It's All About The (Meaningful) Context!

Music Ed from Mr. Rob

How do we learn best?

For both children and adults, it’s easiest to learn new things when they relate directly to something in our lives. Think about how much you knew about raising children before you had your own. Chances are you’ve learned quite a lot since becoming a parent! We tend to be great learners when what we’re learning is meaningful to us. 

Make Music Meaningful!
In educational jargon, we call this concept, “meaningful context”. It’s one of the basic strategies that teachers use to motivate students to learn. Try to remember a teacher you loved – one who made the subject matter “come alive”. That teacher probably did something to make the topic meaningful to you, knowing that if you found a personal connection to the material you would be naturally inclined to learn more about it. 

The same idea applies to learning music. Young children don’t start out with enough familiarity with music to be able to find special meaning in the melody, harmony or meter used in a song. But if you sing a song about their best friends, a favorite animal, or special events in their lives, they will quickly “tune in” to the musical elements! Each time you repeat a song about something they like – for example, a little dog, they will hear and thereby learn the notes and rhythms in the song through repetition. 

Listen here to our song, “Littlest Dog” for an example of this. (Copyright 2008, Robert Sayer)

Movement Powers Learning
Doing movement activities along with music has the advantage of not only incorporating the “meaningful context” concept (we all love to jump, twirl, and wiggle!) but also capitalizing on movement as a powerful way to learn. Physical movement relates to rhythmic feeling in music, and we retain information better when it is accompanied by movement.
(There’s a lot more to say on the topic of learning through movement! Check out this article to dig deeper.) 

“I Can March” is a great example of a song where we use large movements to learn! (Copyright 2000, Robert Sayer)

Use YOUR Voices!
You can create “meaningful context” with music for your child when you ask them for an idea to sing about. For example, when singing the song “Littlest Dog” ask, “What other animal can we sing about?” If you’re doing a song with movement activities like “I Can March” ask, “How else can we move?” Asking your child for suggestions not only encourages creative thinking, but it provides a deeply personal connection to the music, which is empowering and fun!

Of course, singing verses that you’ve made up is very hard to do when the recorded music is playing with different words. The simple solution is to turn the recording off! Be sure to listen to the recording before singing without it to learn the song and to expose your child to a model of musical accuracy. Then once you’re comfortable with it, turn the recording off and sing it a cappella using your family’s ideas! Don’t worry about the quality of your singing. When you sing, you’re encouraging your child to sing, and doing so is a critical step in music development.

Consider the recorded version of a song as a musical starting point. From there you can make the song come to life by adapting it any way that you like! When you do this, your child will naturally have a greater interest in the song because it will relate to them. Always encourage your child to come up with new lyrics and movements. Then when you sing those ideas, you’ll see an even greater engagement and excitement with the music.

In the video below, the teacher asks the children to suggest a favorite animal, which they then sing about. Notice how involved the children are when they make the song their own!

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