Why Montessori bells get it wrong

There is no single Montessori system for introducing 3-year olds to music. Children are placed in a rich environment full of learning toys, of which the musical instruments, generally bells, are only one among several competing attractions.

Montessori bell sets have a range of one octave and come in diatonic (8 bells) and chromatic (13 bells) versions. In both cases, two sets are used, one on black and white stands as on a piano, the other on plain varnished wood stands.


Montessori chromatic 1-octave bell set

The idea of duplicating the sets is to test the child’s pitch sense by shuffling one of the sets and making him match two bells that sound the same note. The notion of error is thus instilled at a very early stage, and with it the possibility of failure.

Small children, especially the more sensitive and artistic ones, have a very ambivalent attitude towards success and failure. Some like to fail in order to make a point, and end up proving it to themselves.

Melodies, when taught, are the usual boring tunes in C major, and the expected end takeaway is that the child will hit his 6th birthday knowing the names of the notes and ready to start piano torture. Or will have decided music is not for him.

I find this sad.

Given that a set of bells like the one above can cost around $1000 (yes, you read that right!), it might be worth asking about the return on investment, and whether duplicating the set, rather than, say, offering a two octave range, is really the best use of resources.

The Montessori philosophy is all about letting children learn what they want as the fancy takes them. It’s about self-guided discovery rather than having teachers pump them with knowledge. The premise is that they learn best when they are interested in something.

So why is the musical equipment (or in Montessori-speak “auditory sense materials”) geared towards a boring piano-centric view of what music is? I suspect that this is a legacy of the nineteenth century, and that it is now time to move on!

My favorite example of the way the piano can compound errors and turn a small slip into disaster is a kid who had learned Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in C on the piano, but then started on B by mistake. Knowing only the white keys, he couldn’t work out why everything he did sounded wrong thereafter.

My proposal would be to use a single 25-bell set spanning two octaves offering intervallic consistency, so that the same movement always produces the same interval.


Proposed 2-octave intuitive layout for Montessori bells. (Virtual model)

With intuitive layout, you don’t have to work out in advance which degree of which scale the song starts on to know which bell to hit first.

The flipside is you can play in the wrong key without even knowing it. But that minor failing is consistent with our focus: to play like singing in the shower!

The same colors used in Montessori mathematical games to give them appeal can be used for the bell stands. As with my intervallic xylophone, all major scales follow the same rule of “play 3 notes on one row then 4 on the other”.

But the aim here isn’t even to teach scales. Scales are just abstract constructs created by extracting notes from music. Or vice versa. They are not a pre-requisite for playing “like singing in the shower”.

Allowing a child to discover his own personal ritornellos on a logical and intervallically consistent instrument rewards his guesswork and reinforces his improvising muscle and musical confidence – the soundest basis on which to build his talent, and train his “auditory sense” – something not to be confused with keyboard knowledge.

And if you really want to put those kids to the test, why not let them have a go at placing all those bells in the right order? Who cares if they fail? That’s how Arnold Schoenberg got started!


About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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21 Responses to Why Montessori bells get it wrong

  1. Pingback: Why Montessori Bells Get it Wrong (2) | Intervallic Awareness for Improvisers

  2. Jessica says:

    If you follow the fullness of the presentations and possible work options with these bells, you will understand that the bells are not the be-all, end-all of music for the children. The bells are supposed to be only ONE portion of the child’s musical experiences. The bells are intended to provide a key experience – not the entirety of the child’s learning. (Key experiences are designed to open up areas of exploration, entice interests – and the well-prepared guide will be able to follow the child’s interests to their fullness)

    Moving into elementary, the tone bars continue to build on the key experiences while providing for the two-octave work that allows teh children to learn about all of the scales.


    • jazzpanflute says:

      Thanks for your coment Jessica. My criticism is of the model of bells shown, an investment of over 900 euros. For educative value they were beaten hands down in my presence by a 30-dollar airport pentatonic balafon (African xylophone).


  3. Hey, I love your bells! If you decide to make them and sell them you should let me know!


  4. Aurora says:

    It’s an interesting thought, but a large part of the single octave range for the 3-6 year old child has to do with their vocal range and natural ability to match, organize and reorganize pitches… Not a sense of pass/failure but and exploration of matching same and different tones and training the ear to hear pitch more and more accurately. I have been using the Montessori bells for nine years in my teaching practice and have found a number of accessible tunes that can be played on them. Children who cannot sign in tune can indeed hear whether tones are same or different much quicker through repeated practice with these materials and the price is well worth the investment for any Montessori environment


    • jazzpanflute says:

      Thanks for your input, Aurora. I am sure, however, that pitch awareness can be acquired without expensive equipment. As for the range, even Frère Jacques encompasses a ninth, and you would need to start it in G or F to fit in most of it. The children I saw found the bells boring compared to the balafon. They particularly seems to resent being told to treat the bells gently – I suppose, because they are so expensive!!


      • Jessica says:

        The gentle touch is required because the bells make their most sound with gentle strike of the mallet – with the mallet dangling from the child’s fingers (first two fingers and the thumb – writing grasp), held securely enough as not to fall and gentle enough to swing freely. Striking just the rim and gently but firmly, produces a beautiful sound that entices the children to keep working 🙂

        And Frere Jacques can most definitely be played within the range of one octave – I learned in early piano lessons (nothing to do with Montessori or bells) as, cdec, cdec, efg, efg, gagfed, gagfed, cgc, cgc (but the g that just played earlier in the song, not going down to the next octave).

        Now – do I like the deeper pattern better? Yep. But there are variations 😉

        I fully support having other instruments in the child’s reach as well – but an xylophone can’t do many things that the bells provide. However, not everyone has been well-trained in the depth of the bells. I am still learning myself – and loving them more and more every day 🙂


      • All materials in the classroom are required to have a gentle touch. It is refinement of the senses and grace and courtesy to use items gently. It has nothing to do with the bells, per say, or there cost.

        And if you can find manufacture the bells so precisely for less money, you are welcome to. I have spoken to many “discount” suppliers, none of whom sell the bells, and they have said that it is impossible to produce the bells for less cost. For schools that cannot afford the bells they often use inexpensive hand bells and buy two sets and paint the bells so there is no visual discrimination and children only use sound to discriminate.



  5. jazzpanflute says:

    Dear Jessica, my point was not that these bells are not lovable or that they don’t provide a valuable aural experience. But that such a large investment of resources could have been far more productive, with a less muddled teaching objective. Is the black and white coding of the notes intended as a precursor to piano lessons? Are you prepared to deal with the inevitable questions about why some notes are black?

    As for the physical act of playing them, in an idyllic world where small children could be enticed to treat objects gently these bells might be useful for playing single notes. But their decay is so long that if the child wishes to play a melody, each bell’s sound needs to be individually quenched with the damper to avoid an unpleasant build-up of ringing in the ears. I have yet to meet a 6-year-old child capable of striking the bell in the manner you describe and of subsequently remembering to damp it before correctly performing the next note; and if such a talented child were found, why not start her straight off on violin lessons?


    • I’ve noticed that many people who object to Montessori’s approach appear to object it on the grounds that children are expected to behave in a certain way and are not capable of behaving in another way.

      I suppose it is hard to imagine that regular children, in a certain environment, can be induced to exhibit care, interest in precision and delicacy… I did not believe it myself before! I wish I had the opportunity as a child to experience that part of me more, and to be guided to appreciate and use delicate instruments. That would have been pretty cool.

      But the reason why they are mostly seen in schools is because they are expensive, and with that expense they are expected to last through many years of children. I do not know if they can be made cheaper at good quality. Many things are cheaper now because they are made by people with lower pay, and the environmental costs are not considered in the equation. We live close to China and we do not buy produce from China, it is not possible to get a guarantee on the quality of the groundwater there.

      The color is meant to distinguish the fact that they are two sets for matching, and to not make it too easy for them. It is possible for children to check their work – I believe there is a mark on the bottom of the bells if they are unsure. I got the Melissa and Doug shape matching clock for my kids and painted all the shapes one color, because otherwise they could just match the color and may not exercise the more difficult task of matching the shape.

      I think, to a certain extent, children are given cues by adults that influence their attitude towards ‘failure’. You can observe young children persisting at a task despite repeated ‘failure’. It is something that most of us sadly either grow out of or are trained out of. To be always right is to win, but I don’t learn much from what I’m naturally good at.

      On another note, I think the lady above was asking if you might make the hypothetical bells you spoke of, and not of the ones already available in the market. It would certainly be interesting if a real set were made and tried with children. The litmus test is always the children’s reactions. And perhaps most Montessorians have been dealing with exceptional children. I might be wrong.


  6. OBS says:

    All equipment in a Montessori classroom is expensive, not just the bells. The work with the bells actually goes far beyond just teaching “music”. Everything in the classroom is scaffolded and prepares the child for meeting their developmental potential- yes these are musical instruments but they impart more than just an octave scale knowledge and set the child up with more than just a potential for piano lessons.
    So much that I my AMI training had an album’s worth of notes, presentations on them, did your Montessori training not have this?


    • jazzpanflute says:

      Careful reading of my post would reveal that my objection to these bells is less about the ROI than about the mixed message. Trainee teachers in any discipline are enjoined to have clear teaching points, something they will know whether or not they have succeeded in transmitting by simple tests at the end of the lesson. If these bells are intended to devlop sensitivity to pitches and sounds why are they coded in black and white? Children, like adults, are primarily visual, and the first thing they will want to know is why some are white and some are black. That’s before they even hit the things. Getting back to ROI, check out eBay for Tibetan singing bowls, a far superior substitute. Much cheaper and much more fun, offering variety lacking in the Montessori brand.


    • Eleanor says:

      What a lovely reply!!!! AMI standards are very high back by the pedagogy set forth by Montessori herself and all of those who know the pure method. There is always back up for any questions and I am AMI trained 0-3 and 3-6 – the explanations and understanding of the why materials are used goes very deep. I work with Nienhuis as well as AMI and am sure should you pose this question you would get a very clear explanation. The bells are an investment to any Montessori environment.


  7. Jessica says:

    With respect, I think you have missed the point of the bells, but I can understand why you might balk at paying the cost of them (many classrooms don’t have them due to the cost) – I would definitely not recommend buying them for home use. The purpose of the bells is to isolate very specific sounds (perfect ‘C’) – the Nienhuis bells are ‘tuned’ bells. They are perfect to the note. This allows the child to become aware of those very specific sounds. Have you hear of ‘perfect pitch’ ? This is when a person can hear and place the sound and give it a name. Most people believe that perfect pitch is innate, we can either do it or not, but my brother is a music teacher who went to a Montessori school, and he believes that if we allow the child to become aware of the sounds at an early age, and name those sounds, the child can learn ‘perfect pitch’ to do this, they need a ‘tuned’ sound. Our Montessori environment has lots of musical instruments, the bells are not a ‘musical instrument’ as such, they are a Montessori Sensorial Material that belong with the other Sensorial materials (pink tower, broad stair, colour tablets, rough and smooth boards, baric tablets) – for the development of sensory perception. Most people think it is for ‘sensorial exploration’ but this is not true. The child ought to be exploring with all their senses, all the time, with real-world experiences. Sensorial materials are designed to heighten the child’s conscious awareness of their own perceptions/experiences. I love tibetan singing bowls, I love the wooden Marimba that we have in our environment, I love the beautiful drums. We have good examples of these in our environment too, but none of them are as ‘tuned’ as the bells are. I assume you are doing Montessori in a properly-equipped fully functional Montessori ‘Casa dei Bambini’ – because the (very expensive) Montessori materials are made/designed for use over a period of 20 years by many many children (group size 30+), not for just a few children. That is why they are so expensive. If you are in a home environment, you could buy a piano (well…except…that’s probably more expensive than a set of Montessori bells, and the piano will need to be tuned once or twice a year if it is being used intensively every day… plus a piano takes up a huge amount of space…although most of the Montessori schools that I have observed do have a piano, especially if the school has a 6-12 programme as well.
    PS. my brother’s violin cost more than his car…


  8. Your point is well thought except for one thing: the axiom. You are arguing from the point of view that these materials are for music education. The materials do not have that purpose.

    The materials fit into the sensorial area of the classroom. In Montessori, there are several main areas: practical life, sensorial, math, language, science, and culture. There is, of course, art and music. Many of these activities also often fall under practical life (which would teach art skills as well) and cultural (which also deals with music). But this material you are talking about is not primarily a music material. You seem to suggest it fails as a music material. But that is ok, because it is not a music material.

    Let me say it again: this is not a music material to teach music. So…what is it?

    This material falls under the sensorial area. And let’s explore that for a minute of what that is. The Sensorial and Practical Life areas of the classroom are actually the cornerstone of Montessori. These two areas are specifically designed to help the child focus on certain skills. The bells are designed not to teach music, but to help refine the child’s sense of listening. It also helps aid in developing the child’s focus. This all helps with the child’s language development. There is also no better material that does this. How and why? I am glad you asked. 🙂

    The first point is that it helps refine the child’s listening. The way we do this material is we ring one bell, then find the bell that matches. The subtle differences between the sounds are what is important. Maybe a child mixes some up, but that just means they have not mastered it. They will likely select it again because children want to master the materials.

    If presented properly, the child knows the goal of the material. As the child focuses on it, he is absorbed in the point of matching the sound. There is a deep level of concentration with this, similar to what we see with previous sensorial materials, such as the pink tower and visually matching sizes and observing them. Something happens with the sensorial materials where the child blocks out other distractions and really focuses. Their brain is really developing that part that deals with that sense.

    Now, the question still remains of how this helps the child’s language development? The child in the 3-6 classroom is getting ready and exploding into writing and reading. But if the child is able to focus their hearing to fine tune their hearing, they are more ready to hear the different sounds in words. What is the difference between “pen” and “pan?” For adults whose first language is English, that is easy. But for a child, even if their first language is English, it is not so easy to break down sounds of the language. This material helps the child focus on sounds.

    Are there other materials that help this focus as much as the bells? I argue now. You mentioned in your comments either a xylophone, zither, or similar instrument (I do not remember which one). That will not work. The pieces you strike are different sizes. So the material gives a visual cue. But we are not refining the visual sense with the bells, but an auditory sense. There is no xylophone I know of that offers all the bars in the same exact visual size. Correct me if I am wrong.
    Even the Montessori sound cylinders can often be partially matched by the weight as we shake them. And they often offer drastically different sounds.

    So I think you make a good point…ONLY IF the materials have the purpose you stated. But they do not. That said, it sounds like you know a lot about music education and I do think Montessori training, as a whole, fails in this point (as well as art education and other important areas). So would love to talk to you sometime about how to improve this area.


    • jazzpanflute says:

      Let’s get this straight. If they are not for musical education, and to be more specific, if they are not a preparation for piano or solfa lessons, why the black and white coding like the piano? I had three children come up to me during my workshop and ask why some of the bells had black stands. What am I to say to 4-year-olds?


      • They do correspond to the piano. In the same way the binomial and trinomial boxes in sensorial correspond with the binomial and trinomial equations in algebra, because SOMEDAY they will learn those notes on a piano and recall hearing those sounds in preschool. However, it is not the direct aim in the preschool presentation of the bells. It IS part of the elementary presentation of the bells.



      • ^^^I second Tammy’s reply. And that is really all the explanation you need to give to a four year-old: that they match up to the piano keys.

        Also, thanks for allowing the ongoing and great discussion on this. I see a lot of great thought and ideas in this post, and we need more posts about Montessori that are thought out like this.


  9. Oh gosh! What a good post… all of it! We are a Mexican Montessori preschool, in search to develop a music program for our school, beyond what we got from our AMI or AMS or MEPI trainings, and your post gave me some good info to explore!



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