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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Strategies for Using Music in ALL Subjects

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 10, 2020 21 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

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.

Today, 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.

You might also be interested in The Best Music Websites for Learning English.

Using music in social studies

Denise Fawcett Facey was a classroom teacher for more than two decades and now writes on education issues. Among her books, The Social Studies Helper offers activities and projects that make social studies more vibrant and engaging for secondary-level students:

Music is a great element in social studies classes, bringing the past alive for history students, for example, or making intangible concepts more concrete for psychology students. Discussions, debates, empathy, and self-reflection are among a wide range of results. In short, music makes social studies more relevant to students.

In a U.S. history class, for instance, music can evoke the emotions, sensibilities, values, and social issues of a past time, fostering discussions and providing insight into that society. For example, playing the songs that Harriet Tubman used as code for escaping slaves—"Steal Away,” “Wade in the Water,” “Sweet Chariot,” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd"—provokes discussion of the ways music was so integrated into daily slave life as to make it unobtrusive to slave owners when used as code. These experiences as well as the mechanics of the Underground Railroad resonate with students when music is the tool. Meanwhile, allowing students to decipher the code in each song makes both the music and the subject matter even more engaging.

Likewise, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” a depression-era song that poignantly expresses a man’s despair amid the poverty resulting from the Great Depression, lends itself to debate, discussion, and genuine empathy, effectively merging music, social studies, and SEL (social and emotional learning). Having students interpret the lyrics against the backdrop of their prior knowledge about that period makes the anguish of the time readily apparent.

Similarly, protest songs of the 1960s, from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan’s ode to civil rights, to Edwin Starr’s “War” and Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home"—both strong anti-Vietnam War songs—reflect movements that impacted society then and still have significance now. In these instances, music encourages students to examine their own viewpoints on these issues, which may or may not coincide with those of the songs, as well as to compare and contrast war and civil rights then and now.

In other social studies classes, such as psychology, music illuminates key concepts such as sensation and perception. Something as basic as playing a variety of music genres underscores that the same sensation (i.e., hearing) produces differing, even opposing, perceptions of what is heard. Thus, although the students all hear the same music, their reactions vary widely. Discussing their reactions to each song provokes interesting commentary that incorporates emotions as well as memories. Along the same lines, music can be used to illustrate the properties of sound (frequency, amplitude, complexity).

Since virtually everyone likes music, incorporating it into social studies is always a hit with students.

“The possibilities, just like our playlists, are truly endless”

Jen Schwanke has been an educator for 20 years, teaching or leading at all levels. She is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD. Schwanke has written for Choice Literacy, Education Week Teacher, Principal, and Principal Navigator. An instructor in educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio, Schwanke has also provided professional development to various districts in the areas of school climate, personnel, and instructional leadership. She is currently a principal for the Dublin City school district in Dublin, Ohio. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke:

Music played a huge role in my English classroom. 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 conventions, figures of speech, connotation, climax, rhyme, and genre. It came to life through journaling, freewriting, and narrative.

My favorite was poetry. I loved launching our study of poetry with song lyrics. We would study the work of particular poets and songwriters as a way to understand style, tone, and purpose. We talked about how a poem can contain all the elements of a traditional story and how our own interpretation—our relationship and connection to the piece—can sometimes come easier from a song than it does in a traditional story or poem.

Writing poetry was a delight, too, when done with the support of song. Students were often afraid to write a stand-alone poem, but fear disappeared when they told themselves they were writing a song. It was a simple mind trick that flipped their internal narrative: I can be a songwriter. Many of them soared, writing with eager rhythm and melody, and it carried them to places they hadn’t expected.

Since I’ve been a principal, I’ve seen quite a few creative, nonconventional ways teachers incorporate music in the classroom and I’ve thought of ways I’d use music myself, were I to have a chance to teach again. Here are just a few ideas:

A 6th grade teacher led a unit that started in math class but crossed into social studies. He found five wildly popular songs and asked students to predict how many times each song had been played on YouTube. He listed their predictions next to the number revealed when the class verified their guesses. They subtracted their guess from the real answer and compared the differential. Next, they discussed why some songs had so many views, particularly through the lens of history and time.

Thriller- Michael Jackson

Sweet Home Alabama- Lynyrd Skynyrd

You’ve Got a Friend- James Taylor

Thunder- Imagine Dragons

Ice Ice Baby- Vanilla Ice

Bad Blood- Taylor Swift

I know of a high school history teacher who asked her students to deconstruct the lyrics and message of particular songs and offer a historical perspective behind the words. There are literally hundreds of songs one could use for a unit like this—clumped by artist or era, perhaps—but a starting point might be some of these:

Joni Mitchell- Big Yellow Taxi

Billy Joel- Leningrad

Billy Joel- Good Night Saigon

John McCutcheon- Christmas in the Trenches

Sarah McLachlan- Angel

Crosby, Stills, & Nash- Ohio

Lori McKenna- Ruby’s Shoes

John Denver- Trail of Tears

Led Zeppelin- When the Levee Breaks

Mary Chapin-Carpenter- 4 June 1989

Finally, many teachers have begun to incorporate lyric-free music as a tool to reduce tension and increase focus in their classrooms. Its use is difficult to dispute when we see the effect it can have on students. Soft, soothing piano music seems the most peaceful, particularly with high-energy students who choose calm instead of chaos when music is there to soften the air in the room. So even if teachers don’t specifically incorporate music into their instruction, they can certainly make it a component of classroom management and the development of a positive learning environment.

Just as in all things, in our classrooms, music can occupy a part of what we do, how we do it, and how we help our students understand and interpret the world. The possibilities, just like our playlists, are truly endless.

Music in Spanish class

Rachelle Dene Poth is a Spanish and STEAM teacher at Riverview High School in Pittsburgh. She is also an attorney and has a master’s in instructional technology. She is the president for the ISTE Teacher Education Network and Communications Chair for the Mobile Learning Network. She was selected as the 2017 Outstanding Teacher of the Year by PAECT and by NSBA as one of “20 to watch” educators. She is a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, a Google Certified Educator Level II, a Nearpod PioNear, Ambassador for Buncee. She is an author and has written chapters in Snapshot in Education 2016, 2017, and 2018 and also a chapter in the book Stories in EDU. Connect with her on Twitter at @Rdene915:

As a foreign-language teacher, there are so many different ways that I can use music in my classes and have done so in order to add some excitement and fun into learning. One thing I started a few years ago was playing different music as students enter the classroom. I had discs of Zumba music that I would play as soon as they came in, using just a little bit of loud music to get the energy going, and it was always fun to see students dancing into the room and look a little bit happier as they picked up their pace and came into the classroom.

I’ve also tried having students contribute to a class playlist that has a mix of their choices and mine, because I found that it’s just been great talking points, and it 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 bit more pep in their step when they walk by and hear the music. Plus it brings up some good conversations to have with students to compare music likes from years past and to just keep on working on the relationships. You find out a lot about what you have in common and what students are interested in that you can take a few minutes to invest in and then strike up a conversation together.

In teaching some of the content, there are lots of videos that have rhymes, or some funny mnemonics, or even with our textbook; it has audio activities that include rap songs that tie into the vocabulary and grammar covered in each part of the chapter. Using some of these on occasion can get students interacting with the vocabulary in a fun way. Of course, the music often comes with a lot of critique from students of the style or singing, but it’s meant to do that so that it attaches meaning and helps students retain a little bit better.

This year I had another idea: to have students come up with their own lyrics using class content (historical dates, vocabulary terms, grammar constructions, scientific content terms) and set them to a popular song. When they remember the lyrics of the song, it attaches a more authentic and relevant way for them to retain the material even better.

There are lots of ways to bring music into the classroom, and some of them might even just be playing some background music as students are working on a project or working even in small groups.

Ten ways to incorporate music in classes

Alycia Owen is an international educator, instructional coach, and EAL specialist who has implemented the co-teaching model in math, science, and language arts. She has provided professional development for schools in the U.S. and abroad and has been a workshop presenter at NESA, AASSA, and EARCOS international teachers’ conferences, as well as the SIOP National Conference. She currently lives in China where she serves as EAL department chair for the American International School of Guangzhou:

I don’t know a teacher out there who isn’t on a constant search for lessons, activities, and routines to keep the classroom alive and engaging. We attend workshops and keep up with current research about our learners and lesson delivery. We tease apart unit plans, make curriculum maps with colleagues, and search for effective ways to reach every student. In truth, if we’re doing this job right, we are in an endless state of planning, teaching, and reflection.

But when was the last time you planned for music in your classroom? When was the last time you used music to help you make a positive impact on your students? I’m not talking about those of you who give the gift of music as band and choir teachers (you’re amazing, by the way!). I’m talking about the rest of us. Bringing music into the classroom, even in the simplest of ways, can impact our students’ emotions, motivation, attitudes, and sense of connection, yet we often fail to use it to our benefit. Music is a potentially powerful tool, and using it requires very little planning on our parts compared to the benefits it brings. Its effects on students are often immediate. With just a little bit of forethought, we can harness the power of music to create positive learning environments, whether we teach rugrats or near-adults.

For schools, consider using music instead of bells to let students know it’s time to go to class. In my school, the morning signal to get to first period is a song. Not just any song. A song carefully chosen in advance by one of two volunteer teachers who plan the “morning playlist.” They bring their own ideas but also solicit suggestions from students, faculty, and staff, making it a true community ritual that is both useful and entertaining. The eclectic playlist is a true reflection and celebration of our school’s diversity. When the music begins, students and teachers alike are seen wrapping up conversations and heading off to their various classrooms as the music plays. Some might even sneak in a couple of dance moves or sing along. When the music is over, it’s time to be in a seat. This same music will be heard again that day during lunch-break transitions. As a bonus, it is often the case that the musical selection of the day sparks casual comments that lead to conversation. I love this song! Isn’t that song from “Star Wars?” Ooh! We’re playing this in the band concert tomorrow! I saw these guys in concert. Her voice is amazing! What language is this?

For teachers, try using music to enrich your lessons and to create a positive classroom community. It’s fun. It’s easy. It increases student engagement. It brings joy in ways you might not expect. A case in point involves a former student of mine, a young man with ADHD, who was 11 years old at the time he was in my class. He’s now in his 30s and, through the miracle of social media, he contacted me a few years ago to say thank you and to tell me what he liked about being in my class. “I remember how cool it was that you let us listen to music when we worked. You let us choose the songs sometimes. I loved it! I loved it when you brought in your music, too.” His comments don’t indicate what he learned while in my class, but they do speak to a positive connection with me and his classmates that has endured all these years, a connection that I am confident helped him feel like a valued member of our class community.

I’ve incorporated music into my teaching in dozens of ways, typically with great results, but here are my “Top 10,” all of which have been used across grade levels. Start by trying just one thing on this list and see how it goes. Talk to your students and get their feedback, too.

  1. Know Your Students
    Learning about individual students’ musical tastes is a fantastic way to get to know your learners. Be sure to include a question about students’ favorite songs when gathering information about their interests. This is often done the first day or two of class and provides a platform for everything from future casual conversations to insights about what resources to use for a future lesson.

  2. Welcome!
    It doesn’t get much simpler, but this routine is a joy! Play a different song each day to welcome students to the room. This is most powerful when the teacher and students take turns choosing the song. I like to assign students their days in advance so they can plan ahead (I get a turn, too!). Shared responsibility for organizing the music and getting a glimpse into everyone’s musical tastes is part of the fun.

  3. Transition Music
    Instead of bells or hand signals, music is a great way to signal that reading time is up, it’s time to switch activities, or an activity has come to an end. As with Welcome Music, it’s worth giving students a hand in choosing the songs.

  4. Musical Chair Share
    Musical Chairs meets Pair Share! At any point in a lesson where you might typically have students do a Pair Share, incorporate music and movement. As the music plays, students wander (or dance) around the room until the music stops, giving them the cue to find the closest person and take turns sharing ideas aloud. When the music resumes, wander (or dance) some more, until it stops and students find a new partner. Repeat as needed.

  5. Make the Mood
    Launching a unit on Edgar Allen Poe? Thriller by Michael Jackson creates a fun energy with a hint of the macabre. Introducing a lesson on oceans? Under the Sea by Samuel Wright is light and lively, and students of all ages will likely be able to sing along. Celebrating successes? You can’t go wrong with the upbeat exuberance of Pharrell Williams’ Happy. There are literally thousands of songs you can use for all kinds of purposes.

  6. Period Piece
    Choose music to create a more immersive classroom experience that’s reflective of the time period in which the lesson content is set. This is quite similar to Make the Mood, but the focus is on a point in history as opposed to just mood. For example, Puttin’ on the Ritz by Irving Berlin can transport students to the Roaring Twenties as they dive into The Great Gatsby. Pete Seger’s anthemic We Shall Overcome signals the determination and perseverance needed by those whose lives we study when investigating the civil rights movement.

  7. Brain Break
    This can be as simple as playing one song in the middle of a class period and allowing students to stand/walk/dance/relax before getting back to work, or a game like Name That Tune or Name the Artist. Musical brain breaks are ideal right before students complete a creative task or after an intensive period of writing or project work.

  8. Ambient Music
    Playing instrumental music in the background at very low volume may help students to focus and persevere. Be mindful that some students may find this technique distracting, however, so experiment with what works best for you and your students.

  9. Slow Their Roll!
    Some say that music soothes the savage beast. It’s equally effective with bouncy students. Immediately change the energy in the room from rambunctious to relaxed by setting an even, calm pace through music. Mozart and Coldplay are an unlikely pai, but are two personal favorites that immediately bring a calming energy without any other intervention by me. My favorite times to use this technique are after a highly interactive small-group activity or after lunch.

  10. Connect to Culture
    What better way to connect to culture than through music? Whether students are choosing the music for a particular activity, or you’re setting the stage for them, the particular selections can mirror the many cultures represented in the class and broaden everyone’s awareness of classmates and their backgrounds.

In A Place Called School, John Goodlad propelled us toward school improvement by asking: “Why are our schools not places of joy?” A little music goes a long way toward creating a joyful space, and it’s just a click away. What are you waiting for?

Work Cited

Goodlad, J. (1984). A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future. McGraw-Hill.

Using music in project-based learning

Sara Lev has taught in TK-2nd grade settings for the last 15 years and currently teaches transitional kindergarten in Los Angeles. She is a member of the National Faculty of PBLWorks and leads professional development in project-based learning around the country. Sara is the co-author (with Erin Starkey and Amanda Clark) of an upcoming book about implementing PBL in early-childhood classrooms:

As a project-based-learning teacher, I’m often integrating several subjects into my units, and one of those subjects is always the arts. For instance, when my transitional-kindergarten students set out to answer the driving question, How might we design an outdoor classroom where we can play and learn?, the students imagined several spaces, including one that focused on music.

The project began as children brainstormed a list of areas they hoped to create. Their ideas blew me away. They suggested a puppet theater, snack area, library, music area, and more. I wasn’t sure what this music area would include, but I was inspired to embark on this part of the project. Music has been a big part of my life and my teaching; I used to perform in musical theater, I play guitar, and I often infuse music throughout my school day. In the classroom I will typically:

  • lead songs as transitional cues (for example, to return to the rug after work time)
  • play music for movement breaks
  • include song lyrics in weekly shared readings
  • use instruments for morning meetings, greetings, and games
  • connect music to curriculum (i.e., singing protest songs when learning about civil rights or singing songs to learn social and emotional skills).
  • play quiet music during rest time and Writer’s Workshop
  • end each day with a goodbye song

Music enhances literacy skills and is accessible to students who are English-language learners or who have special needs. It helps build community and a positive classroom culture. So when my class suggested a music area, I was excited. We immediately developed a list of questions they needed to ask in order to create that space. What instruments should we have? Where would we get them? When could we play them? Their questions would guide the inquiry process that focused on music and instruments, as we began this part of our outdoor-classroom project.

I asked our music teacher if he wanted to collaborate, and he was happy to help. He lent us instruments and gave children opportunities to learn more about them during his stand-alone classes. I asked parents in my class if they had any musical connections. One parent was a manager for film composers and invited a client to visit our room, discuss her job, and play her cello.

Field experiences give students opportunities to research topics on our need-to-know list, but rather than choosing a location myself (a concert, a recording studio), I waited for suggestions to emerge naturally from students. One child thought visiting a music store would help us in designing our own instruments for the space. With that, I contacted the manager of a large Guitar Center store in Hollywood, and he gave our class a tour and answered questions on site.

We were off and running! Children learned about a variety of instruments and their sounds, exploring shapes, sizes, materials, volume levels, and how to play them. Do you hit, shake, strum, or pluck an instrument? How does each movement impact the sound? How does an instrument’s material affect the volume? Armed with our new understandings and the support of our art teacher, the children constructed 3D models from recycled material such as wire, cardboard, plastic, and metal. We placed these instruments in our new music area, along with those borrowed from our music teacher. Children played them as a part of choice time, acting out the roles of conductor, rock star, music-store manager, audience, or orchestra member.

This was an engaging and exciting component of our outdoor-classroom project, but it was just one of many. We also integrated music into other subjects like literacy (using drums and shakers to support learning syllables) and math (using different shapes to draw and build our instruments). Later in the year, as older children saw our kids using the instruments, they asked to use our outdoor classroom, too. The pride our young learners felt in sharing their instruments with others was tangible. They created their own space for learning and playing and shared it with others. Music was a key part of the story of our project, bringing ownership, engagement, and most of all, joy.

Thanks to Denise, Jen, Rachelle, Alycia, and Sara for their contributions!

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