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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

Maria's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a kindergarten teacher, I use music daily. It truly helps my students to learn important concepts: days of the week, months of the year, skip counting, money, etc.. There is a song for everything and I love it! I am in the process of putting together our end of the year show and would like our theme to be beach/ocean. Any ideas?

Jeff Fessler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach Grade 4 at an urban elementary school of the arts in South Florida, and music is a major component of my curriculum.For every novel or short story we read, I incorporate a song or two that complements--and builds upon--the theme of the text.

For example, when we read Shiloh (about a boy who secretly kidnaps a dog being abused by his owner) students listen to and analyze "I Love My Dog" by Cat Stevens and "Honesty" by Billy Joel. They discover that the subtext of the first song reveals how much a person can really appreciate their pet, and in the second song they grapple with the complications of honesty, a huge issue in the story. They analyze the lyrics and look for clues in the music to determine the main idea/supporting details and the author' purpose, then compare/contrast this to the themes of the novel.

A side benefit is that my students learn to appreciate styles of music they haven't heard before. By the end of the year they have listened to bluegrass, jazz, country, rock, alternative, R&B, classical, Appalachian, gospel...the list goes on and on.

Best of all, it hardly costs a thing to do this. I download the songs from iTunes at only 99 cents a pop, and find the lyrics for free on the Internet (there are dozens of sites...just Google "lyrics" and the name of the song). It just takes a little imagination to find the right song, and you can always Google that too (i.e. "songs about honesty" or "songs about dogs"). I also integrate the other arts as well (visual, dance, theatre, etc.) but that's a whole other discussion!

Marcie Lane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a Language Arts teacher for 7th and 8th grade gifted students in Rome, Georgia. I used music lyrics with my 8th graders this year to teach persuasive writing--they loved this activity. I am beginning poetry next week, and the first thing they asked me was if they could use music again. Children are drawned to music, and I can easily see how music could enhance character development. I can also see how music could be valuable for any subject's learning. I am looking forward to trying more music-lyric lessons in my classroom. I can see a great lesson in figurative language, symbolism, and theme easily. I am sure that I could find numerous other ways. We already sing the preposition song to the tune of "Bingo," and the linking verb song as well. As boring as grammar can be, they love to sing these songs. I agree wholeheartedly with Maurice Elias' article--"singing does enhance a more positive classroom environment." Isn't that what we all want--children who are willing learners, and children who are positive learners? I say let's all sing!!!--Marcie Lane

Marcie Lane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello everyone, my name is Marcie Lane, and I teach 7th and 8th grade gifted students. They love to use music in my classroom. From the preposition song to the linking verb song, to using lyrics and music to teach persuasive music--it's always their favorite lessons when they get to sing. Isn't it amazing how music can turn your students into more willing learners? I love that about music--everyone enjoys participating. It's evidenced by the tons of laughter and smiles music lessons create. I agree with Maurice Elias' article wholeheartedly! I say let's all sing!!!--Marcie Lane

Marcie Lane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Maria,

It is a comforting and happy thought to imagine all your little kindergarteners singing away. I would love to be a kindergartener in your classroom. Keep up the good work!!--Marcie Lane

pbass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a 7th grade social studies teacher but I also play bass and guitar. I really liked the article about using music in the classroom. After reading it I have become inspired to use music in my classroom by actually bringing in my guitar and leading the class in a group sing-a-long. I believe the students will think that it is fun and as you stated "it activates three different centers of the brain at the same time: language, hearing, and rhythmic motor control." I think that it might work well for something like "This Land is Your Land" and tie it to U.S. geography. We can listen to a Woody Guthrie recording of the song and then do it ourselves. Thanks for a wonderful article!

Tracy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I am interested to know which songs are best for teaching concepts such as Days of the week, counting, etc.. I am an elementary special ed. teacher and I think adding music to our daily routine would be enjoyable and much more interesting. Do you mind recommending some songs?

Thanks, Tracy

Brooke 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach kindergarten at a rural elementary school in northwest Ohio. I use music in my teaching everyday. We sing songs to learn their days of the week, months of the year, spelling color and number words, seasons, and about every subject we discuss. The children love to sing and we add motions to the songs as well. This is a great way to teach young children and they remember it so well! When I am doing assessments I tell them to think of the song and they immediately know it. It keeps their attention and interest and I have had their parents tell me that they sing the songs at home all the time. I love that you can go to the internet and find a song about anything! It is so helpful and beneficial to my students.

zainab's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Maria I do agree with you that Music has a great positive effect in enhancing children's learning. I am a preschool teacher and I see that children are enevitabley in love with music. their memory skills, predectability skills, are improved greatly as they sing rhymes and songs enforcing numbers, sounds in a friendly way. Also I found that you can keep the children's attention to an activity for longer time when music is used. Music has proven to improve cognition. research has proven that music development follows the same sequence as language development.Also music plays a great part in developing spatial temporal, which is crucial in learning math and sience.
Music is the most enjoyable method that any one can use to learn more.

Marguerite DeWitt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great tool for teaching SECD. I think that music is especially lacking in the classroom, particularly for those schools that do not have a music teacher/music class. This is a educational and easy way for teachers to implement an integrated curriculum and bring more music into their classroom.

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