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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Five Ways to Use Music in Lessons

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 13, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How have you incorporated music in nonmusic classes?

Many of our students are entranced by music, and it’s a big part of their lives. How many of us teachers, however, really try to connect that interest to our lessons?

We’ll explore this question in a two-part series.

In Part One, Denise Facey, Jen Schwanke, Rachelle Dene Poth, Alycia Owen, and Sara Lev share their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with all of today’s contributers on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Mara Lee Grayson, Patricia Shehan Campbell, Carol Scott-Kassner, Kirk Kassner, and Dennis Griffin Jr. contribute their commentaries.

The next “question-of-the-week” can also be found at the end of this post.

Using story songs to teach textual analysis

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills, whose work explores race rhetorics and equitable composition instruction. She is the author of the book Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, English Education, English Journal, The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, St. John’s University Humanities Review, and numerous edited collections:

I began using song lyrics to teach textual analysis a few years ago while teaching a fiction unit in a Writing through Literature class. (I use the term “textual analysis” here to bridge the two types of analysis emphasized in students’ writing in the class: literary and rhetorical.) The school I was working in at the time boasted a diverse, multilingual student population but suffered poor retention and high overall failure rates, especially in English; despite my students’ enthusiasm, many had already failed the class at least once. Having realized early on that they struggled to get through even the shortest fiction texts, I introduced song lyrics to see if the brevity and emotional richness of the lyrical texts would help students practice the literary-analysis skills I was confident they possessed.

I chose songs that weren’t very well known, even if the songwriters and performers were, in hopes the texts would be new to students. (While there is something to be said for meaning-making alongside my students, I chose this time to use songs I personally knew well and liked.) Most importantly, since I was teaching a unit on short fiction, I chose songs with lyrics that told a story. While song lyrics are often compared to poetry, I chose to use Narrative Song Lyrics (NSL), a term I applied to those that resemble short stories and utilize traditional techniques of storytelling, like plot, character, setting, and conflict, just to name a few.

We read the lyrics together. Then, students worked in groups to identify the literary elements and devices we had discussed earlier in the semester; wrote reading commentaries exploring particular themes; and extrapolated from the text to craft analytical essays and support their ideas using specific examples. Sometimes, after we discussed a set of lyrics, we listened to the music. Using NSL as literary texts, my students became more confident in the language of literary criticism and in their own abilities to analyze and write about a fictional text. As one of my students said: “I listen to music all the time, but this made me realize I need to look past the surface to find the deeper meaning.”

Over time, I’ve used NSL texts in different classes and I’ve approached the curriculum in a variety of ways to achieve different goals. Here are some ways to work with story songs:

  • Ask students to bring in lyrics from songs they really like or that they listen to often. Inviting students to be co-creators of the curriculum demonstrates both that I am interested in what they think and value and that their out-of-school literacy practices (like listening to music) are significant.

  • Use two sets of lyrics about similar themes from different songwriters or different genres; this helps students see how different authors approach the same material and how genre conventions influence the composition and interpretation of texts. Like another student said, “We associate certain issues with different genres.”

  • Emphasize a critical media-literacy approach to the lyrics. Invite students to explore the values and belief systems that underlie the story told in the song. Encourage them to think about how production, marketing, and distribution influence the choices songwriters make. This approach enables students to see how music, like all media, is part art and part commodity.

  • Use NSL as texts to encourage critical conversations about race and identity. This approach combines elements of the other three. Read more about it here: Narrative Song Lyrics as Texts for Racial Literacy

Using music everywhere

Patricia Shehan Campbell, Ph.D., Carol Scott-Kassner, Ph.D., and Kirk Kassner, Ph.D., distilled over 10 decades combined teaching experience at all levels of public schools and universities into a college textbook, Music for Elementary Classroom Teachers. Links to YouTube performances of all the music mentioned are included:

Incorporating music to create classroom culture

We incorporate music in nonmusic classes to create a dynamic, positive, and enjoyable community of learners. Music sets the mood from the start of the day to the day’s close. By singing heritage songs, such as “America, the Beautiful,” “Hava Nashira,” and “We Shall Overcome,” we instill cultural pride and feelings of unity shared by students from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Moving rhythmically to drum rhythms played by the teacher or to recorded music gives students a sense of belonging to an inclusive community.

On dreary weather days or when students appear tired, spirited music, such as a Sousa march (“The National Emblem,” “Stars & Stripes Forever”), can energize them. Students enjoy imitating the teacher’s simple movements to the beat, clapping, patting, snapping, which increases their heart rates, refocuses their attention, and perks up the classroom atmosphere. Folk dances, such as “Fjaeskern” from Sweden or “La Raspa” from Mexico also lift the mood, as do playing rhythmic games while singing, such as “Sansa Kroma” from Ghana. On other days, when students are overly excited, anxious, even irritable, the classroom mood will relax with soft and slow music, such as “What A Wonderful World,” Meditation, or Vocalise. All kinds of music can be obtained from the Internet.

We use musical prompts to get attention and signal events: clapping a rhythm pattern that children imitate; using music signals for other recurring actions—a triangle roll for lunchtime, a melodic pattern on tone bars for the end of silent reading. Transitions between subjects are smooth, fast, and fun with music. Music stimulates students, provides an emotional break from intellectual focus, and reduces wasted time. Children can sing a short song and be ready for the new subject by the song’s end, or a few can play music on recorders or small percussion instruments during a transition. The theme from the “Jeopardy” TV show lasts exactly 30 seconds—just right for most transitions between subjects.

We use music to end the day on a positive note and send the children home happy. Some great goodbye songs are available through the internet: “Taps,” “Day-O,” and “The Great Goodbye Song.” Other good songs for ending the day are seasonal, songs emphasizing key concepts being studied, or favorite songs the music specialist has taught. If there are only a few minutes to wait after coats and backpacks are on, the teacher can start a rhythmic follow-the-leader game using body percussion (clapping, snapping, patting, stomping, etc.) or invite students to take the role of leader in creating rhythms. At the end of particularly stressful days (testing, for example!), playing recordings of soothing music, such as “The Lark Ascending” or the Adagio movement of Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto,” encourage children to listen quietly as they read, color, complete their worksheets, or rest with their heads on desks.

Internet links for musical resources cited in this section can be found here.

Incorporating music to facilitate learning in language arts and social studies

We incorporate music into teaching of reading. Language arts and music are closely related in several ways. Each contains the elements of rhythm, pitch, and accent; convey direct and implied meanings; create imagery and affect the emotions; convey important cultural information; integrate both time and sound; tell stories—with words, or more abstractly in sound, or combine to tell a story in a riveting manner (such as in the case of Russian composer Prokofiev’s classic mix of music with narration in “Peter and the Wolf”). Poetry and music combine into songs. Songs, as literary forms, convey history, myth, inspiration, and celebration, as well as cultural comment.

Song texts reinforce skills needed for reading, including phonemic awareness, rhyming, sensitivity to alliteration, assonance, and consonance, response to graphemes, understanding of syllable identification and word segmentation, expression and flow. Singing “Teddy Bear” helps young children identify initial consonant “T” sounds on Teddy, turn, touch, and tie, while “Apples and Bananas” substitutes vowel sounds to make ordinary words into silly words. Through singing, children gain important experiences in phonological awareness.

Song lyrics can advance higher-level-thinking skills for reading, such as paraphrasing and summarizing, inferring information, comparing and contrasting, identifying the moral of the story or song, identifying mood, predicting outcomes, sequencing the events of a story. Cumulative songs, such as “I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” are great for recalling a story’s sequence.

Incorporate music into teaching of writing. Music can prompt writing exercises through experiences in listening to, performing, or creating music, such as writing about music of the American Revolution or American South in the mid-19th century, music of Kenya or Korea, or of selected artist-musicians, such as Beyonce and Yo-Yo Ma. Musical topics can be used as prompts for writing in all genres: creative, narrative, descriptive, expository, persuasive, and technical. Children can add rhythms to a poem they have written to turn it into a rap or add pitches and rhythms to make a song. Everyone will be more engaged and enjoy the process and outcome of learning in this way.

We incorporate music into teaching social studies. Songs motivate, reinforce, and deepen learning of social-historical facts, promote equity, social justice, and empathy. Holiday songs, such as “Gong xi-fa cai” (for Chinese New Year) foster an understanding of diverse cultures and communities. Songs embody the thoughts and feelings of particular moments in time and place, which ultimately transcend time and place. “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” straddles cultures, emanating from Ireland and made popular during the American Revolutionary War and again in the Vietnam War era.

Internet links for musical resources cited in this section can be found here.

Incorporating music as a learning aid in math, science, and integrated disciplines.

We incorporate music into teaching of math. We involve children in musical activities that reinforce patterns; have complex relationships between parts, divisions, subdivisions, and prolongations; and involve sets and sequencing. Chants and songs reinforce number sequences, such as “One, Two Buckle My Shoe,” “This Old Man,” “Five Green and Speckled Frogs.” Children’s understanding of number sets improves when they move to music in different meters: Pat lap on heavy beats, snap fingers on weak beats, clap on medium beats. Pat / clap for two-meter marches (“National Emblem”), Pat / clap / clap for three-meter waltzes (“Beauty & the Beast”), pat / snap / clap / snap for four-meter dances (“Hokey Pokey”)

We incorporate music into teaching of science. After observing principles of physics on vibrating strings of a piano or guitar as they affect frequency (pitch), amplitude (loudness), wave complexity (timbre), and resonance (duration), children can experiment with pitch by vibrating a ruler extended different lengths out from a desk. Each child chooses a pitch and works together collaboratively with a few others to play a simple song (“Hot Cross Buns,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”). We can enhance life sciences, earth and space sciences, engineering, technology, and applications of science with appropriate songs and musical compositions. For example, after studying the solar system, children can listen to some of Holst’s “The Planets” and describe why they think Holst assigned a character trait to each planet, such as mysterious Neptune, warlike Mars, and playful Jupiter. Children can create their own music to characterize each planet, using instruments borrowed from the music specialist. After studying whales, children can listen to “And God Created Great Whales” by Alan Hovhaness, which paints a musical picture of something very big moving through calm water and incorporates actual whale sounds. Later on, the music describes the whale fighting the harpooners. The recycling message comes alive with the “Reduce Reuse Recycle” song.

We incorporate music into teaching integrated disciplines. Integrate music, PE, math, and social studies when dancing folk dance patterns, such as the Russian “Troika.” Combine music, art, literature, theater, social studies, and PE when performing musicals with dance routines, such as “The Sound of Music.”

Internet links for musical resources cited in this section can be found here.

Songs and vocabulary

Dennis Griffin Jr. serves as the principal of Brown Deer Elementary School in Wisconsin. He has seven years of experience as a middle school educator and is entering his sixth year as an administrator. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in educational leadership at Cardinal Stritch University. Dennis believes all students will be successful in school when they develop relationships with educators that value their gift, cultures, and individuality:

One of the most advantageous moments that I have experienced as an educator was when I encouraged my students to demonstrate their learning of math concepts through the creation of a song. The students were able to choose any instrumental version of a song and were required to utilize 10-12 vocabulary words that they had learned throughout the year (vocabulary development was one of the goals of our school that year). The students had the choice to work independently or within a group.

The students knew that the culminating assessment would be a performance in front of their peers. I had invited parents and community members to come to the classroom to be the audience for the scholars. During the performances, the students were supportive, gave each other feedback, and remembered vital concepts. As a token of appreciation of their hard work and concept mastery, the students were invited to present their songs to the entire school once word got back to administration via parents. To this day, when I run into my former students, they often ask me if I still have the recordings of their songs (I do). I am always amazed because they are still able to recite their songs to me after more than 10 years of having me as their educator. (FYI after the first time, we created a co-constructed rubric with more than just vocabulary as the standard.)

Next Question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

What are examples of projects your students have done to improve their community and how (and why) did you encourage them?

Thanks to Mara Lee, Patricia, Carol, Kirk, and Dennis for their contributions!

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