Face The Music

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do you play background music in your classroom?

Music plays a huge part in our lives and it plays a huge part in many classrooms too. I don’t just mean teaching music and learning to play different instruments, I mean using music intentionally as the backdrop to class life whilst other activities are taking place.

Like many of my primary colleagues, I often play music in my classroom to set the tone or create a suitable environment for more effective learning. Well, that’s the plan anyway. For me, it works, at least most of the time but that doesn’t mean my classroom is like the Ministry of Sound or I’m a teaching DJ.

Music is played when its needed most and when it’s appropriate such as sound breaks or for movement activities; having a musical bath every day is essential.

Right Vibes     

Music is commonly used in shops and department stores to enhance the retail experience and research has shown that ‘pleasant’ music puts us in a good mood and that can influence our purchasing decisions. Shop owners can get us to spend more and stay longer in their establishments by selecting their music carefully. The message is obvious, music dramatically alters mood.

So music as a ‘feelings’ manipulation tool – it makes sense, so why not use it in your classroom? We can influence the learning state of pupils in seconds by playing some music and that can impact on their behaviour, the quality and quantity of their work and the overall atmosphere in class.  Music can help develop rapport, inspire, motivate, release tension, energise, de-escalate, improve memory and change brain wave states. If playing music has so many benefits then surely we should all be pressing shuffle to activate children mentally, physically and emotionally.

But playing music in class is far more difficult than you might imagine which is why lots of teachers steer well clear. You have to think really carefully about the type of music you are going to play, the complexity of the music, its tempo and the volume.

Thank You For The Music

Shops have found that playing certain types of music will dramatically change the way people behave. Research has shown that playing ‘easy listening’ elevator type music will have the under 25s running for the door whereas those aged 25 and over tended to leave more quickly if it was ‘Top 40’ music. Well, that’s not really rocket science is it and teachers should have a much easier job on their hands as they are teaching a particular year and age of pupil? Wrong. Pupil ‘tastes’ in music are eclectic and tuning in to what they like can be harder than wiring a plug with one hand.

Do you go Justin Beiber and risk a riot? How about Adele to get everyone crying? Little Mix could work but perhaps play it safe and stick with ABBA; everyone loves ABBA don’t they? Got it, how about Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major? That’s surely got to work. It’s a complex decision because the complexity of music dictates the sensory stimulation you get. It is argued that the more complex a task  you are performing the more distracting background music becomes: not sure that surgeons would agree with you there. Plenty play background music when operating and not just on simple procedures.

Absolute Classic

A colleague of mine avoids popular tracks and sticks to classical music because he argues that words are distractions and children and teachers end up singing along; he’s got a point, although singing “Happy” by Pharrell Williams in the middle of an art lesson wouldn’t hurt would it? He’s thought long and hard about what to play and connects his choices to what works for plants. He told me about a study that concluded that when plants had been exposed to North Indian classical music they grew better and even turned towards the speakers over a few days. His theory was that classical music made children calmer and more receptive to learning. I’ve tried this and some pupils turn away from the speakers and get all grumpy whereas others are definitely happier and more industrious. As for its impact on intelligence and spatial-temporal-reasoning,  I’ve done the whole Mozart thing with classes and the Mozart effect on intelligence seems to me a bit of a mind myth.

Finding the shoe that fits is no easy task and will always be a matter of experimentation and going with a few occasional ‘requests’ from children. I have always found that ambient laid-back ‘chill’ music works wonders because it is soothing and reflective but then I had a class once who loved gospel music and I’ve never been higher – they were a happy class. Natural sounds also work but after a while children can get sick of hearing birds tweeting, winds blowing and dolphins chatting with whales. Why can’t Brian Eno make music for classrooms, he did it for airports?

If you manage to get the music right for the occasion then you are on to a winner because it can help children feel better and put them in a positive state of mind, be more creative and stay focused for longer periods. The point of playing the music in the first place isn’t for entertainment but to stimulate positive learning behaviours and improve mental well-being. It can boost self-esteem, concentration and productivity. At its most basic level, music can make learning more enjoyable.

But wait, that could  depend on how loud the music is….

Pump Up The Volume   

Top tip: don’t, pump up the volume that is.

If you set the dial higher than low then expect high. Whilst loud to one is quiet to another, in the classroom the beefier the volume, the more distraction there is and you will see everyone getting tetchy and uncomfortable.  Volume can play havoc with our senses and when cranked up this makes children feel overloaded, unsettled and cranky. So, volume must be low and consistently low so don’t touch that dial. Audible, yes but not number 35.

Tiny Tempo

Music affects our biorhythms so fast music is going to increase our heart rates and breathing making you want to do something faster. The speed that people move through a supermarket can be controlled by the tempo of the music where slow music slows people down. The same applies elsewhere: fast music in fast food restaurants gets people in and out quicker. So what about in class? Going for slow Baroque music selections like Bach, Handel or Telemann that are between 55 and 80 beats per minute has shown to be music to help maintain focus and concentration assisting us to reach the alpha brain wave state, a state which enhances learning and memorization.

If you want to energise your class though then aim higher to set a faster learning rhythm.

A Right Old Earful

Still wondering what to play? Music has to resonate with the children and tonality, tempo, texture and type are all in the mix too. Shuffle the playlist and see what happens, you’ll know when you’ve got the pitch right.

Music is a great tool for setting the scene and adding another layer of experience to the classroom, it’s just a question of playing it right and orchestrating the environment for a sound education.

Just one more word in your shell-like: play ‘catchy’ music and it will lead to ear worms for everyone and there will be some tunes that you just can’t get out of your head. I have never been able to get rid of the flubbing Macarena but then I haven’t forgotten what I was teaching at the time either. Music and learning are nice and sticky.

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