Can the study of music, or a program of music therapy, help children struggling with emotional or behavioral disorders? A growing number of experts say it can.
Emotional disorders in children and adolescents can have a number of negative or potentially dangerous consequences. These can include a chronic lack of academic success, aggression against peers, isolation from others, substance abuse, running away from home, and even violence against oneself or others.
Children with emotional and behavioral disorders may have extremely limited functioning in one or more areas. This can prevent them from engaging in a healthy way with their families, schools, or communities.
A comprehensive plan of general psychological or psychiatric therapy is likely to be the lynchpin of any successful program to treat these conditions. However, such a plan can be enhanced considerably by the incorporation of music.
Music can help in a variety of ways.
Music therapy can improve a child’s self-image, and can help him or her develop much-needed self-esteem and a clearer and stronger personal identity. For any child or teen who has experienced abuse, this type of therapy has the potential to promote positive new attitudes about themselves and their worth.
Recent research has demonstrated the capacity of music therapy to help in several specific ways in working with children with emotional disorders. These involve the regulation of the child’s own emotions, developing communication skills, and addressing challenges with social functioning.
Music therapy has proven extremely useful in decreasing children’s levels of anxiety and developing their ability to be emotionally responsive. Young people who have difficulty controlling their impulsivity have also been helped by music therapy.
In fact, a carefully structured and appropriately repetitive series of experiences that engage multiple senses, presented within a context of acceptance and support, can be of immense value in a variety of clinical settings. Some research has even suggested that the use of music can even produce a sense of relaxation that leads to improved performance on a range of assessment metrics.
Music fosters positive social interactions.
The use of music in therapy provides young people with a topic of conversation. This makes it an excellent starting point for establishing comfort within a social group and for fostering healthy self-expression.
Music can help a child experiencing social challenges to gain greater awareness of the presence and feelings of others. It can also facilitate greater levels of cooperation with peers and adults. Children who participate in music therapy have also shown a decreased level of disruptive incidents as reported in psychological studies.
Music’s value as a social harmonizer in the general classroom becomes especially important when working with children with emotional and behavioral dysfunction. This is because it can help establish a positive atmosphere and encourage the development of cooperative skills. Experts point out that, once such a foundation is laid, it can be used to build a child’s social skills out still farther.
Music teaches new skills and builds confidence.
At least one researcher in this field has reported that a series of carefully-structured experiences with music, supported by targeted and easily understood reinforcement, enabled children labeled “delinquent” to gain a positive self-concept.
In one study, a 12-year-old with significant behavioral issues who learned to play the piano gained constructive new communication skills, made measurably fewer negative statements about themselves, and showed notable motivation to continue learning music.
Music improves verbal and nonverbal communication skills.
Songwriting, or communicating through the lyrics of a song, can offer a non-threatening means of communication. For many children with emotional difficulties, speaking through lyrics makes self-expression much easier.
Music also has an appeal beyond the realm of the verbal. This makes it an ideal tool for connecting with young people who may be hard to reach, who may themselves be non-verbal, or who may feel threatened by engaging in direct, one-to-one conversation.
One perhaps underappreciated benefit of music therapy as a non-verbal means of communication is that it is nonthreatening. When listening to music, a child may feel they have a safe space in which to engage with emotional issues that might otherwise feel too complex or unsettling to confront. A skilled music therapy practitioner can even tailor-make a program to assist a child in coping with overwhelming emotions such as grief, anger, or trauma.
Experts point out that for many young people with serious emotional issues, music can become both an outlet for expression as well as a core therapeutic component. For many children in this population, it serves as an effective way for them to establish communication channels with therapists, parents, teachers, and peers.
Music has significant short-term gains.
In a study based in Northern Ireland, a cohort of some 250 school-age children and teens exhibiting a range of emotional and behavioral challenges were divided into two groups. One received treatment via music therapy. The other received the current standard of care. More than half the total cohort had exhibited significant levels of anxiety.
The young people who participated in the music therapy program explored improvisation and music creation through singing, movement, and playing musical instruments. The therapist worked with the youth for half an hour at a time, for 12 weeks total. Through these sessions, the therapist was able to contextualize the experience and provide a supportive atmosphere with the ultimate goal of improving communication and social skills.
The study showed that, in the short term, the group that received music therapy showed decreased levels of depression and increased feelings of self-esteem. Communication skills appeared unchanged.
Longer follow-up studies showed that the improvement in other areas eventually dropped off. The conclusion: at least on a short-term basis, music therapy may be helpful for young people with a range of behavioral and emotional challenges.
Folk songs in the classroom offer numerous ways to build a strong and engaging music curriculum.
Recent surveys by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) show that its members are in near-unanimity in favor of teaching American heritage folk songs as a major part of the music curriculum.
Zoltán Kodály, an early 20th-century Hungarian musicologist and music educator, held folk songs in the highest esteem as musical teaching tools. Today, teachers around the world make use of folk songs either through lessons based on the Kodály method or informally, as a means of enhancing the music curriculum and the study of other subjects.
At the heart of the Kodály method is instruction in singing, movement, and playing musical instruments, with folk songs as the core content. This helps children to learn the traditional songs of their own cultures, and develop an appreciation for the richness of other cultures as well.
Read on for some more interesting ways to use folk music in the classroom and beyond.
Simple examples to inform music lessons
Folk songs, with their simple, repetitive musical phrasing, can serve as excellent means for teaching the basics of musical notation, harmony, tempo, rhythm, pitch, and artistic expressiveness.
A wealth of classroom uses
Folk songs also afford an opportunity to enrich STEM- and STEAM-focused learning. They can be used in physics classes to illustrate the science of sound, in art programs in conjunction with an activity involving making musical instruments, or as examples of various points in American and world history.
With their catchy, easy-to-remember lyrics and rhythms, folk songs have become key components of popular repertoires for school bands, choral groups, and dance troupes.
A springboard for creativity
Because they’re highly adaptable, folk songs can accompany any number of games or playground activities. They encourage movement and the physical joy inherent in music.
Children can enhance the experience themselves by creating their own dances and games to accompany the songs. They can write pastiches that employ similar themes, or update the songs’ historical themes in amusing ways.
A way to strengthen memory and memorization skills
Their easy-to-recall rhythms and refrains make folk songs excellent tools for training the memory, as well as helping with recall. For instance, in adults with dementia and other cognitive disorders, the simple, familiar lyrics and melodies of traditional folk songs can bring about pleasant and soothing associations with their childhood.
Refining children’s ear for language
Folk songs can help children to expand their vocabulary through the use of rare and unusual words. Students may not immediately understand some of the dated language in a song, but once they learn the new words, they will have added to their store of language, as well as to their ability to express themselves and communicate within a new framework of ideas.
A number of researchers have drawn a strong connection between learning folk songs and learning the finer points of English grammar and syntax. Thanks to the memorable patterns of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition found in folk songs, this learning technique can be especially useful and meaningful for English language learners.
Additionally, folk songs can help listeners to mirror and model correct word pronunciation and accent, while repeated singing or listening to a folk song will continue to reinforce the grammar and articulation of that particular song.
A web of historical connections
Through folk songs, students learn not only about their musical heritage, but about the historical events that have shaped this heritage—and their own lives. These songs connect children to generations of people—in their culture and in others—who have come before them, and whose lives made the world what it is today.
On its website, NAfME lists a number of American folk song genres that have developed over time, each deserving a closer look from teachers and students. These include African-American spirituals, Shaker tunes, songs of the Civil War, and work songs sung by railroad workers, seamen, and cowboys. Each can provide an intimate insight into what the lives of a wide range of Americans were like.
A few historical examples
Teachers who devote time to teaching some of the history behind folk songs have found that it often piques their students’ interest in learning more about the historical topics addressed. Children often enjoy hearing about the origin of a song and its history as played, sung, and danced to by various peoples over time.
Some teachers find that folk songs are a good fit with material geared to meeting state core educational standards. For example, many states’ official state songs are folk songs comprising multiple historical references, and as such are culturally, musically, and historically a part of every American child’s history.
For example, “Yankee Doodle,” sung during the American Revolution by British and Colonial soldiers alike, is the state song of Connecticut. The official state gospel song of Oklahoma is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” attributed to the former slave Wallace Willis, who, upon seeing Oklahoma’s Red River, is said to have been reminded of the Jordan River and the Bible story of the prophet Elijah being lifted into heaven in a chariot.
The song “Shenandoah,” also known as “‘Cross the Wide Missouri,” is said to have originated with the French adventurers and fur traders, called voyageurs, who traveled along the Missouri River in the early days of the European push westward in North America. The song references a voyageur who fell in love with a Native American woman. It later was widely adopted by American sailors. Its mysterious references and simple, haunting melody have kept it at the center of the American folk song corpus for generations.
Recordings of songs like “Shenandoah” can additionally serve to acquaint children with great singers in the American popular canon, such as Paul Robeson. In the 1930s, Robeson recorded a number of versions of the “Shenandoah” tune. Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits have also recorded their own versions. Comparison of the various versions of the song could be particularly instructive for older students studying vocal interpretation.
The study of an instrument is a long-term commitment. Students will need to feel comfortable with their choice and dedicated to getting the most out of their studies. With hard work, focus, and diligence, however, learning to play an instrument can be a way to enrich a child’s life well into adulthood.
The following seven tips can help parents, educators, and children identify the instrument that will be the best and most enjoyable fit.
1. Consider the child's age and development.
First, consider the child’s age. For particularly young children, consider the physical and developmental demands of each instrument. Children of this age may not have the physical strength, dexterity, or muscle fluency to manage certain instruments.
2. Consider the piano and the violin, particularly for younger children.
Expert teachers typically recommend the violin and the piano for children under 6 years of age. Both of these instruments serve as excellent building blocks for learning music theory and practice. They also assist with learning to play additional instruments.
The Suzuki Violin Method is one of the teaching practices that focuses specifically on the qualities of the violin as a young beginner’s instrument. Learning violin is made easier for younger children because the instrument can be fashioned in very small sizes. This makes it simpler and more intuitive for a child this age to manage fluidly and naturally.
The violin is also an excellent choice of instrument for teaching young music students to play in tune. Another advantage is that the act of bowing provides a kinetic manner through which students can learn the concept of musical phrasing. And, because the violin has no keys or frets, a young player can concentrate completely on the sounds he or she is creating.
The piano offers its own plusses as a first instrument. A child learning to play the piano picks up foundational skills of musicianship by becoming proficient in harmony and melody at one and the same time. Piano students gain experiential knowledge that will help them to better understand music theory.
3. Consider the child’s physical abilities and limitations.
An instrument’s design and its fit with a child’s physicality is also an important consideration. If a child’s hands are relatively small, for example, he or she may not have the finger span to become an accomplished pianist or a player of a larger stringed instrument.
For woodwinds and brass instruments, make sure that the embouchure—the place where the child places his or her mouth to produce sound—is a good fit. Keep in mind that some students take time to learn the best way to address this. The oboe has a double read mouthpiece and the French horn has a slender tube mouthpiece. As a result, these instruments present particular challenges regarding their fit against a player’s mouth.
For children who need orthodontic help, it can be better to select a stringed or percussion instrument. This is because blowing through any sort of embouchure may be uncomfortable or even painful.
4. Consider which instruments the child enjoys listening to.
Sound is an important quality as well. A child should enjoy the sound her instrument makes. Otherwise, he or she may be reluctant to continue practicing and playing it.
Experts point out that it is unrealistic to believe that, over time, a child will come to like the sound of an instrument he or she dislikes. Such a child may, instead, neglect lessons and resent practicing.
This is particularly important for parents to remember, because band directors sometimes encourage children to take on specific, less-popular instruments simply because one is needed in the ensemble.
5. Consider the child's temperament.
A child’s personality is another good indicator of the best instrument to select. For example, an outgoing child who enjoys being the center of attention will likely gravitate to an instrument that offers greater potential for front-of-the-band performance and solos. These instruments include the flute, saxophone, and trumpet. All are made to carry a central melodic line, rather than to play supporting roles.
6. Consider the social implications of the selected instrument.
One factor sometimes swept aside by adults can have a big impact on children. This factor is the social image of an instrument, and what that says, by implication, to peers about a child’s own image and personality.
Many children gravitate toward the instrument they perceive as having the most status among their peers. Unfortunately, that instrument may not be the best fit. Adults should encourage each child to take a fresh look at the instrument that actually seems best for him or her.
7. Consider your budget as well as any maintenance commitments.
Practical issues of cost and maintenance will also be on most parents’ lists when choosing an instrument. Take some time to go over a realistic timetable of maintenance with a child’s music teacher. A piano, for example, is one of the most expensive instruments, and needs to be tuned twice annually by a professional.
Remember that many music vendors offer monthly payment programs. A trial rental may also be a good option until a child is certain that he or she really likes an instrument. Some schools will facilitate free long-term loans of instruments for their band members.
It may also be worthwhile to explore options provided by nonprofit groups. For example, Hungry for Music supplies children in financial need with donated and carefully refurbished instruments.
Children love music and picture books. This means that parents and educators are constantly on the look-out for new books to share that nourish a love for both music and reading.
Today’s picture book writers and illustrators are producing work that is distinguished by rich literary and visual imagination. Among these treasures are a number of works that convey, in the sounds of their vocabularies and through the skill of their illustrations, what it feels like to make and enjoy music.
Here are only a few of the best picture books published in 2018 whose storylines focus specifically on music. All of these titles will be found in most online and bricks-and-mortar bookstores as well as in many public libraries.
1. The Bunny Band
The Bunny Band was written by Bill Richardson, illustrated by Roxanna Bikadoroff, and published by Groundwood Books. It presents young readers and their families with a delightful adventure into the ways in which music can facilitate even the most unlikely friendships.
Lavinia is a badger who cherishes her carefully tended vegetable garden. Suddenly, she realizes that an unknown someone has been eating her lettuce and taking her other produce. She sets out to catch the thief and discovers that it is a bunny. The angry badger threatens to put him into her stew pot, but the little rabbit begs her to spare him. In return, he promises her a mysterious reward.
After Lavinia shows mercy on the repentant thief, she receives a surprise. The next evening, in the moonlight, her new friend returns, bringing with him lots of other bunnies, each one bringing a musical instrument. This lively bunny band pours delightful music into Lavinia’s garden with a host of banjos, ukuleles, trumpets, drums, and even a set of bagpipes. Much to the badger’s surprise, the music makes the garden grow!
In thanks, Lavinia treats all the bunnies to a surprise: a feast made from the produce in her garden.
The book’s rich and whimsical illustrations show the individual personalities of Lavinia and the entire bunny musical troupe. They are engaging for readers of all ages and convey in line and color the spirit of joyful music shared among friends.
2. Khalida and the Most Beautiful Song
Khalida and the Most Beautiful Song, written and illustrated by Amanda Moeckel and published by Page Street Kids, is a symphony in pink and purple watercolors. Khalida is an overscheduled child. She wants nothing more than to capture the elusive song that whispered briefly to her one evening.
But no matter how she tries, the time and place are never right. Her busy life comes between her and her ability to sit down at the piano to do the creative work she longs for.
Even through adversity, Khalida persists in her quest for the essence of the song. Her perseverance is at last rewarded. The young girl’s love of music, and the beauty of the song she is finally able to catch, are made palpable through Moeckel’s flowing, elegant pictures. These serve as a visual counterpoint to the musical flow of the text.
3. New York Melody
With its delicate tracery of laser-cut shadow images and sharp black-and-white shapes, New York Melody was written and illustrated by Helene Druvert and published by Thames & Hudson. It is a keepsake book to treasure.
The simple story begins at Carnegie Hall. A single musical note on a page of sheet music gets free of its comrades and goes off on its own to explore the wonders of New York City. It drops in on a secret little jazz club, pays a visit to Broadway, and at last finds an island of peace as it joins in with a guitar player in Central Park. The guitar’s melody catches the ear of a passing cyclist, who carries the tune all over the city, causing passersby to pause in enchantment.
Along its journey, the note works in tandem with numerous instruments, including a saxophone, a double bass, and a trumpet. The depiction of this last instrument, in glowing, vivid gold, presents a visual delight amidst the book’s otherwise monochromatic palette.
Druvert’s book has a genuine ability to make the aural delights of music palpable through words and pictures. Additionally, it captivates readers with a tour through famous—and not-so-famous—New York landmarks.
4. The Dam
David Almond is best known for Skellig and other darker, edgier novels for older children. He worked with illustrator Levi Pinfold and publisher Candlewick Studio to create in The Dam a haunting tribute to the power of music to memorialize and recreate a lost world.
The book is based on the true story of the creation in Northumberland, in the 1970s, of the Kielder Water reservoir and dam. It resulted in the largest man-made lake in the United Kingdom. The region has historically been rife with legends and home-grown music produced by the people who lived on farmsteads all over the valley.
In Almond’s re-imagining, a father and his young daughter return to the village after it has been abandoned. They know that the dam about to come into being will flood the land they love, burying the many abandoned stone houses under the waters.
In Almond’s story, the father and daughter go from empty house to empty house, filling them for one last time with music from the girl’s fiddle. Pinfold’s muted, elegiac art provides the perfect accompaniment for this tale of loss, remembrance, and finding emotional resilience through the creation and performance of music.
Historians point out that, by the time the real dam at Kielder Water was constructed, the buildings had all been razed. However, The Dam’s vividly etched tribute to things lost will ring true for readers of all ages. Not even a sprawling dam and the rushing in of mighty waters, the book tells us, can still the human longing for creating new worlds—and remembering old—through music.
Experts point out that nothing encourages children to love reading more than when a parent sets the example. Children who see the adults in their lives taking time to read for pleasure are more likely to become enthusiastic readers themselves. So why not do the same thing for classical music?
One way to start children off with a love of music is to model exactly what that looks like: Play musical games together, dance and sing as part of regular family activities, attend concerts, and enjoy recordings of great music together.
But how can a parent demonstrate a love for classical music if he or she hasn’t had the opportunity to develop a taste for it?
Fortunately, a number of popular books—all written for interested adult laypeople by experts in the field—are available. The following list represents a sampling of fascinating books that can inspire a love of serious music while providing an enjoyable, educational read.
1. Experience the wonder
Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day by Clemency Burton-Hill offers simple, one-page summaries—each tied to a specific day of the calendar year—of the delights to be found in 365 different pieces of music. The 2018 book, published by Harper, brings this expert musicologist and media personality’s extensive knowledge of the subject within easy reach of anyone who has time to read one page each day.
The book offers a fun way to browse through Burton-Hill’s carefully curated selections as she provides fascinating snippets of information about each work, its composer, and its historical context.
While it makes a delightful browsing book, Year of Wonder can also be used as a personal tutor through a year of discoveries in classical music. Readers can look for online or hard-copy recordings of each work, making for an enriching multimedia listening and learning experience.
2. Glimpse fascinating lives
The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide, written by Anthony Tommasini and published by Penguin Press, is another 2018 title that provides a wide-ranging journey through the history of great music and exactly how its creators made it. Tommasini serves as the New York Times’ head music critic, and his encyclopedic knowledge of his subject is on vivid display in this book.
His assessment of each composer is easy-to-understand, free of jargon, and completely accessible, and is often accompanied by fascinating anecdotes and discussions of other cultural figures and of the author’s personal experiences in the world of music.
Even those who are unfamiliar with the ways in which, for example, Beethoven’s concertos or Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique revolutionized music will be able to grasp the significance of these and other big moments in the history of the classical music genre.
3. Catch the enthusiasm
A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera by Vivien Schweitzer, published in 2018 by Basic Books, brings the world of opera down to earth for even the most skeptical contemporary reader. Schweitzer, a former New York Times opera and music critic and pianist, offers readers a vivid romp through opera’s history and development, checking in on the most noted composers, performers, and performances along the way.
This lively book should dispel any stereotypes about opera being dull or beyond the comprehension of everyday people. Schweitzer ranges from the first opera known to have been composed—the early 17th century L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi—through great Romantic era pieces like Carmen by Georges Bizet to contemporary works by composers like Philip Glass.
The author provides us with riveting stories of the high—and low—moments in opera’s dramatic history, including the initial hostility of audiences toward Gioachino Rossini’s now-classic The Barber of Seville, and the rising and falling critical reputations of composers such as the near-contemporaries Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, bringing considerable wit and humor to the task.
4. Take a tour with an iconic guide
In 1984, beloved radio personality Karl Haas published Inside Music: How to Understand, Listen to, and Enjoy Good Music. Haas, who died in 2005 at age 91, had become an informal instructor in classical music for people all over the world through his program called Adventures in Good Music, broadcast by numerous public radio stations. Inside Music brings Haas’ distinctive blend of erudition and lively, pun-filled sense of humor to the fore, providing a friendly guided tour through the history and composition of great works. The book has been through multiple editions and remains in print under the Anchor imprint. Generations of readers have found it an indispensable first survey of its subject.
5. Enjoy a master class
The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg, originally published in 1970, is another older classic widely read and loved by amateur and professional students of music alike. Still available in an updated edition published by W. W. Norton & Company, the book offers detailed but easily digestible biographical portraits of composers from the Baroque era to the minimalists, tonalists, and experimentalists of the 20th century.
The author additionally covers the lives and contributions of female composers such as Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn. This makes a welcome addition to our expanding knowledge of composers who have remained underappreciated for generations due to their gender.
Schonberg, who died in 2003, was another New York Times music critic, and the first person ever to earn a Pulitzer Prize for music criticism.
Learning to play the piano is the beginning of a great adventure for young children, who will make many musical discoveries that will enrich their lives. Some may go on to make music a career, and they will always remember their first exercises at the keyboard.
For generations, parents, experts, and educators have recommended simple pieces of piano music from the classical keyboard repertoire that are the most suitable for these early learners. Those on this list are a few of the most often recommended, both for their innate beauty and their value as learning tools.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise
The short piece “Für Elise” (“For Elise”) is one of the most instantly recognizable of the world’s simplest piano compositions. Listed in the Beethoven catalog as “Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor,” for the youngest students it is anything but a frivolous throwaway piece. Educators often suggest it as a practice piece based on its clear melodic line and pleasing harmonics.
Beethoven’s original manuscript for this piece likely does not refer to an “Elise.” Some scholars believe that the obscured first title read “Für Therese” (possibly referring to a young woman who spurned the composer’s marriage proposal). “Elise” may have come about as the result of a transcription error.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata No. 16 in C Major
Mozart’s Sonata No. 16, known as “Sonata semplice,” or “Sonata facile,” is only “facile” because it is easy for beginners to play. He created it as a solo piece just for young beginners at the piano. It is a perennial favorite because it affords them the chance to perform a piece by this notoriously difficult composer with confidence.
The catchy melody and easy progression of the musical parts of this composition make it relatively simple to understand and to perfect for beginners. In performance, it typically takes about 14 minutes total.
3. Johann Sebastian Bach: Minuet in G Major
Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, left behind a notebook that contained this short harpsichord piece, which she had carefully hand-copied. Her notebook consisted of pieces by major composers of her time and before, a list that naturally included her husband. But some scholars today attribute this particularly lovely little piece not to Bach, but to fellow composer Christian Petzold.
Whoever the original composer may have been, Minuet in G remains a favorite of students and their teachers. It immediately leaps out of the air with a sprightly beginning, offers simple and easily distinguished variations, and ends with a sweet and definitive conclusion.
4. Robert Schumann: “Einsame Blumen”
In the original German, “Einsame Blumen” means “Lonely Flowers.” Schumann wrote this simple, melodic piece for his wife, Clara. She was also a distinguished pianist and performer.
The piece is part of the larger Schumann collection of piano miniature compositions entitled Waldszenen (“Forest Scenes”), Op. 82. Each one is a small tone poem that, in loving detail, offers an image of wilderness romanticism. “Einsame Blumen” is an excellent choice as a teaching vehicle for young beginners. Additionally, it remains a staple of the concert repertoire due to its soft, soothing quality and its gentle musical transitions.
5. Frédéric Chopin: Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4
Chopin was a virtuoso pianist, but he composed a number of pieces that are easy enough for young beginners. These include the haunting, simple melody and spare harmonies of this Prelude in E Minor.
Music teachers often recommend that students new to Chopin start with learning his preludes, as they are the simplest and most accessible part of his oeuvre. This particular prelude is typically considered among the easiest piano pieces for a beginner to execute. This is due in part to its easy, distinctive melodic line for the right hand, accompanied by the series of basic chords for the left.
6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: “Italian Song”
Tchaikovsky was not himself particularly known as a virtuoso of the piano. His collection in Op. 39, “Album for the Young,” reflects his focus on teaching young beginners through relatively simple compositions. “Italian Song” is perhaps the best-known of these, offering a lively, lilting, picturesque melody with a strong through-line.
Other compositions in “Album for the Young” are even simpler: “The Sick Doll” and “Morning Prayer” are typically ranked by music educators as highly suitable for young beginners. Other pieces in the collection are somewhat more difficult, and are perhaps better adapted for the needs of more skilled players.
7. Erik Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1
Satie, well-known as an early 20th century avant-garde French composer, created his series of “Gymnopédies” in 1888. They have stood the test of time among the simplest and loveliest beginning piano melodies. Additionally, the fact that they are meant to be played at slow tempos enhances their value to the youngest students.
Today, Gymnopédie No. 1 is instantly recognizable from its frequent use in film and television as a slow-paced mood piece. In fact, a number of critics have cited it as one of the most relaxing pieces to have ever been composed.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) points out that there is still no one comprehensive training program for music teachers on the best methods of teaching to students with disabilities and other special needs. Special education teachers may also be concerned about finding the most appropriate and memorable ways of bringing music into their classrooms.
With that in mind, here are a few notes on using music to expand the classroom experience for students with special needs:
1. Extraordinary benefits
Music holds an immense untapped potential to transform the lives of young people with special cognitive and emotional needs. It can build motor skills, social skills, and the ability to communicate with others. Using music as a tool can enrich the life of a child with special needs by making him or her more self-aware, more aware of the world, and better able to understand the people in it. It can serve as an easily accessible bridge from a child’s own inner world to the worlds of others.
Music therapists point out that setting lessons—in any subject—to music makes the material easier for students to process and retain. Music can serve as a motivational tool and a way of keeping track of time. Teachers may find that where other strategies have failed, music may be the key to facilitating communication with students with special needs, particularly those who are non-verbal.
Children with special intellectual or developmental needs sometimes show a gift for music. And, even for students with special needs who don’t show an obvious aptitude for making music, the very presence of music in the classroom can help overall educational progress.
2. A total neurological package
All areas of the human brain, as well as almost all of the human sense organs, receive stimulation from making or listening to music. This translates into music’s capacity to boost cognitive capacities in significant ways.
Because music engages multiple senses at once, it has an instant and powerful effect on both hemispheres of the brain, as well as the entire human nervous system.
Finnish investigators have discovered that simply hearing music stimulates broad swaths of neuro networks, including those that govern the creative process and coordinated movement.
While playing music of any kind, many parts of the brain receive stimulation: the cerebellum, a range of cortexes involved with sensation and movement, the prefrontal region, and the limbic system and its amygdala, which are responsible for responding to and remembering emotions.
3. Enhancing the musical experience
There are a number of resources that can even create customized music for special needs students, assisting them in distinguishing the sounds of spoken language or serving as aids to memorization and learning.
4. The power of percussion
Percussion instruments can be especially meaningful for students with special needs. Drums, shakers, and similar instruments provide an immediate sound in response to a physical activity, which can help sight-impaired students improve their ability to control their own movements and understand the nature of cause and effect.
The ability to touch and feel the shapes and physical textures of a variety of instruments is also beneficial, as is being able to feel the sound vibrations that follow a particular action.
5. A sample rhythm program
NAfME’s website offers some tips on how to build a structured approach to teaching the simple concept of rhythm to students with special needs:
First, start off by, as a group, clapping students’ names. Because our names are so intimately familiar to us, it is an easy way for those with special needs to connect to a beat and a pattern. This type of exercise is doubly valuable in that it reinforces the memorization of classmates’ names as well.
The next step includes using common words and phrases in rhythmic clapping. Words can be topical—tied in with an approaching holiday, for example—or can represent everyday things in students’ worlds. Displaying an image of the word or words is additionally helpful for any students who still may struggle with word recognition.
At this point, teachers can put background music into the mix to support classroom rhythm games.
At the next level, teachers can incorporate the use of color to teach musical notation. Each type of note value can have its own color; for example, blue can indicate a whole note, green a half note, and so on. A posted picture of a word that represents the musical expression, with the color-coded notes beneath it, can provide extra support as students learn to rely only on the notation.
As students become more comfortable with this phase in their learning, the teacher can gradually eliminate the pictures and the color-coding, encouraging students to read the original musical notation without any prompts.
6. Pairing music with visual stimulation
Visual cues are also very helpful for students with special needs learning to remember song lyrics. By fixing images of the words they are singing above the lyrics, teachers can support students in their processing and recall of the new information. Often, adding movement to the singing of lyrics can serve as an additional mnemonic.
7. Giving music its due in education plans
Teachers of children with special needs should ensure that each student’s individualized education plan includes a place for music instruction—and for the joys of creative self-expression that come along with it.
The universality of music as an art form—and as a cultural treasure—has become a cliche. However, as music teachers know, that cliche represents an important truth about the way in which music can expand horizons, facilitate understanding, and contribute to a broader appreciation of the heritages of all the people in the world.
Children who learn that there are others much like themselves who make music, dance, and sing together just as they do, can be a powerful motivator for them to learn more about other cultures. And when they participate in positive programs that introduce them to cultures other than their own, they learn to become more tolerant and accepting of other human beings.
In addition, participation in multicultural musical activities exposes children to a wider variety of sounds, intonations, and rhythms than they would ordinarily experience at home.
Educators point out that the process of teaching children music from a rich variety of cultures should begin in early childhood with an emphasis on broad participation. And any good early childhood music program will typically incorporate rhythmic movement activities and opportunities to develop social skills.
Studies validate multicultural music experiences.
Research has shown that when children hear music from other cultures, they develop the ability to perceive fine distinctions among sounds. This is just the type of experience that helps them to acquire and build on vital early language skills. They also learn the art of listening and increasing their ability to concentrate.
Experts assure anxious parents that hearing music in multiple languages—just as in the case of learning a second language—actually helps young children to improve their primary language skills.
World Music Day honors many traditions.
In fact, there is an entire day dedicated to the celebration of listening to, performing, and enjoying music from all over the world. World Music Day, which is observed in a multitude of ways in numerous countries, occurs on June 21 of each year.
The observance began in France, as Fête de la Musique, in the early 1980s. Since then, it has served as a means of promoting free access to music for everyone in some 700 cities worldwide, and it is supported by organizations such as Musicians Without Borders.
A treasure trove of recorded music.
Teachers and parents who want to focus on offering a multicultural palette of musical experiences can begin with one of the many well-reviewed recordings for children. These include the series published by Putumayo, which provides high-quality CDs of representative musical compositions from a wide range of cultures for children of all ages.
Putumayo’s children’s catalog, which is available online, includes the classroom favorite and Parents’ Choice award-winner World Playground. The label’s other selections include Kids’ African Party, which also offers an aid to learning with a list of instruments and musical genres that are distinctly African.
Other Putumayo titles include Cuban Playground, Italian Playground, and other “Playground” CDs featuring musical styles from New Orleans, Brazil, France, and the Caribbean. The albums are joined by several “Dreamland” collections, featuring multicultural songs suitable for quiet family times.
A classic American performer interprets the music of the world.
Ella Jenkins is a performer beloved by generations of parents and children. Jenkins, an African-American singer and actress, has worked since the 1950s to deliver definitive renditions of a wide range of folk songs for audiences of children. Her albums are available on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Jenkins’ classic Smithsonian Folkways albums include Multi-Cultural Children’s Songs and More Multicultural Children’s Songs. Children can enjoy songs from these albums that teach common greetings in many languages, including Swahili. Other tracks include renditions of beloved songs depicting the cultures of Israel, China, Australia, Germany, and many other nations.
Smithsonian also publishes Jenkins’ early albums Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, which introduces listeners to West African music, and Adventures in Rhythm, which teaches awareness of rhythmic concepts in music from the very basic to the more complex.
A bilingual educator offers multiple ways to learn music.
José-Luis Orozco is another musical artist with an international catalog that spans decades. A teacher with a master’s degree in education, Orozco has made a career of sharing the joys of music in Spanish and English with children and their families. He performs throughout the Americas to promote the value of bilingualism and multicultural understanding.
Orozco’s albums include Caramba Kids, De Colores, Esta es mi tierra/This Land Is Your Land, and numerous others. His website also offers educational kits that can enhance classroom music and cultural programming.
Putting traditional American classics in a global frame.
Another Smithsonian Folkways artist, Elizabeth Mitchell, offers recordings anchored in her early work as a teacher of young children in New York City. Her classes consisted of children who spoke a wide range of languages. Mitchell discovered that music could serve as a bridge among cultures. She has since gone on to immerse herself in the American and world folk music traditions. Her highly accessible albums include You Are My Little Bird, which features interpretations of American Appalachian and other folk melodies appropriate for all ages.
When parents and teachers first think about fiction titles for children on the subject of music, the ones that first come to mind are likely to be picture books. But there are also a wide range of absorbing novels for middle-grade readers, each bringing the world of creating and performing music to life. Here are only a few:
1. The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White
White is better known as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. However, The Trumpet of the Swan is a worthy addition to a young reader’s bookshelf in its own right.
The novel’s protagonist is Louis, a young trumpeter swan that the author named after legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Louis is broken-hearted because he cannot make a sound. He wants to be able to communicate with Serena, a beautiful swan who has won his heart.
When Louis learns to read and write, aided by his friend Sam Beaver, he only confuses his swan friends. But when Louis’ father steals a trumpet for him to play, the young swan shows that he is more than a voice. In this, his final book for children, White conveys the joy of music and the equal joyfulness of self-expression.
Director Richard Rich created a 2001 animated film adaptation of White’s 1970 masterpiece.
2. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
This Newbery Award-winning title also earned a Coretta Scott King Award for its vivid portrayal of the title character, an African-American boy living during the Great Depression. The 10-year-old Bud, whose mother died when he was only six, sets out on a train to find his missing father, as well as to track down the famous jazz musician Herman Calloway. As he learns about his family’s history, Bud also falls deeply in love with the rhythms of jazz.
Curtis’ 1999 book was later turned into a jazz-flavored musical that has delighted young people all over the country in touring performances.
3. Hidden Voices by Pat Lowery Collins
This 2009 historical fiction title for mature young people ages 12 and up is subtitled The Orphan Musicians of Venice. It is the story of three teenage girls who live in an orphanage in the early 18th century.
However, this particular orphanage has built up an extraordinary program of music education, and that theme pervades the book. The three girls all begin their lives searching for love. They find it in their growing devotion to the musical arts under the tutelage of composer Antonio Vivaldi.
But there is danger outside the orphanage walls. Each of the main characters experiences the complexities of life, love, and personal trauma in different ways. The book is a rich depiction of the capacity of rigorous musical study to strengthen the human spirit.
4. Second Fiddle by Rosanne Parry
Parry’s exciting, sensitive 2012 book is a look at the adventures of Jody, a 13-year-old girl in Berlin in 1990 in the wake of the fall of Communist governments across Eastern Europe and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
Jody, a violinist, lives with her family on an American army base. She and her two best friends are the members of an ensemble string trio who hope to perform in a competition in Paris. But their plans are derailed when they are the only ones who can rescue a young Russian soldier who becomes the object of attempted murder.
As the girls try to save the young man by helping him reach Paris, they become embroiled in political intrigue and learn the strengthening and revitalizing power of the art they have chosen.
5. Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
The harmonica is the star of this well-researched and deeply moving novel about musical vocation, identity, courage, and compassion.
Ryan follows the story of a particular harmonica through the lives of multiple children at multiple times and places. Their musical stories touch on the tragedies of the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the prejudices against Mexican migrant laborers in mid-20th century California, and the harsh lives of children in an orphanage. Ryan received a 2016 Newbery Honor Award for the book.
The audiobook version of Ryan’s beautifully-written historical and contemporary fable is made richer with accompanying musical performances.
6. I Am Drums by Mike Grosso
In Grosso’s 2016 book, middle school student Sam not only plays the drums, she lives the drums, hearing the beat even in her sleep. Unfortunately, her parents don’t have the money to support her dreams by buying her a drum set of her own. Additionally, her school loses its music program due to budget cuts.
Sam creates a drum kit out of old magazines and books while coping with her father’s job loss and her parents’ constant arguing and lack of understanding of her passion. Her love of music prompts Sam to test the limits of what she is prepared to do to achieve her goals. She even lies to her family about starting a lawn-mowing venture to earn money.
The author, a music teacher himself, creates a story based on the real dilemmas many kids like Sam face. He establishes reader empathy for his central character, her missteps and successes, and her dream to be a musician.
Pythagoras might have been speaking for numerous others when he said that he found music in the spacings between the planets and geometry in the sounds of strings. Plato wrote of harmonies in mathematics and how they parallel harmony in a just society. Confucius also found numerous eternal truths in the unfolding of pieces of music.
These ancient philosophers grasped truths about the interconnectedness of music and mathematics that have become even more clear over the centuries.
Here are only a few insights, based on the experiences of musicians and mathematicians, about this close relationship:
1. Activation of analogous skills
Music students, when tested, tend to show more skill in mathematics than their non-musical peers. High levels of cognitive processing ability and executive function—which involves self-regulation and self-management in order to achieve a goal—are essential for success in both fields.
Research also supports the notion that executive function, even more so than overall intelligence, has been shown to influence academic achievement. Learning math ties into the development of executive function by calling on a child to analyze, identify key concepts, and proceed through a series of logical steps. Likewise, learning to play a musical instrument enhances this capacity by, among other factors, drawing on the ability to calibrate motor movements in response to changes of time signature and key.
2. A beautiful symmetry
Some mathematicians explain their field by focusing on how they work to extract the essential elements of any given thing and study the characteristics and interactions of those elements on an abstract plane. This type of learning can help students to understand music and can lead to a deeper engagement with the essential elements of a musical composition.
Music can inspire students to learn more about mathematics through studying, for example, the properties and manifestations of sound. Innovative mathematics teachers have even brought opera singers into their classrooms to show students how the patterns of mathematics are part of the essence of music.
3. Simplicity within complexity
Every note a composer writes or a musician plays is involved in an intricate web of harmony, rhythm, and mathematical patterns.
These patterns tend to be built around elements of symmetry. For example, just as the shapes of regular geometric figures remain the same when rotated, a musical tune can be transposed to another key in a composition such as a fugue.
In a Mandelbrot set, a famous fractal, a smaller replica of the entire patterned set can always be found hidden at the core of any other image in the set. So, we might also say that a musical fractal occurs when one theme harmonizes with a slower version of itself. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, showcased a talent for repeating his themes numerous times throughout a variety of permutations.
4. A composition made possible by math
In fact, thanks to an extraordinary mathematical insight, Bach had the tools he needed to compose The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722. The piece consists of a set of masterful preludes and fugues, one in each of the major and minor keys.
But Bach could not have created this much-loved work without mathematics. In 1636, the French monk and mathematician Marin Mersenne successfully solved a difficult problem by deriving the twelfth root of the number 2, thus paving the way for the division of the octave into 12 equal semitones.
Before this division and the associated method of equal temperament of musical instruments, pieces transposed into new keys often sounded uneven and unpleasing. But after Mersenne’s achievement, musicians were able to work with a 12-part octave, evenly spaced and divided into ratios. They could then write music in every key and transpose easily from one key to another. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier was the first noteworthy example of this musical revolution.
5. How math determines pitch
A discussion of pitch is only one way to demonstrate how math undergirds sound.
Pitch is based on wave frequencies. All audible sounds are produced by changes in the air pressure of the pockets surrounding a sound wave. The frequency that hits the human ear translates into the perceived pitch. Each note possesses its own individual frequency.
For an example of sound waves in action, think of a train whistle. Notice that the sound seems higher-pitched as the train approaches. But after the train goes by, the sound seems lower. As the train speeds toward the listener, the forward movement compresses the arriving air pockets against each other, thus pushing them forward more frequently. As a result, the sound seems higher-pitched. Then as the train recedes into the distance, the air pockets slow in their arrival to the ear, giving a lower pitch.
We perceive the most pleasant-sounding chords when we combine notes with sound waves that reverberate in analogous patterns. The mathematical ratios of the intervals between notes give the means of calculating which note combinations produce harmony and which create discord.
Frequency is measured in terms of hertz, and notes with higher pitch have a higher frequency. Middle C has a frequency of approximately 262 hertz. This means that, when middle C sounds on a piano, the sound waves that reach a listener’s ear consist of 262 pockets of higher air pressure striking against the ear every second. As a comparison, the E just above middle C sounds at approximately 329.63 hertz.
Building an understanding of the physics and mathematics behind pitch also leads students to a fuller understanding of octaves, chords, and other musical elements.
6. Pairing music and math in the classroom
When teaching music in the classroom, teachers can incorporate math in a multitude of ways. One is to ask older children to identify the parts of a musical pattern, then to restate the rule governing that pattern. They can go on to use their analysis of patterns to make predictions about the future direction of a composition. An exploration of time signatures and chords can also be the basis for lessons in how math and music work together.
Before younger children even learn the formal concepts of mathematics, they learn through experience about rhythm, repetition, and proportional relationships among musical concepts. They can clap out the syllables of their names, and then see if they can match the number of syllables in their own names to those in other students’ names. They can also echo their teacher, with voice or movement, as he or she calls out and varies notes, beats, and tempos.