For the past twenty-five years, The St. Louis Symphony has sponsored an art contest called Picture the Music. The contest invites students to listen to a piece of music composed by classical composers. Students’ interpretation is on a piece of 12 x 18" (30 x 46 cm) paper using the art materials of their choice. Playing the music on repeat generates thoughts in students’ minds, enabling them to paint, draw, or collage a truly unique visual music experience.
Lily D., grade three. Top 25 Blue Ribbon Winner for Picture the Music, 2012.
Picture the Music is an educational activity that invites students in grades K–6 to listen to a selection of symphonic music and create their own artistic interpretations through painting, coloring, or drawing.
Picture the Music
For the past twenty-five years, The St. Louis Symphony has sponsored an art contest called Picture the Music. The contest invites students to listen to a piece of music composed by classical composers. Students’ interpretation is expressed on a piece of 12 x 18" (30 x 46 cm) paper using the art materials of their choice. Playing the music on repeat generates thoughts in students’ minds, enabling them to paint, draw, or collage a truly unique visual music experience.
There are similarities in the way we describe music and visual art. Students are encouraged to think about the lines, colors, patterns, and textures they sense and the feelings they have while listening to the music.
Invitation to a Symphony
Art teachers submit the top seven artworks from their school into the contest. Thousands of entries are sent from all over Missouri. The top 100 winners are announced to the art teacher, and students and their families are invited to a ceremony at the St. Louis Symphony. That evening, the 100 works are displayed in the gallery hall. All 100 students are invited to sit on the symphony stage to hear the announcements of awards and receive their Certificate of Merit. At the end of the year, the artworks are returned to students.
I developed the following Picture the Music lesson to allow students the freedom to explore their creative ideas about art and music. I begin with playing the music and allowing ideas to flow in students’ minds. While they continue to listen to the music, students create an abstract background with a watercolor wash. This is a wet-on-wet watercolor technique in which the entire paper is dampened with water, and colors are layered on top and allowed blend into each other. The papers are then placed on a drying rack.
Students view artwork inspired by music, such as Romare Bearden’s collages of musicians and Kandinsky’s abstract work. Students also watch a short YouTube video of Eric Carle’s I See a Song and we discuss Carle’s ideas of what the music revealed to him from his book.
Next, students begin their own sketches of music. We listen to the music on repeat to allow the music to become part of their thinking. Students are encouraged to draw large, fill the composition, and tell a story about the music. Pictures of musical instruments and music paper are provided to anyone who wants to represent an instrument in their work. When students are ready, they begin their work on their final watercolor paper using colored papers, oil pastels, markers, and paint.
Celebrating the Results
Students title their work and we finish with a class critique. It’s difficult to select the top seven to enter into the contest. Once the artworks are selected, parents are notified, and we create a picture display on our website.
Over the years, I’ve had the delightful experience of celebrating with families and students at the Symphony Awards Ceremony. I’m always amazed at the creative ways students combine music with the visual arts.
Art is integrated with subject areas such as math, science, writing, social studies, and music to create rich and holistic learning experiences. Young students explore cubism and develop collagraph prints inspired by a guitar study, elementary students use a Visual Thinking Strategy to evaluate art and literature, middle-school students sculpt clay bones and participate in an outdoor archaeological dig, high-school students collaborate with a professional artist to paint a mural that celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more.