Friday, March 5, 2010

Learning to Music

Open Mic

Do you still remember advertising jingles from your childhood? I know I do. Virtually anyone who grew up in the Washington, DC area during the '70's and '80's remembers "Call USA-1000... Jhoon Rhee means Might for Right... (Nobody bothers me. Nobody bothers me either.)." Catchy tunes are irresistible, and the words just flow right into the brain along with them. Why do you think the ABC song is so popular? (And if you're me, when you had your first job and had to file things alphabetically, you still had to hum a little of the song under your breath to remember if P was before Q.)

When my teenager had to learn the state capitals in 4th grade, her teacher used a song. (Not the one to the tune of "Turkey in the Straw" that everyone else seems to know -- this one was a rap, and it was awesome. We still sing snatches of it all the time. "Hartford! Connecticut!") When we needed to teach her our new phone number, we came up with a little tune (and dance!), which of course we all still remember even though it was several phone numbers ago. The point is, putting something to rhythm and music really helps it get into the brain and stick.

There are two main ways this concept plays out in my house:

1. We listen to sneakily educational music. Note the "sneakily"! No-one likes fun time turning into let's-get-lectured time, so I'm not talking about overtly educational songs of questionable musical quality. There's a lot of that out there -- avoid it. Yuck. No, I'm talking about things like the overwhelmingly brilliant Here Comes Science from They Might Be Giants. I love this album. I listen to it when the kids aren't even around. It's that good. And can I just tell you how many things I have learned from listening to it? Did you know that the sun is not really a giant ball of fire/gas? Did you know it's really a giant plasma? Well, I didn't. But now my five-year-old does. She also could tell you about the functions of blood, that a shooting star is really a meteor, and why photosynthesis is important. And none of it was ever taught, she just picks it up while grooving out to some seriously well-crafted tunes. I will put a little caveat on my recommendation though: If you consider evolution to be a controversial topic, don't buy this album. They lay out their pro-science agenda in the very first song -- "Science is real / From the Big Bang to DNA / Science is real / From evolution to the Milky Way." If any of that rubs you the wrong way, you're not going to like this album. Try Here Come The ABCs instead -- also brilliant.


2. We also make up songs. All the time. I apparently inherited the "Sings at the Drop of a Hat" gene (thanks, Dad!), and when I'm not singing snatches of whatever song's stuck in my head, I'm putting new lyrics to old favorites based on the situation at hand. Case in point: The five-year-old wants to learn how to spell the names of all the family members. Easy! Use the Bingo song, adapting the lyrics to fit each name. Last night in the bath it was, "There was a dad who had to work late / And Daddy was his name-o / D-A-D-D-Y, D-A-D-D-Y, D-A-D-D-Y / And Daddy was his name-o!"

We have songs for everything. Most of it's not particularly "educational," per se, but it helps to move our day along. For instance, we couldn't possibly put our jackets on and get ready to go out to the car without singing a rousing chorus of "Going in the vroom-vroom car / Going in the vroom-vroom car / Going in the vroom-vroom, going in the vroom-vroom / Going in the vroom-vroom car!" Okay, it's not my most creative work, but it gets the job done. Or the socks and shoes song! Or the many diaper-changing songs! OK, yeah, we sing a lot.

Yes, I am that mother you see in the grocery store, the one who's singing to her toddler in the shopping cart, making funny faces and looking as if she doesn't realize she's in a public place. Yes, I do realize you can hear me. No, I didn't realize I had a banana sticker on my cheek, but thanks for the heads-up.

Next time you have something you're trying to teach your child, or have something you need to remember yourself, try putting it to music. Familiar tunes like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" are great for this. And the bonus is, it's fun!

Even if people look at you funny in the grocery store.


  1. Oh yeah, great post and soooo true! Of course I remember the Jhoon Rhee song ("if you take Jhoon Rhee self defense.... then you too can say..."). And out of the whole semester of Geology I took in college, the only specific information I recall is that which I set to mental music so I could remember it for a test: "Slate has parallel planes of minerals/Phyllite's wavy or shiny/Schist is coarse-grained, oh so coarse-grained/Gneiss is banded or striped!" That's from.... uh.... 1996.

    Your BINGO method is great. I'm excited to try it. One of my sons had articulation problems and for years the last lingering bit of it was that he said "bastickball" instead of "basketball." When he had that word on a spelling list, he simply could not remember how to spell it correctly because he kept trying to sound it out according to his own way of saying it. The night before the test, in exasperation, I made up a rhyming mnemonic: "B-A-S/K-E-T/B-A-L-L is for me!" ..... and he got it right! So I have complete faith in such techniques :-)

  2. TMBG was one of my favs in high school and college, and I was so excited when they started doing kids music! We borrowed one of their CDs from the library and took it on a road trip to Florida, and it was one album that the kids and my husband and I both enjoyed. Music is an integral part of our lives on a daily basis. We use music to get motivated, to relax, and to learn. I mean, think about it, who *didn't* learn their alphabet from the alphabet song? :) Thanks for pointing out the importance of music with regard to learning.

  3. Call your mate or your mother or your date or your brother and putt putt a hole in one!

  4. I found that my younger daughter who had a couple learning disabilities learned easier when I put info to music too...

  5. What are your diaper changing songs? Do you have any good ones for potty training? I am also singing constantly to my but except for some on the fly versions of 90's grunge songs that I put the word poop into back when I was changing diapers all the time, I'm stumped for music to sing while she's practicing on the potty. And my goodness it gets boring with nothing to do.

  6. Shannon, that's a good question. Honestly, all my songs for things like that are so absurdly goofy! It really is just me taking the tune of something familiar, and putting silly words to it. You know that song from Sesame Street, "Rubber ducky, you're the one... You make bath-time so much fun"? That's my go-to tune. But honestly, there's gotta be some good potty-training songs out there... Anyone know of any?