The Musical Struggle is Real
The use of music in the classroom is something that I’ve struggled with for years. As much as I love background music when I’m working, I’ve found that the use of music in a classroom full of kids often causes conflict and chaos. For one, it’s hard to find music that has a message that I’m comfortable with. Secondly, I’ve found that music in the classroom often leads to distractions and disagreements between students. Instead of focusing on the project they are supposed to be working on, students instead begin a barrage of song requests and conversations about song lyrics. Students will begin complaining that this is not the genre of music they prefer and will often argue about music. For years, I avoided playing music in the classroom just because it seemed like too much of a distraction.
Meaning Behind the Music
Over the past school year, however, I began looking for ways around my musical dilemmas and I have some creative insights to share. For starters, I begin the year by explaining why and when I will play music in class. I like explaining the pedagogical reasons for why I do things to students. It helps them to see me as a professional who has thought things through instead of a crazy lady who is flying by the seat of her pants. (I often come across as a crazy lady, so I have to work extra hard to let students know that I’m not just winging it.) So, I explain to students that playing background music can encourage better group discussions. Students generally feel more comfortable sharing in a small group setting when they aren’t worried about being overheard by everyone in the classroom. Background music makes their conversations more private. I also explain that many people are able to focus on individual work better when there is background noise.
Not Taking Requests
I also make it clear from the beginning that I am NOT ACCEPTING REQUESTS. I remind students at the very beginning of activities that I am not taking song requests. Students love to share their favorite songs with others but they don’t always suggest songs that are appropriate. You can’t just pick and choose who’s requests you play either because you’ll appear to favor one student over another AND there’s likely not enough time in a class to play a song for everyone. More importantly, you want students to be thinking about their assignment, not trying to come up with the best song to listen to!
It takes a few days of them asking anyway before they get the picture that I’m not open to negotiations. Just a warning: If you take even ONE song request, you will have shown a crack in the wall and they will quickly break you completely. Be strong.
Music in Small Doses
I would also recommend limiting the amount of time you spend playing music to 15-20 minutes during a specific task. Music can be used as a great way to keep up with time. Let students know from the beginning how long they will be given to complete the task/discussion and that the end of the music will signal the end of the task. You might also put up a timer on your overhead projector as a visual reminder of the time limit. I wholeheartedly believe that teachers at the middle school level should develop lessons in 15-20 minute chunks (or less). There is only so long that students can genuinely focus on a task/discussion before their mind goes to a happier place. If you pass out a packet at the beginning of class and expect students to finish it and learn something in the process by the end of the hour – no amount of background music is going to improve your results…
Where to Find Music
Personally, I like to find playlists and create my own playlists on YouTube. As long as you have “Restricted Mode” turned on, it won’t play ads or display inappropriate content. Not everyone has access to YouTube in a school setting though because of the internet security measures in some schools. Hopefully, you have access to some type of musical media such as Pandora, Spotify, etc. If you don’t, you might consider talking to your technology specialists about giving you access. They frequently “blanket block” web services such as these because they do not want students to have access. Teachers in my district have been granted access to YouTube for educational purposes even though students do not have access.
Music with Meaning
I frequently use music to set the tone for the subject that we are studying. For example, I might play music from a specific time period while students are entering and completing their bellringer for the day. You can look for playlists that have been created by other teachers/historians (Like this playlist of Colonial and American Revolution music) or you can create your own playlist of specific songs that you want to use. There are two wonderful albums on YouTube with music from the Civil War era called Civil War: Songs of the South and Civil War: Songs of the North. When I’m teaching that time period, I use a playlist I created with my favorites from each album.
If you are teaching geography, you might be interested in playlists of music from different countries/regions such as this Traditional African Music Compilation or some Traditional Japanese Music. (Just search for the word “Traditional” along with the country or region you are studying and you should find plenty of options.)
Music For Group Work
As much as I love the historically significant musical tunes, students frequently complain about them after a while. You might get away with playing them once or twice a week, but you should anticipate a groan or two. For group work, I prefer to use music that has more of an edge and a sense of urgency. Video game music is perfect for tasks that have a limited time or that are especially challenging. Students may even recognize some of the music from their favorite games. This playlist is intense enough to give students a bit of a drive to complete a task. You can also find music that is more relaxed and meditative. Just try searching for video game music and find one that suits the mood you are attempting to achieve.
Music for Fun
Sometimes I just want to play music for fun… It’s a hard confession to make, but sometimes I just want to play something to put a pep in their step on their way in or out of my classroom door. It’s times like this when I turn to Disney Classics such as Hakuna Matata or the Bare Necessities. I love it when kids come up to me later in the day and complain that the song I played in class is still stuck in their head!
Music in the classroom can be a real joy or a real pain in the neck. Remember to set expectations regarding music in the classroom and to let students know that the music has a real educational purpose. A little background music will lead to a better environment for small group discussion and plenty of opportunities for a dose of fun as well. What are you waiting for? Get out there and start building your own YouTube playlists today!
I love the idea of explaining when and why music is playing, and your reasons for music during group work are so helpful! thank you!
I teach world history, and I have started shifting from simply playing “traditional” music, especially because I want students to remember that modern-day real people live in these places and are part of a globally-connected world. When I teach South Africa and play music during group work, I play some music from compilations with titles like “traditional folk music,” and I play modern 20th century hits like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and the Soweto Gospel Choir. But I also spend almost as much time playing current South African artists making the genres of music my students already consume. A simple Google search of “South Africa pop” and “South Africa hip hop” has led me to current artists.
It takes a little more time to make sure that I’m playing music at the right tempo and without explicit lyrics, but it also seems to add to the humanization of the places we’re studying, and helps my (US-based) students remember that the modern world is not only being created and exported from the United States.