Noyses, Sounds, and Sweet Aires: Music in Early Modern England children's exhibition

A 16th-century treble viol. Folger Digital Image 7561.

This article collects the children's exhibition material featured in "Noyses, Sounds, and Sweet Aires": Music in Early Modern England, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

The soundscapes of early modern England were filled with bells ringing the time of day, street vendors crying out to sell their wares, and music spilling from tavern doors: these were the sounds of London in the seventeenth century.

The following games and activities introduce you to this world of "Noyses, sounds, and sweet aires" by helping you create your own musical instruments, leading you through Shakespeare's world of music, hosting your very own court masques and much much more.

All of the objects and drawings you see here can be found at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The Isle is Full of Noises

The text below is a speech spoken by Caliban from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Read the passage and take a moment to study what is happening in the text. See if you can identify the noises that Caliban hears on the island where he lives.

CALIBAN: Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
(The Tempest, 3.2.148-156)

Now that you have read the passage, think about the sounds that Caliban hears on the island—twangling instruments, voices, rain.

  • Are they good sounds?
  • How does Caliban respond to the sounds?
  • Do they help him to sleep more deeply?

Island Soundscapes

The following activity can be done with a group or class of 4 or more people:

First, decide who will read the above passage aloud. This person will also conduct the sounds.

Then divide the remaining members into three sections, representing each type of sound:

Group A—twangling instruments
Group B—voices
Group C—the rain

Ask the reader/conductor to practice with the groups by having each group make their sound one at a time.

Finally, read speech and conduct the soundscape.

A Thousand Twangling Instruments

This instrument is called a viol. Introduced into England early in the sixteenth century, the viola da gamba–a fretted instrument of six strings played with a bow–became extremely popular among both professional and amateur musicians. Audiences enjoyed the shimmering sounds produced by the instrument and it was also relatively easy to learn. Viols were the staple of domestic music-making.

In the nineteenth century, viols were often converted into violins, violas or cellos, with new necks, fingerboards, pegboxes, and scrolls suitable for four strings.

Make your own musical instruments

Follow the links below to make your own musical instruments:

To make a Rubber Band Box Guitar, click here.
To make Tube Horns, click here.
To make a Styrocello, click here.

Additional instruments to make can be discovered at the Bash the Trash Instrument Building Zone and the New York Philharmonic Kidzone's Instrument Lab.

The Muse of Music

This image is an engraving by Thomas Trevelyon. The woman is Euterpe, the muse of music. This is one from a series of nine muses, a very popular theme in early modern England.

Looking closely at the image, you can see that she plays a straight trumpet in her right hand and holds a strange wind instrument with characteristics of both shawn (a double reed instrument) and recorder in her left hand. At her feet and beside her are a bagpipe, crumhorn, case of flutes, flute, coronet, and trumpet.

Euterpe Coloring Activity

Click here to print out and color the engraving of Euterpe.

A Writer's Inspiration

Inspiration is something that stimulates the mind and emotions to a higher level of creativity. We’re not sure what inspired Shakespeare; it was probably a variety of things including other plays, political conflict and everyday life. He may have been inspired by songs like a ballad about Titus Andronicus. Historians and scholars have yet to determine whether the song came before or after the play.

Write Your Own Song

Can you write a song using a Shakespeare play as your inspiration? The following activity will show you how.

First, select a Shakespearean play that you know or would like to know better.

Next, familiarize yourself with the main plot and central characters of the story. Take notes as you go through the play about the central characters. Make a list of what the play and its characters mean to you. Remember: at this point, do not edit your thoughts and don't think about rhyming or making sense. Just write what comes to you. This will help you determine who and what you want to write the song about.

Now, if you have never written a song, you may need a little help getting started with the form and structure of the song. For help, read about Song Form and Structure.

Next, come up with a title for your song, based on the notes that you've taken about the play. The title will help determine the mood and feel of what you are writing.

As you start writing your song, think about the story of the play and the situation the characters find themselves in:

  • What are they feeling?
  • Who are they feeling it about?
  • What is the problem?
  • How did it begin?
  • How will they solve it?
  • How do you think it will end?

Now that you have lyrics, start thinking about the melody. If you don't play an instrument, one way to solve this problem is to select a song that already exists and write new words to it. This is called using a ghost melody. You can also collaborate with a friend who plays an instrument.

Best of luck to you!

Song Form and Structure

The most common contemporary song form is:


The other common song form is:


Verse: The verses all have the same melody but different lyrics that give us information about the situation, emotions, or people in the song. In the verse / verse / bridge / verse song form, the title is usually in the first or last line of each verse.

Chorus: The chorus is the section in which both melody and lyrics are repeated. The chorus lyrics give us the heart of the song. The title of the song almost always appears in the chorus section and may be repeated two or more times.

Bridge: The bridge has a different melody, lyrics, and chord progression from the verse or chorus. It provides a break from the repetition of verse and chorus and is sometimes an emotional turning point.

Concord of Sweet Sound

This engraving by Francesco Villamena depicts a street crier bellowing over the noises of busy and bustling streets of London. Notice how he flings one arm back and throws his body forward to have his voice heard. In early modern England, patrons making their way through London's streets would have heard cart wheels rumbling, the tolling of bells, peddlers selling their wares, ferryman yelling for passengers, and dogs yelping.

Sounds continue to fill our daily lives today. Have you ever noticed how many sounds you hear in one day? Can you hear the musical rhythm and beats of ordinary everyday sounds? Are there certain sounds that are pleasant and others that are annoying? For example, the sound of waves crashing on a beach or rain falling on a tin roof each has a certain rhythm that can be relaxing. However, the sounds of nails scratching on a chalkboard or cars honking in traffic can be disturbing.

Your Daily Life Sound Journal

Keeping a sound journal of the different sounds you hear throughout the day will challenge you to hear rhythms in the sounds of everyday life and notice the effect that sounds have on your mood. Sit quietly and listen, then write down what you hear in a journal...

  • What sounds wake you up in the morning?
  • What sounds tell you what time of day it is?
  • What sounds do you hear outside of your window?
  • What sounds greet you on your way to school?
  • What are the sounds in your classroom? in the hallway?
  • What sounds lull you to sleep at night?

For one week, make a list of sounds you hear and keep track of how these sounds make you feel.

Delight in Masques and Revels

This image shows a Royal Masque in progression. Masques were stylish entertainments produced by and for the monarch and the court. The more elaborate and lavish the production the better. Masques consisted of dramatic pageants, which incorporated drama, music, dance, ornate costumes, and elaborate scenery. While the performances often likened rulers to mythical gods and heroes, there was always room for subtle criticism of public policy and laws.

Create Your Own Elizabethan Court Masques

Can you create your own Elizabethan-style Court Masque? The following activity will show you how.

First, decide who you would like to honor with this masque. It could be one person or a group of people who you would like to honor. Think of a good-natured joke or humorous story about this person that you can tell at the performance.

Then, select a song or write your own that expresses how you feel about this person or group of people. You can dance to this song or sing it. If you dance to it, make sure there are enough people to dance and perform the music. If you would like to learn more about Elizabethan dances, click here. To hear samples of Elizabethan music recorded by the Folger Consort, click here. To learn more about Elizabethan court musicians, click here.

Next, choose a scene from Shakespeare or write your own that expresses what you feel about the person or group of people you are honoring. The scene doesn't need to be long, maybe two to three minutes or one to two pages.

To dress up the revelers (actors) make some costume pieces and embellish them. Choose something simple, like necklaces, hats and bracelets and add a bit of flare: add glitter, feathers, scarves and ties. If you would like to see images of Elizabethan costumes, click here.

Rehearse it once or twice until you're comfortable and ready to perform.

Performance time! Start by introducing yourself and the person or group you're honoring. Then tell the joke or humorous story. Next perform your scene, followed by your dance, and conclude with a bow. Bravo!

Hearts of Controversy: Freedom of Speech in Early Modern England

In early modern England, composers often wrote music to reflect their experiences. When the topics were politically dangerous, the composers would use text from the bible to express their ideas and avoid censorship.

Take a look at Henry Lawes' songbook, "Choice psalms put into musick, for three voices." This songbook was controversial because the dedication shows that Lawes, one of the court musicians of King Charles I, was unafraid to advertise his loyalty, even after Charles was beheaded for treason.

Can you think of an album cover or song that is considered controversial today? Do you know of a singer or rap artist who has said or done something controversial? How do you think the reaction from today's public might differ from that of the early modern era? Do you think artists today have more freedom to express their thoughts and opinions even if they are controversial?