The power of music in teaching

  • #music
  • #education

Published byTiana Raft

Author Donna Booth gives her insights on how music has the power to stimulate learning amongst students – what music helps you get ‘in the zone’?

“Can I put my headphones in to do this work, miss?”

As a teacher, this is a sentence which fills me with dread every time I hear it. The school I work in doesn’t allow headphones to be used in lessons and, if I’m completely honest, this is a huge relief to me. It means I don’t have to deal with the exasperated sighs and other unwelcome repercussions when I say “sorry, no.”

However, I can’t help but feel that this unexplainable relief is unfair and unwarranted. For instance, right now, I am listening to music as I write this. Not necessarily because I want to listen to music, but more because I need to get ‘in the zone’ and, quite frankly, my two-year-old son’s cartoon train programmes do not allow me the sanctuary I need in order work effectively. Yet, isn’t this how my students feel when they ask if they can listen to music whilst they work? Do they not feel that they need some time to get in the zone so that they can truly switch off…or switch on as the case may be? So, why, I ask myself, am I so reluctant to let them zone out so they can concentrate. The answer, I fear, rests in my own insecurities about handing over full control to them. 

If I think back to my own experiences with music, it goes a little way to convincing me that I should be using music more productively to help my students. I remember being a teenager – just about – and music was so important to me. I would stick my headphones in and listen for hours- at home, on the bus, walking around town. It was my way of blocking out the world and losing myself because, let’s face it, being a teenager is difficult: you’re so tormented by angst and feelings that the world doesn’t understand you, and what better way to relieve that than by listening to music? Music helps us to understand the world and to teach us that the world does understand us all in different ways. 

I even used to listen to music whilst reading, and this is where I’m truly reminded about the power of it. I remember being sat at home on a Friday night and being glued to the latest book in the Harry Potter series (because I was still so cool back then!) As a teenager, I obviously couldn’t bear to have anything to do with my parents, but I also needed them to know how irrationally angry they made me and how little I wanted to speak to them, so I would sit downstairs – with them but not with them – plug my headphones into the oversized stereo system, put on my favourite CD and stick my head in a book.

System of A Down would be blasting into my ears whilst I lost myself in the spellbinding world of Hogwarts and all things magical. And I did lose myself completely; music was the vehicle I needed to take me away from my world, to escape. But the truly enchanting thing about it all is that, even now, whenever I hear ‘Prison System’, I am transported back to certain scenes from ‘The Goblet of Fire’ and how many people can say that? This is the power of music. Music has associations for all of us, and this is why it is so important. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have tried to utilise music in my teaching. I’ve experimented with analysing music lyrics with students and linking ideas to various songs, but it’s always fallen a bit flat, probably because it’s based on my choices of music rather than what they enjoy. The most success I have had so far is instructing students to compile their own playlists in order to revise texts we have studied.

My A level students recently created an Othello playlist for each scene of the play based on what they thought was the key idea in that scene…and it was A LOT of fun! No, seriously, it was – for them and for me. And who would have thought that Shakespeare could be so relevant? It’s almost as if that what was I was trying to prove! I’m convinced that music is the key to tapping into students’ interest; I think I just need to tap a little more and allow myself to be led by my students and what works for them. 

So, I hereby make a promise to myself, at the start of new academic year when my enthusiasm for teaching is at its zenith, to start thinking about the power of music and how I can use it more in my teaching, and in my own life. The next time I’m asked the question “can I put my headphones in to do this work, miss?”, I may just well say “perhaps…” 

Tag us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and share your favourite tunes.