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May 11, 2022

Why Music Should Be in Every Classroom

Educators can use the power of rhythm and song to improve childhood development.
Classroom Management
May 2022 Joan Konig Header Image
Credit: images/shutterstock
In the wake of the pandemic’s confinement, our team of educators at L'Ecole Koenig school in Paris knew our new students would face unpredictable challenges on the first days in person. Many of them came from other countries and had not been in school for more than a year. Many of them did not yet speak French­ or English. But we also knew we had a secret weapon at our disposal—the power of music.
When our music teacher played the first notes of the day on the piano, the entire group of preschoolers ran gleefully onto the circular carpet as though directed by an invisible force. "Shall we show our new friends how we speak music?" the music teacher asked.
A mélange of giggles and shouts of "Oui!" followed. The music teacher played a glissando, sliding from the lowest to the highest notes.
"That means stand up," whispered 5-year-old Emile to his new friend Ji-wan, holding out his hand.
The seasoned students scrambled to their feet, and the new children followed suit. Next came the music for “sit sit sit down,” followed by "crisscross applesauce,” requiring the students to lift their legs before crossing them. When the music teacher stopped the music, feigning sleep, the children were "stuck” in place and begged the teacher to wake up and finish the motif. They ended by singing good morning in several languages with simple choreography, and even the most reluctant children followed the movements with ease, bright smiles on their tiny faces. They did not yet know the words, but they were already becoming part of the group through the synchronized movement that music stimulates.

Why Music?

The argument for including music in our schools, homes, and daycare programs before the pandemic was compelling; today, it is urgent. Making music together can foster a vital sense of belonging, providing an antidote to isolation. In fact, more than 30 years of research into musical practice and the brain shows that music helps with many of the necessary skills needed for learning, growth, and development. Music develops vital physical coordination, fine-tunes our speech and auditory systems, reinforces memory, fosters empathy and creativity, and accelerates literacy (Patel, 2009). Most important, musical practice lifts us out of ourselves into an intuitive, cooperative, and deeply satisfying relationship with others.
Music-making at an early age is not simply about developing one's natural musical ability for playing an instrument or singing a song; it is about learning to coexist with other people at an age when "me" generally prevails. Studies have shown that synchronized musical games promote prosocial behavior (Tomasello & Kirschner, 2010) Our children can learn to work together as an orchestra does: listening carefully, making adjustments, synchronizing toward something much bigger than the sum of its parts. We know this feeling well as adults when we sing in a choir, play in a band, or shout and stomp at a rock concert. Imagine what classrooms could be like if we harnessed these benefits on a regular basis.

The Acceleration Effect

As a classical musician, I opened a music school in the 1980s. But the more I studied how music changed young people’s development and witnessed young children’s extraordinary musical ability in weekly classes, the more I knew its benefits could not be confined to music class alone. I needed to see what would happen if children lived and learned in music every day.
In 2008, our school’s staff took the program a step further and opened a trilingual preschool where the children speak French, English — and music. Music is an integral part of all learning in our classrooms; even reading and writing are taught with music and movement. We encourage students to improvise songs and stories, and teachers use music as a tool for classroom management and relationship building.
Although the preschool program at L’Ecole Koenig is still relatively young, we have seen notable results. When we compare curriculum results with other schools—specifically time necessary for mastery—we consistently see our students take less time to learn the same material, which shows the acceleration effect of learning through music. Our students read with pleasure and confidence, and they can transfer knowledge from one subject to another, often making parallels between music and math.

Our memory for song is one of the most robust—the multimodal quality of music contributes to long-term memory, making it one of the last retentions to go in later life.

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Our students also score above average in phonological awareness—independently of their mother tongue—on the evaluations some schools require for students to enter 1st grade. Most important, we have seen children move from a lack of confidence to the ability to sing and dance happily on stage for their parents.

Bringing Music into the Classroom

To start incorporating music into the classroom, neither musical talent nor training is required. I guarantee that you can develop a modicum of mastery with a xylophone or a drum, both of which work well for effective musical interventions. Technology also means music is available anywhere. Try making a playlist and experiment with the following tactics.

Goal One: Become a “We”  

Singing and dancing together is part of human behavior worldwide. In fact, making music brings people together; there is no better way to unify a classroom full of children than through song. We see students who do not speak a common language join their classmates in song, even if they do not yet understand what they are singing. When children sing and move together, they form the genesis of deep cooperation and collaboration, employing both the sensory and the emotional in a vital early childhood development triumvirate: mind, body, and emotions.
Pick a variety of songs that you love and enjoy singing and dancing—you need not restrict yourself to traditional children’s music or classical music. Alternate between quiet songs and songs that encourage dance movements, and try to get the entire class to sing, clap their hands, or stomp their feet in rhythm. I offer music tutorials for a variety of ages that help students get involved.
For older students, ask them what songs they love and want to sing. Remember “We Will Rock You?” Queen’s lead guitarist, Brian May, was looking for a way to get an entire stadium involved, so he came up with the short-short- l o n g rhythm. This is the fragment 72, 000 spectators at Wembley Stadium stomped and clapped in unison in the 1985 Live Aid concert. If your teenagers are reluctant to bring in a song, try We Will Rock You.
I’ve also taken familiar songs and had students write new lyrics for them. When students participate in creating a song, this becomes their song. Making a song together is highly engaging because everyone can contribute—it becomes  a source of personal and collective pride.

Goal Two: Make Use of Musical Classroom Management

 Think of the number of times per day teachers need to say: “Time to sit down” or “Listen up!” As teachers and parents, we joke about what often appears to be “selective hearing.”
When you replace verbal instructions with musical motifs, or cues, that direct children on what to do next, these hearing difficulties often disappear. In our first school days, we teach directions through music as a classroom management tool with cues for sitting down, standing up, or gathering in a circle. As a result, our teachers rarely need to raise their voices or ask for something twice. You will see that listening becomes a self-initiated goal; students want to be the first one to identify the musical cue.
Think of five instructions that you find yourself repeating. Now, imagine that you sing them or play a simple melody or rhythmic pattern on something like a xylophone or a drum instead of saying them. Or, simply clap. You will see that after only a few repetitions, children will respond to the music and follow the nonverbal instructions.

Goal Three: Music for Memorization

Most of us remember songs from our childhood effortlessly. According to brain research, multimodal learning (taking in information through multiple portals, with sensory and emotional engagement), increases the likelihood of deep and permanent encoding of that information (Tomlinson, 2013). In fact, our memory for song is one of the most robust—the multimodal quality of music contributes to long-term memory, making it one of the last retentions to go in later life.
In the following “musical multiplication tables rap,” prosody, a rhythm, movement, and visual cues combine to help children learn necessary information with ease and joy.
I’ve got a game that I’d like to share with you.
Doo b aba doo b aba dooba dooba doooooo.
We’re going to skip count, and that’s a lot of fun.
Jumpin' and bumpin', we’re really on a run.
Are you ready? Um. Take a deep breath and
Ten, 20, 30, 40, 50, you won!
We can go further – it’s so much fun!
Ten, 20, 30, 40, 50, and
Sixty, 70, 80, 90,
Yo! 100, you won!
Counting in tens is so much fun!
In our classroom, once students have got the song down, it’s time to get moving. The children can wave their arms during the beginning of the song, but they aren’t allowed to jump until the numbers begin. Ideally, they jump over equal spaces representing the space-quantity between the numbers. We place 10 objects on the floor that the children need to hop over, thereby linking quantity and distance.
For some children, hopping with both feet is challenging, so rather than interrupt the rhythm, they hop on alternate feet. If you are feeling daringly multimodal, students can also draw the numbers in chalk on a sidewalk or the floor. Try rewinding or going backwards with both the numbers and the jumping.

Development for the Future

Schools are preparing children for a future that will be complex and filled with exponential change. Climate change, pandemics, species extinction, human migration, and artificial intelligence are going to alter our students’ worlds in ways that make some current education models outdated. The skills that education specialists and philosophers consider essential today include working collaboratively with others, creative problem solving, and transferring knowledge from one field to another. Music develops this and more, helping us to communicate and create together, even when we don’t speak the same language or understand one another’s cultural codes.

Patel, A.D. (2011, April 5). Why would musical training benefit the neural encoding of speech? The OPERA hypothesis. Frontiers in Psychology 2(142).

Rabinowitch T., & Meltzoff, A.N. (2017). Synchronized movement experience enhances peer cooperation in preschool children. Elsevier online.

Tomasello, M., & Kirschner, S. (September 2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-Year-Old children. Evolution and Human Behavior 31: 354–64.

Tomlinson, M.M. (July 2013). Literacy and music in early childhood: Multimodal learning and design. SAGE Open. doi:10.1177/2158244013502498

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