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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

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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Comments (66)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Katherine Lively's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A very memorable teacher I had in middle school allowed us to write a song to show what we had learned. We had a great time writing and performing the song. I still have the song somewhere in a box of memories! Music really captures students' attention! By using different genres, you can reach lots of students as well. Even when you play light or classical music, you can help change the mood of your classroom. My elementary students love when I play the The ChaCha at the end of the day right before dismissal so they can dance. This is a special treat for them and we all have a good time! :)

Kristin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read the above information, I was trying to recall all of the songs I made up to remember spelling words,science terms and vocabulary words from high school. Music is a passion of mine, but I don't use it in my classroom as much as I should. This year teaching first grade, I have made up cheers to read words with blends. The children love it! After reading the article and all of the comments I am going to put more music into my daily instruction. Although some of the information in this article I have read before, I learned something new about the connection of music to language, hearing, and motor control.
Kristin
Grade 1
Baltimore MD

Eric's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an instrumental music teacher and my wife is a teacher assistant in a kindergarten class in Mississippi. The primary way that her kindergarten students learn are through musical esperience. They have jingles and some full length songs for them to master all of the expected skills. They may put the music to recognizable themes, such as the nursery rhyme "This Old Man," or original music in popular genres, such as pop, jazz, R&B and hip-hop. She brought samples home for our 3 year old son to listen. We were curious to see what effect the music strategies would effect. As a result, his vocabulary has expanded beyond our expectation, his speech has improved to where he is compared to Pre-K students.

You are absolutely right about music being an emotional experience. I think it is a grand motivator for students to learn, and it sparks an interest in the lessons. Music creates teachable moments where the things you would just tell them factually or lecture are etched in their mine when it becomes relative to a familiarity.

Victoria Torres's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi! I am an elementary P.E. teacher and I love to integrate music in my class. The kids love and it just amazes me how their attitudes and the amount of effort they put forth changes for the better. It just seems to create a more fun, high energy atmosphere. Depending on our sporting unit, I even have them write little team jingles for their team.

Rod Encina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a Spanish teacher in New York State and I can't believe how much music helps retention in my 7th and 8th graders. We have songs about Pronouns, Direct Objects, and just plain vocabulary. My 8th graders are singing songs that they learned last year. Even the students who wanted nothing to do with learning these songs.

It helps that I play guitar because they love to make me play. So, I tell them that if we learn a song we don't have to sing it to the CD, we can sing it together in class acoustically. This is great incentive for them.

I am currently trying to add a piece where they create a rap about the grammar points they are learning. When I mentioned it, they wanted to get started right away.

Jodee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I remember learning a song in junior high to remember the prepositions! In fact I am singing it right now. I love music and have done many research papers on music and its effect on the brain. Because of this I try to use music daily in my classroom. For 30 minutes every day we do AR reading in my classroom. I turn on Mozart or Bach while my students are reading. It is also a way to keep the noise level down because my students have to hear the music at all times. I also have used songs to learn new concepts. Lately I have played the songs they are learning for music each month during art. They love to sing along and my class always seems to be more united when doing so.

Shannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach fifth grade in New York. I also believe music is a great tool to help children remember important information. I use the School House Rock videos, my students love them. They watched the electricity clip yesterday, by the end all of my students were singing along. When I was in high school my math teacher taught us the song for the quadratic equation formula, it went to "Pop goes the weasel", to this day I still remember it. That is why I use songs to help my students memorize important information. There are so many resources out there with songs already made for different topics.

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

Kaleena, please don't deprive the readership. Share the preposition song lyrics!! We can provide the Yankee Doodle tune!

While I wrote this particular blog about music, allow me to note that a parallel piece could have been written about art. Many a child doodles to help them learn better, not because they are distracted. For some high school students, drawing or sketching an essay before writing it worked better than creating an outline. And I have worked with students who needed to ride their bike for 5 minutes every half hour to study most effectively for tests. We do need to better understand the operation of the multiple intelligences in social-emotional and character development, and all learning. But there is no doubt that music is highly accessible and very generally appreciated.

I hope others will join Kaleena and share specific examples!!

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!!!

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