Following his folk song collecting with Béla Bartók in Hungary in the early 1900s, Zoltán Kodály had a vision—a monumental idea that music, like language, could be taught artistically using the authentic traditional (folk) materials of any given culture. Gathering talented, creative teachers around him, Kodály developed a philosophy:
Music is at the core of the curriculum. The ancient Greeks believed that music was at the center of all learning, because music was a natural synthesis of thinking, feeling, and moving.
The body—singing voice, body idiophones, and movement—is the best medium for making music. The body and the voice are custom made for every individual. Song and movement are united in traditional (folk) games and dances. Singing with confidence is a main goal.
Traditional (folk) musics leading to other musics are the best materials for becoming literate in Western music. Everyone has a mother tongue—the language spoken at home. The traditional (folk) music of that language should be the song source from which the facts and concepts of music literacy are drawn. In a complex culture, such as that in the United States, any music of a culture group or subculture group should be considered. In Kodály practice the repertory of materials should take four directions:
- Preservation of authentic traditional (folk) songs of the native culture(s).
- Exploration of musics of other cultures.
- Bridging traditional (folk) songs with all styles of composed music.
- Exploration of both historical and living traditions.
Music literacy is like language literacy. Everyone has the ability to hear, speak, read, and write a language. Therefore, everyone has the ability to hear, sing, read, and write music. Music literacy is something that everyone can and should enjoy. Music literacy is the first step of analysis toward the goal of musical understanding.
Quality music is the best material for teaching. Kodály believed that only the best music by the greatest composers and traditional (folk) music most representative of the culture are good enough for children.
Experiencing music—hearing, developing skills, preparing to derive concepts—cannot begin too early. Kodály said music training should begin "nine months before the birth of the mother."
The Kodály philosophy has been adapted worldwide. Emphasis on the continuing upgrade of the teacher's own musicianship continues to be a strong feature of this movement. It is a living philosophy constantly being reshaped by research in how children learn music in cultural settings. Kodály's vision complements the emerging focus on world musics and popular musics by today's musicians-educators.