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Music and Learning: A Joyful Connection

Alumna Liz Buchanan ’09 talks about the ways music can excite learning, and how to infuse music into the school day.

Sing, Listen, Move, Learn 

Liz Buchanan ’09 graduated with a Master of Education with a focus on the arts. She's a performer, music teacher, and composer, and is active in early literacy for children through music. We spoke to her about her thoughts on the connection between music and learning.

Many studies have been done about the positive effects of music on learning. What has been your experience in your work with children and teachers?

As parents and professionals who work with kids know, most children respond to music with joy and excitement. Instruction in music should be essential part of school curricula, for its own sake and because research has linked the study of music to higher achievement in other academic subjects.

In my work, I’ve focused on using music to help develop early literacy skills. I’ve written songs to help students learn rhyming, letter sounds, sounding out words, and segmenting syllables. I also love writing songs with children; collaborative songwriting is a wonderful way to build students’ writing skills, and also gives the class such joy as they take ownership of their song.

What is the state of music learning in these days of increased academic pressure?

Learning in all of the arts has faced many challenges as schools face both budget constraints and academic pressures. Many schools—even in more affluent districts—have felt compelled to charge fees for arts programs such as instrumental music, which can limit opportunities for some students to participate.

Of even greater concern is the state of arts instruction in urban schools. It’s encouraging that programs such as the Boston Arts Expansion Initiative have worked to raise funds for music and other arts programs, but programming remains uneven. I would love for us to reach a time when every Boston student has the opportunity to learn instruments, play in a school band or orchestra, or sing in a school chorus. Such musical experiences could be life-changing for urban kids.

How would you respond to someone who says that time taken for music is time taken away from academics?

I strongly encourage lengthening the school day to have time for both! In the absence of a longer day, I would remind people about the many studies showing the links between music instruction and academic achievement, and would encourage them to consider training teachers to integrate the arts more fully into academic learning.

We must continually remind educators about the importance of the arts in inspiring creativity and meeting the needs of students with a variety of learning styles. There are enormously talented students who simply won’t reach their full potential in a rigid academic setting.

Small children outside on playground, holding hands in a circle


What is your advice to teachers who don’t consider themselves musical or are reluctant to do music with children?

Using recorded music is a daily part of many teachers’ practice, especially for wiggle breaks. Teachers who feel uncomfortable singing can still dance with their students and encourage them to learn the lyrics. They can chant in rhythm as a way to engage students in learning activities such as rhyming. Students can keep time with drums or other instruments.

I think there has to be a bigger push for more music on the macro level. I’d like to see songs [that teach and are fun] have a more prominent place in reading and word study lessons. Instead of rote recitation of letter sounds, why not sing about them? I’d like to see websites such as Songs for Teaching become a daily resource for teachers. The push will need to come from education policy makers and places such as Lesley, where academic thinkers recognize the critical importance of arts in education, or from innovators such as pilot and charter schools.

5 Ways to Get Music into the School Day

What are ways that a teacher could incorporate music into the curriculum to support learning?

1. In early childhood, use songs and finger plays to encourage learning about rhyming, letter sounds, narrative, sequences and counting.

2. Songs are indispensable for memorizing facts. Many people mention that they learned those fifty nifty United States through Schoolhouse Rock. And I’ll bet nearly all of us learned our alphabet through the ABC song. Songs could also help students learn skip counting, multiplication tables and many other handy facts!

3. Learning about music can raise students’ awareness of distinctive sounds, which is important in learning to read and write, and for English Language Learners, to achieve fluency. Playing instruments and distinguishing different musical tones, pitches and timbres builds aural skills. Students can create soundscapes and act out stories with instruments representing different characters. Such activities add a new, deeper dimension to the learning experience.

4. Music is a good tool for learning in science and social studies. I’ve had great success having students dance the life cycle of a butterfly and the growth of a seed into a flower or tree. In social studies, I’ve had children learn spiritual songs as part of units on the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement. Songs from other cultures [and in other languages] are an important part of learning about cultures from around the world.

5. Music should be an essential part of school culture. One of my earliest memories of school was the assembly that took place every Friday at the school where I attended first and second grade, which always began with an all-school sing. I don’t remember much about my classroom experiences at that school, but I remember the words to every single song we sang. At the school where I teach now, we have an all-school Songfest to end the day every Friday. Our children get so excited, anticipating that time of singing as a group. Songs inspire, motivate and pull people together as a community. What better way to encourage children to love school and feel a part of something bigger than themselves?

Music and Learning Resources

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