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Use Music to Develop Kids' Skills and Character

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Is music important in your life? Is it important in your kids' lives? Is there a reason so many children walk around with an iPod? 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. Dr. Mac Music created a series 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!

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Maurice J. Elias

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

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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!

Bert Sisk's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading the article about music and learning. You are correct, little ones especially learn so many skills through music. When they are up and moving and singing, learning seems so much fun. Also, I find that the kids who tend to lose focus more easily, do better with music. Now if I could just sing and dance all day with my 27 4 year olds all would be good.

Kristine's picture
primary teacher

I teach first grade and use music daily. I think a lot of my students remember concepts because they remember the words from the songs. We learn days of the week, months, seasons, letters & sounds in addition to many math concepts.

S. Rudloff's picture
S. Rudloff
High School Technology Facilitator, Muskingum Valley New Tech Academy/ZHS, in Ohio

I'm trying to figure out a way to incorporate music in my business classes (keyboarding, personal finance, Intro. to business). Any suggestions?

Max Miller's picture
Max Miller
Parent of 2 in Tucson

There's a reason they have babies listening to Mozart in the womb. Music can really help kids develop their cognitive abilities, and I think music ringtones can provide some similar positive externalities as well.

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture
Jeffrey Pflaum
Education writer/author/blogger

I taught EI via music as an inner-city elementary school teacher before Daniel's wonderful book came out from the 70's to the 90's with extreme positive success for the children both academically and in everyday life. The original project involves music, writing, discussion, and self-evaluations (it was in the CASEL library). The kids (grades 4 - 6, and even grades 2 - 3) found that the program improved their reading, thinking, concentration, and communication skills (both intra- and interpersonal), which translated into higher test scores.

I ran the project three times a week after lunch when the students came back to class usually in hyper, non-learning moods. The music, writing, and discussion made a big difference for the afternoon lessons because the kids found some peace, presence, and self-awareness and were able to continue learning with focused minds until 3 o'clock.

The project I created, developed, expanded, and improved over the years comes from the key source to social and emotional learning: the kids. One significant outcome that must result or be a consequence of any "SEL" program is self- or intrinsic motivation: this is what I found to happen in my students throughout many years of teaching this particular program. As an aside, in order for teachers to feel comfortable teaching this type of EI project, they should be educated on the undergraduate and graduate levels in this area.

One of the best books I read is Stephanie Merritt's work titled MIND, MUSIC, AND IMAGERY: 40 Exercises Using Music to Stimulate Creativity and Self-Awareness (Penguin Books, 1990). Merritt taught workshops in the San Diego and Los Angeles school systems.

My one-year program, called "Music Writing" or "Contemplation Writing" goes like this: play music for 5 minutes (or more, time pending); kids close their eyes and write about their inner experiences for 5 minutes (after music is finished); a discussion of their "contemplations" or experiences follows.

Several responses are read out loud by the teacher (anonymously). Kids are questioned about the writings. We had some amazing, intense, meaningful conversations when the music-and-writing ended. After 30 to 40 contemplations, students re-read what they wrote and it usually freaked them out: "I can't believe I wrote this!"

My approach to using music as a means to EI would work today. Teachers can be trained through PD sessions. There is a "basic script," if you will, for the project that helps educators get started with the discussion techniques and process, and from this little intro, they learn to be more spontaneous and create additional questions to probe the various writings.

Another issue is the type of music used for different populations: For example, when I first used classical, students were not exactly thrilled, however, after awhile, they got into it and told me it was their favorite music for "contemplation writing" lessons.

In the beginning of the project (during the 70's), I said they could write just one sentence for the writing part and that would be fine, although that changed over the years to one paragraph or more. There were few instances where the children did not want to write.

So much came out of this program, e.g., "Contemplation Comprehension," where I gave the class an original student contemplation, and asked "EI comprehsnion" questions, to see what their EIQ's were after writing, analyzing, and discussing many experiences. For me, this became an authentic test of their EI.

My students, in their evaluations of the program, said that contemplation writing helped them with their reading comprehension because they learned to see inside, what their imagination was about, how it created mental image pictures, and that they could apply this proces to reading. Contemplation/Music Writing took the images seen in the mind and converted them into words/writing. Reading, on the other hand, took words and converted them into images. Writing motivated reading, and then reading, in turn, inspired more writing.

Michael Griffin's picture
Michael Griffin
Music educator and professional development trainer based in Hampshire, UK.

Background music can be very beneficial in general classrooms. Of course this depends on the learning task and the characteristics of the music. I've written a short essay on this:

Kirby VanDeWalker's picture

Thanks for posting this information! As a Character Education teacher, I am very interested in this. The power of music is underrated and in my opinion we need to use it more often. There are some assignment where I have the students write lyrics to a song, but I have not tried having them listen to a song to get a point across. I have been teaching for a little over 4 years now, and sometimes I ask some of the former students who have been in my class what they remember from it. Interestingly enough, they remember the times where I took a rap/hip-hop song and made my own words to it or the time when I would incorporate music into class. I would not have thought those instances would have stuck with them, but for some reason they have. Thanks for the post! I plan on using music a little more now in my lessons!

Howard's picture

Quite interesting, I think I gotta share it to my wife too..... Little Kids

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