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Music On Your Child’s Mind: Improving Focus Through Song

How to use music to improve your child's focus.

musicMy oldest daughter got me going again. We were making our morning trek to her kindergarten, down the Berkshires into Albany. The ride is difficult enough with the potential of random traffic popping into your lane often and at unusual speeds Add to that 2 children in the back getting, let’s say, a bit rambunctious. It’s enough to make me switch my morning caffeine fix from tea to double espresso. At any rate, Isabella (5 and ½) wanted to play the “music game” as she now refers to it. “Let’s play that game where you see who can guess the name of the song?” Isabella requested. My youngest daughter Veronica (now 3) was egging me on as well. And, of course, this was all (ahem) music to my ears.

During the end of the year (2009) holiday season as part of my Music On Your Child’s Mind series, I wrote a post about a holiday music game you could play to put children in a calmer state of mind as you drive—as well as help teach them flow and higher speed attention skills.

I was delighted that Isabella wanted to play the game again. The problem, however, was that it was no longer the holiday season, so the frequency of songs that the girls would hear on the radio that would match those heard at home would be low—too low I believed to sustain their interest in the game. But the game was fun for them (and me). I really didn’t want to give it up.

For the purpose of this post, let’s say that our game works like Name That Tune. To see how my family began playing as well as how we learned to sustain interest, and hike up attention skills, view Music On Your Child’s Mind: Holiday Music Game.

So I didn’t want to say no when Isabella suggested playing. I dialed up the oldies station, figuring this might offer the best chance for matching songs with ones the kids were familiar with. But I was wrong. My collection of old songs didn’t much resemble the station’s playlist. Isabella wanted to keep playing anyway—in terms of creating a flow experience, a very good sign. I reminded Isabella of some the listening skills that we had attempted in December. The first one focused on repetition. If I could get Isabella working this skill, Veronica would soon follow, I thought. After a few tunes, Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman came on, and Isabella nailed it. She had remembered well the strategy of catching repeating words and lines to help name the tune. “Pretty Woman,” she shouted. Pretty Woman, Veronica echoed.

Then a series of songs came on that were very difficult for the children and me too. Again we looked for repeating words. But, this time, the strategy didn’t work. So we went to the chorus and tried to catch the title there. After a couple of attempts, Isabella got Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, by Jim Croce—which she’d never heard before, that I am aware of—then missed a few titles, and then nailed Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally. She didn’t do so well on the next series that came up, and then caught Don McLean’s American Pie—instantly. This was because she had taken a big interest in the melody and lyrics well before we ever began the holiday music game. In fact, she had asked me to sing the song while she accompanied me many times over the last year. So she knew the song well. Veronica trailed in right behind Isabella on this one. Both kids beamed. The game still had magic for them. Even though they were getting fewer titles correct, they still figured they had what it takes to get right answers and remained highly excited and focused on playing.

So I took things to the next step and set out to customize a CD the children could use to play the game on long drives. The advantage of using my own “playlist” was that I would be able to target specific skills, as well as increase the challenge as we moved forward. The idea was to heighten their skill and further their pleasure through self-reward. I made one mix of children’s songs only, and another compilation that contained songs for “older people.” These first mixes were meant to be easy—I included lots songs that my daughters had heard before and ones that mentioned titles in the first line. For me, building confidence and satisfaction is an important part of sustaining interest and just as important in transferring the mindset to other tasks. That said, I didn’t shy away from sprinkling in titles that could be inferred from patterns of repeating words and phrases and some that could be noted in the chorus. This assortment paralleled skills the girls had learned when we began playing the game last November. I also included some new challenges like: starting some songs in the middle and looping certain sections or lines from other songs.

I then put together a CD in which we could try to identify theme. I had already explained theme to Isabella in the earlier version of the game. But now I wanted to develop it more.

If you’d like to try the game, here are a few other variations: Put together a CD in which you try to identify various instruments: different drums, piano, flute, sax, trumpet, violin, electric bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, accordion and so on. This part of my playlist worked well with both children.

You can include mixes of instrumental music. Mine ranged from Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Brahms Lullaby to Pachelbel’s Cannon and Handel’s Hallelujah, to Jessica by the Allman Brothers. This, of course, exercised a batch of other listening skills.

I periodically ask each daughter if it “feels good” to know the answer.

How you praise is an important piece of this game. Rather than telling my daughters how right they are or how smart they are when they get a correct answer, I ask instead how it “feels” to know the answer. “Good,” they say. And I reinforce this idea by telling them that it feels good to me too when I know an answer.

Other possible variations of the game may include: asking children how certain songs make them feel emotionally and/or physically—happy, sad, excited, and so on. Isabella says, “Nothing gives me more energy than listening to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.” This may come as a surprise to someone who doesn’t know her. However, those of us who do, know that she practices dancing the Nutcracker every day, year round, for her December ballet performance—which she has danced now for 3 years—not to mention her fascination with her collection of Nutcracker DVDs as performed by a myriad of artists—even cartoon characters. Veronica has her own favs. She prefers whimsical songs like those of The Laurie Berkner Band and classic children’s tunes that rhyme.

Playing the music game during drives into Albany (or anywhere) has made rides a lot of fun. I’ve noticed that both girls have been gathering more intrinsic reward from other aspects of their life as well: like (some) household chores and even in their relationships with others. And Isabella with her schoolwork. Again, asking how a specific action feels helps make this transfer. Making your own music mixes is fun, and you can see results fairly soon, as well as have calmer more enjoyable rides wherever you go.

As a footnote, Isabella and I heard American Pie again on the radio a few days ago. We had been talking more about theme when the song came on. I mentioned that one of the ideas in McLean’s song had to do with music that people couldn’t dance to. This led to my explaining his disappointment with “some” Beatles songs during that time period because they were darker and less merry. Isabella commented with emphasis, “But you CAN REALLY dance to HIS song [American Pie].” And she started showing me some dance moves from her car seat. Of course, I thought. She loves to dance. Of course she’d “focus” on that. And we raised the literary (and parental) bar one more time as I attempted a definition of irony and an appropriate explanation of what the concept of “darker” means in music.

Notes: For a scientific adventure into the world of human attention see my newest book [amazon 1601630638].


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