Posted in arts, more seeds, special education, spirit

Using Music in the Classroom

Music – it’s Not Just for Music Teachers!

I’ve been a teacher for a long time. Music has always been a tool that I’ve used in my classroom, from pre-K through adult education.

I don’t want you to think I’m that magical teacher who started every day playing the piano or guitar and singing with my students. I HAVE done that before, but not everyone can play an instrument or sing. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use music to reach the students in your room.

Today, I wanted to share with you some tips for incorporating music into your daily or weekly routines, and some of the brain research into why you should especially consider it, if you’re working with students who have disabilities.

Why Music?

We all can relate to the effects that some music has on us, as people. But is there actual research on the effects of music on us? If so, what does it say? How can we use that in our teaching?

As it turns out, there is a LOT of research on the positive effects of music on humans (and other species), of all ages. Dr. Jeremy Dean, psychologist from University College in London, has compiled research studies on a number of ways that music improves our lives as humans:

  1. It improves our cognitive ability (especially if we learn to play an instrument);
  2. It gives us a feeling of tapping into something bigger than ourselves;
  3. It makes us feel happier;
  4. It makes us feel closer to others (especially when we perform together)
  5. It decreases our stress levels and increases heart health;
  6. It helps us manage our moods;
  7. It changes the way we see other people;
  8. It makes the world seem more colorful;
  9. It improves our vision (really!);
  10. It’s something we are drawn too from birth.

Simple Ways to Incorporate Music into Your Daily Routines

As I said, music sneaks into my day regularly. Here are some ways to use it easily, organized by goal areas (I included BONUS homework activities – my students are notorious for not doing homework, but these ideas have worked for me year after year).

“Sheet Music” by nick.amoscato is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Academic/Cognitive ~ Language Arts

  • Song Lyrics as Poetry: My students often balk if I mention that we are going to do a poetry unit. When that happens, I use song lyrics to lead off the unit. Starting with familiar songs hooks the students, enabling me to then shift into classic pieces during the unit. {BONUS: My kids don’t like to do homework. But they WILL write down the lyrics to their favorite songs, especially if we are going to use them in class that week}
  • Mood and Theme in Literature: Last year, my class struggled with comprehension beyond the “right in your face” type. So I wrote common themes in literature on the Promethean board, then played familiar songs for the students, and asked them to identify the theme of the piece (this also works for mood). We discussed how the words and music each contributed to the meaning, much the way you would discuss the words and pictures in a picture book. {BONUS: I gave the kids homework assignments to come to school the next day with a song that fit a particular theme or mood}.

Academic/Cognitive ~ Math

  • Fractions: With students who have an ear for music, and maybe know how to play an instrument or read music, I’ve used note values to help them understand the fractions whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and even thirty-second. Here is an online guitar lesson that has audio clips of the various note values.

Study Skills

  • Transitioning into the School Day: One year, I had a very rowdy group, which, ironically, also included a child with agorophobia for whom just entering the classroom was difficult, especially when it was noisy. The way the class came into the building set the (unfortunate) tone for the rest of the morning. Out of desperation, I started playing smooth jazz on my Promethean board, using my Pandora account. The kids entered the building, and said, “Ooh. What’s that?” They entered the room head-bobbing and snapping their fingers – very silly – but 1) got into the room and 2) sat down to work.
  • Focus Aids: Over the years, my kids have asked for music to help them focus when they write, or when they are doing independent work. NOTE: I stick to music without lyrics, as the lyrics are often a distraction. My kids usually ask for piano music.
“SH530048” by fo.ol is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Behavioral / Social-Emotional

  • Self-calming #1 ~ Music Contracts: In a previous school, we issued music contracts to students who requested music as a calming or focus aid. Students had to show that they were able to use the aid responsibly (e.g., work got done, the equipment was used and cared for properly, students turned off the devices when asked). We purchased inexpensive MP3 players (without wi-fi or internet capabilities) for each student, and ear buds. We then asked the students to list music they wanted to have on the MP3 player, and one of the staff members found “clean” and school appropriate versions of the songs, and loaded each students MP3 player. {BONUS: the music list can be sent home for homework}
  • Self-calming #2 ~ Mood Reset: In a behavioral health setting, disruptive behavior happens. And it affects the rest of the group, because “everybody’s here for a reason.” One year, when I had quite a few “internalizers,” if there was too much tension, the students would ask to turn off the lights, put their heads down, and listen to music for 5-10 minutes, to get themselves back in order. It was good for all of us.
  • Motor Break: Once in awhile, you get that kid that has to move periodically, to get the sillies or fidgets out. One of my students was given the strategy to go to the back of the room and “dance it out.” He was an excellent dancer, and would do a quick 30-second “Fortnite” dance to get himself refocused (dancing to music inside his head). We got so used to it, and he used it so appropriately, that no one paid him any mind.


  • Listening: When you work with students with behavioral health or cognitive issues, many will have IEP goals about following directions. Kids with ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) will hear your voice and automatically want to do the opposite, no matter what you’re saying. So, I’ve “tricked” kids into learning how to listen and follow directions by using music as a hook, by having them listen for a particular thing (a word the singer uses to describe his love, the instrument that sets the tone of the piece, the way the writer uses dynamics to surprise you…), then write it down.
“Piano keys” by waltfur is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Fine and Gross Motor

  • Coordination and Strength: Kids on certain medications (especially psychotropic ones) have difficulties with their weight, overall energy levels, and, sometimes, coordination. Some kids’ disabilities, themselves, affect their muscle tone. All of these things make physical activity unpleasant for a lot of kids – especially teens, who might not be physical activity fans, anyway. In the past, we’ve had success engaging every one of our kids when we had a drum circle. It’s communal, it’s loud, and they get to bang on stuff – with permission! It also helps them with listening and timing.


  • Playing Music as a Pastime: When we were cleaning out an old room to turn it into a classroom, we found several keyboards. No one wanted them in their rooms, so my assistant and I took two of them. We set them up near one of the Promethean boards, and found videos on keyboard playing for beginners. Two of my students as to play the keyboards during activity period, every day. Identifying a hobby is an important part of transitioning into adulthood {NOTE: we hide the power cords when we don’t want the keyboards to be a distraction!} .
  • Identifying Strengths: As part of our community meetings, our principal used to set up karaoke, and have open mic times. One year, a new student stepped to the mic and sang the popular song, “Location.” He sounded just like the actual singer! He didn’t realize that he sang as well as he did. Another student would play her ukelele and sing. It was good for the kids to realize they had strengths, and good for their peers to see them in a different light.

Other Ways to Use Music

I know that I focused more on older students in this article. In my experience, it is way easier to get younger students involved in music activities. It’s when students hit the teen years that they become self-conscious and withdrawn. I love to sing and play music, but, as I said, I am NOT the teacher who is drawn to performing in the classroom. The above activities were comfortable for ME, too.

Do you use music in your special education classroom? Let me know in the comments section.

Meet My Musical Family

A little about me and my family:

There are a lot of musicians in my family. Basically, we are our own band:

My husband is a professional drummer… my eldest son plays the clarinet and saxophone… my middle and youngest sons play the trombone… my youngest son also plays the drums… I sing, and play guitar and violin. My mom passed on her musical genes to me. My husband has professional musicians (a bassist, a saxophone player, singers) in his family, and inherited his musical abilities from his mom, too.

So this article touched my soul… I wanted to share some photos of my family, making music. Enjoy!

Summer Tie Dye for All Ages