Looking for an easy way to connect with students early in the school year and a fascinating cultural study? Initiate a conversation about music—best concert of the summer, new artists to watch, last song heard before school. When students have earbuds in, ask what song is playing. Every year, my students learn to have their favorite playlists available for reference (and should be added to their list of school supplies). Pop culture references to song titles, artists, and music lyrics are common in lessons. Favorite brain breaks involve students sharing what song they will play at their next opportunity to plug in. Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, iTunes, and YouTube are some of the most used apps in room A15. Is this class led by a teacher or a DJ?
When Joy Kirr, author of Shift This (CH4: Learning Environment) asked, “How can I incorporate music into my lessons?” I could not resist creating a list of my favorite uses of music in the classroom. Tune in for ten ways to make your classes rock!
1. The Musical Hook
I love having music cued up and playing when students enter the classroom. Typically, the song has something to do with the day’s lesson. I’m always entertained when a student makes the connection midway through the period. As more students catch on, they make a conscious effort to be the first to identify the purpose of the song. Of course, some days I’m simply in the mood for a song.
2. The Walk-up Song
As a baseball fan and music lover, I’m intrigued by batters’ walk-up songs. My varsity baseball players spend the entire off-season in search of the perfect walk-up song—30 seconds of attention-capturing entrance, with catchy beats and just enough of the lyrics to inspire greatness upon stepping into the batter’s box. My family laughs at some of the selections that play at random times on our iPod, but my children can still name the player associated with the song years later.
The walk-up song also works in the classroom. On a big day—especially before a presentation—nothing alleviates anxiety and pumps up the presenter and audience like a song. The song delivers confidence. It’s time to own the moment. Playing selected songs on birthdays is another ideal opportunity to celebrate each student. In the first days of the school year, I have students design a slide to begin creating learner profiles and add it to a class presentation for future use. It is a great activity to get everyone engaged, without traumatizing introverts with in-your-face icebreakers. While students are working, they initiate natural conversations with peers (particularly with choice of walk-up song—possibly the most challenging commitment of their lives to this point).
Warning: Be prepared with your own songs. Kids will ask. My personal walk-up songs vary based on situation (more about the music than the lyrics), but before I present, I will be rocking “Clint Eastwood” by The Gorillaz , “Bulls on Parade” by Rage Against the Machine (radio edit version!), “The Adventure” by Angels and Airwaves, or “Dammit” by Blink 182 (again, edited).
3. Background Music
Music enhances the classroom work environment. When students are working in groups, music can reduce the drone of many voices. It can also create a relaxed atmosphere during reading or writing time. As an incentive, I offer learners a choice of music or allow individuals to serve as class DJ for a day.
4. Countdown Timer
One of the more practical uses of music is as a classroom timer. Rather than field questions about how long a journal entry or on written response should be, present the prompt saying, “You have until the end of these two songs to complete your response.” Short songs are also ideal for transition or clean-up time. Like musical chairs, students should be ready for the next action by the time the music ends.
5. Theme Songs with Cultural Connections
Musicians record our history and their songs tell stories of generations. Songs help us relate to topics, concepts, time periods, and literary themes. Connecting music to cultural themes is an entry point for critical thinking in any unit of study. Teachers can create YouTube playlists or challenge students to make their own. Many students already have Spotify playlists that match their moods.
6. Interpretation as Argument
Interpreting song meanings is something listeners do naturally, so I leverage it’s potential as one of the most academic uses of music in class. Through the study of lyrics, students can practice developing arguments about an artist’s message. After stating their interpretation as a claim, students should provide an explanation and use lyrics as evidence to support their argument. As additional points of emphasis, writers may focus on quote integration, sentence fluency, and proper citation.
7. Music as Poetry
By studying lyrics, readers can develop an eye for the craft of writing. As a complex text, music can be analyzed for rhetorical devices, diction, syntax, and tone. The majority of learners are less intimidated by music than poetry. Lyrical analysis is a path to appreciating poetry. Invite students to pick a song and close read the lyrics as poetry. Then, challenge the class to determine which song writers show the most poetry in their lyrics.
8. Creative Outcomes Through Music
Show evidence of learning (any content) through song lyrics or an original piece. Musicians may compose an instrumental accompaniment for the text. Mash up song lyrics from multiple songs/artists to tell a story in its new form (much like found poetry). What song would best express a character’s thoughts or capture a moment in the plot? The possibilities are endless. One of my favorite writing assignments of all time is the Soundtrack of My Life prompt. I had seniors reflect on this:
Hollywood has decided to make a movie highlighting your life. You get to determine if the film will focus on one particular stage (ie. middle school) or span a larger portion of your entire lifetime. What would a movie of your life be about? What songs would make up the soundtrack?
I have since modified the prompt for freshmen:
A movie version of the novel you are reading is currently being produced. What would be the most appropriate song(s) to feature on the soundtrack? Convince the movie producers to use the song(s) you select. Refer to song lyrics and the novel to support your response.
9. Music as self-expression
Whether it be writing a song or performing music, we need a creative outlet to express ourselves. Student performances and original works provide highlight moments in the school year. Nothing is more memorable than students sharing original pieces. And nothing takes more courage than performing for their peers.
10. The Healing Power of Music
The raw emotion in music connects humans to one another. It empathizes. In times when mental health or well-being is challenged, we may find answers in an artist’s lyrics. Songwriters have a way of reaching out at our most desperate times.
How many times do we seek the perfect words to lift others from moments of darkness but our voices fail?
Please share examples of how you use music in the classroom. I hope your class rocks this year!