It’s More than Just Music Class at PEP

It’s More than Just Music Class at PEP

At PEP music class is more than just part of a well-rounded educational curriculum. It’s part of a strategic, therapeutic approach to help young people who struggle with emotional regulation and whose social emotional skills are lagging.

A Typical Lesson in Music Class at PEP

Kathlene Cramer is the music therapist at PEP Hopewell and PEP Phoenix and has been introducing her students at PEP Hopewell to playing musical instruments this year. A few weeks ago, when they walked into class, there was a piano keyboard at every seat. Ms. Cramer started playing the introduction of “Still D.R.E” by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog as the students sat down.

“Oh, I know that song!” the students exclaimed, smiles brightening their faces. They were eager to learn how to play it.

“It’s important to pick music the kids enjoy,” explained Ms. Cramer. “It keeps them tuned in to the lesson and they get more out of it. Of course, if I have a student that likes classical music, I’m more than happy to talk about it, but usually it’s more current stuff.”

In the following weeks, Ms. Cramer brought out guitars and set up the drum kit, each time allowing students to learn the basics using familiar music that they related to and enjoyed.

The Music-Brain Connection

Playing musical instruments is an activity that involves all areas of the brain. “When you’re playing music – even when you’re just listening to music – your brain is on fire with activity,” Ms. Cramer explained.

She continued, describing how so many areas of the brain are involved when a person plays an instrument. (See the table below.)

Brain StructureBenefit or Involvement from Playing an Instrument
Corpus CallosumPlaying an instrument requires the musician to use both hemispheres of the brain since it’s a creative and technical activity. Many instruments also require both hands to work independently (and drummers use all four limbs independently!) which requires both hemispheres of the brain to communicate. Musicians, especially pianists and drummers, have an highly developed corpus callosum.
Prefrontal CortexReading music and playing an instrument require the player to plan to play the correct notes at the correct times in time with other group members. Strengthening this area of the brain can increase our students’ ability to control their impulses and make better choices in their daily lives.
AmygdalaThis area of the brain processes the emotional content of music, which helps our students get in touch with their emotions and express them appropriately.
Motor CortexPlaying an instrument requires fine and gross motor skills.
Sensory CortexThe brain gets sensory feedback from touching the instrument.
HippocampusThe hippocampus stores memories and experiences associated with music.
Auditory CortexThe auditory cortex analyzes the sounds being produced by playing an instrument and the sounds made by other players.
CerebellumThe cerebellum is involved in movement and emotional reactions to music.


Strengthening Social Emotional Skills in Music Class

In addition to exercising the brain, music class at PEP is intended to be therapeutic. It’s also a means of working on crucial social-emotional skills that translate to other areas of students’ day-to-day lives.

frustration tolerance

Take, frustration tolerance. Because of their emotional or mental health challenges, many students at PEP have experienced a lot of failure in their lives. For these young people even small challenges can feel overwhelming and out of reach.

“When the kids walk into class and I’m playing a cool song, they’re motivated to figure out how to play it,” Ms. Cramer said.

It’s this desire that helps them persevere with the challenge of learning a new skill. Small wins like these that begin to rebuild confidence.  They can help students overcome the belief that they can’t do anything right.

emotional exploration

Music is also extremely helpful when it comes to exploring emotions. Who hasn’t felt moved by a song that holds special meaning to them? In PEP’s music classes, the teacher encourages students to explore the feelings that accompany certain songs in a therapeutic environment.

emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is another skill that is strengthened in music class. For instance, Ms. Cramer works with her students to get quiet and focus so that they can listen to a piece of music. They learn to give it their full attention. This self-calming routine – quieting oneself and focusing on a favorite piece of music – becomes a powerful tool in helping students learn how to regulate themselves when they experience big emotions outside the classroom.

impulse control

Impulse control also benefits from exposure to music. Because playing music exercises the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with impulse control – instrument playing can strengthen students’ ability to make better choices in the future.

Ms. Cramer believes the benefits of playing a musical instrument go even further. “When you’re playing an instrument, your hands are occupied and you must focus on the music to get it right,” she says. “You can’t be impulsive when your hands and mind are so busy.”

Just Manageable Difficulty

It should come as no surprise that music class is a favorite for many PEP students. It not only serves as an emotional outlet, but for some kids, it’s the first place they experience success. Nicholas Hobbs, the founder of Re-ED – PEP’s guiding philosophy – said, “Part of the art of choosing difficulties is to select those that are indeed just manageable. If the difficulties chosen are too easy, life is boring; if they are too hard, it is defeating.” Music class at PEP, with its focus on therapeutic interventions and social emotional learning, is the perfect place for young people to work on just manageable difficulty.

“It can be like a snowball,” explained Ms. Cramer. “Once they start to see that their effort is producing results – that they are capable and talented – this realization can spread to other areas of their lives. For some kids, music class is where the transformation begins.”