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Music in the Classroom

Posted by on in School Culture
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Recent Discovery

Music is the perfect stimulus for triggering either raw or complex emotions. First, as you might expect, while novel music can be fun, you'll get the highest emotional response from playing music which is familiar to your students (Pereira et al., 2011). Typically, the familiar songs evoke strong positive memories. This suggests if you want to play novel music to kids, you might need a bit of repetition (playing it over and over and associate it with new positives) to turn it into a consistent positive trigger for students.


Another study investigated whether and how individuals employ music to induce specific emotional states. The music was used in everyday situations solely to manage personal emotions. This study shows how emotion-congruent music selections are extra powerful in activating emotional states in everyday situations (Thoma et al., 2011). It validates something very important to me: sometimes the best reason to use music in your own work is that it puts you in a positive emotional state for doing your best work.


The third study was designed to investigate whether listening to music in a social group influenced the emotion felt by the listeners. Surprisingly, the study found that the participants (all were musicians) did not experience greater "group emotionality" or collective emotional response when listening to music in a group than when listening alone (Sutherland et al., 2009). With non-musicians, the effect was the opposite. We all felt the "collective kum-bah-yah!"


Another study goes at this social question from a different angle. We all know music is a powerful means to induce emotions. This study investigates whether these emotional effects can be manipulated by online social feedback. After each song excerpt they heard, participants rated their emotions according to arousal (intensity) and valence (positive or negative) scale. But one of the two groups was also given feedback on how pervious listeners rated the music. Study results show that the online feedback significantly influenced participants' ratings of music (Egermann, et al., 2009). In short, when others say they liked a song, we listen with a more favorable ear. This may be why iTunes and Amazon always show you ratings of the product by previous buyers when you are shopping for a song.


We've known for some time that music emphasis and rhythmic phrases activate physiological variables. Our autonomic responses can become synchronized with music, which trigger new emotions through autonomic arousal during crescendos or rhythmic phrases (Bernardi et al., 2009). We've also known for some time, that stronger emotions correlate with stronger memories. This association led a prominent researcher to propose a theory.


In an influential paper, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and his colleagues, proposed the "somatic marker" hypothesis and it has slowly gained credibility. Essentially, this says that the feelings we have will create a decision-making bias. In the context of the classroom, it does not mean every moment must be positive. In fact, psychologist Barbara Frederickson says the ratio should be about 3-1 (positives to negatives) to have a healthy balance (Werner et al., 2009). As you go through your week, keep the ratio in mind. Remember, it's not an hourly or daily ratio. That level of scorekeeping would drive you crazy.


Now, how might this play out in a classroom with music?

Practical Applications

Many times, educators come up to me during my presentations and ask for my playlists of music. Most of my song lists are changing monthly, so there's nothing sacred about them. One of many ways I use songs is for the role of emotional punctuation. That process is a "somatic marker" in the sense that it strengthens the emotions of the learned content. I play a particular song directly after a fresh learning experience as a tool for memory-making.


Here are ten affirming, fabulous songs for emotional punctuation that I use.
Click here to open iTunes and purchase the songs listed below.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah... from: Splash Mountain on The Official Disney Album


You've Got a Friend in Me... Artist: Randy Newman on Toy Story Soundtrack


Unbelievable... Artist: EMF


You Got What It Takes... Artist: Marv Johnson


It Takes Two... Artist: Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston


When You're Hot, You're Hot... Artist: Jerry Reed


Stay Positive... artist Cali P.


I Second That Emotion... Artist: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles


Feelin' Stronger Every Day... Artist: Chicago


Always Look On the Bright Side of Life... Artist: Costa Crew

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Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications. Most importantly, he models what he has learned, so teachers can see it, hear it and experience the difference. He is the author of numerous books on brain-based learning, including Teaching with the Brain in Mind and Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching.
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Guest Tuesday, 19 March 2019