When we think of music, often what comes to mind is song. We may think of Broadway musicals, Bach or Justin Timberlake. In our minds, we might imagine orchestras or pianists.
Music has been central to civilization for thousands of years. In fact, before we had language we used musical tones and sounds to communicate. The tone of a grunt signaled a message in our prehistoric ancestors, while the beat of a drum brought village people together in unity far and wide. What we think of a little less often is what music is made of and how it impacts our learning, behavior and social relationships.
Music is all around us as we hear the subway cling and clatter, the pitter-patter of our children’s footsteps and the ambient noise inherent in life. Music engages our sensory, motor and auditory pathways in the brain fostering engagement and synchronicity (Patel & Iverson, 2014).
Curiously, the ability to synchronize with a beat is associated with learning language and grammar (Corriveau & Goswami, 2009; Gordon et al., 2015). At its core music is made of beats and rhythms that create sound, melody and even movement. These beats and rhythms are meaningful scaffolds we can use in school, at home and in life to enhance foundational aspects of our learning, behavior and character.
Here are three ways to incorporate music into your family life to foster growth in learning, behavior, confidence, social relationships and character:
Engaging in music with your children, classmates and workmates can enhance a sense of cohesion, emotional safety and trust. Our brains and bodies love to entrain, that is, join together in synchrony with others. Moving, tapping and singing in synchrony provide us with a felt-sense of togetherness, safety and trust. Consider for a moment, the smile on an infant’s face as he plays clapping games with his mother. Think about your own emotions as you walk by a classroom of students harmonizing in song.
"Musical engagement provides opportunities to improve social cohesion, psychological safety and trust in our relationships."
What can you do? Sing more with others. Whether acapella, with the radio or as you complete your tasks of daily living, turn up the music and sing along. Choose songs that are known to all and enjoy the feeling of camaraderie and togetherness as you sing out that tune, together.
Even if you aren’t a musical performer, songs, chants, poems and raps are a wonderful way to learn academic knowledge. Music provides a rhythmic foundation on which to layer information in order to encode it and make it learned knowledge. Further, consistent beats, specifically in 4/4 time, stimulate the brain’s natural interest, comfort and familiarity with patterns and sequences. Help your children learn their math facts, historical knowledge, literature and foreign language saying simple repetitive words with rhythm for better encoding and retrieval of learned knowledge.
“We are musical beings, even our neurons fire like an orchestra.”
Clapping, tapping, stepping, marching and bouncing to a beat provide a firm scaffold on which to layer learning. Start by clapping or stepping to a simple quarter note at 60-85 beats per minute and increase tempo as the children become familiar with the beat.
On the downbeat add the content to be learned, for example, C-A-T CAT. You can also say the words syllabically, HO – USE HOUSE with a double clap on the fourth beat. Imagine learning your history facts to a beat, “Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, created Thanksgiving Day, he championed for freedom, as the children played.” Mix and match beats with rhythm, movements, sounds and words for an engaging social experience. The words can rhyme, but they don’t have to.
"Music is magical. It has the ability to help us calm or energize, connect and reflect, enhancing our thinking skills, learning and character by engaging us as musical and prosocial beings."
Enjoy building confidence, character, and social connections as you chant, sing, move, and create to the sounds of music.
For more musical learning ideas see Musical Thinking.
• Corriveau K, Goswami U. (2009). Rhythmic motor entrainment in children with speech and language impairments: tapping to the beat. Cortex, 45: 119–130.
• Gordon R, Shivers C, Wieland E, Kotz S, Yoder P, McAuley J. (2015). Musical rhythm discrimination explains individual differences in grammar skills in children. Developmental Science, 18: 635–644.
• Patel, A. D., & Iversen, J. R. (2014). The evolutionary neuroscience of musical beat perception: the Action Simulation for Auditory Prediction (ASAP) hypothesis. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 8, 57.
Lynne Kenney, Psy.D., is a Harvard-trained psychologist, mother of two, an international educator, author and pediatric psychologist in Scottsdale, AZ. Dr. Kenney’s works include the Social-Emotional Literacy program Bloom Your Room™; Musical Thinking; Bloom: 50 things to say, think and do with anxious, angry and over-the-top-kids and 70 Play Activities For Better Thinking, Self-Regulation, Learning and Behavior.