Music is a highly underrated, underutilized tool in the classroom. Not only is it an impactful medium to integrate into your lessons, but music also offers numerous benefits. Whether you are tutoring online or in-person this year, there are several ways to include music in a way that ensures the kids in your classroom enjoy the lesson and continue to stay engaged. Read more below to learn about the benefits of music, how to integrate it into a lesson plan, and suggestions for 20 school-appropriate songs to start your own kid-friendly playlist.
Music and the Environment
Music can help create the right atmosphere for your classroom, no matter where it is.
Setting the Stage
Consider how music can set up the ideal environment in which to learn. Music can function as a subject anchor to mark the beginning of a new topic or subject matter. It can also benefit students with learning disabilities, such as ADHD, to wrap up any wandering thoughts and mentally prepare themselves for the next subject matter. Similar to how we use auditory cues in film and theater, songs are a great way of marking the start of something new or the end of the school day (or lesson), as long as they are age-appropriate.
Setting the stage with music can function well for all ages. Playing the Bill Nye theme song might signal learning science during that class period for the younger pupils. You may also choose to play a song with fun lyrics to encourage playtime or positive energies. For older students, like those in high school, playing (or asking students to listen to and watch videos of) a traditional Appalachian folk song can set up a lesson about labor history while simultaneously placing it in the correct historical context.
Immersing students in an environment where they can utilize different sources to think critically and holistically about the lesson –instead of mere rote memorization – helps them extrapolate and see the larger picture. But this only one of several ways music can set up your classroom for success.
Music can also be used to establish a transition in the classroom, which can be a significant cue for younger students. An upbeat dance track might encourage them to put their toys and school supplies away quickly. In contrast, the soothing sounds of a more meditative track might indicate that it is time to calm down and settle into the reading period. These transitions are important for kids because they grow accustomed to the length of a song and develop an important internal clock, allowing them to evaluate better the length of time it takes to complete a task.
But even if there is no song (yet) that quite underscores the topic of study for the day, music can influence a child’s learning environment and set them up for success in other ways. Take Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” for example. What a fun, 3-minute way to encourage your classroom to take a dance break or “shake off” whatever is bothering them if they are reticent one morning. Those 3 minutes can act more quickly at transforming your student’s demeanor than anything else you can do in that time.
Songs can also signal other natural breaks or intermissions throughout the student’s daily schedule. Playing an energetic song can help mark the usual time for recess, even if “recess” looks slightly different in a virtual setting. Like adults, kids benefit from consistent structure and rely on cues that help them identify patterns related to those structures.
Finally, music can help students be better learners. One study in Europe explored the relationship between music and concentration. It concluded that Baroque music, in particular, promotes learning because the 60 beats per minute tempo aligns better with our average heart rate, which in turn encourages calmness and improves attention. However, some experts in other studies claim that new information is best absorbed with Bach, while pieces by Mozart can help your class feel invigorated in the afternoons when they feel more like taking a nap.
Music and Memorization
Information accompanied by music makes it easier for people to remember the new information. This should come as no surprise: educators have, for a long time, been using songs, chants, poems, raps, and rhythms to help students memorize important concepts. Young kids learn the alphabet utilizing a melody. Middle-school-aged children might be asked to memorize a song to identify the bones in the body. High school students may very well learn more about U.S. History by watching Hamilton than they would reading the same material in a chapter of their history book.
Music Creates a Sense of Community
In the classroom, playing background music can help stimulate a particular atmosphere: background music can help some students stay focused on their work during a study period. Music can also create the sense of a shared experience. For example, beginning a classroom discussion on a classroom topic with school appropriate music can turn a bland and boring summary into an interesting trailer for your lesson plan. This shared experience of actively engaging helps everyone connect to the material and better connect to everyone in the classroom.
Integrating Music into the Lesson
Music has a unique way of infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives.
Music and History
Some popular songs have changed how we utilize language by introducing new slang or providing new meaning to phrases. Some tracks are iconic in terms of their place and influence in history and can be used to highlight important moments. Music can also help us “place” events. Further in the article, I provide a shortlist of songs that help illustrate how music can characterize certain periods of history.
Music and Science & Math
Music even has a place in math or science classrooms. Take “The Elements” by Tom Lehrer, a song whose lyrics solely list the Periodic Table of Elements. “Why Does the Sun Shine” by the band They Might Be Giants balances child-friendly lyrics with more advanced ideas, making it ideal for any school-aged child. And where else would the “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats be more important than before any science lab?
Students can even use music as a way to “visualize” and analyze fractions. Rap songs in a 5/4 or 7/8 time signature, or even songs with changing time signatures, can be an effective way of showing how these math concepts appear in other life areas.
Music and Language
Music can be invaluable in terms of studying language – even the English language. Between the rhyming, the analysis of syntax and grammar, or how to spell (just how many people do you know have to sing the Gwen Stefani track whenever they spell the word “bananas”?) – music captures the complex, rich, beautiful ways in which we use language to communicate concepts and how that language evolves.
Music can be helpful in foreign language courses as well. Those people taking a language course, such as French or Spanish, would benefit from hearing the language in contexts outside the classroom. They also benefit by hearing the language spoken faster than they hear in the classroom or hearing phrases that do not appear in textbooks (but may be more common in everyday speech). Similarly, music can help provide students with a safe space to learn about and celebrate cultural identity.
Application to Other Ideas
With the Taylor Swift example mentioned above, students can learn so much about other concepts through music. “Shake It Off” is an excellent way to launch a discussion regarding trademarks and what they are. Still, it can also segue into a larger discussion about ownership of language or individuality and mental health.
Utilizing songs as markers to which a teacher can “call-back” to can help students draw a connection between earlier themes or ideas with current discussions. These call-backs are similar to a mechanism often used in stand-up comedy, where the performer “calls back” to an earlier idea or concept with a phrase that ties multiple themes together. As a result, these broader discussions and integration of call-backs encourage students to make connections that they otherwise might not have – which is a useful skill to have as an adult. Making connections is an excellent comprehension strategy. It sets up students to understand subject matters in a deeper, more dynamic sense.
Dos and Don’ts of Music in the Classroom
DON’T play music without purpose. Music in a classroom without a clear intent is counterproductive and can be distracting or disruptive. Remember, music is a tool in the classroom, and like any tool, it should be used thoughtfully and intend to produce the desired result.
DO make sure that the songs you play are school appropriate. You must give songs – even songs you think you know – an attentive listen before playing them for kids. Review the lyrics for any questionable language or insinuations to ensure they are safe for your intended audience. A song or playlist that may be well-suited for high school students, for example, might not be a good choice for kindergarten or young elementary school children.
DON’T overuse music in the classroom. The goal is not to turn classroom learning into a live-action musical. Instead, think of music as a sound effect to punctuate certain times of the day or invoke a certain response from students (e.g., preparing for a change in subject matter). There are times when the absence of music may be a better option than finding the right song – especially if you set the tone for a more serious discussion.
DO be consistent with when and why you play music in the classroom. Students need to be able to rely on these cues to know what is coming next.
DON’T aim for perfect. Kids do not need to love every song on a playlist. Besides, playlists will naturally evolve and change over time. The more important issue is whether everyone can enjoy the playlist and whether the songs are school appropriate.
Working with Limited Resources
Integrating appropriate songs into a school experience does not have to be expensive. Online music streaming services like Spotify have a free option (with advertisements) but allow educators to create individualized playlists. So, your students fall in love with music that Jay and Daisy might have danced to while reading The Great Gatsby. A teacher can also post a few playlist options on Spotify to help students focus during study hours, ranging from instrumental covers to popular songs all the way to classical music involving Bach or Debussy. One benefit to utilizing this platform is that it is easy to identify which songs (or playlists) have explicit content and which are “clean.”
One of the many features on Spotify is sharing playlists. Encouraging classmates to share playlists can be a fun way of socializing when it is tough. A teacher may also want to consider how a playlist can function as a creative homework exercise: students can create playlists to fit certain themes, to list music best suited for the time period in which a book is set, or to find top tracks for a foreign language they are learning. Finally, Spotify has “house-made” playlists, where educators can see which pop songs are currently trending.
YouTube is another great resource. Like Spotify, this site offers a (predominantly) free service but was originally designed to share videos. Nowadays, YouTube features many user-designed playlists, music videos of songs, and many user-created lyric videos to accompany songs. Like with Spotify, this platform permits a teacher to create and post a playlist that best suits their needs and features videos that conform with that teacher’s lesson plan.
However, YouTube does not make it easy to identify which songs are clean and not quickly. Additionally, many lyric videos are user-created, so an educator may be forced to either rely on a video with typos and errors or create and upload their own video.
SongsForTeaching is a good tool for when teachers want to utilize music in their lesson plan but perhaps do not have a specific song in mind. The website has a list of many topics, from Early Childhood to COVID-19 to Science Songs, and from there provides sub-categories to fit more targeted lesson plans. For example, under the “Life Skills and Character” tab, the site includes a list of numerous resources for Anti-Bullying. Under that subcategory are various Anti-Bullying songs, Anti-Bullying albums, and even musical plays that can illustrate concepts in a manner even young children can understand.
Appropriate Song Suggestions for Every Classroom
Below are some selections of songs that are great for every classroom. Think of each group as a shortlist you can use as a starting point to build your own custom playlist that is best for your classroom.
Songs To Start the Day Off Right
Mornings are generally hard, but they seem so much more difficult in the middle of a pandemic. These songs are sure to put you and your classroom in a happy, uplifting mindset.
5. Pharrell Williams – Happy
Not only is this a song most people love (it was a Billboard number-one single in 2014!), but it’s a song that – as the name suggests – makes you happy.
4. Katy Perry – Firework
Katy Perry’s pop life-affirming single exudes positivity, making it a great way to start your day in the classroom. It also doubles as a good song to set up a lesson about similes, metaphors, figurative language, and poetic devices.
3. Katrina & The Waves – Walking on Sunshine
This classic is a hit that can make people happy, even on the greyest of days.
2. The Beatles – With a Little Help from My Friends
Who doesn’t love this song?
1. Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk
Classrooms worldwide have danced to this song – one teacher-led his six theater classes in a dance that made Bruno Mars cry (in a good way)!
Songs to Calm Down
These songs lack lyrics and strike a perfect balance between background noise and interesting music. Play these songs when it’s time for some deep-breathing exercises and quiet reading time.
5. Claude Debussy – Claire de Lune
This musical piece regularly appears on playlists that promote calmness or are good for studying. However, it also serves a dual purpose in French classrooms: Debussy was a French composer, and ‘claire de lune’ means ‘moonlight’ in French.
4. Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings
This work is one that your students may recognize from many popular movies – it is arguably Barber’s most recognizable piece. It can often be found on instrumental playlists or a playlist containing soundtracks from original motion pictures.
3. Marconi Union – Weightless
Some science suggests that listening to this song, in particular, can decrease anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate. It is an ideal song for a teacher to play during an exam or on a day when the class seems a little stressed out.
2. Franz Liszt – Liebestraum No. 3
This love song is a calming piano piece that should definitely make your list for relaxing music.
1. David Fischbein – Skinny Love
This lesser-known instrumental track is good for studying at home, focusing on independent work in the classroom, or simply winding down at the end of the school day.
Songs for History
This list is a brief example of how music can be utilized as a tool in the classroom. With thoughtfully curated playlists tailored to your lesson plan, these songs can provide an impactful way to learn something new.
5. The Full Soundtrack of Hamilton: An American Musical
My history teacher would never forgive me if I did not include Hamilton, and rightly so. Brilliantly written and performed, this musical may spark a love for history in your classroom.
4. Joe Hill – The Preacher and the Slave
In the early 20th century, this song highlighted the working class’s attitudes regarding unfair labor practices. This track is ideal for a teacher whose lesson plan involving the Battle of Blair Mountain, and labor protests needs to keep students’ attention.
3. Ella Fitzgerald – A-Tisket, A-Tasket
A great choice for classrooms of all ages, this nursery rhyme is easy for the young ones to learn. It can also be used in high school-level classes to illustrate America in the 1940s and ’50s, especially for a Black female entertainer.
2. Bruce Hornsby & The Range – The Way It Is
The child-friendly lyrics make this song great for younger classrooms. Still, high schoolers and teachers alike will appreciate the Civil Rights Act’s references and economic disparities between classes.
1. Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire
This energetic classic is a chronological list of events starting in 1949 – so it is both fun to listen to and functions as a learning tool.
Pop Songs for the Modern Classroom
5. Ritt Momney – Put Your Records On
This TikTok viral song has the same kid-friendly lyrics as the Corinne Bailey Rae hit, but everyone in the classroom will love this modern-sounding version.
4. Taylor Swift feat. Bon Iver – exile
It’s hard not to fall in love with Taylor Swift’s music. Because we already featured “Shake It Off” as an example above, I added this song to the list.
3. Maren Morris feat. Hozier – The Bones
The love song captures some of the hardships everyone experiences but encourages resiliency during a challenging time in one’s life. The lyrics in this song resonate with anyone who has had or has sought a sturdy relationship.
2. Surf Mesa feat. Emilee – ily (I love you, baby)
This tropical house track makes a list in one part due to its popularity on TikTok, another part due to the simplicity of the lyrics, and finally because it’s just a fun song to play.
1. Galantis & Dolly Parton feat. Probz – Faith
It’s hard to go wrong with a Dolly Parton song, especially a great classic that has been updated to fit in a little better with how music sounds in 2020. Like the Maren Morris hit above, Faith is about getting through a challenging time – but instead of relying on the strength of a relationship with someone else, this is about having love and being strong for yourself.
Music is a versatile tool that can effectively provide pupils with a more engaging learning experience, promoting knowledge processing and information retention. Integrating music in your lesson plan can be a little extra work and require some planning and understanding of how to utilize technology to your advantage. To integrate school appropriate songs, you need good classroom speakers or play the music through an interactive whiteboard. In turn, however, your classroom will turn into a space that you and the kids will look forward to for a fun and engaging learning environment.
Music can be an effective way to help students apply their learning outside of the classroom in a meaningful and interesting way. It can also be used to tie lessons together – whether inside a classroom or across different fields of study.