Music Sets the Tone

music swirlIn recent weeks, I’ve been researching how to use music as a tool for focusing and working in preparation for one of the focuses of this year’s Winter Teacher Art Retreat.

We probably have all experienced music (or the lack of it) in a variety of places: restaurants, stores, in our car, at work.  Some restaurants play themed music that sets the tone of the type of food they eat, for example, Italian music at an Italian restaurant.  The music becomes part of the decor.  There’s a great restaurant in nearby North Hampton where the music of the Rat Pack plays and you are instantly transported to a different era.

At stores we hear music that is upbeat and enjoyable, getting us in the mood to spend some money.  Going to the grocery store becomes a bit less of a chore when some great song comes on.  (I’ve even been known to sing along in the aisles to my daughter’s horror.)  I’m amazed when I walk into a Dollar Tree store.  It’s like I’m hit in the face with complete silence.  They play no music.  I guess the prices keep me going back, but regardless of the busy racks of many things to buy, the store seems stark with no music.

It’s around this time of year when my classroom neighbor, Beth Cavalier, starts playing relaxing holiday music during the school day.  She definitely sets the tone in the little section of our modified open-concept school.  Those sounds infiltrate my classroom and, as with other years, I’m drawn to do the same.

[In comes a shout out to YouTube – the ultimate catalog of all types of music.  With a quick typing of “relaxing Christmas music,” a long list of options appear.]


Yesterday I tried playing music for my students in the afternoon as we continued an art project integrating our study of Canada with the work of Ted Harrison.  But I found myself asking the students many times to quiet down after I started playing until finally, they found their quiet working zone.

Today, I decided to approach it differently.  Today, I gathered my students together in the morning and told them my plan: to play music throughout the day to set the tone.  I wanted them to listen “responsively,” not “actively” as we would if we were to create a story from the music we hear.  This was to help us create an atmosphere of concentration and calm.  I told them I would be asking them to let me know their responses to the music:

  • Does it “work” for you?
  • Is it helping you focus or is it distracting you?
  • What type of music/sound is better than others?
  • Does the volume affect you?  How?

I told my students I am conducting my own research on the topic of listening to music responsively where our bodies and minds respond to the music.

powermusicSo what I have discovered so far?

  • Introducing this idea to the students has been very beneficial.  In the past, I’ve just started music in the hopes the music would magically do the work for me.  Wrong.  Then I would randomly mention that I have music on and that I want it to help us work carefully or quietly.  Wrong.  That had no lasting effect at all.  What I’m finding is that in order for all to take this seriously, taking a moment or two to fully explain what it is I’m doing and my expectations for them is key.  (Go figure.  I mean, how many years have I been teaching?  That’s teaching 101!)
  • Having the music playing ahead of time helps to set the tone.  As with any other part of teaching, if you are prepared before the kids come in (room set up, materials ready, lesson planned and music on), then the students will respond more positively and productively.  Many times I find myself doing one last thing, tidying up or rushing at the last minute and, let’s face it, that doesn’t always set the tone I’m going for!
  • Finding the right genre and volume is key.  I started the day with relaxing Christmas music, but realized that it was a bit too familiar and loud for the morning meeting type activity I was doing.  Later in the day, I had some “alpha waves” music on while I was giving instructions and students were working on an easy cut/paste task.  That was a good choice for that time of day.  Over the next few days, I’m looking forward to exploring different genres of music and sounds to play throughout the school day.  (More on this in a later post.)

Just as a workplace may choose to play music for their employees, I’m planning to play music throughout most of our day: during lessons, working time, while giving instructions, for clean up, transitions.  I’m not sure how it will all work out, but it’ll be interesting to navigate the day as a teacher and a DJ.

I hope you check back in to see how things are going!  And if you have any insights or suggestions, please let me know in the comments.


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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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