The High School Teacher’s Essential Music Mix

“Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.”
Frank Zappa

Unfortunately for some of our high school students, their time at school can sometimes appear to just be a bunch of boring homework deadlines or dates by which their assignments must be completed. Thankfully, there is a universally appreciated magic that we have at our disposal to enrich their classroom lives, and no, it’s not chocolate.

One particular memory of music in a non-Music lesson has stuck with me from high school. The head of the Geography department was providing revision classes for all Geography students before our leaving exams. The topic that day was viticulture and wine-making. As we approached the room, UB-40’s “Red Red Wine” wafted out to greet us. Wine gum sweets then welcomed us at our desks. The playfulness with which those tunes (and wine gums) were used has stayed with me, 15 years later.

I like to play music because it decorates my classroom, it is an excellent way to develop rapport with my students and can assist with behaviour management and student work habits. Music is only offered when the students have been given an individual, undemanding and longer form exercise. The type of exercise, in other words, that can invite distraction and chatter. Ideally, I have a classroom with some energy so music can step in to fill the sound of silence and discourage widespread conversation and peer distraction. Overall, I have found that students would prefer to listen to the music rather than battle to be heard over the top of it. It serves as an incentive as well. Good work is rewarded with music, poor behaviour is rewarded with its removal.

Songs are excellent timekeepers too

Songs are excellent timekeepers too – “You have until the end of this song to finish these questions: go”. Music, as we know, is also an easy topic of discussion: ideal for rapport development with students. This is where it pays off to know your music trivia and biopics.

I also like to get my students thinking laterally by insisting that they make a connection, however loose, between their song requests and the topic at hand. As I explain to them, intelligence and creativity are characterised by the ability to connect concepts and ideas. Kids enjoy this and you can imagine the amusing connections that are made.

So what’s on my playlist? It would be more helpful to consider how I choose what’s on the playlist because the wrong song, as you will see, can be more hindrance than a help.

Firstly, I like to turn song selection over to the students. They relish the feeling of having some hand in the direction of the class and, I’m sure, the nods and exclamations of approval that come with a strong song choice. They also largely recognise what’s appropriate for a classroom (social) setting. If an unpopular request is made, they will be asked to make another one (this is actually quite important, for reasons outlined below). Impressively, there’s been infinitely more requests for Queen lately than there has been for Cardi B or other modern rubbish. The kids are alright.

Secondly, how old is your class? This will dictate how often music is offered and how often the students are allowed requests. As you might imagine, younger and animated classes might be more prone to distraction by songs if they sound like BBC Radio 1 rather than BBC Radio 3 (they tend to bop and wiggle as opposed to chattering). In these instances, I’ll play DJ and throw on Mozart instead of Metallica. Which leads to…

Genre and song type mix

Before going further, it’s worth considering the interesting research that explains how music can aids concentration and study. It is well-established that music affects mood and can reduce anxiety or agitation if the song is soothing or one that we like. This is why general sounds of approval must come from student peers with each song request – an unpopular song becomes a distraction. It also accounts for my observation of students settling into their work rather than seeking distraction.

Furthermore, the brain appears to have two attention systems: a conscious system that allows us to focus on things that we want to focus on, and an unconscious system that is constantly scanning and processing the surrounding environment to signal anything that could be significant and redirect our attention (see Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” to learn more about these ideas). Our conscious system takes effort to use and if we find the task in front of us particularly boring or unpleasant, our unconscious system becomes more forceful. Any background distraction becomes more distracting. Music, then, provides pleasant background noise that counteracts the effects of distracting signals on the unconscious system.

So! When it comes to genre and song type in the classroom, what is optimal? Classical music should be universally applied. After that, research suggests that the students’ favoured songs will hit the spot, moderated of course by DJ Aticii (pronounced A-teachy). I’ll show myself out.

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