A recent five-year study from the University of Southern California’s (USC’s) Brain and Creativity Institute discovered that music plays a large role in “accelerating brain development in young children, particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills…”

Well, you don’t have to tell me twice! I LOVE to use music in the classroom not only for its proven track record to expedite cognitive function, but also simply because children love to sing! Music appeals to our “Music Smart” students, is engaging, brings smiles to scholars’ faces, and helps to grow our children’s auditory pathways…That’s a Win-Win in my book! So let’s talk about some of the ways you can use music in your classroom.

Using Music To Teach Sight Words

We all know how tricky it can be for primary-aged students to learn their sight words. Sight words can be extra challenging because most sight words don’t follow the standard phonetic rules when learning the English Language. Children must learn to recognize sight words as a whole word, or as one whole unit.

One of the best ways to teach sight words is to make up songs, especially for those tricky words. When creating a song, we recommend the following:

  • Use the tune of a popular children’s song, nursery rhyme, or song your students are familiar with.
  • When creating the lyrics, emphasize how to read, write, and spell the sight word.
  • Repetition is key. Sing the song often! Make it part of your morning routine, sing the song during transitions throughout the day, and/or (my personal favorite) sing the song every time your students line up to enter or exit the classroom.
  • Give your students a printout of the lyrics in their weekly homework packet. Have them practice at home and teach it to a family member! The best part? Your students practice reading by reading the lyrics on the paper printout.

Check out our LMI song for the tricky sight word, “was” here. Want more? Head to our video library and check out our Sight Word video series. Many of our sight word videos teach a song or chant that you can use in your classroom.

Using Music to Teach Primary Grammar And Vocabulary

When we talk about “music,” we also mean rhythm, rhyme, chants, and beats. There’s a reason young children learn to rhyme and why the most popular nursery rhymes in history continue to be favorites generation after generation. Rhyming helps children learn critical word patterns and teaches them the “sound” of language. Nursery rhymes help children develop speech, memory, comprehension, and vocabulary.

When teaching my first graders about nouns, I first teach them what a noun is. A noun is a person, place, or thing (we also discuss how animals are nouns). We turn this into a call-and-response. It usually goes something like this: “When I say, ‘Noun,’ you say, ‘A person, place, or thing.’” We practice this a few times, saying the definition loud and proud. Students say the definition in rhythmic tone and beat.

Next, I have my scholars pretend to get out imaginary drumsticks (one in each hand) and tap on a drum as they say the definition out loud. Each “tap” is a beat, matching a syllable in each word of the definition.

For example:
Teacher says: “Noun!”
Scholars tap on the imaginary drum with pretend drumsticks at each syllable, alternating hands, as they say: “A person, place, or thing.”
The taps look like this:
“A               Per — Son         Place       Or        Thing”
(tap)        (tap) (tap)        (tap)     (tap)      (tap)

By connecting a body movement (i.e. tapping on a drum), we are adhering to our ‘“Body Smart” learners and also connecting more sense to the brain. Now we have both auditory and muscle memory working together to help children learn what a noun is.

Throughout the week and school year, as you continue to learn about nouns and complete activities or worksheets identifying nouns in sentences, continue to repeat the call-response as often as you can. This strategy also works for introducing high-level academic vocabulary words. Teach the word and its definition, creating a body movement that goes with the definition. Turn it into a call-and-response so that when you, the teacher, say the word out loud, your students say the definition out loud and do the associated body movement. Can I get a whoop-whoop?!

Best Practice For Playing Music In The Classroom

One of the best ways to create a nurturing, calm classroom environment is to play music in your classroom. There may be times where you play songs and perform whole group dances for “brain breaks” such as: The Hokey Pokey. Those are fun, but I’m talking about using soft, instrumental, background music throughout the day.

Let’s dive into the Dos and Don’ts of playing music for your students.

  • DO invest in a speaker or boom box for your classroom.
  • DO play instrumental music (no lyrics): Some of my personal favorites include Enya, Vitamin String Quartet, Lindsey Stirling (without lyrics), and the Disney Instrumental Channel on Pandora.
  • DO keep the volume low-medium. Use this as a reinforcer for volume in your classroom. One of my favorite things to tell my class is: “If you can’t hear the music, you’re too loud.” A great, quick, positive way to lower the classroom volume.
  • DO use soft, instrumental music for:
    • Entry: Have it playing as your students enter the classroom. This sets a beautiful tone for the day. Train your students to enter the classroom quietly, hang up their belongings, and get to work right away on their morning seatwork or morning activities.
    • Silent, Solo, Independent Work: Play music when your students should be completing silent, independent work. Use it as a reward, “When everyone is settled and begins their independent work, we can turn on the music.”
    • Center Stations/Workshop Stations: Play music during center stations. We all know how loud it can get during center time, especially when we have five groups of students completing different activities. Use it as a reinforcer for volume level: “If you can’t hear the music, you’re too loud.” 

  • DON’T play music with lyrics or music that is too high energy–keep it calm.
  • DON’T play music too loud. Keep your music at a low to medium volume, just loud enough that every student can hear it.
  • DON’T play music while you are teaching. Save music for independent work or use it as background music for center stations.

So go for it! Try one of these strategies in your classroom and let us know how it worked out. Happy teaching and happy learning!


USC News. “Children’s brains develop faster with music training.” Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) at USC. 2016. https://news.usc.edu/102681/childrens-brains-develop-faster-with-music-training/ Accessed: April 29th, 2021.