Behind the Music: How Music Enhances the Text

February 3, 2018

Contributed by Elizabeth Draper, Cantata Learning Music Director


Music can be used in many ways to enhance text. As Music Director for Cantata Learning, I have had great pleasure of deciding how best to set books to music. Some questions I ask myself when considering how a song should sound include:

• What genre would best fit this text?
• What mood am I trying to portray?
• Are there particular textures or instruments that seem most fitting?
• What tempo would best fit to allow an early reader to comprehend these words and content?


Different types of sounds, timbres, and tonality evoke different emotions, associations, and memories or sense of nostalgia. Setting text to a song is often used as a handy mnemonic device. Studies show that many learners comprehend better when listening to a story versus reading a story. That’s because our brains create imagery while listening.


When we experience text through an auditory medium we are stimulating the left hemisphere of our brains and we are engaged in semantic processing. Listening to music can release the neurotransmitter dopamine at peak moments. This is the same chemical that is released when people are in love, eat a favorite food, or experience other positive stimuli.



Knowing that music and sound hold more than meets the eyes (ears), it is important to compose wisely. For example, when working on the Fire Safety series it was vital to make sure that all of the text, although serious and potentially scary, was set to music that was fun and lighthearted.


It was also important for the key safety rules, which generally comprised the choruses, were extremely catchy and memorable. This would allow for the safety rules to be easily recalled and engrained if ever in a time-sensitive fire emergency. As another example, the text in the song Loops from the Code It! series is set to hip hop “loops.” Setting text about Sequences and other coding concepts to music sure makes them more enjoyable and comprehensive.



While I have great respect for Foley artists, I strive to not have too many sound effects in our songs. I think the appeal wears off after a few listens and quite honestly can become rather annoying. There are still ways to do it with some restraint though.


In the song Busy, Busy Bees Clean Up!, the sound of the kazoo (err…”bees”…) really makes the text come alive. And in the timeless favorite Down By the Station, the drummer plays a fun and folky “train beat” creating whole imagery to text.


Another example is the book Elephants Line Up, where the text is set to a gentle march, the percussion like elephants, and the text is sung in tempo to motions described in the song. And in the book Johnny Works One Hammer, a brassy percussion hit accompanies the text to enhance the counting throughout the book. Besides just reading and counting with the illustrations, this allows for the learner to listen and engage in counting along in tempo to the music, to really hammer in (yes, pun intended) the lesson.



In a nutshell, the work I do brings the book to life, similar to the way that the illustrations help bring the story to life. Without the many considerations I take into account for each series and each book within those series, the music element of Cantata Learning books would not succeed with students.


To know why a Loud Library is a good library is to understand the value of music in—and on—our lives. This is why we say: “Read it. Sing it. Learn it!” I’m proud of the tracks we put together season over season, and I love hearing the positive feedback coming from educators and students who have experienced the transformation of bringing music into their libraries!