Stacks of speakers in the Connor Theater, bathed in purple light

"Shake, Rattle, & Roll": The Building Blocks of Music

How do you build a musical masterpiece?

All musical performances—from epic stadium concerts to singing in the shower—are created from the same basic building blocks.

"Shake, Rattle, and Roll: The Building Blocks of Music" is designed to teach students to identify and describe four fundamental elements of music: rhythm, pitch, volume, and color. Students will sing, clap, and dance along to upbeat rock & roll songs such as Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" and the Isley Brothers' "Shout" while they learn how these elements communicate meaning. Participants will also practice their analytical skills by viewing video performances of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees.

Related content areas: Language arts, social studies, fine arts / music
Level: grades K–4
Days offered: Tuesday–Friday (October to June)
Times offered: 10:00am or 11:30am
Duration: 60 minutes
Capacity: Up to 150 students per session
Available supplemental materials: See below!

Register for This Class

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The program is FREE for schools within zip codes that begin with 440, 441, 442, or 443. Regional groups can participate in Rockin’ the Schools for a discounted rate.

Questions? E-mail us.

Writing and Activity Prompts

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Use these writing and activity prompts in your classroom before or after your visit to encourage your students explore the basic building blocks of music! Each prompt is available below for download as a PowerPoint slide.

Close Listening Activity

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Active listening skills are an important part of communication and of understanding music and the world around us. Listening requires focus, patience, observation, and practice.


  1. On a weather-friendly day, take students outside and ask them to sit in a circle with their hands on their legs.
  2. Tell students that they will be practicing their listening skills (“listening ears”).
  3. Tell students they are going to listen to sounds around them. Ask students to identify three sounds they hear and be prepared to describe them using adjectives once the quiet period is over.
  4. Ask students to close their eyes and remain silent for 3-5 minutes. Just listen. Have students compare and share their findings, descriptions, and interpretations with the group.


Expansion Suggestions

  • Return to the same outside location for a few days in a row or at different times of the year and repeat the activity with a reflection on how and why the sounds have changed.
  • Students can also draw what is making the sound, draw what the sound itself sounds like, or select a color or two that best represents the sounds they hear.
  • The listening can also be assigned as a “listening journal” at home or at school.
  • For more concentrated listening, play a song and repeat the exercise.

Close Listening Activity

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Download a copy of this activity as a Word (.docx) file.


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Building Blocks of Music Playlist

Music has four important building blocks: rhythm, pitch, color (or timbre), and volume. Musicians have many ways to arrange these pieces, just as there are many ways to build a tower out of toy blocks. Each element has specific properties that can be controlled.

  • Rhythm is an organized pattern of sound in time. An important element of rhythm is the beat—the steady, continuous pulse that drives the music. Rhythms can also fall between and across those beats. Both “Bo Diddley” and “Wipeout” have distinctive rhythmic patterns that repeat.
  • Pitch refers to how high or low a tone is. In “Rock Around the Clock,” Bill Haley’s voice goes down in pitch when he repeats “rock, rock, rock.” He also ends the chorus lower than when the chorus started. “Around” is sung to a higher pitch than “tonight.”
  • Color (or timbre) is the unique, distinct quality of an instrument or voice. In “Green Onions,” the bass guitar has a rich, deep sound. The electric organ and the electric guitar have brighter sounds. In “Peter Gunn,” the rough, growling saxophone stand apart from the smooth, driving bass guitar.
  • Volume describes how musical sounds range from loud to quiet. In “Long, Long, Long,” the music starts quietly and gets louder. In “Shout,” the singer calls out the volume changes when he sings to get “a little bit louder” or “a little bit softer now.”

Musical Building Blocks Playlist

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Download a PDF copy of this playlist & background information.


The Bo Diddley Beat Playlist

Rhythm and blues guitarist Bo Diddley brought the clave rhythm−a traditional Afro-Cuban rhythm−to mainstream audiences in his song “Bo Diddley.” His use of this rhythm in a rock and roll song was so unique, that at the time, it became known as “the Bo Diddley beat.” It is identifiable as a rhythmic pattern that goes “bomp-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp!” In Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley” as well as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey,” this beat is played on several instruments including drums, hand percussion, and guitars. The beat played stands out from the rest of the musical sounds. For decades, rock and roll artists have used the Bo Diddley beat because it makes you want to dance! Listen for it in the music of artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to the White Stripes—it does not always repeat, and sometimes it is very subtle!

Bo Diddley Beat Playlist

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Download a PDF copy of this playlist & background information.

Inductee Biographies

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Read more about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees covered in this class!