Building Language with Music

Hi friends! In honor of Better Speech and Hearing Month, I have teamed up with Katie from Let’s Grow Speech to bring you a fun and information-packed series called Playing With Language designed to highlight easy ways to stimulate language that you can do at home with your little one!  In case you missed them, last week  I shared some fun ways to Build Language with Sensory Play and some tips on Building Language with Small World Play.  Today’s post is all about language and MUSIC!

Building Language with Music at Twodaloo

Using Music in Speech Therapy

I first realized the awesome power of using music therapeutically when I was interning at a stroke rehabilitation center back in graduate school.  One of my favorite patients was a sweet man who had lost the ability to speak after a massive stroke. He had expressive aphasia, and it was very difficult for him to verbalize anything beyond a few fragmented words here and there, and even this took considerable effort.  Because he had retained quite a bit of receptive language skills, communication was very frustrating for him because he knew what he wanted to say, but couldn’t get it out.  On top of that, his stroke had also left him unable to use his hands, so written communication was out of the question.  After a few sessions with this man, my supervisor suggested I try Melodic Intonation Therapy. Without going into great detail, I was to choose a few commonly used phrases, add a simple (two-note) melody, and practice singing them with him.  After only two sessions and lots of practice with his wife, my patient surprised me one morning by singing “How are you?” as his wife wheeled him into the therapy room.  We all cried. And I was officially a believer.

Since those early days, I have integrated elements of music into therapy with patients of all ages with a wide variety of disorders.  Children with autism and children with emerging language (i.e. young toddlers) tend to respond very well to the addition of rhythm and melodies to language routines.  I’ve seen music help ease transitions from activity to activity, teach vocabulary, reinforce social concepts, improve articulation, and increase connected speech (putting words together to form phrases and sentences).

Why Does Music Help Build Language?

Research has shown that music and singing stimulates multiple areas of the brain, which is great for language building.  For example, the reason Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) works for severe stroke patients when other therapies don’t is because adding melody to spoken phrases activates the right hemisphere of the brain. Language is typically a left-brain function, but if the language centers in the left brain are damaged, there are areas of the right brain that are also capable of language if they are stimulated.  Another part of MIT involves tapping the patient’s left hand along with the rhythm of the phrase, which also serves to stimulate the right hemisphere.  In children without brain damage, singing engages both hemispheres of the brain, and adding movements such as tapping, drumming, playing instruments, or dancing enhances brain engagement even further by stimulating the frontal lobes (Brewer & Campbell, 1991).  Think of it as making spoken language a multi-sensory process, and we all know sensory stimulation is food for the brain!

In addition to stimulating their brains, when you sing songs with your children, they are learning to hear the similarities and differences between sounds (also known as auditory discrimination), which is important for language learning and pre-reading skills. You are also teaching them new vocabulary, modeling phrase and sentence structure, exposing them to the concepts of rhyming and alliteration, and strengthening their memories.  Music provides repetition, which is important for learning new concepts, and it breaks words down into sounds and syllables so that your child is better able to process them.

Building Language with Music at Twodaloo

What You Can Do At Home

You don’t have to be musically trained (or even be able to carry a tune, for that matter) to incorporate music into your activities at home.  Believe me, I am no American Idol! Here are some simple ways you can use music to help your little one develop speech and language skills:

Add melody to words and phrases. 

If you are modeling words or phrases to a young child, singing the word may help them attend and be more likely to repeat that word back to you.  Singing words slows them down and helps the child hear each syllable, and adding a higher pitch on stressed syllables helps the child understand where to put the emphasis when speaking the word.  Adding a gesture or sign to the word helps even more. I speak primarily in a singsong voice when I do therapy with very young children, and used the same technique when my own children were first learning to speak.

Add rhythm and melody to multisyllabic words that your child has trouble pronouncing.  

One fun way to do this is by using rhythm sticks (two wooden spoons or dowel rods work just as well).  Just be sure to keep your melodies uncomplicated (two notes is ideal) and place the emphasis on the correct syllable by singing it a bit higher.  This is also great for pre-literacy skills.

Make time for childhood songs and fingerplays.

There are lots of commercially available music CDs and books of children’s songs if you are stuck. You can also find free songs to try on preschool/early childhood websites and YouTube.

Use songs to signal transitions, remember steps to a routine, or learn new information.  

The popular “clean up” song or “This is the way we wash our hands…” are great examples of songs used to help children with transitions and remember steps to routines.  And who doesn’t know the alphabet song?  But you don’t need to spend hours searching for songs that have already been written; feel free to make up your own songs to meet your needs.  They don’t have to be fancy; just use a tune that you already know and add your own words, or come up with a simple melody that catches your child’s attention.  Sing the same every time you do a particular action with your child (cleaning up, etc.) and your child will begin to associate the song with the desired action, which serves to help them understand what’s coming next, what’s expected of them, and increases their independence in completing tasks.

Use songs to help teach social skills.

In one developmental skills class I worked with, the teacher sang a simple song each morning at circle time about the proper way to greet people.  Then they would practice the skill with their friends.  Those kiddos were great at walking up to me, sticking out their right hands, looking me in the eye, and saying “Hello!”

Make your own instruments.

Creating simple instruments with your children is a fun activity that also lends itself to language stimulation opportunities. Once you are done creating your instruments, use them while you practice your songs and fingerplays, repeat words with melodies, or just have a dance party or jam session to your favorite tunes!  And don’t forget about adding play scarves or streamers…these add an added gross motor component as well as visual stimulation to musical play.Here are some fun and easy instrument crafts to do with your little ones at home- click on the text links for instructions, and please pin from the original author of each craft!

DIY Rain Stick at the Imagination Tree

 DIY Rain Stick at The Imagination Tree

Fancy Egg Shakers at Mama Smiles

Fancy Egg Shakers at Mama Smiles

Colorful Kazoos at Buddy and Buggy

Colorful Kazoos at Buggy and Buddy

Recycled Outdoor Music Station at My Nearest and Dearest

Recycled Outdoor Music Station from My Nearest and Dearest

That’s it for today! Next Thursday’s post will be all about building language with art. Please hop over to Let’s Grow Speech and see what Katie has in store for you…looks like fun!

Building Activities for Building Language at Twodaloo

Resource:  Campbell, D. & Brewer, C. (1991). Rhythms of learning. Tucson, Arizona: Zephyr Press.


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  1. I’m loving this series! These are very practical tips that we can easily implement at home…and many that we already are doing without realizing exactly how the help build language.

  2. This is fascinating, Stephanie! I am really enjoying reading about your experience as an SLP. The part about the stroke patient is amazing! The power of music!!
    Thanks for including our music station. :)

  3. I love that recycled outdoor music station. Thanks for featuring our shaker eggs!

  4. Great ideas!

  5. Wow, so interesting learning about the power of music. I really want to start incorporating it more into activities for my two-year-old. Loving all the idea you posted about.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this! As a piano teacher, my kids have been lucky to have been exposed to a wide variety of music since before they were even born. Music is so powerful.

    I will be sharing this post next week when I start my music series on my blog.

  7. Wow, this post was just jam packed with goodies! Great writing, Stephanie. It makes me thankful that I sing my way through the day, singing about downright silly stuff, usually with made up songs. I always did that with my boys, and I continue to do it with the hooligans. I kind of got lost in your post, checking out all the links. You rounded up some absolutely gorgeous posts! I visited and pinned them all. :) I’m following your music board on pinterest now too. :)

  8. What a wonderful explanation of why music is important to language! Thanks for sharing this . . . I’m featuring it at this week’s Stress-Free Sunday. :)

  9. This is a terrific post. I’m so glad you shared it in the Discover & Explore linky. I’m featuring you today.

  10. Roelien Botha says:

    Hi Stephanie. I only started reading your posts today and find it very interesting helpful. Loads of new ideas and also confirmation that I am on the right track. I have a 21 month old foster boy who doesn’t speak a lot of words yet. I took him for occupational therapy around October last year because I was concerned about his fine motor development. The therapist pointed out that she was more concerned about his communication (or lack thereof). In December we started with therapeutic listening, and I cannot find the right words to describe the amazing results! Have you heard about Vital links?
    I was very touched by your story of your patient who had the stroke. The same happened to my father in law many years ago. It was heart breaking to see him battle to communicate with us. I so wish we had the knowledge to try music therapy.

    I will continue to follow your posts, and are busy catching up on the ones I missed. Be blessed..


  11. Wonderful to see your blog about music and language development. I recently started a blog series called; Sounds Songs and Speech. I’m taking some time to learn and blog about the evidence for the benefits of songs in speech therapy as well as what makes some songs better than others. Here is the first post if you are interested:
    Best, Diane

  12. aine NiEalaithe says:

    Just stumbled on this website researching for work, a child with poss ASD and no speech yet. You have some amazing stuff on here. Thank you so much for sharing

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  14. This is a great post and series! Thank you. You might include working with a music therapist. As a board certified music therapist, I do a lot of co treatment groups with SLPs as well as work with early intervention kids and do developmental music groups. It is so amazing to see the power of music in a therapeutic setting.


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