#RaisingReaders Monday: Music and Literacy

I’d love to get a discussion going this week about the connections between music education and literacy. Please, chime in with comments and links if you have personal experience, professional education, or questions and comments about the links between the two. Do YOU think music education has a positive effect on literacy?


My early music education was limited to singing hymns and Sunday school songs at church, shouting out John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt with my Girl Scout troop, and occasionally whacking away at a xylophone while Sister Mary Music-Teacher tapped out the beat on a tambourine.  I didn’t have instrumental lessons or learn to read music until my 30’s. And yet, I was a voracious reader from a very young age. Clearly, one doesn’t REQUIRE formal music education to develop literacy skills. But let’s take a look at the ways music education is purported to help with literacy.

Jonathon Bolduc from the University of Ottawa published a review of the research on the effects of music education on emergent literacy skills in preschool age children. He found that:

 many authors and researchers claim that musical activities promote the development of three important components that are equally involved in the development of linguistic abilities: auditory perception, phonological memory, and metacognitive knowledge.

Let’s translate that into something we can talk about with other parents at the playground. The research is showing that music education promotes:

1. THE DEVELOPMENT OF AUDITORY PERCEPTION: So, listening ability. That seems logical. When children – or adults – learn to appreciate or make music, they learn to listen carefully. They learn to listen for tone, rhythm, repetition. They listen for patterns. They listen for changes in volume. They listen with the intention of gaining some sort of knowledge from what they are listening to – or with the intention of being able to repeat what they’ve heard. It’s pretty clear that these abilities will be helpful to children who are also developing early literacy skills. Listening for the rhythm of sentences, the pauses and breaks, the tone change at the end of a question, the letter sounds – listening for all these things as a caregiver reads aloud are essential skills for literacy development.

2. PHONOLOGICAL MEMORY:  In simple terms, phonemes are the distinct sounds that make up words. To be able to read, you not only need to see the letters and recognize them, you need to match single letters and letter groupings with the sounds they make (and again, match those to meaning). Music education has been shown to improve the ability of the brain to remember phonemes. This, in turn, allows the reader to “sound out” words and to quickly recognize “sight words.”

3.METACOGNITIVE KNOWLEDGE: Ah, metacognition. Thinking about thinking. It can be a really difficult concept to understand and discuss. What metacognition means to early literacy – at least from my understanding – is that the reader needs to have:

  • A. a plan, strategies, for working out what those sounds on the page mean. And then the reader needs to have
  • B. a way of analyzing his or her success – did I make the right sound? Does it match the letters? Does it make sense?  –  and
  • C. a back-up plan: What do I do if I’m not successful the first time?

All of this is part of metacognition in literacy. And studies show that music education improves these strategies – the ability to listen to your results, analyze if they match the desired result, and self-correct if needed. Like when I hit a wrong note in the middle of Twinkle Twinkle, hear the very wrongness of it compared to the expected sound, and then back up and play it correctly. Or when I’m reading a sentence and say “cloud” instead of “could,” I recognize that that doesn’t make sense in context, and I go back to try again.

There is a lot more information about music and academic performance online  – arguments from many perspectives. Some of the things I read supporting music education were sheer nonsense, and some of the articles that attempt to argue against it were malicious and misinformed. It takes all types, I guess. I found this article from a workshop presented by the Las Vegas Philharmonic to be very helpful, easy to understand, and backed by sensible research.

Personally, the research  – or scarcity thereof – once had me a little skeptical. But I enrolled my children in Music Together and KinderMusik classes, and later in Music for Young Children, because I wanted them to have the opportunity to learn more about music than I had. (Their dad is a drummer and guitarist, when he’s not crunching numbers. He felt the same way.)


Through these classes, I saw my children blossom in ways I didn’t expect. They learned so much that they could apply to other aspects of education. I watched in amazement as the children in the classes learned listening skills, speech skills, patterning, rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, counting, skip counting, and letter recognition all while having a wonderful time bonding with caregivers and new friends, AND moving their busy little bodies.

After years of group classes, my kids have moved on to individual lessons – my five-year-old in piano, my 7-year-old guitar, and my 9-year-old clarinet. They all know more than I do about reading music now – though I’m trying to keep up. I also catch them singing under their breath as they memorize spelling words, or setting their times tables to tune. My middle daughter likes to read books forward, then backward, and then sing them. They all make up wacky rhymes and song parodies that crack me up. Their math and language skills have certainly benefited from music lessons.

So tell me, what do you think? I’m looking forward to hearing your experiences with music and literacy.


18 thoughts on “#RaisingReaders Monday: Music and Literacy

  1. Lovely post. I think music, whether playing and instrument or singing, is important to a child’s development. Children do develop greater parts of their brain. My husband’s uncle was a famous opera and orchestral composer and he often talked about how it helps the child use more of his/her brain. He was also an educator and knew first hand. But, more than anything it allows a child to express themselves creatively, whether they study their entire life. I nearly majored in music in college. It is such a creative outlet and allows children an outlet for feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome post Katey! I immediately thought of “Sing Me Home” by Jodi Picoult. In the book, she uses music as a physical therapy for sick kids (don’t quote me on that. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it). What has always stuck with me from that book is that she mentions how different parts of the brain light up when people do different things. The only time the entire brain lights up is….you guessed it. When listening to music. My 5-year-old gets so frustrated trying to sound out words and you’ve got me thinking that maybe I can somehow incorporate music to help his reading skills. My oldest was reading when he was four, fluently! Gavin is just as smart and capable, but their personalities are like night and day. I have to approach them totally different. Really fantastic information. Thank you!


    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Becky! I’m glad to have brought you some things to think about. You might also want to check out some of the Leapfrog videos – like The Letter Factory and Word Factory. They helped make sounding out words fun for my girls.


  3. I’ve always thought that different modes of thinking must make us better critical thinkers. This isn’t a parenting perspective, but I’ve often thought that my facility with language must be closely related to my musical training. The only way I can explain why people often think that I’m a native speaker of languages I learned in adulthood (despite clear grammatical errors) is my ability to mimic sound and detect nuance – something that either comes from or feeds into my interest in vocal performance. That degree of comfort with spoken language makes it very easy for me to learn to read and write in multiple languages. That said, I’ve only ever had experience with (nominally) phonetic scripts (Bengali uses a syllabary and all my other languages use the Latin alphabet). I wonder whether I would struggle more with logographic writing systems, like Chinese.

    Thanks for linking up with #TwinklyTuesday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One other note – I’ve been tutoring one of my daughters’ friends in math, her biggest challenge being word problems. One of the most effective techniques I introduced was for her to hum the shape of the sentence she’s reading when reading out loud isn’t an option. It’s increased her average performance by about 10 points, the ability to allow herself to HEAR what’s she’s reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am going to put that suggestion into action right away! My oldest has the most trouble with word problems when she can’t read them aloud. Such an auditory learner!


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  5. I’m a children’s librarian for a rural library in west Michigan and really enjoyed your post on music and literacy. I use early literacy techniques in my story times based on the American Library Association’s program Every Child Ready to Read and on Kent District Library’s Play Grow Read! program. ALA revamped their literacy program a few years ago from one with a great deal of educational lingo to one that simply explains to parents five easy ways to help their children get ready to read, by reading, talking, playing, writing, and singing with them. ALA realized that many parents are not concerned with the names of the specific skills their child needs to learn to read but rather would like to know what to do. In a literacy booklet I designed for parents, I wrote:
    Singing helps children learn word and rhythm patterns.
    Children who can keep a steady beat become better readers.
    Chant or sing a story instead of reading it – be silly!
    Sing the alphabet song. Dance to songs. Sing to stuffed animals.
    Try singing a verse fast, slow, loud, quiet, squeaky, or low and deep.

    Kent District Library’s Play-Grow-Read! website describes the benefits of singing this way:

    Singing helps children learn new words.
    Singing slows down language so children can hear the different sounds in words and learn about syllables.
    Singing together is a fun bonding experience with your child – whether you’re a good singer or not!
    Singing develops listening and memory skills and makes repetition easier for young children – it’s easier to remember a short song than a short story.

    I really like the simplified language of these new approaches to educate parents about early literacy techniques. But I also enjoyed reading the more specific studies you mentioned in your post and made copies to add to my literacy files at the library. Thanks again! Best wishes with your writing. I’m looking into Storm Literacy Agency and came across your name through their website.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Karmen – It’s so great to have your perspective on this matter! I lov the way you’ve made the language so simple AND actionable for parents! Great work! I’m originally a Michigan girl myself (Detroit, then Kalamazoo) andlibraries of that state made me the reader – and writer – I am today. Glad to hear from someone who keeps that spirit alive!! Feel free to get in touch if you have questions about Storm, writing, or anything I can help you with!


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  7. There is so much more to literacy than reading and writing. Music, art, physical movement and challenging the brain with new tasks and experiences are key to developing literacy from an early age. I love posts like this that go beyond the obvious in encouraging literacy in all its forms.


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