Music Benefits the Child: Trains, Steady Beat & Academic Performance!


Trains are still a big favorite with children, even if the only train they ride is the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)!

 Riding on a train with Mom
Photo from the artists at Dollar Photo Club

Lucky for us early childhood music teachers, trains have  many sounds and motions that can relate to formal music concepts, like  "Steady Beat" or "Accelerando" and  even "Staccato" vs "Legato." (Click on the links to read more about these musical terms.)

Photo from the artists at Dollar Photo Club

Trains offer a great example of the term in music for quickening the tempo, gradually getting faster, or "Accelerando." 

Then there are the sounds of "toot-toot" from the train horn that correlate beautifully with the musical term, "Staccato" or short, pronounced rhythm. 

The term, "Legato" (meaning smooth, connected notes in a piece of music), is perfectly illustrated by the "whoo-oo-oo-oo" sound of the train whistle.   

Of course, the clickety-clackity, clickety-clackety sound of the train going down the track is great fun for playing around with steady beat.  Young children enjoy pretending together to be a train, and this adds another element in the musical game: everybody keeping a steady beat together! 

Photo by Jeri-Jo Idarius Photography from Carolyn's Archives

Currently, there is a lot of interest in the positive effects of early musical experiences for children and how this can effect learning in the more academic areas, reading, writing and math. I found a study done by developers of the High Scope curriculum used in many early elementary programs across the nation.

From the website for HIGH SCOPE

Movement, Music, & Timing

Timing in Child Development
By Kristyn Kuhlman and Lawrence J. Schweinhart 

AbstractThis study investigated the metronome and musical timing of 585 four- to eleven-year-olds in Effingham, Illinois....Timing in Child DevelopmentA child's timing — ability to feel and express steady beat — is fundamental to both movement and music, affecting both sports skills and musical performance, as well as speech-flow and performance of timed motor tasks. In addition, children's timing has been found to be positively related to children's overall school achievement, as well as mathematics and reading achievement (Weikart, Schweinhart, & Larner, 1987); self-control; and gross-motor skills (Kiger, 1994; Mitchell, 1994; Peterlin, 1991; Weikart et al., 1987). Many children enter elementary school lacking the ability to identify and express a steady beat. One study revealed that fewer than 10% of kindergarten children could independently feel and express the steady beat of recorded music (Wright & Schweinhart, 1994). Fewer than 15% of first graders tested had this ability (Mitchell, 1994). Fewer than 50% of the children in grades 4 through 6 could walk to the steady beat of a musical selection (Kiger, 1994).

The article goes on to reveal:
Timing studies have examined children's personal tempo and its relationships to age, handedness, gender, and school achievement. Children's personal tempo improves with age (Ellis, 1992; Jersild & Bienstock, 1935; Osburn, 1981; Petzold, 1966). There is little evidence that children's personal tempo is related to handedness (Grieshaber, 1987), nor does it appear to be related to gender (Petzold, 1966; Walter, 1983). Children's personal tempo has been found to be correlated with achievement test scores of children in grades 1 and 2 (Weikart et al., 1987); gross-motor skills and reading group levels of children in grades 1, 3, and 5 (Kiger, 1994); and the language and mathematics performance of children in grade 1 (Mitchell, 1994).

I found this part of the study to be very important in our work with young children and how developing the skill of carrying a steady beat can directly effect a child's cognitive development in a positive way!
It is worth noting that in this study, metronome and/or musical timing were more strongly correlated than household income and parents' highest level of schooling with children's ability to pay attention. Schools that want children who pay attention can do little to affect their household income or parents' schooling. They can, however, offer training programs in timing. Although the significant correlations between timing and ability to pay attention do not guarantee that improved timing leads to improved ability to pay attention, it is highly plausible that it does. Similarly, children's metronome timing was statistically significantly correlated with their participation in special and compensatory classes. These are high-cost programs, much higher in cost than programs that train teachers to provide children with activities to improve their timing. If improving children's timing could reduce their need for special or compensatory classes, it is plausible that such teacher training (e.g., Weikart, 1995, 1998) could eventually pay for itself in this way.


Children's timing is important in its own right. It is important because it is a key factor in sports, music, and dance, in speech and general life functioning. Movement educators have also detected signs of a relationship between improvements in children's timing and improvements in their reading. If further research confirms such a relationship, the perceived educational importance of timing programs will increase, and we will have obtained one more tool in our efforts to achieve our national goal of having all young children complete third grade with the ability to read. 

Enter: Magical Movement Company!
"Carolyn & kids" in music class have gazillions of experiences with keeping a steady beat---"timing." From musically moving to all the dynamics of sounds & motions of trains to tapping out the pattern of pitter-patter of raindrops with rhythm sticks. Walking to a steady drum beat, then tiptoeing, marching, and even running as a response to the drum beating, are engaging activities for young children that continue to offer experiences with establishing that inner "timing" we call keeping a steady beat.

Carolyn leading children in a steady beat activity with a drum!
Photo by Jeri-Jo Idarius from Carolyn's Archives

Child leading the class in a steady beat activity with a drum!
                                            Photo by Jeri-Jo Idarius from Carolyn's Archives

Steady beat with echo games

A great way to have fun with a child while practicing keeping a steady beat is playing echo games in which you, the adult, clap out a simple pattern such as CLAP--CLAP--clap-clap-clap  (Or one--two--tie my-shoe) and then ask the child to copy (or echo) your beat. In order to keep the pulse going, establish a signal that shows the child it is your turn and then a signal that it is his/her turn. That way you don't have to interrupt the flow of the steady beat by saying "your turn..." Eventually, the child will want to be the leader in this game, and it is also fun for you to follow his/her lead too. 

Watch for more on the importance of clapping in next week's blog!

                                         Photo by Jeri-Jo Idarius from Carolyn's Archives

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