Violins and Verbs: How Students Use Music to Enhance Writing

The Mozart Effect, a 1997 theory by Don Campbell, states that listening to classical music, more specifically, music by Mozart, increases intelligence. Though results are often debated, research continues to support the idea. In 2005, students taking the SAT with prior coursework in music appreciation scored 60 points higher on the verbal and 39 points higher on the math portion of the test.*

Put simply — music and learning go together. And the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra is in the classroom putting words into action.

Linking Music with Education
The link between music and education is what Susan Miville, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Outreach Education and Outreach Director, discovered when she conceived the Musical Links program in 1998.

As part of this innovative idea, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) partners annually with selected local schools and teaching artists to provide hands-on instruction to students, using musical concepts to enhance core curriculum.
In the 2006-07 school year, the CSO team worked with children at Ashley Park and Rama Road Elementary Schools to integrate classical music into the classroom with a language arts program titled, “Educational Explorations Through Music.” Teaching artists like long-time participant Shirley Gilpin (flute) and Laurel Talley (violin) are professional musicians — many of them part- or full-time members of the CSO. They teach in pairs and lead the 2nd-, 4th- and 5th-graders through a unit of 45-minute weekly lessons introducing instruments, studying creative writing concepts, expanding vocabulary lists and listening to classical works. Music serves as the catalyst for developing vivid imagery and descriptive detail.

The Creative Process
The project planning team of CSO staff, school principals, media specialists and teachers work together to form a lesson plan for the year. Their goal is to provide a learning environment that will assist students in understanding the connection between music and language arts, increasing awareness of similarities between creative writing and composing. Miville notes that Educational Explorations Through Music is more about the process, than just sitting in the classroom and hearing the instrumentalists perform. “The focus is on exploring the creative and imaginative side of music and writing. We are hoping to stimulate the children’s imagination and build sensory images so they can create a bank of images to draw upon later.”

At Ashley Park and Rama Road, over the course of 10 weeks, the students identified five fairy tales. In the classroom they listened to music, analyzed a story character and then related their musical experiences to the character chosen, using colorful adjectives, nouns and active verbs to improve their writing skills.

“The students keep a process folio so they can see the progression of their work over time, beginning with the first activity, right up to the final product,” Miville explains. As the sessions continued, the children created a story from their writing exercises, transformed the narrative into a standard song form and completed their own musical composition.

An Engaging Success
But is it working? All indications point to program success. More than 74 percent of students improved between pre- and post-assessment scores. And, Miville adds, “On a year-to-year basis, the kids are engaged. They seem to write with greater detail and they are able to create musical ideas. In each year there are always students that absolutely amaze you with what they are able to express.” A 4th-grade teacher from Rama Road evaluated the success by saying, “The work the students did for their final products was very impressive. We were especially amazed at the melodies each of the students created, while listening to Shirley and Laurel play them on their instruments.”

In the wake of No School Left Behind legislation, arts programs are being cut from public schools, especially in under-served schools that are forced to focus on test results and end-of-grade scores to maintain funding, when curriculum is narrowed to core subjects. The creative minds at Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and the Musical Links program are ensuring a place for the arts in schools through the innovative use of music in the classroom.

*From the College Board, which administers the SAT exams.