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Interactive Music Strategies for the Academic Curriculum

by Michelle Lazar

Music is often a part of the preschool and kindergarten child's school experience. But what happens in first grade and beyond? Music time is often limited to a weekly music class or a school play. The current pressure on teachers to meet curriculum standards and focus on math and literacy often means that music is put on the back burner. Luckily, with a little creative planning, music can actually serve as the method to teach selected curriculum units. No longer is music viewed then as a non-academic activity, but rather as just another multi-sensory approach to teaching math, literacy, science, and social studies.

How can I convince the administration that music activities are not detracting from academic time? 

Just like games, worksheets, videos, and manipulatives, music activities can be considered one type of instructional approach. The music activities used will directly carry the curriculum content that the student is to learn. For example, if the student is to add single digit numbers, the lyrics to the educational song or chant will deal directly with that target skill.

Research supports the use of music as mnemonic device for learning of new information, in addition to the role of music in focusing attention and providing a motivating context for learning. Educational research also supports that we learn and retain information better when it is interesting and meaningful to us. (See reference list.)

What are some practical ways to integrate music approaches into the curriculum?

Reading & Spelling

  • Students clap or tap out syllables on a drum when practicing new vocabulary. Example: "Wa-ter-me-lon"

  • Students are given rhymes to recite that correspond with important spelling rules such as "I before E except after C"
  • Lyrics to a song are given as a reading assignment. When they are able to read it correctly, the students get to sing the song out loud. Example: "On Top of Spaghetti", "Yankee Doodle"
  • A song is presented via recording or sung with lyrics. Students then utilize comprehension skills to discuss what the song is about and draw inferences as to what may happen in the next verse. Unfamiliar vocabulary can be discussed. Example: "Puff the Magic Dragon"


  • Students listen to a short song and then write the words. Once complete they can sing what they wrote.
  • Simple rhymes are given to help students remember basics of letter formation such as "g and j and p and q their tails are really great. Two curl back and one curls front and one just hangs there straight."

History/ Science/ Social Studies

  • Play songs from various eras when teaching American History.
  • Play songs that represent a historical event and have students discuss relevance of lyrics. Ex. "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", "Battle Hymn of the Republic".
  • Play songs from various countries when studying cultures or geography. Make an instrument from the designated country or culture. Ex. Native American Indian rainstick, African drum, etc.
  • Use simple rhymes to help recall of facts. Ex. "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue"


  • To address patterns, have group stand in circle and listen while teacher claps a rhythm pattern. Each student must then copy the rhythm one after another until it goes around the entire circle correctly.
  • Chant addition or multiplication facts to a rhythm.
  • Use a tune to remember various counting patterns. Ex. Count by 3's to the tune of "Jingle Bells", 4's to the tune of "Old McDonald", 6's to the tune of "I'm a Little Teapot", etc.
  • Teach concept of fractions by studying how various music rhythms are divided (whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, etc.)

How can I ensure that the students retain the information outside of the music context?

Pair songs with corresponding visual material or written text that relates to the content. Provide the students with a verbal "quiz" or related worksheet after the song to review the information that was covered. Implement other fading techniques of the music such as moving from sung addition facts, to chanted addition facts, to spoken addition facts.

What are some examples of classrooms that have successfully used music as a curriculum approach?

1) A 3rd grade teacher incorporated group singing regularly to introduce new units and motivate the class for transitions. The classroom had "risers" set up so the group could move out of their seats when the group singing took place. Songs and simple chants were recited by the group to learn spelling rules and math facts. The students viewed the music as a "fun" time of day when they could be along side their peers in an interactive environment, while the teacher was able to meet the curriculum standards required of their grade level.

2) A 3rd grade teacher used a "theme song of the month" to pair with social studies units and national holidays. Themes included black history month/ Martin Luther King song, "You're a Grand Old Flag" for U.S. history, and a President's Rap for Washington and Lincoln's birthday. Lyric sheets were provided to the students for each song, and the content used as a springboard for discussion of new vocabulary, historical figures, and events surrounding the period when the song was written.

3) A Kindergarten teacher incorporated various pre-academic music recordings relating to phonics and beginning math concepts into a Listening Center rotation, in which the children were able to listen to the recordings while following along with corresponding visual aids and worksheets. Worksheets were enclosed in plastic sheet covers so each student could complete with a wet-erase marker and erase after having their work reviewed.

Where can I find educational music recordings to use in my classroom?

High quality academic recordings available for purchase include:


Learn to Read Sing-Along Series PreK-2 (songs on cassette that accompany student books and big book series)

Rockin' Readers K-3 (12 student books plus CD with narrative reading and song lyrics)

Schoolhouse Rock: Grammar Rock (catchy tunes for each part of speech)


Addition/ Subtraction/ Multiplication Rap & Hip Hop Booklet and tape series by Twin Sisters. Catchy tunes for various ages,

Multiplication/ Addition/ Subtraction Unplugged Recordings by Sara Jordan Publications. Available at .

Math in Motion: Wiggle, Gallop, and Leap with Numbers Book by Betsy Franco & Denise Dauler. Basic math skills such as counting, add/ subtract, time/ money, patterns, skip-counting, etc. paired with movement games. Available at

Schoolhouse Rock: Multiplication Rock

History/ Science/ Social Studies

Schoolhouse Rock: Science Rock, America Rock

 Rap of the States, Rap of the Presidents, Rap of the Solar System- Booklet with CD or Cassette. or 1-800-437-0832.

Weather, Oceans, Chemistry, Space, Celebrate America, States & Capitals- CD or Cassette,


Claussen, D., & Thaut, M. (1997). Music as a mnemonic device for children with learning disabilities. Canadian Journal of Music Therapy, 5, 55-66.

Colwell, CM. (1994). Therapeutic applications of music in the whole language kindergarten. Journal of Music Therapy, 31(4), 238-247.

Gfeller, K. (1983). Musical mnemonics as an aid to retention with normal and learning disabled students. Journal of Music Therapy, 20(4), 179-189.

Lamb, S., & Gregory, A. (1993). The relationship between music and reading in beginning readers. Educational Psychology, 13, 19-26.

Kilgour, A.R., Jakobson, L.S., & Cuddy, L.L. (2000). Music training and rate of presentation as mediators of text and song recall. Memory & Cognition, 28(5), 700-710. (use of music to enhance verbal recall of information)

Morton, L.L. (1990). The potential for therapeutic applications of music on problems related to memory and attention.  Journal of Music Therapy, 27(4), 195-208.

Register, D. (2001). The effects of an early intervention music curriculum on prereading/ writing. Journal of Music Therapy, 38(3), 239-248.

Standley, J., & Hughes, J. (1997). Evaluation of an early intervention music curriculum for enhancing pre-reading/writing skills. Music Therapy Perspectives, 15, 79-86.

Wallace, W. (1994). Memory for music: effect of melody on recall of text. Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(6), 1471-1485. (underlying rationale for music to cue memory)

Wolfe, D., & Hom, C. (1993). Use of melodies as structural prompts for learning and retention of sequential verbal information by preschool students. Journal of Music Therapy, 30(2), 100-118.

About the author

Michelle Lazar, MT-BC, directs Coast Music Therapy, a San Diego-based agency focused on providing a creative approach to learning through music. She specializes in meeting the learning needs of children with developmental disabilities, and also provides consultation, workshops and training seminars for educators in both special and regular education classrooms. She holds a baccalaureate degree in Music Therapy from Western Michigan University, with additional training in Neurologic Music Therapy from the Center for Biomedical Research in Music at Colorado State University. Her publications include a chapter in Models of Music Therapy Interventions in School Settings, 2002 edition by Brian L. Wilson.

Michelle Lazar, MT-BC offers other practical tips for music-assisted learning at

© March 2004

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