Learn About Charles Ives: What Charlie Heard

Let's add to our growing list of music and book pairings!

Our subject is Charles Ives, the American composer who changed the landscape of music in the Modern Era. 

Through the book, What Charlie Heard, (along with another picture book about Ives), and the music lesson presented in this post, your children can learn about this musical pioneer - whose music was often SHOCKING and UNANTICIPATED.


Read the Story: What Charlie Heard

The extremely busy illustrations draw children into this picture book immediately. And, from the very first sentence we know that Charles Ives was going to become something great: 

"Charles Ives was born with his ears wide open."

Taking the reader on a trip through Charlie's childhood in New England, the author (Mordicai Gerstein) shows all of the places, events, and influences that would shape the music of the older Charles Ives. Interestingly enough, music was Ives' second career - his first was as an extremely successful insurance salesman.

His Third Symphony won a Pulitzer Prize, and when Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic broadcast his Second Symphony from Carnegie Hall, his music was known all across America - and eventually all around the world!

The fun thing about Ives' music is the way he chose to combine instruments (even two marching bands at one time!), and use snippets of already familiar folk tunes and hymns to create a uniquely American sound.

Learn About Charles Ives' Variations on America

Before we learn about one of Charles Ives' most famous pieces, his Variations on America, let's listen to the original "America" - also known as "My Country 'Tis of Thee". 

Samuel Smith wrote this song (which eventually became America's unofficial national anthem). It was his intent to write a song that would allow the American people to give their praise to God for their wonderful land. 

My Country 'Tis of Thee has become even an international favorite - being used in England as "God Save the Queen/King".

(You might also enjoy the picture book My Country 'Tis of Thee, which chronicles the interesting history of the song.)

Have your children watch this video. Note the beautiful chorus that sings the song, and how it stirs up our patriotic emotions. It was these emotions that Charles Ives wanted to build upon when he composed his Variations on America.

Theme and Variations?

In music, we have a certain form (a way of organizing a piece of music) called Theme and Variations. 

In Ives' piece the THEME is the main theme  -- the "My Country 'Tis of Thee" melody. The VARIATIONS are those changes to the main theme that Ives makes throughout the piece. 

The overall form of this piece is a theme and 6 variations

Charles Ives wrote this piece for pipe organ - although over time it has been arranged for band and orchestra as well. 

Listen to the piece -- can you hear the main theme?  Can you hear the variations?

( Hint:  The first variation begins at 1:46. )

This piece is SUCH FUN!  Just watch the organist explore the possibilities of sound on the organ and you will be delighted!


Now, how about a different arrangement of the same piece? This time - a symphony orchestra!


In our SQUILT LIVE! archives we explore this piece in greater depth - following a listening map to learn where the variations begin and end, characteristics of each, etc...

Draw What You Hear

As your children listen to the music, encourage them to draw what they hear.

They can also listen for the different variations and what makes them sound different - different instruments, major vs. minor, etc...

Some children may want to complete a drawing for each of the variations they hear. 

Let them be creative - the point is to enjoy the music and to think critically about what they are hearing. 


More Music By Charles Ives

Play more music by Charles Ives for your children. Here are a few good pieces to get you started.


Variations on America is one of pieces in our SQUILT LIVE! archives. Join us at any time to access this piece, along with dozens and dozens of other lessons!


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