Using music effectively as part of your lessons

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Music is a powerful tool that teachers can embrace in the classroom to help encourage, calm, motivate, inspire and more. Fiona Aubrey-Smith offers some pointers

With the Department for Education consultation underway to create a new National Plan for Music Education (DfE, 2020), music has once again risen higher up the agenda.

The importance of playing a musical instrument is underpinned by comprehensive research which consistently shows the positive impact on things like attainment across the curriculum, self-discipline and behaviour, and cognitive development (for example, see Hallam & Rogers , 2016).

But, the role of music in our schools goes further – even beyond collaboration, team-work, social skills, creativity and imaginative development.

One of the most powerful tools you can use in your classroom, staffroom or indeed anywhere around your school is the sound of music. The music that we listen to – either deliberately or subliminally – provides a soundtrack to our lives. It has the ability to substantially affect behaviours within us all. Just think of iconic film soundtracks and evocative melodies that remind you of specific events or people. There is plenty of evidence available about how and why this works.

So, this is what you need to know and how you can use it to your advantage...

Our bodies have natural rhythms that we can align with music (Homma & Masaoka, 2018). When we feel calm and relaxed our heart rate is around 60 beats per minute and our breathing cycle is about every three seconds or so. When we are excited this increases. Notably in primary-aged children both metrics are nearly twice as fast as for adults.

Here is the clever bit: when we listen to music, our breathing and heart rate subconsciously try to mimic the beats and phrases that we hear. So your heart beat tries to play along with the beat of the music and your breathing tries to mimic the musical phrasing.

Therefore when children return to your classroom full of energy after lunch time, if you play background music that has a resting heart beat and resting phrases (musical sentences), you will likely soon find that they become calm. If you would like a recommendation, try something like January, from Gareth Malone’s Music for Healing album (search online). Similarly, if you want to build them up for something then choose music that has a much faster beat and shorter phrases. That is why the iconic Eye of the Tiger works so well!

Our brains love patterns. When music has repeating patterns and phrases within it, our brains use these patterns to make efficiencies. This is partly because our brains remember the phrases as previously heard and so this requires less concentration, and partly because the repetition allows our brains to predict what is likely to come next – both of these things reduce the cognitive load.

Having music in the background but keeping the cognitive demands of listening to it at a minimum is a great way of encouraging our minds to behave in particular ways. Patterned layers of music (think Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C) encourage logical thinking, while soothing sounds and phrases (think Ludovico Einaudi’s Le Onde) bring about creative imagination (Campbell, 2002).

Volume is your friend, too. In the same way that skilled teachers use varied volume in their voice to manage the environment around them (Keltie, 2001), the volume of your chosen music can be similarly used. Crank that volume up high to catch attention and engage the room, and then gradually bring it down once everyone is gathered or there is something specific that you want to draw their attention to.

Alternatively, fade music in gradually – transitioning from one activity to another (e.g. you might have”tidy up” music that starts very quietly and builds up to let children know to finish what they are doing and transition to tidying up – this removes the sudden shock or pressure of their work time running out.
There are a number of other contributing factors too if you are keen to explore this further. For example, complete and incomplete phrases make our minds respond very differently – the musical equivalent of stop ... ping a sentence half-way through.

Incomplete musical phrases create a form of tension as our brains wait anxiously for the phrase to finish. This is a great tool for creating a provocative atmosphere – part of a creative writing process or imaginative dance for example.

Other examples include music that we associate with particular memories (film plots, family or friends, particular experiences, sad moments, joyous celebration). Similarly, music with vocals (sung words) causes us to concentrate on what we are listening to in greater detail – great if you want children to focus on the meaningful words, but a huge distraction in a classroom trying to concentrate on other things.

Listen carefully to the music you play yourself, at home or in the car, and think about how it is affecting you. Focus on your breathing and your heart rate in the first instance, and then each of the features mentioned above.

Pick out a few tracks that you think would work for particular environments that you are trying to create – lessons where you want to encourage concentrated problem-solving or imaginative creativity. Then try those pieces of music, choose the volume carefully and watch what happens to the children’s (and your own) behaviour and mood within the room.

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher and consultant. She sits on several educational charity boards and facilitates a number of national networks. Read her previous best practice pieces for Headteacher Update, go to http://bit.ly/2IPHfe4

Further information & research

  • Campbell: The Mozart Effect for Children: Awakening your child’s mind, health, and creativity with music, Harper Collins, June 2002.
  • DfE: New national plan to shape the future of music education, February 2020: http://bit.ly/2SJ7xpp
  • Hallam & Rogers: The impact of instrumental music learning on attainment at age 16: A pilot study, British Journal of Music Education, November 2016: http://bit.ly/2HM40QR
  • Homma & Masaoka: Breathing rhythms and emotions, Experimental Physilogy 93, 2018: http://bit.ly/37IuptD
  • Keltie: Teacher Tips: How to use your voice as an effective teaching tool, July 2001: http://bit.ly/37IrYHp


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