An article by Joan Koenig for ASCD
Joan Koenig has recently contributed an article to the international teachers organization, the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.) The ASCD was created in 1943 to support and advance teaching practices, and now has more than 100 000 members. The key takeaway? Musical practice benefits all children, and needs to be available in every classroom. “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.
Article published by ASCD on May 11, 2022
In the aftermath of the pandemic containment, our team of educators at Koenig School in Paris knew that our new students would face unpredictable challenges on their first days of school. Many of them came from other countries and had not attended school for more than a year. Many of them did not yet speak French or English. But we also knew that 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 children in the middle and upper grades ran happily across the circular carpet, as if directed by an invisible force. "Are we going to show our new friends how we speak music?" the music teacher asked.
A mixture of laughter and shouts of "Yes!" followed. The music teacher played a glissando, sliding from the lowest notes to the highest.
It means "stand up," 5-year-old Emile whispered to his new friend Ji-wan, holding out his hand.
The experienced students scrambled to their feet, and the new kids followed. Next came the music for "we're going to sit down," followed by "crisscross applesauce," which asked the students to raise their legs before crossing them. When the music teacher stopped the music, pretending to be asleep, the children became "stuck" in place and begged the teacher to wake up and finish the pattern. They finished 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 little faces. They didn't know the words yet, but they were already part of the group thanks to the synchronized movement that the music stimulated.
Before the pandemic, the argument for integrating music into our schools, homes and childcare programs was compelling; now it is urgent. Making music together can foster a vital sense of belonging and be an antidote to isolation. In fact, more than 30 years of research on music making and the brain shows that music contributes to many skills needed for learning, growth and development. Music develops vital physical coordination, sharpens our auditory and vocal systems, strengthens memory, promotes empathy and creativity, and accelerates literacy (Patel, 2009). Most importantly, musical practice takes us out of ourselves and into an intuitive, cooperative, and deeply satisfying relationship with others.
Making music at an early age is not simply about developing one's natural musical skills to play an instrument or sing a song; it is about learning to coexist with others at an age when "me" typically predominates. Studies have shown that synchronized musical play promotes prosocial behavior (Tomasello & Kirschner, 2010). Our children can learn to work together like an orchestra does: listening carefully, making adjustments, synchronizing toward something much greater than the sum of its parts. As adults, we know this feeling well when we sing in a choir, play in a band, or scream and stomp at a rock concert. Imagine what classrooms could be like if we regularly harnessed these benefits.
The Acceleration Effect
As a classical musician, I opened our music school in the 1980s. But the more I studied how music changed young people's development and the more I witnessed the extraordinary musical abilities of young children in weekly classes, the more I knew that its benefits could not be limited to music class alone. I needed to see what would happen if children lived and learned in music every day.
In 2008, our school 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 classes; even reading and writing are taught with music and movement. We encourage students to improvise songs and stories, and teachers use music as a classroom management and relationship-building tool.
Although the Koenig School preschool program is still relatively young, we have seen notable results. When we compare the program's results with those of other schools - particularly the time to mastery - we consistently find that our students take less time to learn the same material, which is the accelerated learning effect of music. Our students read with pleasure and confidence, and they can transfer their knowledge from one subject to another, often drawing parallels between music and math.
Our singing memory is one of the most robust - the multimodal quality of music contributes to long-term memory, making it one of the last retentions to disappear in old age.
Our students also score above average in phonological awareness - regardless of their native language - on the assessments that many schools require for entry into first grade. Most importantly, we have seen children go from lacking confidence to being able to sing and dance joyfully on stage for their parents.
Bringing music into your classroom
To begin incorporating music into the classroom, you don't need any musical training. I guarantee you can gain a modicum of proficiency with a xylophone or a drum, both of which lend themselves to effective musical interventions. Technology also means that music is available everywhere. Try creating a "play-list" and experiment with the following tactics.
Goal One: Become a "We"
Singing and dancing together is part of human behavior around the world. In fact, making music brings people together; there is no better way to unify a classroom full of children than through singing. We see students who do not speak a common language join their classmates in singing, 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, engaging both the senses and the emotions in a triumvirate vital to early childhood development: mind, body, and emotions.
Choose a variety of songs that you like and enjoy singing and dancing to - you don't have to limit yourself to "children's" or classical music. Alternate between quiet songs and songs that encourage dance moves, and try to get the whole class to sing, clap, or stomp to the beat. I offer music classes for different ages that help students get involved.
For older students, ask them what songs they like and want to sing. Remember "We Will Rock You?" The lead guitarist of the famous rock band "Queen," Brian May, was looking for a way to get a whole stadium involved, so he invented the short-short-long beat. This is the fragment that 72,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium tapped their feet and hands in unison during the 1985 Live Aid concert. If your teens are reluctant to bring a song, try "We Will Rock You."
You can also take well-known songs and have students write new lyrics. When students participate in creating a song, it becomes their song. Creating a song together is very engaging because everyone can contribute - it becomes a source of personal and group pride.
Goal Two: Use music to manage the classroom
Think about how many times a day teachers have to say, "It's time to sit down" or "Listen to me!" As teachers and parents, we joke about what often appears as "selective hearing."
When you replace verbal instructions with musical patterns, or cues, that tell children what to do next, these hearing difficulties often disappear. From the first days of school, we teach directions through music as a classroom management tool with cues to sit, stand or gather in a circle. As a result, our teachers rarely need to raise their voices or ask for something twice. You will find that listening becomes a personal goal; students want to be the first to identify the music cue.
Think of five instructions that you catch yourself repeating. Now imagine that you are singing them or playing a simple melody or rhythmic pattern on an instrument like a xylophone or drum instead of saying them. Or just clap your hands. You'll find that after just a few repetitions, children will respond to the music and follow the non-verbal instructions.
Objective Three: Music to aid memorization
Most of us can effortlessly remember songs from our childhood. 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 songs is one of the most robust - the multimodal quality of music contributes to long-term memory, making it one of the last retentions to disappear in old age.
In the following "multiplication table musical rap," prosody, rhythm, movement, and visual cues combine to help children learn the necessary information with ease and joy.
The Dizaines Rap
I have a funny game I would like to play with you
Doo baba doo baba dooba doo
We're going to count by jumping, it's really fun
Are you ready? Let's jump and
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty
That's it, we've won
We're going to climb higher, it's so beautiful
Ten, twenty thirty forty fifty
Eighty four twenty ten and one hundred
That's it, we've won
Counting in tens is really zen!
In our classroom, once students have learned the song, it is time to move. Children can wave their arms during the beginning of the song, but they are not allowed to jump until the numbers begin. Ideally, they jump over equal spaces representing the amount of space between the numbers. We place 10 objects on the floor for the children to follow as they jump, making the connection between quantity and distance.
For some children, jumping with both feet is a challenge, so rather than break the rhythm, they jump on every other foot. If you feel like venturing into multimodality, students can also draw the numbers with chalk on a sidewalk or on the ground. Try rewinding or going backwards with the numbers and hops.
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 will alter our students' worlds in ways that now make some current educational models obsolete. The skills that educational experts and philosophers consider essential today include working collaboratively with others, creative problem solving, and transferring knowledge from one field to another. Music develops these skills and more, helping us to communicate and create together, even when we don't speak the same language or understand each other'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