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Hitting the Right Note: Making Your Classroom Sound More Engaging with Background Music

Thinking StudentCreative teachers are always searching for ways to make their classrooms more engaging. If you’ve ever tried to watch an action scene from a film with the soundtrack muted, you know how vital good music is to storytelling. The appropriate musical touch can heighten a story while discordant music can wreck it. Your classroom is no different.

It’s important to set the learning mood in your classroom, and one excellent way to do that is through the music you choose to play during student reading and/or work time. Here are five techniques for incorporating effective music that I have found successful in my own classroom.

1. Play only instrumental music during student reading and writing time. This is an important point to remember. The music you choose should not compete with the task your students are completing. If they are reading words on a page or trying to formulate their own words, spoken lyrics in a song will actually conflict with what is going on in their minds. Instrumental music, however, will enhance both of these processes. (I still use songs with lyrics during times when students are working on artwork or other non-reading/writing assignments.)

2. Play instrumental covers of recognizable songs. Soft piano music is great work music, but over the years many of my students have asked, “Where’s the funeral?” Apparently, the only instrumental music they have heard is at the funeral home. So how do you find instrumental music that it is a little more exciting to students? Choose some songs they know.

  • My students love hearing Disney songs from their childhood translated into “classy-sounding” music. (Tom Ameen does some beautiful Disney covers. Click HERE to buy or read more about his Disney music on
  • They also love hearing instrument twists on pop songs. (The Piano Guys provide some excellent instrumental covers.Lindsay Sterling, too.
  • Even video game music has been turned into some great instrumental choices. Classic Super Nintendo games like Secret of Mana, Legend of Zelda, Earthbound, and Donkey Kong Country have some great instrumental covers available. (Am I dating myself here?) After all, video game music is written to be catchy and ongoing—perfect for background music.
Since I have implemented these new instrumental choices, my students are always listening to see if they recognize a familiar tune in the background music.
3. Introduce your students to new genres of music. Let’s face it—most students aren’t going around listening to classical music, so it falls to us teachers to expand their world a bit. Try a few classical selections. Vivaldi is one of my favorites. Also try some New Age artists such as Enya, whose music creates an evocative atmosphere. My own love of classical music began with hearing it during classroom work time.
4. Play selections from film soundtracks. Some of my personal favorites are The Lord of the Rings, Pixar’s Brave, Braveheart, and Mark Twain: A Film by Ken Burns. I try to avoid any bombastic action tracks that appear on these soundtracks—instead choosing the most evocative tracks.
5. Make the music match the assignment. Gatsby gets jazz. Poe gets somber music. Huckleberry Finn gets pickin’ and grinnin’. The medieval time period gets chanting monks and fife and drum. When students are working in groups or an assignment that does not require silent reading or writing, I also have a list of classic rock songs from the 60’s and 70’s—Simon and Garfunkel, Jim Croce, and Billy Joel—that I play in the background. It’s part of their musical education.
I realize that downloading special music is yet another expense that we teachers must foot on our own; however, I find that effective background music also inspires me as I listen to it. When your classroom is a positive environment, it affects you alongside your students. Buy a few tracks of quality instrumental music and measure the effect. See if it works for you!

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