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Movement: A Means to Music Learning Carlos R. Abril, University of Miami Editor’s Note: This article appears as one of a series written especially for Ala Breve by experts in the field of music education.

Human predisposition to respond to music through movements of the body is evident to anyone who has observed infants or toddlers engage with music. From the earliest years of life, infants demonstrate their awareness of music by turning their heads towards a musical toy; or they express sheer delight by moving their arms and legs upon hearing someone sing an upbeat song. As infants move into toddlerhood and childhood, they begin to move their bodies with greater precision and culturally recognized style (i.e., dance) to the music they hear or make (Campbell, 2010; Moog, 1976; Moorhead & Pond, 1978). This inherent need to experience music through movements of the body throughout life might be explained because of the links between the motor and auditory systems in the brain (Sacks, 2007). Music and movement are two deeply connected human phenomena.

There is further evidence of this connection in some cultures, where there is no separation between the concepts of music and dance. “Dance is music and music is dance in African cultures. The two are inseparable and in many African languages, there is not a separate word for dance” (Welsh, 2010, p. 30). The Native American Blackfoot people use the word paskan to mean dance, music, and ceremony (Nettl, 2005). Clearly, movement is an integral part of the music experience, from birth to adulthood.

It should be no surprise then that movement would play a role in music learning and teaching. Movement has been used as a way to help students internalize and/or reinforce their conceptual understanding of music. It has also been used as a way for students to express what they hear in music, what they know or have learned (Kerchner, 2014). Jacques-Dalcroze, who developed a teaching system of developing musicianship through movement (commonly known as Dalcroze or Eurhtyhmics), believed that students needed to develop their musicality first through active sensory experiences (movements of the body) before moving into more cerebral types of musical training (reading notation) (Jaques-Dalcroze, 1921). Rudolf von Laban believed that movement helped to develop greater creativity and self-awareness in people; his ideas would be influential to many music educators and applied in practice (Laban & Ullmann, 1971). Many others have written about, researched, and used movement as a means to help students develop their musicianship. For a comprehensive treatment of the topic, see Abril

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(2011). The purpose of this article is to explain how movement can impact music learning and to suggest some ways to harness the power of movement in music teaching.

Beat and Rhythmic Competency

Keeping a steady beat is essential to anyone wanting to perform music, whether kindergarten students singing a song in class to middle school students playing the first exercise in a wind method book. How can movement training help students improve their ability to maintain a steady beat or perform more accurately?

Movement training in general music classrooms has been shown to have a positive effect on the ability to keep a steady beat. In one study (Rose, 1995), six different elementary classes were assigned to one of two instructional groups. The first group received music instruction through a Dalcroze approach, with a substantive amount of movement; the second group received music instruction primarily through verbal instructions. After 32 weeks of instruction, students who received the movement-based music lessons performed significantly better on a test of beat competence. It appears that the teaching method itself (i.e., Laban or Dalcroze) or type of movement experiences (i.e., locomotor or nonlocomotor) does not make much of a difference; any movement experiences positively effect beat competency in students (Blesdell, 1991; Croom, 1998).

Movement is also valuable in ensemble classroom. In a study (Rohwer, 1998), sixth- grade students who received ten weeks of movement instruction in the instrumental music classroom performed significantly better at a synchronization test than were students who received traditional rhythm instruction, without the use of movement (Rohwer, 1998). Boyle’s (1970) classic study found that high school students who were trained to tap their foot to the steady beat were more successful at rhythmic sight-reading than those who did not receive such training. Jordan (1986) reported improvements in high school students’ rhythmic performance skills after applying music lessons that included Laban movement effort factors (flow, weight, time, and space). What seems clear from these and other studies is that infusing some sort of movement experiences in the music classroom can make a positive difference in beat and rhythmic competence.

Ideas for the Classroom

There are many ways to incorporate movement into any music classroom. A recent article in the Music Educators Journal provides a wealth of ideas for the use of movement effort factors to improve rhythmic competence in the large ensemble settings. For example, one activity they suggest focuses on time: You can “use a programmable metronome to create tempo changes of the desired length and intensity. Using this as the musical stimulus, have students march, pat or conduct with musicality and accuracy” (Conway, Marshall & Hartz, 2014, p. 64). Another activity, focused on weight, asks students to “demonstrate accents [in their music parts] with gross motor movements….then transfer this understanding to the smaller motor skills of bowing and articulating” (p. 63).

You might want students to be aware of the relationship among time, space, and energy in rhythm (a concept of Dalcroze Eurhythmics). To do so, play a melody on the piano and ask student to clap a steady beat to the music. Vary the tempo from very fast to very slow and ask students to be aware of the ways space and energy changes with the changing tempo. Students will soon realize that a slower tempo (time) requires the use of much more space and less energy than does a quick tempo. There are myriad book, articles, and materials available if you want more practical ideas for infusing movement into your music instruction.

Melodic and Singing Competency

Movement instruction in the music classroom is often applied to rhythmic concepts but research suggests that it can improve melodic competencies of different sorts as well. One study (Crumpler, 1982) reported that first grade students who were provided with music lessons that were Dalcroze-based (included movement games and activities) were more successful than those who received similar lessons from popular music textbooks (with no movement) at making pitch register and contour discriminations. Similar findings were reported in a study with third- and fifth- grade students (Berger, 1999).

The use of movement has been found to be effective for improving singing skills and song recognition. The use of Curwen hand signs, that is the movement of the hands in space and time to


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