Learning Literacy through Music

By Kelsey Tarbert

Literacy is one of the core subjects taught in United States schools. In today’s society, one would have a difficult time functioning without developed literacy skills, so emphasis is placed on it in the classroom. Music, on the other hand, is seen as an extracurricular activity or a place where students can go to have fun or possibly give their regular teachers a break for a while. However, music has much value and can teach students many skills necessary for well-rounded development. Value can be found in music for music’s sake, but it can also enhance other subject areas. Teachers can use music to deepen the learning environment in a literacy classroom. Many commonalities exist between music and literacy, especially in the pre-K to second grade years, and therefore music education is a vital element in children’s literary development.

Literacy, or the state of being literate, is more than simply being able to read and write. James Paul Gee (1989), Professor of Literary Studies at Arizona State University, defines literacy as “control of secondary use of language” (n.p.). By secondary usage, he means that a literate person has the ability to communicate within a given social context outside of the home environment, which would be a primary use of language. This definition of literacy diverges from the traditional view of what literacy is. In schools, a special time is usually set aside to teach about reading and writing activities which focus on reading comprehension, grammar, punctuation, and other similar skills. However, these skills transcend into every other area of the student’s learning, and literacy should not be seen as a separate entity. Gee’s definition connects literacy directly with communication, meaning it is not just concerned with words on paper but with verbal exchanges as well. Literacy programs should embrace the development of all of these skills as a holistic goal and not only focus on reading and writing, although those are still important.

One area that a literacy program should emphasize is the development of auditory processes, and these are also stressed in a music program. Dee Hansen, Elaine Bernstorf, and Gayle M. Stuber (2004) list many auditory elements of literacy including phoneme awareness, discrimination between similar auditory elements, speech signals, auditory memory, and more. With phoneme awareness, children will learn how sounds come together to form words, enabling them to make sense of the sounds that they hear. In music, this would translate to an awareness of pitches and how they form a musical line. Discriminating between similar auditory elements is essential for effective communication because it will mean that students are able to pick out individual words that sound alike or use context to define homophones during a normal conversation. Similarly, students in a music classroom will learn to discriminate between individual pitches and sing or play in a certain key, all of which have their own set of pitches. Knowledge of speech signals, like vocal inflection, volume, and stress, is also important to gain meaning from verbal communication. Auditory signals are also significant in music. Children learn to distinguish between their singing and speaking voices, sing in high and low registers, and make music loudly and softly by listening to teacher and peer examples. When students are able to put all of these elements on a regular basis, they have gained auditory memory, both in literacy and music. In fact, music may be able to take this memory skill a bit farther than a typical literacy class; students are often asked to memorize many songs for a concert but are rarely asked to explicitly memorize a lengthy text that is not set to music, at least in younger grades. These auditory skills are an integral part of students’ literary development, and they are all reinforced or enhanced within a music class.

Visual decoding processes are also a large part of literacy learning. Some of the visual elements that are part of both literacy and music are the knowledge of letters, words, and sentences, visual focus, and visual memory (Hansen et al., 2004). The knowledge of letters, words, and sentences helps students frame their reading and writing skills. They will understand the functions of all the letters and how to put them together to make meaningful words, and in turn, they will group the words to form sentences. For music, notes are the words. Students learn how to read notes, both in duration and pitch level, and they will see how these come together to make measures and phrases of music. Focus consists of a few components of visual literacy. First is a student’s ability to pay attention to visual information without distraction. Another example of visual focus is being able to follow one line of text on a page from left to right. This type of eye coordination is the same in Western music. When reading a piece of music with just the vocal line, children will need to follow it from left to right and then down to the next staff. This gets even more complicated in music with multiple parts, such as a piano score with both left and right hand or a choral piece with four different voices occurring at the same time. Visual memory is the counterpart of auditory memory: the use of all the visual elements in a naturally remembered way. This comes out reading both texts and musical lines smoothly. All of these visual decoding skills are emphasized within both literacy and music classrooms.

Teachers also help beginning literacy students in other areas of language knowledge. Wiggins (2007) gives some literacy standards for four year old learners which include expanding vocabulary and knowledge of rhymes. Vocabulary growth occurs whenever students are exposed to new material, like a story or a song. Putting new information into a musical context can also help student memory; for example, the song “Fifty Nifty United States” will greatly solidify knowledge of state names and possibly stick with students throughout their lifetimes. In literature, the most common source of rhyme is poetry. Vocal music is essentially poetry set to a melody, and songs written for children almost always rhyme, so music class is a good place to practice familiarization with rhymes. Poetry also connects to music because of its rhythm. Whereas finding fluency in speaking poetry takes practice, music has the rhythm built into it. The score tells students which notes and syllables to stress and which to make longer or shorter. Performing a text in this manner can help students figure out how to do this for non-musical texts without teacher instruction. Both vocabulary and rhymes have a place within literacy and music, and these skills help students become effective language users.

Literacy Skill Musical Skill Example Song
Phoneme awareness Pitch awareness Apples and Bananas
Discrimination of auditory elements Discrimination of pitches and key awareness Hickory Dickory Dock
Speech signals Auditory signals Pop Goes the Weasel
Letters, words, and sentences Notes Bingo
Visual focus Visual focus Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Rhyme Rhyme Down by the Bay
Rhythm Rhythm Shoo Fly

Returning to Gee’s definition, it is important to view literacy as a social act. This aligns with Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory, which states social interaction is vital for developing children’s understanding (Culatta 2012). Another of the literacy standards for four year olds is being able to talk in front of a group (Wiggins 2007). For many children, this is a scary experience. In a music classroom, similar occurrences exist when singing or playing instruments in front of peers, teachers, and even parents during concerts. Through music, students will be able to practice being secure in front of a group. Some children may find confidence in their singing voices where it lacks in their speaking voices, or vice versa. Those who are not confident in either area will simply get more exposure and reinforcement through both literacy and musical experiences. Other social skills are developed in music classrooms that may not be emphasized within the regular classroom. Music naturally creates a social environment, where students are working together to produce a common result. They become comfortable interacting with peers in new ways and learning from one another by listening. In elementary school, solo time is rare, so most of the focus is on group work. When students do receive solos at a younger age, they learn to present themselves in front of peers and an audience.

These musical aspects of learning do not have to occur exclusively in the music classroom, and many sources exist to help classroom teachers who may not be confident in their musical skills. Katherine Kimball and Lisa O’Connor (2010) state that integrating music into regular instruction can greatly assist auditory learners, who are usually limited to activities like the alphabet song or having background music to improve the general learning environment. They give many creative models that teachers can use to enhance auditory learners’ classroom experience. For example, when older students are learning the difference between primary and secondary sources, teachers can use recordings of the original instrumentation versus modern instrumentation of a Baroque symphony. Auditory learners will hear the difference in sounds and be able to discuss how the modern instruments changed what the composer originally wrote. Many similar exercises can be used when comparing two literacy concepts. For younger students, McEwing (2011) outlines ways teachers can use music through songs from their own childhood and big book sing-alongs. Starting with the familiar is always best, and teachers can gain confidence in their own skills if they use songs, chants, and dances that they have known since their school days. This is a good way to introduce music into a regular classroom and sets a baseline for other musical activities. For example, a teacher may incorporate songs during big book instruction. Students can sing the repeated text every time it comes into the story. From a literary standpoint, students can analyze the characters as the story progresses, and as they get more skilled at this, they can even explore how the characters relate to the music. Teachers should try to involve music in their classrooms in any way that they can because it greatly enhances learning, especially for those who are auditory learners.

Many of the skills involved in literacy can also be found in music, and music education helps students’ literacy development. Literacy is larger than just reading and writing, and it also includes listening, speaking, and social skills that are relevant to communication. Within the classroom environment, teachers seek to heighten students’ auditory and visual decoding processes. These literacy elements are also found in music and can be reinforced through music education. Other elements of rhyme and vocabulary development also exist both in literacy and music, and students can have enriching experiences in these areas within a music classroom. Because literacy is a social skill, this aspect of music is also key to a student’s literacy learning. Musical-literary experiences can occur within and outside of a music classroom, and teachers can find many ways to incorporate music into their regular schedules. Music has a value of its own right and is not just a tool for literacy education, but it can be used to greatly enrich these literacy learning experiences for all students.


Culatta, R. (2012). Social development theory (L. Vygotsky). In Instructional Design. Retrieved September 1, 2012.

Gee, J.P. (1989). What is literacy?. Journal of Education, 171(1), 18-25.

Hansen, D., Bernstorf, E., & Stuber, G.M. (2004). The music and literacy connection. Reston, Virginia: MENC: The National Association for Music Education.

Kimball, K., & O’Connor, L. (2010). Engaging auditory modalities through the use of music in information literacy instruction. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(4), 316-319.

McEwing, H.E. (2011). Music, movement, and early literacy: A best practices primer for “Gotta move!”. Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children, 9(2), 29-35.

Wiggins, D.G. (2007). Pre-k music and the emergent reader: promoting literacy in a music-enhanced environment. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35(1), 55-64.

*All songs can be found on The world’s greatest childrens nursery rhymes & songs. Undercover Digital. (2010).