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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

Comments (66)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nicole Cameron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an art teacher and enjoyed this article because it shows how important a specialist can be. Any way to reach our students and help them connect the dots is what we are here for. When I look back to when I was in school I can always remember things that were taught to me through a song or visual aid. I have recently just bought some music CD's to use during my art class that sing the elements and principles of art. I'm am very excited to get them and will have to share if they are good. Has anyone ever heard of some good CD's for art class to use?

Melena Overdorf's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first time blogging so bear with me. I first would like to thank all of you who advocate music in the classrooms. I am an urban elementary music teacher in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who absolutely loves my job. All of my teachers come to me for advice or music that they can use in their classrooms. It is so refreshing to see that the middle school and high school teachers would like and use music in their classrooms as well. If any of you need help with choosing music, please let me know! Thanks for making my day!

Heather Ditinno's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I must say I do agree with using music in the classroom. I teach First Grade ELL and we also use music everyday for learning our days of the week, months of the year, colors and shapes. I also have songs for learning about short vowels and long vowels, this is such a difficult concept for all children but the music and songs seem to definately help. During our centers time and throughout the day I hear the students singing the songs to help them with certain tasks they are doing like decoding words, phonics games and independent reading.I have several C.D.'s that I use, but you can make up a song using any familiar tune and the students love it. I beleive in the power of song and will continue to implement it into my daily teaching.
Heather Ditinno
First Grade ELL

Jammie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also use music in my kindergarten classroom everyday. We have songs that help teach our skills and songs just for fun. The kids absolutely love to sing. I type up the words to their favorite songs and send them home each week in a poetry/song folder. This helps them make a connection between oral and written language. The parents also love this because they can learn the words to the songs and sing with their kids. We enjoy songs from Dr. Jean ( and Greg and Steve (

Candace Queen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Maurice. I too, feel that using music with learning is beneficial in the classroom. I use music to help teach my second grade students their spelling words. Memorization can become an exciting thing when set to a familiar tune. We also use music in science, math, and social studies. My students learn "50 Nifty United States" every year to learn the names of the 50 states. I have also used it with my own children to teach them how to spell their names - "Bingo" works perfectly for this. Music can make even mundane tasks fun.

Kaleena Stackhouse's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also agree that music should be utilized more in the classroom. I am currently a second year teacher, and I always look forward to finding new strategies to teach my middle schoolers. We were currently learning about prepositions, and I decided to use the prepostion song (sung to Yankee Doodle). My students loved it, and best of all they know their prepositions! I also use music when i teach rhyme scheme in poetry. The students bring in their favorite, appropriate tunes and we try to find the rhyme scheme in each.

Kaleena Stackhouse
Intervention Specialist

Christine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I teach 1st grade and use Dr. Jean's CDs. Her songs are written specifically for young students. Raffi and Steven Fite also have great songs for early childhood grades.
Kids really love Nursery Rhyme ABC's and Macarena Months by Dr. Jean. Raffi's Five Little Ducks is very funny.
Good luck and have fun!

Sandy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello!! I teach fourth grade and my students really enjoy the integration of music into their everyday learning. At times, I have my students make up songs and poems about what we've learned in math, science, and even social studies. We recently made a song about the planets, water cycle, and the measuring units using folk and nursery rhyme songs. The students really ran with it and had so much fun! Engaging learning through lyrics makes learning innovative.

Tracey Avery's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that students can learn anything if you put it to music. I've seen amazing things learned through music. My class loves music and will randomly break into song. My problem is that I have absolutely no music ability. I can't even figure out how to sing a song if I'm given the tune. Any suggestions on how a musically challenged person like me can still use it in the classroom?

Jewel Meikle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an English and Science teacher at a secondary school in the Cayman Islands and as most persons are aware, the Caribbean is one of the richest sources of musical talent and so as I read the article, I could relate to it on several levels.
Personally, I use music in my Literature and Language classes - I use jingles and original songs (the students' songs) to teach grammar;I am presently encouraging them to create mnemonics and add music to them so that they can remember basic grammar rules; I incorporate the use of cultural instruments, like the tambourine, the shaker, the maracas, the congo drums in choral presentations and plays; and in the creation of advertisements in Language. It is ironical that being surrounded by such a rich blend of music in the Caribbean that our schools here don't use it more to our advantage to facilitate and enhance learning. Every year there is the National Festival of the Arts where children come together from different schools and make their different artistic presentations, but is more like a celebration of the arts with a competitive edge and not so much as an integration of music in teaching. Music is an emotional experience, I agree with you. People remember these experiences whether good or bad more vividly. So if we can make an emotionally memorable experience musically in class then we are one step closer to making learning fun.

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