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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tracey, the reason materials such as those by Dr. Mac are so valuable is because all you need to do it play it and do the activities! The music will engage the kids and the follow up is not necessarily musically based. Just like those of us who are not cinematographers or authors use movies and videos as learning aides, we can also use music even if we are musically challenged. Give it a try and let your students help you make it work!

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Marcie, does everybody know the preposition song except me??? I am the product of NYC public schools, so perhaps prepositions were banned when I was there... or songs about them, at any rate. Help!!!

Julia Carpenter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that music is a powerful tool for learning and creativity. I'd also add that integrating music into a language arts curriculum, such as American literature, enrichens and deepens students' understanding of literature. As an American literature and American studies instructor, both in a traditional and virtual environment, I've used the music of literary periods to increase student's understanding and spark creativity. For example, in conjunction with reading and analyzing Washington Irving's The Devil and Tom Walker, students listen to excerpts from Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust. The music of Faust adds an emotional and auditory element to the study of the short story that enhances student understanding. Students listen to music of the 1920s during studies of The Great Gatsby and Native American music during studies of Native American myths. Since the arts (music, painting, sculpture, dance) influence authors and the literature they create, integrating the music and culture of a literary period is a natural way of presenting literary works. This interdisciplinary approach also strengthens and reinforces students' understanding of the connections between literature, history, and culture. Authors do not write in isolation; neither should we teach literature in isolation.

In addition to students consuming music as listeners, students can increase their understanding of literature as they produce music based on literature. For example, during the study of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, I ask each student to create their own versions of Whitman's song weaving references in lyrics of their songs to their own lives, dreams, and passions. During student presentations, some students present their "Song of Myself" as a rap, a ballad, or as a pop song. Many incorporate dance moves or visual aids. Music is very important in the lives of students. Using the power of music in education is an effective method for helping students learn and retain information as well as a springboard for creativity.

shelley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fortunately at my school we still have a music program, however, there are many schools across the nation that are cutting music courses for the sake of forcing more reading and math. Teachers that are not musical/rhythmic do not use music in the classrooms for educational purposes. What do you suggest as a solution to this lack of musical mode of learning?

shelley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my school we have a 5th grade teacher that will occasionally bring her guitar and play it while the class is working on seatwork. In my classroom I turn on various kinds of music as background "noise" while the children work in their centers. It really seems to make a difference for the students. They are more upbeat. They are quieter and they seem to be more relaxed. I would suggest that all teachers do this and make it a special mix. Maybe on Mondays, classical music. On Tuesdays, Latin. On Wednesdays, nature sounds. Etc... Different music has different effects and while one style of music may not reach a student, another can.

Simone Diaz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have not used music in my classroom this year with high school students. Our school has a no electronic (no Ipod) rule. If I play music in the background, I am concern that students might push and vote for listening to their own music while they work. Does anyone have any suggestion on how to implement music with Algebra 1 or Geometry?

Joseph Council's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciate your comments on this matter. I am a music teacher in south Mississippi and in this age of high stakes testing, I see music very often forced out of the picture. I find that many teachers have little or no idea how large an impact music plays in the lives of these kids. Music is a great tool that should be used in every calssroom, instead we are finding fewer and fewer music programs in schools at all.

Carrie Yerke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You questioned what to use with your Algebra and Geometry students. You want music that has a steady beat, usually approximately 60 beats/min, as this is shown to help the brain process. Most classical music has this steady beat, but I realize that may or may not work since you are working with older students. Here is a website that might provide you with some more helpful information: http://www.math.niu.edu/~rusin/uses-math/music/

Mary Hannan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a Pre- Kindergarten teacher and I believe music is a great tool to use with four and five year old. Children can learn the lyrics of a song pretty quick. We teach letters numbers and days of the week in song form. I think after reading this information I will use music more often.

Mary Hannan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I use music with my children even though I don't consider myself very musical/rhythmic. There are plenty of great programs/ dvd's or cd's to help musically challenged people, such as myself, integrate music into their classroom. I am in Early Childhood education and there are great cd's called "WEE SING", they have all sorts of songs and silly games to play. I am sure there are plenty of programs for the older students as well. Good luck and keep on singing, even if it is off key!

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