Using Music to Captivate Learners

The whistling refrain from Bridge over the River Kwai drifted out into the hallway as the grade six students – class 6(A) – gathered at the doorway for their second block of the day – Language Arts. It was 9:32 to be exact and I stood at the doorway smiling, marching slightly in place, while moving my arms gently to the beat. “March to your bright future!” I announced to faces that mirrored a mix of emotions – amusement, hesitation, detachment, and joyful participation. Music had greeted them before I did. It had set the tone.

Jennifer Prescott in her article in Scholastic Magazine (2005) extols the wonderful benefits of utilizing music as an instructional aide. Humming  formulas which dance in their heads while they complete math quizzes or building vocabulary while learning a new language are just some of the ways music can make learning happen and make it – dare I say – fun.

I have taught middle school for over 15 years and have embraced the concept of teaming as we follow the same students over a 3 year period. During that time I have searched for ways to captivate this audience of pre-teenagers who have varying degrees of concentration and motivation. One such tool in my Batman belt has been music.

Colonel Bogey’s march as my “Come in and Get Ready” song described above is one such activity. I’ll use the same song for about a month then change it perhaps using a seasonal theme. It not only motivates and helps to focus the students as they enter; it also muffles all of the extra “noise” of shuffling feet, moving chairs and desks, and dropping binders. Attached to this music is the expectation (after modeling and training, of course) that students are engaged in some kind of “getting ready” exercise such as gathering materials, finding the place in their novel, or completing a short review activity. It is the expectation that once the music is over, approximately 2-3 minutes, the opening activity is completed and the room quiet and ready.

Melissa Kelly in her article about learning styles states that it is the kinesthetic/tactile learner whose strength is the most challenging to incorporate into a lesson. Marching into a classroom, swinging arms, and whistling all engage this learning style as well as the auditory. The visual learner, of course, has the instructions on the board or screen and the paper task at hand. Everyone is invited to learn and participate.

What person cannot but help to move to the beat of Morton Stevens’s Hawaii Five O theme song? I have used that song just for a 30-second period to allow the students’ brains to get ready to switch to another activity. It is absolutely hilarious to watch so many different renditions of their surfing moves while I explain where we are heading now in the learning! It gives the “itchy ants in the pants” members of my classroom the opportunity to burn off some energy. And of course, it is absolutely heart-warming to see our Special Needs students engaged in making their contribution to conquering the waves!

Or perhaps I’ll use Lalo Schifrin’s theme for Mission Impossible as the background music while outlining the task. The kinesthetic/tactile learner gleefully moves their hands to mimic the turning on of a tape while the auditory learner leans closer as I lower my voice to almost a whisper detailing the steps to successfully complete their “mission”. Even the most mundane task can be made more captivating while appealing to the Tom Cruises-want-to-be’s in the classroom.

Iowa State University’s website Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching outlines some excellent teaching strategies but also cautions the teacher to realize that there is no singular method that will satisfy all of the learning styles. Music is one such technique that attempts to engage the student.  There are opportunities within the teaching block to incorporate music at key moments. So, when the students leave your class, play for them Heigh Ho from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and watch them smile.