Deciding whether to allow students to listen to music in the classroom is a modern teacher’s dilemma. Every single time students need to write an essay or work on a problem, they say, “Can I put my headphones on? I think better that way!” But is that really true? Does music help or hinder concentration? Let’s take a look at the thoughts of three different high school teachers and their takes on letting students listen to music in the classroom.
Mrs. T, a chemistry teacher from Georgia, has been using music in her classes to increase student motivation and keep students thinking about chemistry outside of class. Her students often chuckle at the song choices, but they can all relate in some way to the music. She started her project by asking students to find music that included chemistry themes in popular lyrics. They were encouraged to choose songs from various sources, and not solely use YouTube to find science songs.
The submissions Mrs. T received represented a wide range of music genres mirroring the diversity of the student body. The lyrics came from oldies, hip-hop, and rock, as well as some educational web-based songs. Some examples include Michael Orfutt with A Mole is a Unit, Bill Nye with Atoms in my Life, Coldplay with Speed of Sound, Keri Hilson with Energy, and Duncan Sheik with Half Life. More than 80% of the class participated in this optional activity, submitting a total of 66 songs.
Mrs. T says, “Based on student comments they are listening more closely for chemistry content in the song lyrics. When they hear words like ‘pressure’ or ‘heat,’ it jogs their memory to a scientific concept they learned about in class. The incorporation of music into my class has given students a new way to think about chemistry. It’s a way to get students thinking about science and seeing that it’s relevant to life beyond the classroom.”
When Mrs. K, a Californian English teacher, asked her students why they always listen to music at school, the vast majority of the answers she received were variations of “music makes me happy.” This gave her the idea to tap into this feeling and use it to spark joy, create community, and make learning more engaging for her students. She uses the following three musical methods frequently in her classroom.
- Create playlists for different occasions in class. Mrs. K asked students to create a playlist of songs they’d like to play to wake up after quiet activities. “I didn’t realize the full impact of implementing this idea until I had a full class of 11th graders singing the chorus to ‘Sweet Caroline’ by Neil Diamond” says Mrs. K. “What I had intended as a way to infuse my classroom with a little more fun turned into a moment of joy and community building. I can enhance the mood of my students with just a click of the mouse.” Now Mrs. K has playlists of songs to listen to while students are writing, doing choice reading, and entering and exiting the room.
- Use music to help students remember important facts. In the vein of foreign language ABCs songs in Spanish class and the classic Schoolhouse Rock, songs can help students of all ages memorize facts. Mrs. K divided up a list of literary devices and gave groups of students a few words each to create a song using karaoke tracks of popular tunes. “The performances were epic: Imagine students singing, ‘Is this the real life; is this hyperbole? Exaggerating for the effect that you want me to see!’ to the tune of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’” says Mrs. K. This method could easily be adapted to subjects other than English as well.
- Use students’ music preferences to connect to your subject matter. Music lyrics and poetry are essentially the same thing, so Mrs. K begins her module on poetry analysis by having students submit their favorite (appropriate) song lyrics. She says students have introduced her to many artists, including Kacey Musgraves, Mac Miller, Billie Eilish, and Kendrick Lamar, and that along the way it has allowed her to get to know students a little better through their musical tastes.
Mrs. K does not have songs playing constantly in her classroom—there are times when silence is more effective, such as with certain writing and reading tasks, and every teacher needs to determine this balance for themselves. It cannot be denied, however, that music exerts a powerful pull on students, a pull that can be harnessed to create a more effective learning environment.
Ms. B from Massachusetts wanted to dig into the science behind listening to music in the classroom. She found that research offers little to back up the idea that listening to music improves concentration. In one of several small Taiwanese studies, students who performed reading tasks in silence scored higher than those listening to music. Another study found that the louder the music, the worse the cognitive performance, no matter what type of music was used. Studies have also revealed, however, that listening to music leads to positive changes in mood and increased creativity.
When Ms. B consulted her students, they had a lot to say. Tod, a senior, said, “I wouldn’t be able to concentrate if I were listening to music and trying to read. However, when I write, I feel like music helps me concentrate deeply. I don’t have writer’s block. It’s easy for me to put my words on paper.” Another student, Dina, said, “Maybe not with reading, but when it comes to math, listening to music definitely helps. You could actually be singing along with what you’re listening to and doing well in math.”
Upon reflection, Ms. B’s conclusions were that students see listening to music as a reward, and that they refute the research that says the brain loses focus when multitasking. Instead, they argue that listening to music helps them tune out distractions. Ms. B says, “When my students listen to music when writing essays, they usually start working immediately and almost always hand in a product. But the question remains: would that final product be better if the student was not listening to music?”
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