Lessons with a change of tune

19th August 2011 at 01:00
Music is being used to teach the most unexpected of subjects as schools discover its rewards across the curriculum

When Caroline Molyneux's pupils walk into her classroom for a science lesson, they expect to hear music. As they enter, she asks them to search for the link between the music and the lesson's title and objectives. It may be Under Pressure by Queen for a lesson on salt in the diet - the link, guessed by several pupils, is that too much salt causes high blood pressure.

Ms Molyneux, who teaches at Balshaw's CofE High School in Lancashire, has developed a portfolio of music linked to the science curriculum, and her scheme of work for GCSE links music to topics. She is one of a rising number of teachers of different subjects using music to improve pupils' motivation to learn.

In an age in which teachers might play music in the car on the way to school and many pupils listen to iPods and MP3 players, the potential role for music across the curriculum is growing.

It is widely understood that music can have far-reaching effects on feelings and create moods. Certainly, its value in teaching and learning is more than a matter of anecdote. Many teachers are familiar with the work of Professor Howard Gardner, whose theory includes music as one of the seven "multiple intelligences". Other research also supports the idea that music can help promote learning. There is widespread agreement, too, that a multi-sensory approach to learning is beneficial in teaching people with dyslexia. The learner needs to look, listen and touch.

In their research on the effects of background music on learning, performance and behaviour, Sue Hallam and Anastasia Kotsopoulou of London University's Institute of Education suggest that playing specific kinds of music in the background can affect pupils' ability to perform a variety of cognitive tasks. The researchers studied three groups of children: one group completed memory tests while listening to classical music; another group while listening to jazz; and the third performed the tests in silence. The results showed that the classical group did best, while the jazz group were the worst performers. And the effect of music seems to be more noticeable in the case of primary pupils and children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

In another study, Professor Hallam and John Price found that playing soothing music (Bach and tunes from Disney films) to disturbed nine and 10-year-olds while they took maths tests made them less unruly and helped them achieve higher scores.

Back at the chalkface, teachers such as Nina Jackson, head of music at Ogmore School in Bridgend, South Wales, are investigating the power of music for themselves. Ms Jackson researched the potential of music to raise standards and motivation among her secondary pupils. Her findings, she says, suggest music can help motivate pupils and improve concentration and study skills. Other teachers at Ogmore who increased their use of music were optimistic about its effects and wanted to keep on using it in teaching different subjects.

Some schools have used background music to provide a welcoming atmosphere in their reception areas or to help prepare students for particular learning tasks, while others have used it as part of their behaviour- management strategy. Instead of copying out traditional lines as a form of punishment, children at West Park School in Derby must transcribe the words of poems while listening to Mozart's Requiem and Verdi's Aida during detentions - a system introduced by the school's head Brian Walker.

Music is also being used to calm children who have just finished energetic or exciting lessons. Pupils at St Mary's RC Comprehensive in Newcastle upon Tyne arrive at school each morning and leave every afternoon to the accompaniment of soothing music or sounds from nature, such as recordings of birdsong. Music is also played at lunchtimes to keep children calm, and staff are convinced it makes pupils easier to manage.

Teachers like Caroline Molyneux go further and use music as a teaching aid in a range of activities. For example, children can chant key words in a rap rhythm to aid revision or fact-learning, or play a musical chairs- style game in which a chair is taken away when a question is answered incorrectly. And making up songs can help children understand issues such as pollution.

Other possibilities include the "pair game", in which the teacher prepares words on cards which pupils wear around their necks. As the music plays, pupils have to find a partner wearing a word with the same meaning - or, alternatively, the opposite meaning. The words can be changed to a song or nursery rhyme to help reinforce details in a topic. And in the same spirit as the well-known ditties used to jog the memory - such as "Richard of York gave battle in vain" to recall the spectrum colours - personal mnemonics can be based on tunes. Elsewhere, background music with an association to a revision topic can be played while a concise summary of all the most important information is read out. These activities can be modified by using music from each of the cultures represented in the class.

Geography, too, provides opportunities for music. Teachers can print out the words to weather songs and encourage pupils to make different versions of these to include multiple weather terms. Each song retains the original rhythm, but the students must try to write new words that explain various other terms.

The internet offers a wealth of materials related to curriculum subjects for teachers who want to use music in their wider teaching. For example, Bibi Baxter's website (see box, above) provides ideas and songs for use in teaching English as a second language, but they would work just as well in standard English classes.

The School History website offers ideas for designing a digital storyboard with music using the example of King Henry VIII. Tammy Wynette's hit song D-I-V-O-R-C-E is suggested as a backing track for a storyboard about the great monarch's six wives and the split with Rome, while Abba's Dancing Queen can be used used in conjunction with a PowerPoint presentation about courtly life in Elizabethan England.

Amy Burvall of Le Jardin Academy in Honolulu, Hawaii, has found fame on YouTube by rewriting pop songs to narrate some great events in history. Meanwhile, Noel Jenkins, an advanced skills teacher working in the south- west of England, has produced a game called Sweat Shirts which uses music and sounds to create the feel of Indonesia and explore Bandung's garment industry, available on the Juicy Geography website (see box).

The UK arts charity Create also offers innovative ways of using music across the curriculum. It draws on the creative arts to help change the lives of the most underprivileged and vulnerable people in society and uses musicians, dancers, writers and actors to deliver education and community activities.

The charity took a team of four musicians to work with key stage 2 pupils at Lewisham Bridge and Lucas Vale primary schools in south London. Each session began with the class teacher explaining a key mathematical principle such as fractions or angles. Thereafter, the sessions were spent bringing these principles to life through a range of creative music activities.

More ambitiously, Chris Brewer, a former teacher and music expert in the US, got her class to build an organ that could play a C-major chord - an instrument built using only tuning forks, a set of graduated cylinders and water. Clearly, the potential for learning through music across all curriculum subjects knows no bounds.

Useful resources

To create digital storyboards, download Microsoft's free Photostory 3. www.microsoft.com

Royalty-free music is available at www.freesfx.co.ukmusic

Bibi Baxter's website contains ideas for musical lessons. www.musicalenglishlessons.com

School History has ideas for designing digital storyboards with music. www.schoolshistory.org.ukmusicinhistorylessons.htm

Find Noel Jenkins' games using music and sounds at www.juicygeography.co.uk

A few soothing tunes

Bach: Air on a G String

Bach: Cantata 140

Beethoven: passages from the Sixth Symphony

Disney's Sleeping Beauty: "Once Upon a Dream"

Disney's Peter Pan: "The Second Star to the Right"

Disney's Cinderella: "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes".


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today