Sing A Song Of Learning

by Dads for Creativity


“I can’t carry a tune,” my daughter laughed – but continued belting out On My Own from Les Miserables – her intonation off on almost EVERY note! She’ll probably never be a singer – but singing and music may help her in some unexpected ways.

Music has the potential to unleash the creative potential in kids – and even better – may help them learn new material and retain it. This does not refer to the so-called Mozart effect in which just listening to classical music may improve performance on specific mental tasks.

My colleague, Keith Smolinski is a sensational science teacher at Amity Middle School in Bethany, Connecticut, and a gifted musician and composer. He composed The Cell Song to teach his seventh grade students some basic biology:


“….The lysosomes are janitors,

clean the cell for free……

Cells, cells, cells, cells

The building blocks of life

They’re in your pet and in your knees

In your toes and all the trees

Cells are in your families…”

I knew that students loved learning biology in Keith’s class, and that his use of song enabled the kids to really connect to the material and retain it. Imagine trying to take words like mitochondria and lysosomes and work them into a song – yet he does! Listen:

As my daughter methodically repeated a list of fifteen vocabulary words over and over again ad nauseam, I thought I’d give Keith’s idea a whirl.

Natalie and I watched the The Cell Song on YouTube – she immediately plugged in to the playful nature of the music and the seemingly effortless way words like vacuoles and ribosomes rhythmically were defined and explained.

So we jumped right in. First word on the list: “Versatile: Able to do many different things or be used in many different ways.”

Natalie sang the letters aloud and added hand claps: V-E-R…(3 hand claps)…S-A-T (3 hand claps)….I-L-E (3 hand claps). The melody she made up was very “singsong,” but it made us both laugh as she repeated it over and over. She then spontaneously got to her feet and pranced around the living room spelling out letters to the beat of the melody she had created. It’s fascinating how made up short songs or jingles (called earworms) get stuck in our head!

Try it now on your own: Take a word. Now make up a melody and repeat the letters playfully a few times so the melody sinks in. There’s no right or wrong on this one – especially if you’re like my daughter (and her father) who can’t carry a tune.

Step away from the blog. And make up a melody to go with the letters of any word….

How did it go? It’d be fun to get some feedback on what happened when you tried it yourself – or with one of your kids. Share it with us – click on the Read More at the end of this blog and then scroll down to Leave A Reply.

After Natalie had the spelling of VERSATILE down – she expanded the melody from the spelling to include the definition of the word. And she repeated it while parading from one end of our ranch home to the other. The learning of new vocabulary words became a playful creative activity – and the learning stuck!

This creative style of learning intrigued me, and I spoke with Keith Smolinski to find out more about it:

“Science can be a foreign language to some students, and music can break down the language barrier so the content comes easier to students,” he explained. “Think of music and why it hits you – the a-b-c-d alphabet song – there is something about the combination of rhythm and music together that sticks. Music can activate regions of the brain. Songs can help learn basic concepts, and help students retain certain things without having to just memorize.”

As we continued our discussion, Keith did point out, “Don’t put everything to music – I’m not saying that. But it can help supplement certain things by having kids get up and create songs and move. “

The idea of learning while moving (kinesthetic learning) is another fascinating concept that I’ll write about in another post – but for now I just want to add a vignette:

 When I was working at the Juilliard School, I staged Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium with the conductor Myung-hun Chung. We built a strong collaboration in part because I was staging my first opera and he was conducting his first one. Hun was also scheduled to conduct Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. One night he invited me to a dress rehearsal, and I was amazed as he conducted the entire score by heart. Afterwards I asked him how he memorized it all. Hun asked me to walk with him across the stage. As we did, he demonstrated to me what he did every day in Central Park before rehearsals: as he hummed the music – he changed the pace of his walk every time the tempi changed in the score.

As we continue to explore this relationship between creativity and learning – a huge thanks to Keith Smolinski for sharing his innovative ideas. I love the byline on his Smolinski Music page: Reaching Minds Through Music.

Here’s a link to Keith’s page:

And if you’d like to dig a little deeper into this fascinating field, Keith suggests you look at This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Dads for Creativity

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1 comment

Liz November 2, 2015 - 7:25 pm

This is a great profile of a talented musician/teacher/composer. The students who have heard Dr. Smolinski’s music have benefited in so many ways. Not only do they remember the content, but they also experience learning in a fun and unique way.


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