The heritage of the Kodály Method

Preservation of folk music based on the Kodály Method has been included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list by the UN intergovernmental committee for the world’s cultural heritage. Why exactly is this method so unique and important? Our article is based on the proposition accepted by UNESCO. Pál Richter, head of Institute of Musicology at the MTA Research Centre for Humanities worked as an adviser during the preparation of the proposal.

5 January, 2017

Zoltán Kodály’s concept is a theoretically well-founded complex method aimed at preserving folk traditions. The need for this emerged in part after the disintegration of traditional communities of the time. The system is an open theoretical framework that can integrate new elements and is capable of continuous renewal. In 1925, after two decades of folk music research, Zoltán Kodály had turned his attention towards music pedagogy, dedicating his scientific and composing activities to this purpose. Additionally, he managed to rally his fellow musicians (e.g. Béla Bartók) and music teachers (e.g. Jenő Ádám) to support this objective. Ever since, the Kodály Method has been actively used and augmented even after the death of its inventor in 1967.

Main elements and aims of the Kodály Method

Zoltán Kodály regarded folk music as a type of “musical mother tongue”. His ultimate aim was for everyone to learn about musical traditions as part of their national culture and also for everyone to experience these traditions on an everyday basis. However, according to his philosophy, learning about these traditions should not occur spontaneously, but based on a systematic method.

Kodály’s “Let music belong to everyone!” slogan reflected his wish to make his method available through the educational system and professional NGOs.

Zoltán Kodály collecting folk songs in 1950 source: Gyula Kertész / Hungarian Photography Museum

The primary aim of the method is to preserve elements of folk tradition as part of the cultural heritage that ensure the musical creativity of people and safeguard the diversity of music. Complexity is another crucial feature of the method. Kodály proposed that music education should be practiced together with folk music research, artistic creativity and performance and cultural education of the public.

According to Kodály, the organic modernization of Hungarian musical life is based on the diversity of traditional music and he urges people to learn about and respect other nations’ musical traditions. This is also the aim of the easy-to-learn relative solfege system, which is the simple, internationally recognized method of music writing and reading.

Birth and development – the most important steps of a decade

Conservation is a key element of the method. This does not only mean the complex documentation, spreading and research of music as part of the intangible cultural heritage. It also refers to the professionalism and the use and combination of primary techniques of local communities and the most modern methods of international music education in order to ensure living community practices. This includes the didactic arrangement of selected folk songs according to age groups and difficulty.

The method based on Kodály’s original concept was moulded into its present form for almost 100 years.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences played a crucial role in the formation of the method. The first step to create the method was to make scientific facts on Hungarian folk music available based on systematic folk music collection, systematization, archiving and publication.

Zoltán Kodály with folk music researchers György Kerényi and Lajos Kiss.
László Eősze: The life of Zoltán Kodály in photos and documents (Zeneműkiadó, Budapest, 1982, picture no. 191)

This mission has been supported by the Academy since 1933. Today, the archives of the Institute of Musicology at the MTA Research Centre for the Humanities contain more than 12,000 hours of folk music recordings and 200,000 pieces of written music records from over 1000 settlements.

In order to apply the method successfully, adequate personnel was needed, exact didactic methods had to be set up, necessary teaching materials had to be created and an infrastructural framework was also needed.

Music education in schools based on Kodály’s concept was introduced in Hungary in 1945 and has been employed ever since. The music course book series for ages 6–14 applying this theory was compiled by Jenő Ádám and Zoltán Kodály. It was first published in 1948 and a reprinted edition has been available since 1993. The method is most effectively used in those special music-singing schools where children have several music/singing classes every week. The first such primary school was founded in Kecskemét, Hungary which is incidentally Kodály’s birthplace.

The survival of the method is also ensured through social background. Since the 1920’s, a most important pillar for conserving the method has been the Singing Youth movement. Today the most well-founded and most numerous professional organization is KÓTA (Association of Hungarian Choirs, Orchestras and Ensembles).

Several musical pieces have been composed to support the use of the method. Besides Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, a number of Hungarian composers dedicated part of their oeuvre to promote the aims of the Kodály Concept, primarily to conserve folk music and integrate it into international music culture.