. One is called an acoustic guitar and one a
dobro (show picture). Dobro has a tinnier sound and usually a sliding sound. That’s
because performers often use a sliding metal bar over the strings instead of fingers. It’s
often played sitting down, but some performers have a strap that allows them to play
standing up as well and have the instrument facing them (show picture). Listen to this
song for the guitar, and then see if you can hear when the dobro comes in.
Play CD track two: McGuire’s Landing- Pete Huttlinger)
Can you hear a sliding sound? (The dobro comes in about a 1-1/2 min. into the track)
What would you call this instrument? (Show picture of violin) In Bluegrass music, this
is called a Fiddle. Does anyone know the difference between a fiddle and a violin?
They’re the same! A fiddler might have a flatter bridge – the bridge is a wooden piece at
the bottom of the instrument that holds the strings in place – but the instrument itself is
the same. The way a musician PLAYS the instrument is different. It is played using both
the bow and by picking the strings. Wait until you hear how fast the fiddle player plays!
(Play CD track three: Jerusalem’s Ridge- Mark O’Connor)
What is this next instrument? (Show picture of banjo) Has anyone ever heard a Banjo
played? The Banjo is round and has 5 strings. The Banjo often sets the pace of the music
with a regular strumming beat. This next song features the banjo but also has vocals –
that is, singing. The vocals in bluegrass music are often high, very fast and with very
tight harmonies – that means the notes are close together and in synch with each other.
Listen for the banjo just after the vocal introduction. You’ll hear a fiddle in this piece as
(Play CD track four: Shady Grove- Ricky Skaggs)
The String Bass is like a huge violin. (Show picture) What do you think it will sound
like? (Deep, low) (Make a deep voice, let the kids try) The bass sets a steady beat for
everyone to follow. The bass is in the background, kind of hard to hear, but it plays a
very steady rhythm. This song was actually written by a rock/pop musician named Billy
Joel, but Dolly Parton gives it a bluegrass feel. Let’s listen.
(Play CD track 5: Travelin Prayer- Dolly Parton)
Help the class hear the deep beat.
Here’s another example of singing in bluegrass.
(Play CD track 6: Calling My Children Home- Emmy Lou Harris and The Nash
Now let’s put this band together. People like to clap, tap and move to Bluegrass music.
Like we talked about before, band members like to improvise solos which show off their
speed and skill with their instrument, similar to jazz music. In this song you’ll hear
different instruments features, including some electric ones. See if you can name each
one as it’s played.
(Play CD track 7: Foggy Mountain Breakdown- Earl and Randy Skruggs/ Glen
1st instrument – banjo
2nd – fiddle
3rd – acoustic guitar
4th – back to banjo
5th – electric guitar
6th – slide guitar
7th – mandolin
8th – harmonica
Etc., etc.! You’ll hear a dobro eventually, a piano, an organ, etc.
Bluegrass Festivals occur all around the country and can be a lot of fun! Banjo and fiddle
competitions are fierce. People like to come out and relax, listen and sing along to
Bluegrass music. Try it sometime!!
String bass
Dobro played standing up
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