Music is everywhere — from internet ads, to supermarkets, to radios, to television shows. Students are hearing and listening to music constantly; is that reflected in our classroom practices?
Most of us can remember at least one “cool” teacher who had the radio playing softly during class, or who let us listen to our iPods as long as we weren’t being obnoxious. I’m not sure those teachers were thinking about the particular benefits of music in the classroom, but it turns out they were onto something.
Research from committed educators like Kevin White suggests that having background music on during class helps students stay on task, monitor their behavior, and improve self-motivation. White’s research was done to answer the question of whether music in the classroom can be beneficial to students and the answer is…
How many adults listen to music during work in the name of focus and productivity? Heck, I once listened to the same song six hours straight while I rushed to finish a term paper.
But background music is only one tool in our arsenal; there are many, many others worth using and understanding. As a music educator, I’m thrilled to share what I know about the power of music and how it can be applied in the regular education classroom.
Here’s what I’ll discuss in this article:
- How music modifies behavior
- Benefits of music in the classroom
- Strategies for incorporating music
- The Mozart Effect
How Music Modifies Behavior
I’ll never grow tired of watching my youngest students in kindergarten and first grade respond unprompted to new pieces of music they hear, marching with John Philip Sousa’s brassy refrains or slumping on the ground in fake slumber as Brahms’ “Lullaby” gently plays. Those responses are instinctual and natural — and very telling of how music can modify behavior.
If music can both express and elicit emotion, we should be aware that the music we pick for the classroom can have a big impact on students as they work. I often play high-energy pop music as students are coming into class; I wouldn’t make the same selection during a test.
As much as music can set an energetic tone for the class period ahead, it can also be used as a tool to help students stay calm, focused, and in control of their emotions — extremely important in the uncertain, chaotic times we’re living in.
Over the course of my career, I’ve become more aware of the different sensory processing issues, anxieties, triggers, and behavioral challenges my students struggle with. I don’t claim to be a music therapist at all, but I have found that utilizing some modified music therapy techniques can help students regulate their behavior, create a calm classroom atmosphere, and create meaningful connections to curriculum.
Not only does music help create a sense of calm, it can also:
- Create a positive learning environment
- Improve memory
- Release tension
- Energize learning activities
- Increase motivation
- Enhance imagination
Many of us listen to music to help us feel energized, focused, inspired, or soothed. Our students likely do the same! It might be a little bit of a learning curve, but incorporating music in a way that supports emotional well-being and is responsive to students’ needs will pay off in the long run.
4+ Benefits of Music in the Classroom
The benefits of music in the classroom…where to start? There are so many, each and every one valuable in its own way. As a musician myself, my first instinct to say that music is beneficial in the classroom because it’s beautiful and artistic and inspires students to create beautiful and artistic things, but there is so much more to consider.
When it comes to illustrating the value of music in our schools, music educators are seasoned and passionate advocates and have generated a plethora of research for us to draw from. While a good chunk of that research focuses on music classrooms specifically, there is much that regular education teachers can apply to their own practices.
In this post, the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) lists nineteen benefits of music in schools, the first of which is that musical training helps develop language and reasoning. As students are struggling with literacy skills now more than ever, the link between reading and language is an important one to utilize.
There are many strategies for using songs to help students with grammar, vocabulary, and predictive thinking, including these. In addition to literacy, music in the classroom can help with pattern recognition and memorization — two more critical skills which apply to every facet of a student’s education.
The aforementioned are some specific advantages of incorporating music in teaching. On a broader scope, the benefits of classroom music include:
- Boosting early childhood brain development
- Promoting brain plasticity
- Stimulating the left and right side of the brain
- Engaging whole body learning
If using targeted strategies to incorporate music can do all of that, don’t we have a responsibility to our students to do it?
5 Strategies for Incorporating Music
Of course, designing impactful instruction is much easier said than done. I’ve spoken with many colleagues who feel at a loss to know how to strategically use music in their classrooms. You might feel the same way, but I promise—it’s easier than you think!
We’ve already talked about how using background music in the classroom can be helpful for students and for improving the classroom atmosphere. The usefulness of music does not — and should not stop there.
Here are some more specific ways to use music in the classroom:
- In listening lessons, especially with storybooks (e.g.: “Caps for Sale” and “Llama Llama Red Pajama”)
- To set a routine and signal transitions (e.g.: using certain songs or audio cues to signal that it’s time to line up, get out materials, etc.)
- To help students memorize important information (e.g.: the alphabet, passages, formulas, days of the week)
- To generate interest in new content (e.g.: using a ballad to connect to historical events, such as Marty Robbins’s “Ballad of the Alamo” in Texas history)
- To make connections with known content and concepts (e.g.: having students identify rhyming patterns in songs)
As a music teacher, one of my favorite strategies is to use storybooks to make a literature connection. This can be done with beloved early childhood books like “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See,” “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” and others. Seasoned music educators like Tracy King and Aileen Miracle are my go-to resource when it comes to planning a music-anchored literature lesson — they will work perfectly in any elementary classroom!
Of course, there are high-tech ways to use music in the classroom, too! Google’s Chrome Music Lab allows students to create and explore different sounds, colors, and patterns. Any one of the different available apps could be used as a structured activity or as a creative brain-break. I love using my SMART Board to have students come up and create in front of the class.
If students have good headphones available, personal devices or listening centers can be a great addition to any classroom. Document cameras are useful when it comes to projecting song lyrics and doing an interactive analysis, and students can use a countless number of apps and programs to create, edit, and manipulate music as they assemble projects and presentations.
Strategies and ideas for incorporating music in the classroom are almost endless and can be adapted to any grade level and content area. That’s the beauty of music—not only is it beneficial to students, it’s incredibly versatile!
For more ideas and strategies, check out this YouTube video!
The Mozart Effect
The term “Mozart Effect” refers to the idea that listening to Mozart makes you smarter…sort of.
A 1993 study claimed that participants showed better spatial reasoning skills after listening to ten minutes of Mozart’s sonata for two pianos. However, because the enhancing effect only lasted a few minutes and was difficult to replicate in other studies, the results were controversial.
Still, the idea of the Mozart Effect became wildly popular—though it was later proved that listening to other types of music achieved the same outcomes. In fact, a large study done in 2006 showed that children responded even better to pop music.
So, if Mozart’s music isn’t what makes students “smarter,” then what is?
It seems that enjoyment and engagement are the key.
Anyone who’s been in the classroom longer than a minute knows that students respond better and work harder when they enjoy something or identify with it. I once had students do a rhythm activity with what I thought was a great song and met with mixed interest at best. The next day, I kept the activity the same, but changed the song to one that was TikTok famous—the kids went nuts, no surprise!
If we want to use music in the classroom and make the most of whatever boost the Mozart Effect can give, we need to be intentional with our selections. Delving into pop, K-Pop, electronic, and international genres and artists, in order to find what students respond to, will greatly impact their engagement.
Some students might enjoy Mozart, of course, and it’s important to expose our students to and teach them about the great masters of old; however, choosing background music that is culturally relevant and interesting to them will not only increase their engagement, it will make them feel seen.
- Is it good to listen to music while studying?
- How does music benefit your classroom or school community the MOST?
- How does listening to music affect studying?
I could write volumes about the benefits of music in the classroom. I wouldn’t be seven years into my career as a music teacher if it wasn’t something I believed in!
I also believe that no matter the grade level or content area you teach, this post has something that you can put in your pocket and use in your classroom. Don’t be afraid to research and customize the perfect way to incorporate music for you and your students.
May your journey to a more musical classroom be full of joy and learning!