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Music as One of Your Classroom Strategies
Richard Howell Allen: Impact Teaching

      Situation 1: Two university summer courses were preparing to get underway. These sessions were being held in classrooms directly next door to each other. In the room on the left, background music was being played. In the room on the right, no music was being played. Standing in the hallway, looking into both rooms, an observer could easily notice a clear distinction between the manner in which the students were interacting in each room. In the room with the music on, most students were engaged in conversation with each other, while in the other, students were sitting quietly, staring forward, waiting for the class to begin.

      Situation 2: It was 10:30 in the morning. The teacher asked the students to assist him by moving the tables and chairs to the sides of the room. As the students stood up, the teacher turned on upbeat, lively music, with the volume fairly high. The students moved rapidly to accomplish the task, and energetically moved to the next activity. Later that day, the same task needed to be accomplished once again. This time, as the students stood to move, no music was turned on. While students still accomplished the task, their movements were sluggish and it took much longer to achieve the same objective. As the next activity began, the teacher struggled to get the students fully engaged.

      Clarification: Music is a powerful tool which can be added to most, if not all, learning situations. It has a direct physical, emotional, and psychological effect on both the students and the teacher (Jensen, 2000). Properly employed, t can create a heightened social learning context, motivate students to engage themselves more rapidly, and provide a sense of safety that might not otherwise be possible. Each of these factors adds considerably to the development of a powerful learning environment (Burko & Elliot, 1997, Weinberger, 1998). As far as this book is concerned, application is everything, so here are some distinct ways inwhich a teacher might consider adding music to their learning contexts.

Four Places For Music

      Music Before Class. Imagine a silent room on the first day of a new course. Students might not know each other, so they are more reticent about saying hello to someone. Even if they did decide to introduce themselves to someone else, there is a danger, because the room is silent, and so any words spoken would be heard by everyone. Suddenly, merely talking to one other person becomes an adventure in public speaking; everyone can hear what is being said. Also, since there is no other noise present in the room, speaking up almost feels out of place.
      Have music playing as students enter the classroom.With music playing in the background, it is as if permission has unconsciously been given for people to speak to each other. Since there is already noise, it does not seem so threatening to simply "add to it," and subtly, students are invited to interact. With the music playing, when they engage in conversation, people across the room won't be able to hear. Thus the internal feeling of risk is greatly reduced. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that students in the first example described above, who had the benefit of music in their environment, were already talking to each other, building a social learning environment. Most teachers realize this is a useful component in any learning context. In a way the students have already begun the class, independently moving to achieve one important objective of this first session.
      Music at the start of a session can also serve to set the tone, the atmosphere for the session. If the class is going to be activity based, or if lively group discussions are anticipated, it might be useful to have more "up-tempo" songs on, beginning to build the energy in the room. In this situation, music may act to subtly bring to mind a party type atmosphere, a useful mind set for the delivery of certain lessons. However, if the lesson plan calls for a more quiet, contemplative, or perhaps even emotionally challenging session, the choice of music might be softer songs, or gentle classical and baroque selections.
      There is one other direct benefit for teachers to have music playing at this point in the course of instruction. When it's time to begin the class, the music is simply turned off. Even in the few moments before instruction begins, students will already have been primed to having something auditory present in their environment. The loss of the music will cause them to turn their heads, knowing that something is happening. Seizing the moment, instruction now officially begins. This saves the teacher from having to start their classes by using such phrases as "OK, could you all look at me?" or "Well, I guess it's time to begin." or "Everybody, could you please get quiet so we can start?" With the successful use of music in this manner, the teacher can move directly to the lesson with the first words they speak.

      Music During Movement. When students are moving, it is rarely necessary for them to be listening to any words from the teacher. Therefore, this is an excellent place to include fasterpaced music. For example, as in the second situation illustrated in the opening to this section, perhaps students are required to move their chairs. In other situations, they may be forming groups,
or moving to get supplies. Whenever movement is introduced into the learning setting, music can be used to help motivate the students to accomplish the task more rapidly, and with a sense of animation and enjoyment (Jensen, 1996).
      Upbeat, bright, energetic music is best in these situations. Since the overall goal is to move rapidly to the next direction or activity, music can auditorily stimulate the students' physical movement. The sense of energy brought into the learning setting by the inclusion of this type of music can be captured and built on by the teacher, as they segue directly into the next section of their lesson. It saves the teachers from having to expend their own precious energy to get the students up and motivated. Every time there is movement on the part of the students, turn on music that matches the mood you want to create with the students. Use of music at these important moments is one of the keys to maintaining a successful learning environment over the long term.

      Music Behind Small Group Discussions. Many times, students will be given the opportunity to discuss various aspects of the information they are learning with other students. Sometimes they will be talking with just one other person, while other times it might be within a small group. In either case, with several different groups holding conversations in the same room, there is a chance that volume level of the conversation from one group may intrude on the conversation of another group. Music played lightly in the background can lessen this sense of interference.
      This effect is referred to as a musical "pad." Physical padding is used to soundproof rooms in a home, walls in an apartment building, or a musical studio. In the classroom, the use of light background music effectively "pads" the room so that sound from one group will not interfere with sound from another group. In a silent room, if one group should break into laughter, the sudden
intrusion of sound can be quite disruptive to other conversations. However, with a pad of music playing the effect of the interruption can be significantly diminished.
      Similar to the discussion of the use of music at the start of a class, this pad can also encourage conversation within a group. In a silent room, it may be a bit intimidating for some students to speak up and voice their opinions even in a very small group, since they don't know if people from other groups will hear what they have to say. With the sense of protection and privacy that the use of a pad offers, students frequently feel freer to engage themselves in the interaction. This effect facilitates both the initiation and the continuation of the interaction.
      There is one more aspect of using music behind group conversations that might be useful to consider. Since students will be talking during this time, decide whether to choose songs with or without lyrics. Sometimes, songs with words may prompt people to listen closely to the song, which in turn causes them to tune out of the conversation in which they are supposed to be participating. In most cases, this is definitely not the effect you are trying to create.
      In general, there are three choices to consider regarding lyrics:
            (1) none
            (2) unfamiliar, or
            (3) familiar.
      First, music without words can sometimes provide a gentle pad that supports the conversation by providing a low level of background sound. Second, songs with lyrics they don't know may be useful in some cases, since the mere presence of words may encourage them to talk and interact. Personally, I occasionally use gentle Hawaiian music in these circumstances. This is partly because the melodies are a nice background choice, but mostly because people don't know how to speak Hawaiian!
       Finally, in rare cases, songs with lyrics they do know may work, especially if the words somehow relate to the current lesson. Remember that it's always your choice on what to use, simply make sure it helps create the atmosphere you feel is most useful in each learning situation.

      Music After Class. As the class ends, students gather their belongings and begin to file out of the room. This is a wonderful opportunity for music to be playing. The selections chosen at this time should leave students with a positive impression of the session that has just been completed. Since this is the final image they take away from your classroom, it will frequently be the first thing they think about when they begin to organize their thoughts for their next class with you. Obviously, it is much more useful for students to begin the subsequent session with a positive rather than a negative feeling about the last session they attended.

      These four places are an excellent starting point when deciding how to use music in the classroom. However, if this is the first time you are considering the inclusion of this form of auditory stimulus in your lesson plans, organizing even these isolated moments might be an overwhelming experience, given everything else that is simultaneously happening in most classrooms. Give yourself time to learn, and feel free to experiment with a variety of musical choices while looking for what works best in the environment you are trying to create.


Bucko, H. & Elliot, R. (1997). Hands-On Pedagogy vs. Hands-Off Accountability. Phi Delta Kappa, 80(5), 394-400.
Jensen, E. (1996). Brain-based learning. Del Mar, CA: Turning Point for Teachers.
--------------, (2000). Music with the brain in mind. San Diego, CA: The Brain Store, Inc.
Weinberger, N.M. (1998). The music in our minds. Educational Leadership, 56(3), 36-40.

Allen, Richard Howell. Impact Teaching.
Published by Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA.
Copyright © 2002 by Pearson Education.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Further reproduction is prohibited without written permission of the publisher.

About Dr. Rich Allen

      Rich Allen earned a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Arizona State University in 1998 with an emphasis on cognitive learning theory. The focus of his research is on how the brain receives, processes, stores, and recalls information.
      Rich's Impact Learning workshops utilize a unique, dynamic approach to instruction, consistent with the philosophies being introduced. Key elements of the methodology include high levels of humor, music, energy, activity, and audience interaction. These components are woven throughout the presentation of the critical concepts and techniques. Teachers can expect to be physically engaged and mentally challenged throughout these high-powered sessions.
      Impact Learning workshops cover the following topics:
      -Understanding and using state management techniques
      -Reading the Crest Of The Wave and adapting to the needs of the students
      -Utilizing music in the learning environment
      -Giving effective directions: The key to developing an interactive learning environment
      -Making learning easy through brain-based memory techniques
      -Helping students develop a successful attitude towards learning
      -Learning to create positive mental images
      -Framing lesson so students see the value in new material
      -The Five-Part Model: How to design an interactive lesson.

See Dr. Allen's list of recommended 50's and 60's Rock Music.



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