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March 27, 2017

Why Music Matters in the Early Childhood Classroom

By Elaine Winter
Grades PreK–K, 1–2

    “If I didn’t think music could help save the human race, I wouldn’t sing.” Pete Seeger (1)

    Where would early childhood be without music?!? We rely on it to welcome children to the rug, signal transitions, help preschoolers wait out a delay, and reinforce basics such as rhyming and counting. It’s safe to say that music brightens classroom dynamics. Who among us hasn’t sung Clean up, clean up… or Five more minutes? Some teachers begin their days with a song such as, “Here We Are Together” or “Hello, Everybody, to greet each child in the morning circle. We might have favorite rhyming and counting songs, such as “A-Hunting We Will Go” and “Mary Mack, All Dressed in Black.” And we honor (sometimes) children’s wishes to sing their ABC’s over and over again. Music can set a mood and define a tempo, sparking children to get up and move or to rest quietly on their mat.

    Singing together deepens children’s sense of community and introduces melodies, language, and rhythms from different cultures. Francis W. Parker School Music Department describes it as follows: “Music is a vehicle for students to express themselves in ways no other communication can achieve. We (Francis W. Parker School) strive to help students discover their own melody, create harmony with others, and experience the heartbeat of our shared humanity.” (2) I like imagining that preschoolers can “experience the heartbeat of our shared humanity.”

    When singing and moving occupy a solid place in the classroom, children build a repertoire of songs and delight in singing them over and over and over again, adding new lyrics, personalizing them, owning them. Musical experiences grow as they do, echoing children’s feelings, offering solace, and just plain jazzing things up.

    RESEARCH: And now there’s more. Research is showing us how music helps young children build powerful thought networks that fortify their learning in areas as varied as language processing, visual perception, memory, mathematics, and, of course, creative expression. “Music molds the mind,” writes Dr. Susan Barry, professor of neurobiology at Mount Holyoke College, referring to early childhood when children are most receptive to music’s benefits. “Making music actively engages the brain’s synapses. As young children participate in music-based activities, their muscles, senses, and intellect are engaged simultaneously; they are exercising their brains in ways they rarely do. Long-term musical training actually re-organizes the brain.” (3) 

    The notion that activities as intuitive and engaging as singing, moving, and playing an instrument can enhance a young child’s neurological development is pretty powerful. In her article, “How Music Improves the Lives of Children, Dr. Price-Mitchell writes, “Music keeps the mind sharp, serving as a challenging cognitive exercise. It also feeds the soul, develops character, and boosts creativity. (4)

    Here are some recent findings:

    Executive Functioning: Preschoolers’ ability to organize new thoughts, ideas, and information is referred to as executive functioning. We spot it in children with a clear sense of purpose, who tackle a puzzle, build with blocks, or dress themselves efficiently. Their thinking is flexible; if one idea doesn’t work, an alternate is right behind it. “Since Executive Functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications,” said Dr. Nadine Gaab of Stanford University. “While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help set up children for a better academic future.” (5)

    Literacy and Language Processing: Researchers Nadine Gaab and Paula Tallal have also found that musical training improves the way children’s brains process the spoken word. This improved auditory processing becomes an asset to children learning to read, and is especially helpful to children with dyslexia and other reading challenges because it helps them to hear the words as they decode. “Especially children who aren’t good at rapid auditory processing and are high-risk for becoming poor readers may benefit from early musical training.” (6) For example, one of our 5-year-olds had only a rudimentary sense of sound symbol relationships; he struggled to identify consonant sounds within a spoken word. Yet, because of his participation in a music-based program, he could identify a trumpet, violin, and piano within a piece of music. His kindergarten teachers leveraged this ability as they guided him toward literacy.       

    Memory: Children who sing or play an instrument are consistently organizing, adjusting, and sequencing new material before committing it to memory, habits they then apply to diverse learning situations. In his 2014 book, Why Music Education Actually Matters, Blake Madden says, “Young children who take music lessons show different brain development and improved memory over the course of a year, compared to children who do not receive musical training. It is very interesting that the children taking music lessons improved more over the year on general memory skills that are correlated with non-musical abilities such as literacy, verbal memory, visuospatial processing, mathematics, and IQ than did the children not taking lessons.” (7)

    Emotional Well-Being: “When they move and sing, children feel good about themselves,” writes Dr. Julene K. Johnson, professor at the University of California, San Francisco, “Study after study has found that singing relieves anxiety and contributes to quality of life…. It takes something intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people, and it comes back as something even more thrilling.” (8)

    So how do we use music to boost preschoolers’ listening and organizational abilities, their memories and their sense of self? Here’s what our teachers say:

    1.     Make it fun, focusing on process, participation and playfulness, not achievement.

    2.     Create a repertoire, based not only on holiday or seasonal considerations, but on children’s personal experiences and opportunities to build musicianship.

    3.     Aim for spiraling sequence that allows students to approach new music without letting go of the familiar (Make new friends, but keep the old…). A group I once taught sang “Jingle Bells” in June. Not my idea, but then why not?

    4.     Include ample opportunity for movement and physical expression. 

    5.     Build in sufficient time; don’t rush it.

    For some of us, introducing music and musical experimentation begins the minute children enter the classroom. For others, developing a music curriculum represents a large challenge. What if I can’t carry a tune (yours truly)? What if I don’t know a lot of songs? What if there’ s no budget for instruments?

    Okay then!! Here are more tips:

    1.     Resources: Build your own YouTube library. Sites such as The Singing Classroom offer quality music options. Take your phone into colleagues’ classrooms and tape what you like. Where available, professional development opportunities in the form of interactive workshops, can be empowering.

    2.     Songs: Make them up!!! Take a familiar tune and modify the lyrics. Bend the tunes to your needs.

    3.      Finding the time: No one wants to add transitions to the school day, especially our children. We keep tweaking our circle times so they allow time for singing without stretching the time we ask our children to remain seated.

    4.     Keeping kids engaged: Vary the mood and tempo. Mix new and familiar songs. Most importantly, involve the children by calling on volunteers for a new motion or lyric. Here’s an example:

                            I’m so glad to see you.

                            I really couldn’t wait.

                            Can you tap your head

                            And count to eight?

    Tap your head can be replaced by clap your hands, stomp your feet, even blink your eyes, making individual participants active contributors.

    5. Instruments: No question, it’s great to have a closet full of instruments. But we can manage without them. Rhythmic stomping, clapping, and patting one’s thighs can be as good as drumming. Shakers can be made from beans and metal food tins or paper towel rolls, and carefully chosen CDs can support movement activity and games. In other words, just about anything can be a musical prop.

    I’m going to end with one more quote (bear with me). Samuel Mehr, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes: “My colleagues and I urge parents, teachers, school administrators and policy makers to make music education a part of children’s lives for the musical skills it imparts, the cultural knowledge it conveys and, above all, the joy it brings.” (9)

    As research continues to reveal more and more ways that music benefits the young child, one take-away is clear: by participating wholeheartedly in musical experiences, our children engage their bodies and their minds. They have fun while sparking intellectual growth. So, let’s sing, everybody!

     *****

    1.     Pete Seeger, PBS News Interview with Jeffrey Brown and Peter Yarrow. January 2014.

    2.     Francis W. Parker School Music Department, Mission Statement. 

    3.     Susan R. Barry, “Do Musicians Have Different Brains?” Psychology Today, June 11, 2010. 

    4.     Marilyn Price-Mitchell, “How Music Improves the Lives of Children, Applause: Children, Music and Social Change,” Psychology Today, June 2011.

    5.     J. Zuk, C. Benjamin, A. Kenyon, N. Gaab, “Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians,” PLoS One, 2014.

    6.     Paula Tallal and Nadine Gaab, “Dynamic auditory processing, musical experience and language development,” INMED/TINS - Trends in Neurosciences, June 2006.

    7. Blake Madden, “Why Music Education Actually Matters,” National Association for Music Education, August 1, 2014.

    8. “Playing Music Can Be Good for your Brain,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 2005.

    9. Samuel Mehr, “Gray Matter: Music and Success,” The New York Times. December 20, 2013.

     

    “If I didn’t think music could help save the human race, I wouldn’t sing.” Pete Seeger (1)

    Where would early childhood be without music?!? We rely on it to welcome children to the rug, signal transitions, help preschoolers wait out a delay, and reinforce basics such as rhyming and counting. It’s safe to say that music brightens classroom dynamics. Who among us hasn’t sung Clean up, clean up… or Five more minutes? Some teachers begin their days with a song such as, “Here We Are Together” or “Hello, Everybody, to greet each child in the morning circle. We might have favorite rhyming and counting songs, such as “A-Hunting We Will Go” and “Mary Mack, All Dressed in Black.” And we honor (sometimes) children’s wishes to sing their ABC’s over and over again. Music can set a mood and define a tempo, sparking children to get up and move or to rest quietly on their mat.

    Singing together deepens children’s sense of community and introduces melodies, language, and rhythms from different cultures. Francis W. Parker School Music Department describes it as follows: “Music is a vehicle for students to express themselves in ways no other communication can achieve. We (Francis W. Parker School) strive to help students discover their own melody, create harmony with others, and experience the heartbeat of our shared humanity.” (2) I like imagining that preschoolers can “experience the heartbeat of our shared humanity.”

    When singing and moving occupy a solid place in the classroom, children build a repertoire of songs and delight in singing them over and over and over again, adding new lyrics, personalizing them, owning them. Musical experiences grow as they do, echoing children’s feelings, offering solace, and just plain jazzing things up.

    RESEARCH: And now there’s more. Research is showing us how music helps young children build powerful thought networks that fortify their learning in areas as varied as language processing, visual perception, memory, mathematics, and, of course, creative expression. “Music molds the mind,” writes Dr. Susan Barry, professor of neurobiology at Mount Holyoke College, referring to early childhood when children are most receptive to music’s benefits. “Making music actively engages the brain’s synapses. As young children participate in music-based activities, their muscles, senses, and intellect are engaged simultaneously; they are exercising their brains in ways they rarely do. Long-term musical training actually re-organizes the brain.” (3) 

    The notion that activities as intuitive and engaging as singing, moving, and playing an instrument can enhance a young child’s neurological development is pretty powerful. In her article, “How Music Improves the Lives of Children, Dr. Price-Mitchell writes, “Music keeps the mind sharp, serving as a challenging cognitive exercise. It also feeds the soul, develops character, and boosts creativity. (4)

    Here are some recent findings:

    Executive Functioning: Preschoolers’ ability to organize new thoughts, ideas, and information is referred to as executive functioning. We spot it in children with a clear sense of purpose, who tackle a puzzle, build with blocks, or dress themselves efficiently. Their thinking is flexible; if one idea doesn’t work, an alternate is right behind it. “Since Executive Functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications,” said Dr. Nadine Gaab of Stanford University. “While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help set up children for a better academic future.” (5)

    Literacy and Language Processing: Researchers Nadine Gaab and Paula Tallal have also found that musical training improves the way children’s brains process the spoken word. This improved auditory processing becomes an asset to children learning to read, and is especially helpful to children with dyslexia and other reading challenges because it helps them to hear the words as they decode. “Especially children who aren’t good at rapid auditory processing and are high-risk for becoming poor readers may benefit from early musical training.” (6) For example, one of our 5-year-olds had only a rudimentary sense of sound symbol relationships; he struggled to identify consonant sounds within a spoken word. Yet, because of his participation in a music-based program, he could identify a trumpet, violin, and piano within a piece of music. His kindergarten teachers leveraged this ability as they guided him toward literacy.       

    Memory: Children who sing or play an instrument are consistently organizing, adjusting, and sequencing new material before committing it to memory, habits they then apply to diverse learning situations. In his 2014 book, Why Music Education Actually Matters, Blake Madden says, “Young children who take music lessons show different brain development and improved memory over the course of a year, compared to children who do not receive musical training. It is very interesting that the children taking music lessons improved more over the year on general memory skills that are correlated with non-musical abilities such as literacy, verbal memory, visuospatial processing, mathematics, and IQ than did the children not taking lessons.” (7)

    Emotional Well-Being: “When they move and sing, children feel good about themselves,” writes Dr. Julene K. Johnson, professor at the University of California, San Francisco, “Study after study has found that singing relieves anxiety and contributes to quality of life…. It takes something intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people, and it comes back as something even more thrilling.” (8)

    So how do we use music to boost preschoolers’ listening and organizational abilities, their memories and their sense of self? Here’s what our teachers say:

    1.     Make it fun, focusing on process, participation and playfulness, not achievement.

    2.     Create a repertoire, based not only on holiday or seasonal considerations, but on children’s personal experiences and opportunities to build musicianship.

    3.     Aim for spiraling sequence that allows students to approach new music without letting go of the familiar (Make new friends, but keep the old…). A group I once taught sang “Jingle Bells” in June. Not my idea, but then why not?

    4.     Include ample opportunity for movement and physical expression. 

    5.     Build in sufficient time; don’t rush it.

    For some of us, introducing music and musical experimentation begins the minute children enter the classroom. For others, developing a music curriculum represents a large challenge. What if I can’t carry a tune (yours truly)? What if I don’t know a lot of songs? What if there’ s no budget for instruments?

    Okay then!! Here are more tips:

    1.     Resources: Build your own YouTube library. Sites such as The Singing Classroom offer quality music options. Take your phone into colleagues’ classrooms and tape what you like. Where available, professional development opportunities in the form of interactive workshops, can be empowering.

    2.     Songs: Make them up!!! Take a familiar tune and modify the lyrics. Bend the tunes to your needs.

    3.      Finding the time: No one wants to add transitions to the school day, especially our children. We keep tweaking our circle times so they allow time for singing without stretching the time we ask our children to remain seated.

    4.     Keeping kids engaged: Vary the mood and tempo. Mix new and familiar songs. Most importantly, involve the children by calling on volunteers for a new motion or lyric. Here’s an example:

                            I’m so glad to see you.

                            I really couldn’t wait.

                            Can you tap your head

                            And count to eight?

    Tap your head can be replaced by clap your hands, stomp your feet, even blink your eyes, making individual participants active contributors.

    5. Instruments: No question, it’s great to have a closet full of instruments. But we can manage without them. Rhythmic stomping, clapping, and patting one’s thighs can be as good as drumming. Shakers can be made from beans and metal food tins or paper towel rolls, and carefully chosen CDs can support movement activity and games. In other words, just about anything can be a musical prop.

    I’m going to end with one more quote (bear with me). Samuel Mehr, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes: “My colleagues and I urge parents, teachers, school administrators and policy makers to make music education a part of children’s lives for the musical skills it imparts, the cultural knowledge it conveys and, above all, the joy it brings.” (9)

    As research continues to reveal more and more ways that music benefits the young child, one take-away is clear: by participating wholeheartedly in musical experiences, our children engage their bodies and their minds. They have fun while sparking intellectual growth. So, let’s sing, everybody!

     *****

    1.     Pete Seeger, PBS News Interview with Jeffrey Brown and Peter Yarrow. January 2014.

    2.     Francis W. Parker School Music Department, Mission Statement. 

    3.     Susan R. Barry, “Do Musicians Have Different Brains?” Psychology Today, June 11, 2010. 

    4.     Marilyn Price-Mitchell, “How Music Improves the Lives of Children, Applause: Children, Music and Social Change,” Psychology Today, June 2011.

    5.     J. Zuk, C. Benjamin, A. Kenyon, N. Gaab, “Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians,” PLoS One, 2014.

    6.     Paula Tallal and Nadine Gaab, “Dynamic auditory processing, musical experience and language development,” INMED/TINS - Trends in Neurosciences, June 2006.

    7. Blake Madden, “Why Music Education Actually Matters,” National Association for Music Education, August 1, 2014.

    8. “Playing Music Can Be Good for your Brain,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 2005.

    9. Samuel Mehr, “Gray Matter: Music and Success,” The New York Times. December 20, 2013.

     

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