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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Using Music in the Classroom to Inspire Creative Expression

Get in on
Give it up
Come on give it all you got

--AC/DC

If someone were crazy enough to let me run a school and I had the privilege of interviewing teachers, my first question would be, "What's your passion?" I almost stood and applauded when I heard Bruce Coville, children's author, croon those exact words. My smile went ear to ear. It was something deep down inside that said, "Thank you, Bruce." Passionate people move me. The energy, the excitement, and the love push me to become a better human.

"What's your passion?" Imagine that in an interview. Would you be afraid to answer? Could you answer? Did your college training prepare you for that question? When teachers are separated from curriculum development you remove the "thinking from implementation and the model of the teacher becomes that of a technician or white-collar clerk." (Henry Giroux) If "experts" continue to bash the humanity out of teaching, how on Earth will teachers teach? The dead honest truth is that inspiring people in the world, the best teachers out there really, are passionate about life. And no matter what the topic, they move people to better themselves in some way.

Edward Berman states that current reformists have "dropped the rhetoric about school as a vehicle for personal betterment." If we're not inspiring kids to search for their own truth why are we teaching?

This is a call for all teachers to bring the heart and soul back to the classroom. However, to do so they must first answer a very difficult question, "a moral as well as a practical question," posted by the most famous critical gunslinger out there, Alfie Kohn: Will teachers "treat students the way they, themselves, are being treated . . . or the way they wish they were being treated?"

Music in the Classroom

I've been listening to music for most of my life and playing it for quite some time. It's my best friend, my co-pilot, and my bedtime story. It's always there to shake up my bones or serenade me into sleepy daze. Music pumps feelings through my veins and clicks the switch on the mind's eye's projector. It conjures up images of people, scenes, landscape, and, if the tune is really rockin', transports me to far away places. As a kid, I was always up on that stage with Gene Simmons breathing fire and spitting blood or rolling around on two Jaguars (cars) in that White Snake video (come on, you did too). It's just the way I'm wired. Music always helps me to visualize and dream big.

My ten years of teaching have taught me many things about how kids interact with music. Some of my lessons failed miserably because of one major flaw: the wrong music. I've done the leg work for ya' so listen closely.

Tip #1 If you are using music for a lesson it almost always has to be instrumental unless you are directly engaging the lyrics. Little guys and gals just can't get over the artist's voice. I've asked them many times and the most common answer of all is... "It sounds funny." Hey, kids are kids.

Tip #2 Meet them half way. You can't put on some dusty old music and expect them to pump their fists and bob their heads. Classical music is awesome, but the kids need a variety of instrumental music to keep them interested. I've discovered some awesome artists searching for rockin' instrumentals. Here's a short list to get you started.

Or, by all means, write and record your own.

 To get you started I've included an original sample track and three levels of writing that I've collected from students.

Click on arrow to start, and read the stages. Running time: 1:00 min.

Level 1: Level one usually consists of a list. "Sad, guitar, boring, slow, funeral."

Level 2: Now we're talking in sentences. "This song makes me feel sad. Old people might listen to this song. If this was in a movie there might be kissing or stuff like that."

Level 3: The mind's eye sees a story. "A small boy sat on the edge of his bed. Tears fall darkening the letter he is reading. It's the first letter from mom since the divorce. He wishes he couldn't read."

You've got the music, now rock the lesson

I begin this lesson by showing John Williams and his musicians performing the Jaws theme in the studio (from my extended version of Jaws, of course). Watching a composer lead his orchestra while the movie plays on a huge screen is completely magical. Music tells so many stories. It's quite a gift to be able to write the musical story that matches the passion and energy of the actors all while enhancing the themes and the feelings of the scene. Just amazing. I want my students to use their mind's eye so I reverse the roles. Instead of writing music to the story, I want my students to write a story, a thought, a scene, or a list to the music. I usually spin six to eight partial tunes (about a minute) during each session. This takes practice and patience so if you get blank stares at first don't stress. Be happy, you're listening to music, remember?

In the end, your students will have a list of story nuggets or seeds or whatever you choose to call them. You will have fed the musical spirits, opened the eyes of the nonmusical, and perhaps even kindled a flame.

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Stephanie Glanzer's picture

I have always wanted to use music in a more "starring role" in my classroom, beyond playing music for a work time. Using music for a writing lesson or for cues for transitions are great ideas!

I have noticed that different classes respond differently to music. I have a class of second graders this year that calms down immediately when I start to play any instrumental music. The class I had last year, no matter how calming the music was, they would just get louder and louder. Has anyone else had that experience?

Michele Woolen's picture

I really think that this is a great idea. i know that some teachers play music in the background for "thinking music" or to provide atmosphere but I never thought about using it as a writing topic. The children would definitely have to get really creative in order to write this because they are not given any pictures. I can definitely see myself using this in my classroom!

Zedekiah Franklin's picture

Thanks fot the post I have the same passion for music. I play music since the 5th grade and I enjoy it. Music is a fun and educational way to get the students more involved in learning.

Diana Murrell's picture
Diana Murrell
K-5 Music Teacher, Canada

I find that sharing music I love with my students makes a difference too. They like classical music as long as it is provocative or they can understand the story. I have had great success with my grade 1s and The Carnival of the Animals, my grade 2s and Peter and the Wolf, my grade 3s and The Nutcracker, my grade 4s with The Moldau and my grade 5s with movie themes.

April Sauer's picture
April Sauer
Second Grade Teacher

I loved reading this post as I have been trying to find more ways to implement music into my classroom. I have used music in the background to calm and relax the students as they work at their seats, but I feel that it can be used for so much more throughout the day and in various lessons. The idea of using music to let the students use their "mind's eye" in their writing was a wonderful idea. When I was in school, my teachers would play classical music while we worked, and while some students today still like it others do not find like it. I am interested to try different types of music that is appropriate for my second graders, so that it can be used while they write, for transitions between activities during the day, or even played while they work. I believe that music can unlock any student's creativity if just given the means to do so. I also believe that it depends on the class you have as not all students respond well to music. Some it will quiet down and give them a sense of relaxation, while if you have a chatty class they will find any way to talk right over the music. Knowing your students is crucial in order to know how and when to incorporate music into your classroom.

Caitlin White's picture

Like everyone before me, I want to try and use music in my classroom. Many of my students listen to music while they complete their homework. This seems to be a great idea to try in the classroom, but I am not sure what to use. I am going to download a few songs and see how they respond to each song and then go from there. I want to use the music mainly during writing time and maybe eventually add it into reading time as well.

Thank you for all of your great ideas and I cannot wait to try music in the classroom!

Diana Murrell's picture
Diana Murrell
K-5 Music Teacher, Canada

Using music in your reading classroom is particularly effective for Making Connections and Visualizing. Music is an excellent "text" to use for students to visualize. Sometimes they need help with the idea that they are not visualizing the instruments playing. A good prompt would be "if this music was playing in a movie or a TV show, what would be happening?" If they still don't get it, suggest ridiculous things like people getting married when the music is scary and they get it pretty quickly. For making connections, they can make connections to media and music is great for that. The often have personal connections or world connections and can make some great "text to text" connections to other songs as well. You can use instrumental music as it gives them more possibilities. This is also a great way to hook boys if you use really evocative music such as The Rite of Spring or The Planet of the Apes movie.

Kim's picture

This is a topic that is very dear to me. I use a lot of music with my Kindergarten students, for academic and social skills and to make the well-rounded individual. I use it to reinforce topics I am teaching them in class. In some incidences, I have found that they have picked up the information in the songs, quicker than learning it from me. It is amazing what they can learn from music. It is a great teaching tool and I wish more teachers used in their classrooms.

I use a lot of singsong poems for learning to write letters and numbers. I also have one that I use when we are using glue. I then hear these different songs throughout the school year, but I know they have learned the information and have learned ways to help them remember how to write their letters and numbers, and how much glue they use.

There were a lot of good comments and ideas that I would like to try and incorporate into my classroom. Thank you for all the new ideas.

Kristin's picture

I also like to play music in the classroom. I use music as a teaching method during a History lesson. Students remember history when they hear the music from the time period or topic introduced. I have found that students respond very well to this and they find it to be enjoyable.

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