Music motivates us in a unique way, and every teacher should tap into the power it has over students. No one can deny that our brain treats music differently. One of my favorite parts of the movie Inside Out was the TripleDent Gum jingle. It emerges from the subconscious again and again, and there’

May 13, 2018

Music motivates us in a unique way, and every teacher should tap into the power it has over students.

No one can deny that our brain treats music differently. One of my favorite parts of the movie Inside Out was the TripleDent Gum jingle. It emerges from the subconscious again and again, and there’s not much anyone can do to stop it. If we know music has sticking power (for better or for worse), what keeps us from using it more in our classrooms?

For most teachers, it is finding the most effective way to integrate appropriate music and make sure it is tied to meaningful content. And while that is important, you can start with basic applications, and then build toward creating unique “ah-ha” moments.

First, let’s remember why it matters:

  1. Music literally changes your brain.

  2. Music has a powerful effect on our psyche.

  3. Music activates every known part of the brain.

  4. Music provides an engaging way to make connections.

The question is, how do we apply these powerful truths about music and the brain? Since we all know differentiation is key to learning, let’s build a little scaffolding for how you can work music into daily routines. There are a myriad of ways you can use songs to motivate young minds. The following ideas start at novice level (easy to implement) and then build toward expert level (for creative teachers with a little more time and energy). Either way, there is something for everyone.


  • Play music in the background as students walk in, walk out, and during project work time.

  • Allow students to contribute to your ongoing playlist (incentives).

  • For social studies and English teachers: Bring primary sources and stories to life by incorporating related music every chance you get. It’s all about creating atmosphere.

  • Share your favorite music with students often it’s an easy way to connect throughout the year. I knew a teacher who was obsessed with the Beatles, and when he shared examples related to content, he worked in references. It created a really powerful dynamic within his classroom.

  • Create lasting memories: For junior high and high school students, make them sing if they are late to class. It’s brutal, but very effective!


  • For projects, provide a musical option for creative students. It is incredible to see how this can open up doors for meaningful application of content.

  • Use lyrics in your exams whenever possible it’s unexpected and students will get a kick out of it. It also makes them pay more attention when they see familiar words.

  • If you have access to an instrument, bring it to your room and leave it there. You would be surprised how many musical students you have. I had a young man in my room almost every day at lunch playing my keyboard, and eventually I asked him to play for the whole class. It was a really special moment, and he actually paid more attention during instruction from that point forward.

  • Take it up a notch and have students play musical charades, where they have to create a dance move that relates to vocabulary, big ideas, or events. It’s incredibly entertaining, but also extra memorable because you are incorporating physical movement.

  • Use musical metaphors to help students make connections to content. You never know what will make a complex idea click for the musically-minded. I used to compare sentence structure to song structure using my keyboard, and it made a huge difference in how my students processed grammar concepts.


  • Enlist your advanced students to help you create songs associated with the content. You would be shocked how talented your students are, and it makes them feel valued when you invite them to be a part of your instruction.

  • Create a “Finer Things Club” (before, during, or after school) where students can discuss music intelligently and get to know new people. Those smaller communities of students make a huge difference for the kids that feel out of place.

  • For each major concept that you teach, find a theme song that applies. Obviously, themes in literature might be easier to connect than those in science or math, but there are more than enough song options out there to help connect the dots. Sometimes students are able to find those connections before you do!

  • If you are musically inclined, take the time to write and perform songs about the content you teaching. My third grade teacher, Mr. Linderman, played his guitar in class almost every day, and he had a song for everything. What an impression that made on me, and of course the content that he incorporated into those lyrics will forever be stuck in my head.

  • Have a music board that students can post meaningful lyrics on. Once a week, let a student share why that particular lyric speaks to them. Obviously, it needs to be appropriate for school, so you might need to do a little monitoring. It is a powerful way to get to know your students, and sometimes it can lead to really interesting discussion.

The great thing about music is that everyone knows what it is and how it makes them feel. As educators, we know that emotions play an integral part in learning, and if we can use music to build social and conceptual connections, there is a higher probability that the ideas you teach will take root and have a lasting impact on students.

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