Music Listening Changes Children’s Lives

Jul 21, 2015 by

music listening

Jeffrey Pflaum

So much is said today about “music playing” as a gateway to improving academic skills and emotional intelligence. The scientific research validates these findings. But what about music listening: how does it fit into the equation and affect children’s lives? It made a big difference in my inner-city students’ school and everyday lives because it created self-awareness and openness to their classmates and the world. After 25 years of developing “The Contemplation Music Writing Project,” the communication lines and vibes between my former students—now 30, 40, and 50 years old—and I, still remain open and positive through Facebook.

My curriculum, starting in the 70s ran to the early 2002, shows how listening to music takes students beyond the educational benefits attributed to music playing. The studies, in regard to music listening, support the results I found empirically about the effects/affects of music, contemplation, writing, and discussing inner experiences in class conversations.

One area the research misses is how music listening can increase children’s awareness of the present moment, and that is significant for teachers working in today’s pressurized classrooms. By listening to their favorite or “preferred” music, my students released emotions and thoughts hindering them from concentrating on learning, particularly in the afternoons when energy levels and attention spans declined rapidly. The combined musical and contemplative experiences revived spirits so they could continue to think clearly and learn at an optimal level.

The music technique” stemmed from my own experiences with music listening. Usually after a difficult day in the classroom, I played rock music while relaxing on the sofa to drown out the psychological chaos stirring in my head. But a funny thing happened on the road to sanity. All the pictures mentally recorded from that day returned to flood the mind and imagination with feelings and thoughts I’d rather forget. Once I discovered that I had to stop fighting my self, and examine the day’s issues instead of avoiding them, I could let go, relax, and feel inner peace. And from the newfound emotions and state of mind I played doo-wop music to feel the dream…

However, this change took time, practice, and patience to develop. By re-viewing carefully or contemplating the mind-pictures, feelings, and thoughts—the experiences—rolling around my head, I could release the negativity and move into present time with greater lucidity, openness, and self-awareness. When I translated my experiences into class lessons, I added the writing part because things that are written down on paper are remembered more easily than those recorded mentally. We created a class motto about writing down and describing inner experiences, real or imaginary: “Get into it, and get it out.”

I wanted the contemplation music writing sessions to soothe my students (grades 2 – 6) after lunch when they returned to the room in a ridiculously hyper state. Playing songs from Billy Joel’s album, The Stranger, worked, although it wasn’t their favorite music. But even more important: they could handle the afternoon’s long math lessons after freeing pent-up feelings still rocking within. In my curriculum, used with Latino and African-American children, music became a vehicle that led them on peaceful journeys of self-discovery, self-motivation, and self-education.

The activity can be condensed to two 30-minute weekly lessons in the Common Core era, and would include: 10 minutes for music playing, listening, and contemplating inner experiences, 10 minutes for writing, and 10 minutes for class discussion.

I tried all kinds of music, from Top 10, rock and roll, dance, doo-wop, classical, hip-hop, jazz, meditative, and Native American flute, to student-created audio-cassette tapes (playlists), to improve mindfulness, emotional intelligence, inner/outer concentration, visualization, self-reflection, problem-solving, decision-making, conflict resolution, and critical- and creative thinking skills. The empirical results from various classes over a 25-year span showed greater awareness, self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-understanding, creativity, sensitivity, empathy, compassion, tolerance, inner peace, and most of all, tranquil classroom environments.

A year’s worth of student contemplation writings formed a compilation titled, A BOOK OF EXPERIENCES. The length requirement at the time was to write at least one sentence, but for future classes that amount increased to a paragraph of 4 to 8 sentences. The following samples are from a 5th grade class’s writings:

  • The music made me feel like I was floating in air. (Fantasy, daydream)
  • Sometimes I don’t know whether I’m in a dream or real life. Like I could be in bed sleeping right now or can be daydreaming about today. Present-moment event/thoughts)
  • I don’t want to do contemplation. I want to play 7-Up. (Present-moment event/feelings)
  • I saw a person hitting people and I said to him: “Do you want to fight or talk?” (Fantasy)
  • I had a lot of thoughts in my mind. I liked one of them. I was sitting on my couch eating a big pizza and watching TV. (Thoughts, fantasy/daydream)
  • I imagined being a football and they threw me around on the field. I yelled and they threw me on the ground again and that is my story. (Fantasy, feelings)
  • I thought about Jesus. We have been friends for five years and now he is mad at me. (Present-moment event, feelings/thoughts, reflection)
  • I remember when I was born in 1971. My father taught me how to walk and talk and write and make new friends. (Memory, reflection)
  • I saw a horse dancing. When a man got on the horse, it kept on dancing. (Fantasy)
  • I wish I could fly like a bird. I wish I were Wonder Woman and help people. But I’m glad I’m myself. I wish I had flowers all around me. (Fantasy/daydream, present-moment event/thought)
  • I thought about my mother and after picturing her, I saw a beautiful rose. It was red and very pretty.

I read the contemplations orally and anonymously to the class. Questions were created and asked to probe the writings further and expand the kids’ awareness of, and insight to, their experiences, behavior, thinking, and feeling. Most responses can be analyzed with these basic questions:

  • What mind-pictures are communicated in the writing?
  • What feelings are created by the mind-pictures?
  • What thoughts are triggered inside you by the mental images?
  • What type of experience does the writer describe: memory, present-moment event, thought, feeling, bodily sensation, fantasy, daydream, dream, or a reflection?

To assess the kids’ emotional intelligence quotients (EIQs) at the end of the school year, they analyzed classmates’ contemplations with questions similar to those used in our discussions. It was really a lesson in EI/SEL reading comprehension called “Contemplation Comprehension.”

To help kids make sense of their experiences, in another evaluation, I gave them quotations to interpret with accompanying questions connected to their contemplations. Examples of quotes: “Know thyself,” “Knowledge is power,” and “My eyes make pictures when they are shut.”

The final assessment was “The Student Contemplation Questionnaire”: I returned each child’s writings from the entire school year—over 100 contemplations—for re-reading/re-viewing and a list of twelve questions to help them describe their experiences with the one-year project.

Examples of their responses to the questionnaire are:

  • Contemplation helped me by taking the ‘I am scared’ out of reading.”
  • Contemplation helped me concentrate.”
  • I like to write about fantasies because they are fun to read. I enjoy fantasies because they are like a book you read.”
  • I enjoy these periods because I read about the good and bad in my life and solve the problems.”

Contemplation Music Writing had profound affects/effects on the children. To prove that point, the following sample themes were culled from a plethora of student writings after the project became more in-depth with increased length requirements:

Outsider, Ulterior Motives, Sticks ‘n Stones, The Natural World, Observing My World, Light Fantasies, Self-Control, Positive Thinking, Awakenings, Self-Examination, Imagining Things, Change, Self-Deception, Hell Bound, Anger Management, Clouds, Silence, Defeated, Beauty, Daydreaming, Kids Alone, Cold Worlds, Fear of Living, Growing Old, Obsessions, Uncontrolled Urges, The Street, Schoolyard Days, Talking Freely, Open-Mindedness, Who I Am Not, Mean Streets, Hotel Blue, Secrets, Self-Love, Self-Hate, Heart, Good Feelings to Know, The Magic Inside Me, and Self-Laughter.

Some realizations and conclusions made after teaching the project for many years to inner city elementary and middle school children are:

  1. Music listening has healing powers.
  1. Favorite or “preferred” music touches students deeply in mind and imagination.
  1. Music listening connects kids to depths and inner-sights they aren’t aware of.
  1. Music listening can be used to ground students in the present moment, the now, and to empower them to be active participants academically and psychologically in their daily lives.
  1. Listening to song lyrics and reflecting on them affect young people emotionally and mentally, while allowing them to vent feelings, distracting thoughts, and to create more “inner space” for self-realization and inner peace.
  1. Listening to different kinds of music on a consistent basis produces positive changes in adolescent behavior, attitude, and motivation, including the creation of a passionate, caring, and peaceful classroom atmosphere.

(7) Music listening coupled with contemplation develops emotional intelligence and social and emotional learning skills along with improved academic skills in writing, reading, thinking, and creativity.

(8) Contemplation music writing leads to poetry writing. An article published in New York

Newsday, “Making Life a Matter of Meter” by David Bornstein, describes how the connection between contemplation and poetry was created and developed.

Regular use of my curricula would forge a strong impact on students’ lives whether they are from the inner city, suburban, or rural areas. In comparison to the number of “music players” or musicians, the audience of “music listeners” is infinite. My approach to music as an internal and external motivator can be implemented in public, charter, private, alternative schools, with home-schooled children, and even in correctional institutions.

Music runs deeper than researchers, educators, and mental health practitioners can imagine. Why? When sounds, rhythms, beats, notes, and words fade to the background, what is left are the feelings, thoughts, ideas, experiences, mental images, reflections, memories, dreams, fantasies, and daydreams triggered while listening to music—call it the child’s self, identity, and character.

The music technique proved that a combined musical (listening), writing, and contemplative experience done consistently in the classroom has a positive psychological, educational, an motivational impact on children’s minds, imaginations, and everyday and academic lives.

For more resources and information about “The Contemplation Music Writing Project,” please check out sample student contemplations, themes extracted from their writings, and my articles published about the curriculum on my website:

Several posts on “’Contemplation Writing’: An Alternative to Journal Writing and Mindfulness Programs” and my other EI/SEL curricula can be found on The BAM Radio Network’s blog, EDWords. The link is:

A guest blog post on Edutopia, “Using ‘Music Writing’ to Trigger Creativity, Awareness and

Creativity” (4/2/12), can be found at:

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