Music for Learning in the Classroom

6 Smart Ways to Bring the Power of Music Into Your Classroom

When music is purposefully incorporated into a lesson plan, it can be a powerful and inventive way for teachers to engage their students and enrich the content they teach. According to the words of educator Larry Ferlazzo, students are “entranced” by music from kindergarten through high school. Larry Ferlazzo recently asked 10 educators how they brought music into their classrooms in a two-part series for Education Week. The series was about how music is used in the classroom. Utilizing popular songs, melodies, or lyrics to scaffold academic lessons across the curriculum—from science to math, psychology, and history—is tapping into a potent and pervasive human fascination with music. This can be done by using songs that are either popular or compelling.

Additionally, it has the potential to significantly affect the outcomes for the students. When students engage with new information using more than one sensory system at the same time, a process that is frequently referred to as “multimodal learning,” it has been demonstrated over the course of decades of research that they learn the subject matter in a more comprehensive manner. To put it another way, adding a rich auditory channel to learning is enhanced when an activity that is primarily visual is linked to music or song that is related to the task.

However, listening to music also prepares the brain for a significantly wider variety of significant cognitive tasks. For example, in 2016, researchers from the University of Washington came to the conclusion that young babies who listened intently to melodies improved both their ability to focus and their sensitivity to the rhythms of spoken language. The study was conducted on babies who were only a few months old. And according to a study that was published in 2019 by Johns Hopkins University, when teachers use an arts-integrated approach to teaching, for example science content, it was as effective—and in some cases better—than conventional teaching methods in helping students retain the material that they were learning.

Beyond the realm of academics, music has the ability to improve the culture of a school for the better by, for example, igniting impromptu conversations among classmates and between students and teachers, or providing a calming respite from the stress of a stressful day filled with schoolwork. According to Alycia Owen, a teacher and instructional coach, “we often fail to use it to our benefit,” when teachers bring music into the school in even these simple ways, it can “impact our students’ emotions, motivation, attitudes, and sense of connection.” However, “we often fail to use it to our benefit.”

There is no requirement for formal musical training in any of the following six approaches to incorporating music into your schedule or directly into your instruction.

MAKING MATH MEMORABLE

When Dennis Griffin Jr., a middle school math teacher, wanted his students to demonstrate their mathematical knowledge in a cumulative assessment, he assigned a music project to each of his classes.

Students had the option of working independently or in small groups to choose an instrumental track of their liking, and then writing lyrics to accompany the track that would weave in ten to twelve math vocabulary words from that year’s lessons. These lyrics could be written to accompany the track. The final product was a presentation that was given in front of the other students. Griffin Jr., who is now the principal of Brown Deer Elementary School in Wisconsin, writes that his former students still ask him, “To this day, when I run into my former students, they often ask me if I still have the recordings of their songs.” Even after more than a decade has passed since we last spoke, they can still recite their songs for me. This never ceases to amaze me. The process of conceiving of and writing song lyrics, followed by performing said song lyrics in front of a supportive audience of peers, ensured that these significant mathematical concepts would be retained in a way that is long-lasting.

EXPLORING THE CONTEXT OF HISTORICAL SONGS

According to the author of The Social Studies Helper and educator Denise Fawcett Facey, music has the ability to breathe new life into dead subjects like history and psychology. For example, she explains to her students in a class on the history of the United States that “music can evoke the emotions, sensibilities, values, and social issues of a bygone time,” which encourages conversation and offers insight into the culture of the time. Kids can think about and discuss “the ways music was so integrated into daily slave life that it made it unobtrusive to slave owners when used as code” by listening to songs that Harriet Tubman used as a code to communicate with escaping slaves. This can be done by playing songs that Harriet Tubman used. The activity of asking students to decipher the code hidden in the lyrics of songs (Fawcett Facey mentions songs such as Steal Away, Wade in the Water, and Sweet Chariot) is an effective way to engage children in the historical material being presented.

Jen Schwanke, a principal in Dublin, Ohio, writes about a high school history teacher who reimagined popular songs as primary historical documents. She asked her students to “deconstruct the lyrics and message of particular songs and offer a historical perspective behind the words,” and she notes that there are hundreds of songs that work for this type of unit, from John Denver’s Trail of Tears to Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Broke.

USING SONG LYRICS TO TEACH POETRY

Music was an important component of the English lesson plan followed by Mr. Schwanke. According to what Schwanke writes, “I loved showing students how music and lyrics personify our use of language — reading, writing, listening, storytelling, and understanding the experiences of others.” “I used song to teach all sorts of concepts from my standards, including [literary] conventions, figures of speech, connotation, climax, rhyme, and genre,” she said. “I used song to teach all kinds of concepts from my standards.”

Poems and songs were two of Schwanke’s go-to pedagogical tools whenever she wanted her students to acquire a more in-depth comprehension of concepts such as “style, tone, and purpose.” “We talked about how a song can sometimes make our own interpretation, our relationship and connection to the piece, easier to come from than it does from a traditional story or poem.” “We talked about how a poem can contain all the elements of a traditional story.”

Schwanke says that when some of her students were feeling anxious about crafting their own poems, she would assign song-writing exercises to start, and this helped break the ice. “Students were often afraid to write a poem that stood on its own,” she says. “But when they told themselves they were writing a song instead of a poem, that fear disappeared.” “It was a straightforward mental exercise that turned around their internal story and made them believe, ‘I can be a songwriter.'” The majority of them were able to soar by writing with eager rhythm and melody, and this carried them to places they had not anticipated.

USING MUSIC TO UNDERSCORE MOOD OR TIME PERIOD

You might want to consider analysing the mood of a poem, or the mood associated with the topic you are studying, by having the students find their own music that corresponds to that mood. The instructional coach, Owen, writes that playing Thriller by Michael Jackson during a lesson on Edgar Allan Poe “creates a fun energy with a hint of the macabre.” As an example, consider the following: Under the Sea by Samuel Wright is a piece that she recommends using in a classroom setting to teach students about oceans because it is “light and lively, and students of all ages will likely be able to sing along.”

She writes that incorporating music into the classroom can help create “a more immersive classroom experience that is reflective of the time period in which the lesson content is set.” Owen suggests using music to highlight a particular point in history. For instance, when students are reading The Great Gatsby, Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is a great song to play in the background.

According to the writings of Fawcett Facey, music possesses a unique power that makes it ideal for imparting knowledge of abstract ideas like sensation and perception, as well as for illuminating aspects of sound like frequency, amplitude, and complexity. She makes the observation that “something as fundamental as playing a variety of music genres underscores that the same sensation (hearing), produces differing, even opposing perceptions of what is heard.”

PLAYING MUSIC TO SIGNAL CLASSROOM TRANSITIONS

When music starts playing over the school’s public address system, students and faculty at the American International School of Guangzhou in China know that it is time for the first period of the day. Owen, the instructional coach and chair of the school’s EAL department, writes that the “eclectic playlist” is a “community ritual that is both useful and entertaining.” Additionally, the “eclectic playlist” is a “true reflection and celebration of our school’s diversity.” The songs on the “eclectic playlist” are selected by both the teachers and the students.

In the elementary school classroom, musical cues can be used to attract the attention of students and indicate when it is time for a transition. “Clapping a rhythm pattern that children imitate; using music signals for other recurring actions—[striking] a triangle for lunchtime, a melodic pattern on tone bars for the end of silent reading,” write the authors of Music for Elementary Classroom Teachers. “[T]he use of music signals for other recurring actions—[striking] a triangle for lunchtime, a melodic pattern on tone bars for the end of silent reading.”

Playing a song about saying farewell is one of Sara Lev’s favourite ways to let her kindergarten class know that their time together has come to an end for the day. It’s just one of the ways she likes to incorporate music into her students’ day—she also likes to play music during movement breaks and use music as a transitional cue—but it’s an effective strategy that she uses to help her students transition out of school mode and into the rest of their day. She also likes to play music during movement breaks.

THE RHYTHM OF A BETTER CLASSROOM CULTURE

Owen believes that asking students about their favourite songs is a great way to get to know them, and he incorporates this inquiry into the first few days of class along with other inquiries regarding the students’ interests. According to what Owen has written, this “provides a platform for everything from future casual conversations to insights about which resources to use for a future lesson.”

Rachelle Dene Poth, who teaches Spanish and STEM subjects at a high school in Pittsburgh, believes that music has the potential to be a topic of conversation as well as a tool for developing interpersonal connections. She enjoys putting together a playlist that includes both her own selections and those made by the students. This is a practise that, in her experience, can “draw in students passing by in the hallway, give you a chance to meet more students, and you can usually see their mood change, a smile, and just a little more pep in their step when they walk by and hear the music,” which is exactly what she hopes to accomplish. It is also a simple way to connect with children and strengthen existing relationships. “You find out a lot about what you have in common and what students are interested in, and you can take a few minutes to invest in either of those things,” said one teacher.