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Use Music to Develop Kids' Skills and Character

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
Is there any good reason why we don't use music more often when we teach social, emotional, and character development (SECD) to children? If you've answered yes to the first three questions and no to the last one, then read on!

The Power of Song

I asked Don McMannis, an expert on children's music, to share with me some of his ideas about the appeal of music and its unique potential for teaching young children SECD skills. He responded, "Music has positive affects on people's emotions and creativity. When we sing together, we synchronize our breathing and feel more connected.

"Music is also an effective, almost magical medium for learning and retaining information," he adds. "It activates three different centers of the brain at the same time: language, hearing, and rhythmic motor control. By inducing emotions, it also creates a heightened condition of awareness and mental acuity. Words paired with music are far easier to retain. As an example, most of us can remember the words and meanings of songs we haven't heard for years. Isn't it interesting how you still remember your ABCs?"

The latest work by Oliver Sacks, a world-renowned neuroscientist, supports Don's views. In Sacks's 2007 book, Musicophilia, he writes, "The perception of music and the emotions it can stir is not solely dependent on memory, and music does not have to be familiar to exert its emotional power. I have seen deeply demented patients weep or shiver as they listen to music they have never heard before, and I think that they can experience the entire range of feelings the rest of us can, and that dementia, at least at these times, is no bar to emotional depth. Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling."

Many of us have emotional experiences and memories that are deeply tied to music. So let's put this modality to work to improve our kids' emotional development. If you go to Dr. Mac Music, you will see some excellent examples of using music to teach SECD. The most recent is Ready to Rock Kids, Vol. 3, for ages 4-9. It's a great example of someone taking the research evidence and putting it into practice.

Don McMannis and his creative team have created original songs for the CD, and the lyrics are designed to build skills and character. There are also many complementary activities to help you reinforce the messages in the songs via a variety of modalities: writing, speaking, acting, drawing, building, creating, and movement. The songs and activities also reinforce the everyday benefits of characteristics such as respect, responsibility, and honesty and of abilities such as resolving conflicts nonviolently and facing and overcoming fears.

These are the kinds of materials that you can use across the curriculum. And you can use them in unstructured or transition times or in after-school programs. Some teachers like to use a song to start the day, focusing on one song for the week.

Regardless, you might be surprised by how quickly kids learn the words and meanings of the songs. The songs, of course, provide messages and skill development that students can then recall and focus on to support a positive classroom climate.

Learning Through Lyrics

Here is an example: First, look at this excerpt from a song, minus the wonderfully catchy tune. Talk It Out teaches children to use their words to resolve conflicts with others. The song makes a subtle but very important point: It can be as bad to ignore issues as it can be to confront them violently.

It's a magical moment, just like a miracle's occurred / It's a magical moment, whenever everyone feels heard.

Instead of how we blame, or turn and walk away / Instead of calling names, or pretending that it's all OK / Instead of how we frown, or make a yucky face / Why don't we look around and find a magic place.

(Chorus) And, sit down and talk it out / Yeah, sit down and talk it out / 'Cause what's been missin' is a little listening / So come on and talk it out.

It does not take a lot of imagination to see how this song can lead students and teachers to create a special talk-it-out space in the classroom.

Here is another terrific song activity, called the Listening Blues, which teaches kids the importance of listening: Pair children up and have them talk to each other at the same time, with neither child listening to the other. (For example, you can have them talk about what they did over the weekend.) Then ask them to repeat what their partner said.

Next, have them speak one at a time, listening carefully to each other, and check again to see if they can repeat their partner's stories. Afterward, have a group discussion around the following questions:

  • Were you better at reporting back after speaking one at a time?
  • How could you tell if someone was listening to you?
  • How did it feel to be listened to and understood?
  • Why is it sometimes so hard to keep from interrupting?
  • What are some of the most important times to make sure others are listening to you?
  • What are some ways to be sure others have listened to you and understood what you have said?

Of course, the activity has value just as it is, but the synergy of linking it to a song will enhance the message for children. As Oliver Sacks points out, music is so fundamental to how we live and learn that it makes a lot of sense to incorporate it more into our SECD instruction.

Perhaps you are already including music-based, SECD-related projects in your classroom. Please comment and share them!

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Comments (64)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a middle school music teacher I am in full support of music in all classrooms. I think that music is a great way to help students learn and retain information but I also think that it is a great motivator and focuser. I play music for my General Music classes while they are working in groups or individually on projects. I also play music for them while they are testing and quizzing. At the end of every year, I give my students evaluations and they always comment on how listening to music in school has helped them retain information, because that is how the majority of them study at home. If they're listening to music while they read and do homework, chances are they will remember information better if they're listening to similar music at school. I think background music is great, and teaching new information to catchy easy tunes will help students retain the information.

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a music teacher I am often using math in my music classroom to help students make connections. I talk about beats per minute in certain songs and have them figure out how many beats are in the whole song (which is algebra, if I remember my own math classes correctly) and to figure out the strong and weak beats in a piece. I'm not sure what type of math this is, but I also use pitch and frequency with dividing strings in half, etc. to show students the scientific and mathematical basis for sound and subsequently music. I teach note durations and measures which is all fractions and I relate the two so hopefully my students will make the musical/mathematical connection.

I think it's great that you're interested in using more music in your math classes! Good job and Good Luck!
Rachel Hucko
7th Grade Chorus
8th Grade General Music
Vestal Middle School, NY

Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This topic really sparked my interest to keep reading. I currently do not use a whole lot of music in my classroom but after reading this I plan to do as much as I can. I teach middle school Science so using the listening activity would be great in my class. I think it would also give them a break from the norm but teach them how important listening in class can be. Just thinking about how I could use music in my class excites me, and makes me feel more confident about really making the curriculum a part of their world!

Michael Griffin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's great to see teachers in this forum using music across the curriculum to support student learning. Much research substantiates the positive outcomes of having background music playing in certain study situations within the classroom. One area less touched on is having background music playing throughout the school in non-instruction times such as at the beginning of the day. I wrote an article titled 'The Corridors of Power' for a UK music education magazine (Rhinegold -Classroom Music)earlier this year. This use of music uplifts the entire school community.

The topic of my Masters Dissertation (2006) was 'Background Music in Education: Borrowing from other disciplines'. The 'other disciplines' referred to were medicine, marketing and sport. I have this paper on my site should anyone like to read it. Go to: http://www.musiceducationworld.com/Schools.html to download.

At the end of August 2009 I will be travelling to Australia giving a number of workshops on the topic 'Study, Stress and Music'. Later in the year I will be doing the same in Thailand and Germany. This workshop looks at the various factors that determine the usefulness (or otherwise) of background music accompanying study; factors such as music characteristics, personality type, cognitive challenge, motivation and 'flow'. Students love the presentation, as I also play piano no examples to demonstrate my points (In these summer hols I am performing jazz nightly at a Dubai hotel -The Burj al Arab.) Again, you can download some information about this presentation from the same website, or contact me (mdgriffin2002@yahoo.com.au) and I will send you the information. As it happens I will visiting New York, DC and Toronto in October should anyone be interested in me visitng their schools.

One day I will write a small ebook on this topic. Let me know if you want me to keep you posted on this!
Michael Griffin

Sandy Eggers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What kind of music was used? I've heard classical helps with math, but do students want to listen to that genre?

P Wiley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is a school rule at both of our Middle schools and actually K-8 that no electronic devices are allowed in the classrooms. they are to be kept in the student's locker. Of course, we have students with their cell phones all the time, texting each other during class. We also have student sneaking their iPod's too.
I'm not sure how to address this, I let them listen to my radio, or music off my computer. The whole class listens to the same thing. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. Usually I have students more concerned with what to listen to than to attention to the lesson or task at hand I have to just say No and turn it off.

shuguar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've found a site www.SOHLkids.com that actually mix it up. They teach it all and music wise they are by far the best

Rusty B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school is very strict about electronics in the school. Cell phones, iPODs, etc. are not allowed to be used in class (cell phones are not to be used in the school). However, the staff has had many heated debates about the use of music in the class. Some teachers believe that for some students who might be a distraction in class, personal music will increse their concentration and thus improve the quality of their work. Our administrator has no problems with using music in the class for a specific purpose, but will not allow personal music during classtime. The feeling is that personal music will keep the student from being a distraction in class, but the music will not help their learning.

Kristen Kunc's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's a shame that many of the schools mentioned don't allow music to be played in the classroom. My students have always seemed to find the classical music played during morning work time, silent work time, or even some reading time, very relaxing and enjoyable. It tends to keep the noise level down and with the increasing research about the relationships between music and math, I think it's wonderful. We typically play Beethoven, Mozart or other famous composers' music. They recognize it from music class.

Kristen Kunc's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Some of the staff at a school at which I once taught, got together and made a math facts CD. They wrote lyrics for learning multiplication facts and to improve fluency. I use it with my third grade class and they absolutely love it. We spent several days learning how to count by 7s, but they only started to really catch on when they listened to the x7 song. It is not only engaging for them, but really does help them remember the facts. At a fluency workshop (for reading) I recently went to, the speaker talked in length about the use of songs to improve vocabulary and reading fluency. Expression and speaking skills seem to also improve!

As Maurice Elias notes at the beginning of this blog, ""Music is also an effective, almost magical medium for learning and retaining information," he adds. "It activates three different centers of the brain at the same time: language, hearing, and rhythmic motor control. By inducing emotions, it also creates a heightened condition of awareness and mental acuity. Words paired with music are far easier to retain. As an example, most of us can remember the words and meanings of songs we haven't heard for years. Isn't it interesting how you still remember your ABCs?"
Considering the brain's engagement and effectiveness with memory, Integrating music into all subject areas seems like a key to success!

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