Connecting Sounds and Symbols: How Music Helps Children Develop Literacy Skills

A child’s brain is a remarkable instrument that’s pre-wired for learning and making sense of the world in many different ways. Kids learn most effectively when using all their senses, which is what makes music such a valuable learning tool. Developing literacy is one of the most important skills children acquire as their brains develop. Consequently, the American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended that parents read to their children from an early age. Recent studies have shown that music helps prepare a child’s brain for learning to read and write.

Learning to listen

It’s easy to forget that listening is not a skill children are born with – it has to be developed. Learning to listen involves concentration and the ability to focus on specific external stimuli. Music is an important tool for imparting this essential skill. Children can be taught to focus on musical elements like melody and rhythm, and use them to sing in tune, play instruments and move to the rhythmic sounds they hear and feel.

Auditory recognition

Listening to music teaches a child to identify differences in phonemes and to recall the order of words and notes in a song, which teaches kids to distinguish between sounds, an important factor in learning to recognize elements of printed text. Tempo and melody also aid in the identification of sounds and familiarize kids with the natural flow and rhythm of words and sentences. Remembering the order and detail of musical sounds fosters the brain’s ability to organize sounds.

Phonological sensitivity

Music also teaches children to associate sounds with symbols and meaning, establishing links between word recognition and the interpretive skills needed for reading. Kids learn to hear and pick out different sounds that make up words and phrases musically, a skill that carries directly over into reading and literacy development. Language, like music, is comprised of a stream of connected elements (i.e. tones) which the brain is able to connect with the string of phonemes that make up spoken/written language.

Kids repeat everything

Parents of young children often despair of their kids’ ability and tendency to repeat everything they hear, whether it’s desirable or not. The songs and stories they learn and retain through repetition provide a foundation for vocabulary. In their early developmental years, kids rely on the words they hear from teachers and parents (and often from the TV) to develop their vocabulary. Accompanied by music, words can make a powerful and lasting imprint on a child’s brain.

Printed text

Identifying the letters (i.e. symbols) that represent different sounds and combinations of sounds is central to developing literacy; this is a stage of development with which young children often struggle. Songs, chants and rhyming games teach children to identify patterned text through repetition. Identifying musical patterns helps children identify oral patterns that appear and reappear in printed text.

Rhythm and feel of music

The rhythmic nature of music also makes it easier for children to develop the skill of verbal communication, which has a flow and rhythm of its own. Repeating songs, nursery rhymes and chants ingrains a strong sense of flow, which carries over into conversational communication.

Learning an instrument

Learning to play an instrument helps children associate music with verbal and written communication, combining the physical act of producing sounds (i.e. notes) with auditory recognition and retention. Thus, instrumental music is truly a multi-sensory learning experience. Investing in an instrument before a child indicates a serious interest (enough to stick with lessons and practice regularly) can be impractical and wasteful. Instead, consider starting out with a child-friendly laptop, and take advantage of the many online music lessons and apps available online.

Music is an important learning tool for kids as they acquire the ability to read and write. It helps build listening skills, vocabulary and auditory recognition, which are key to developing literacy. It even helps strengthen memory and aids in cognitive functioning.

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