Music is a fundamental right of all children and plays a vital role in their upbringing.
Debating the state of music education in schools last year, Lord Black noted that every survey shows the incredible benefits music has on you minds.
He noted that music improves cognitive ability by 17% and boosts mental health and through “its incredible blend of self-expression, energy and creativity, it moves, energises, soothes and uplifts in a way that nothing else can.”
The recent Youth Music report The Sound of the Next Generation found music is a powerful contributor to wellbeing enabling young people to connect with their peers, their community, their family and their roots.
At its most basic level, music can make learning more enjoyable. Sir Simon Rattle says that music goes deeper than words and is “often so much more profound” and it can’t be a matter of “privilege or chance.”
Few would disagree that music is in our many of our schools is now facing an existential crisis but every teacher can support music education and keep it alive.
Music is central to our lives and essential in school.
Thank You For The Music
Music is cross-curricular and the universal language that connects us all. So what if you aren’t a music teacher, you can still play music in your class and you don’t have to be a Ministry of Sound DJ either.
Lots of teachers choose to play music in their lessons. Some start the day with music or use it as part of an activity to add effect, atmosphere or as a learning ‘hook’. It can work particularly well as a ‘primer’ for association with a routine or memorised action. Others use it for transitions, in freeplay, as a movement energiser or brain break when a class is flagging. Then it can be used as a musical bath for mindfulness and wellness.
There are also teachers, including me, that regularly use music as the backdrop to class life whilst other activities are taking place.
Using music ‘in the background’ has always been a feature of my classroom management because it sets the tone for a lesson and plugs into different mindsets and moods.
Music can influence children’s behaviour, it can impact on the quality and quantity of their work and shape overall atmosphere in class. It can develop rapport, stir, stimulate, release tension, energise, de-escalate, improve memory and change brain wave states.
Shop And Learn
Music can improve performance, learning, and emotional states. Music and learning are nice and sticky.
Mood management is a key part of being a teacher. You create the weather in the class and playing music can dramatically alter how children behave.
Lots of shops use ambient music to enhance the retail experience and this is deliberately used to influence consumers' purchasing decisions. The most significant effect on shopper is the pace, or tempo.
Research has shown that when fast-paced music is played, shoppers walk more quickly through a shop which gave them less chance to make impulsive purchases or absorb what the shop had to offer. Slow-tempo music had the opposite effect and slowed customers down as they shopped and people purchased more during their visit.
Consumer atmospherics research has implications for classroom managers too. What we play matters and so we need to pay close attention to volume, tempo, tonality and texture.
Face The Music
Playing music in class need careful thought because it can easily backfire. Some music is infectious and can electrify children into dancing and singing. There’s a huge difference between playing ‘Baby Shark’ and Brahms so choosing the ‘right’ music can be harder than opening a tin of baked beans with your left foot.
Make a good choice in the right context and background music can work wonders and help children focus and stay on-task; it can help produce positive behaviours and help them feel relaxed.
Some say that the more complex a task you are performing the more distracting background music becomes. Perhaps but then many surgeons operate to music as a relaxant and motivator. In a similar way, background music in class can help improve learning by removing stress.
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Lots of teachers gravitate towards classical music and play it in their art lessons. They say that it is helps stoke creativity and relaxes children too. There is evidence that going for slow Baroque music selections like Bach, Handel or Telemann that are between 55 and 80 beats per minute helps maintain attention helping us to reach the alpha brain wave state, a state which enhances learning and memorisation.
For some children ‘classical’ might do the trick but it’s vital to have a variety of music to appeal to all tastes and introduce children to genres they may never had heard before.
I weave a range of music in all lessons although not all of the time! I think you have to judge your class, work out their mood and take requests. I’ve tried gospel, hip-hop, jazz, chill, rock, Indian pop and Bollywood, musical theatre, techno, disco, drum and bass, soul, punk, music of Africa and sounds of nature.
They’ve all ‘worked’ but I’ve learned that pumping up the volume doesn’t as it can make children feel overloaded, uneasy and irritable. Beware of those catchy songs too – they are like ‘ear worms’ that just never leave you. I’m still haunted by Aqua’s annoying ‘Barbie Girl’.
A Sound Education
There is a perception that playing music in non-music lessons will create ‘problems’ and so it’s probably best to avoid it. I disagree. If you pitch it right, music can add layers of experience to the classroom, it’s just a question of playing it right and orchestrating the environment.
Playing music is the pot of gold that keeps on giving and we should all be pressing shuffle to activate children mentally, physically and emotionally as it can positively influence productivity, behaviour and motivation.
So whether you go for some James Brown funk, an ABBA anthem, Gangnam style, Macarena or Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, expect it to have impact. If you don’t currently use background music then it’s worth noting it requires a period of adjustment and a couple of weeks is normally how long it takes for children to accommodate it into their way of working.
Playing music outside of class also seems to work wonders so don’t just limit to four-walls. And remember, every teacher is a music teacher.
Griffin, M. (2017) Learning Strategies For Musical Success. Music World Education: Adelaide
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.