Did you learn to memorize the states by singing the great song by Ray Charles, Fifty, Nifty United States? How about the alphabet by singing the A-B-C song? There is something about the power of music that helps us remember and learn, but how does that work? We know from fMRI scans of musicians improvising on the piano that music is possibly the only skill that activated both hemispheres of the brain at the same time. Neuroscientists describe the effect of seeing almost the entire brain lit up. If movement is included the brain lights up even more in the scan. Movement in this case is tapping a foot but the same scientists found that just thinking about movement has almost the same impact on the brain when it is connected with music.
Consider Congresswoman Gabbie Giffords who was shot in the head and received damage to the part of her brain that processes language. She is beginning to speak again thanks to music therapists who have been working to get her to use the undamaged music area of her brain to communicate. Ms. Giffords sings songs to communicate but has been able to limit the pitch of the songs so that her vocalizing sounds more like speech. Others who have had strokes or brain damage to the speech area of the brain have also regained speech through learning to use the musical part of the brain.
Music psychologist John Ferierabend explains that music development occurs alongside language development in children ages three to seven. Children who have rich music and movement experiences during this developmental period will likely be musical all their lives and have a developed musical brain that supports language.
Studies of children with autism who struggle with reading do better when the books are songs. For example, I have used a book of the song, The Wheels on the Bus, and children with autism will look at the book and track the words with me as I sing. Parents comment that later at home the child will spontaneously sing the song. The child may not sing with me but he remembers the song and will sing it hours later. He pays attention to the book, something special educators work very hard on with children with autism. Joint attention, or looking at the same thing as others, is essential for children with autism to learn to read. For music teachers it is easy to engage children with autism, just sing or play an instrument and they will watch and often participate.
Dr. Sheila Woodward recorded music from inside the mother’s womb to see what it sounded like to the babies. Babies hear music and after they are born Woodward discovered babies remember and respond to songs they repeatedly heard while in the womb in their last few months. These babies have been followed and end up being very drawn to music.
You might say, “but I can’t sing, I sound terrible!” The truth is, children don’t care, they just love to be sung to and to sing with you. Recordings are fine for some of the time but take time to sing everyday. Open your class with a hello song and end the day with a goodbye song. Integrate rhythmic chants into your teaching and notice how children respond to learning through rhythm.
If you watch children in their natural play you will notice them singing, often composing little songs to accompany whatever type of play they are engaged in. Singing is a doorway in to the child’s world. Infants vocalize and experiment with pitches and ways to use the voice. Singing is joyful and playful. Movement is another natural doorway into the child’s world. Children spontaneously dance and move to music.
Anne Green Gilbert developed brain dance to help activate all parts of the brain through movement. It is a wonderful way to start the day. Use music that isn’t too fast and vary the selections.
Below are some great links for learning more about music and the brain. A famous saying to remember as a teacher of children is; Dance as though no one is watching you, love as though you have never been hurt before, sing as though no one can hear you, live as though heaven is on earth. (Souza).