Using Music as a Teaching Tool for Distance Learning

A student wearing headphones sings along to music while sitting at a laptop.

Music engages both the head and the heart. Songs spark questions, set toes tapping and bodies swaying to the beat.

Teachers who harness music as a teaching tool for distance learning design empowering and memorable educational experiences for their students. The outcome? Students learn to create, collaborate, and celebrate their own capacity for making, understanding, and enjoying music.

Why Music? Benefits for Online Learning

Infusing music into formal education comes with a host of benefits. For younger students, experts say music promotes focus, memory, and behavioral regulation and reinforces the joys of learning.

Language Learning

According to PBS, “Children come into the world ready to decode sounds and words.” Music helps children reinforce and practice these inborn capacities. The positive effects of music are especially clear in the case of learning language. Music-rich experiences of singing and listening physically develop the same parts of the brain known to support language processing, according to the Children’s Music Workshop.

Social Skills and Collaboration

Music also helps students develop social skills. According to Dr. Kyle Pruett, who is a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and a practicing musician, music supports both language and social development (and vice versa). “Language competence is at the root of social competence. Musical experience strengthens the capacity to be verbally competent.”

Helpful Behavioral Prompts

In early education, musical cues can help students achieve their behavioral goals. Designated songs for cleanup time, for example, help students transition from one lesson to the next. When used as a social cue in this way, music can help students relax, manage their expectations, self-regulate, and build good habits.

Memory and Content Retention

Research also shows that learning songs helps with memory. Listening to music or performing it activates areas of the brain associated with reasoning, memory, speech, emotion, and reward. Singing songs together can help students learn new words and concepts, from geography to language arts to math.

Joyful, Embodied Learning

Teachers can ask students to clap, sing along, stomp, or hum to a beat—getting students into the habit of noticing their own bodies and capacity for making music. In this way, music helps students stay in tune with their bodies and sparks joy, even across a screen. Since school over a computer screen can be physically and mentally challenging, taking time for enjoyment and auditory sensory stimulation is especially important.

Foster Student Agency with Music in Online Classes

In middle school, high school, or college, music can give students agency in their own learning experience.

For example, Nolan Jones, who is an adjunct professor at Mills College and an expert in hip hop pedagogy, assigns a public pedagogy project in which college students actively participate in the hip hop community. Jones explains how well his students have adapted to engaging with music discourses in a fully online course: “Students, to my surprise, were really resilient. And they became part of communities online that were practicing different elements of hip hop culture, and brought it back and did some phenomenal presentations.”

For teaching middle school, high school, and college students, here are some ideas for incorporating music in online classes.

Let Students Set the Tone

When given the opportunity and resources to research their own interests online, students add their unique voices to the conversation. Musical rituals foster a sense of community among learners. Teachers can empower students by generating a class playlist and scheduling time to listen to music as a group.

Lyrical Analysis

Songs with lyrics are ripe for textual analysis. Students can learn to analyze songs as works of poetry, as bibliography, as storytelling, as commentary, and as reflections on culture and history. For example, students can analyze historic protest anthems.

Amplify Diverse Voices and Center Different Cultures

Music can open a window into different cultures and value systems. In distance education classes, students can engage in the music communities online. For example, students can find online forums for discussing hip hop in its many incarnations, add to discussion boards, read music news and commentary, and research artists. Teachers can also encourage students to participate in live online events: cyphers (cyclical jam sessions), poetry slams, dance performances, concerts, and so on.

Technologies for Incorporating Music in Distance Education

Students can learn various skills, including teamwork and collaboration, by making their own music online. Technology today allows teachers to create and assign specific lessons, so students can learn and practice playing music, recording, sampling, and editing music.

Making and Sharing Music

Platforms and tools for incorporating music into online classes include the following:

  • For creating group compositions, the Soundtrap application lets students create their own songs and podcasts. Students can work together in real time, which fosters collaboration. The application hosts a blend of prerecorded sounds and sound effects, too.
  • For remote guitar classes, students can use platforms such as Moosiko, which sequences lessons with ample guidance. The tool tracks student learning and provides benchmarks that teachers and students can view and talk about together.
  • For writing and arranging music as a class, teachers can use Noteflight. This notation program allows students to share notated music with their teachers for feedback and record specific sections of a song with real instruments or MIDI instruments.

Musical Lesson Plans

Current technologies offer diverse ways that teachers can work music into their online classes. Educators can use music as a teaching tool for learning any subject, from history to math.

  • For various lesson plans, teachers can search through the music lesson catalog at the PBS Learning Platform. PBS hosts resources for students to explore music from various time periods and cultures, from hip hop to blues to Latin rock.
  • For music history lessons, Education Through Music offers free lesson plans in celebration of Jazz History Month, looking at jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Wynton Marsalis.
  • For learning abstract concepts, students may remember more with platforms such as Muzology. These platforms present challenging content in a clear, appealing way with music videos that explain algebra for elementary and middle school students.
  • For middle schoolers and older, students can learn to analyze lyrics as poetry. Tools such as Google Docs give students access to the same document where students can annotate and comment on song lyrics together, line by line.

Why Music in Distance Education Works

Using music as a teaching tool for online classes works because students at any age want to learn more about the topics they care about. For so many people, music is a mode of self-expression, an emotional outlet, and an activity that improves memory and mood. In short, music is a deep, rich, pleasurable wellspring of inspiration that teachers and students can draw from again and again.

Educational leaders constantly question their approaches and tailor their teaching practices to their students’ specific learning environment. When teachers show genuine enthusiasm and passion for the music they teach, students listen. Students focus better, engage more, and listen deeper when they have the opportunity to explore their own unique interests—musical and otherwise.

Are you interested in best practices for distance learning, including music as a teaching tool for distance learning? Visit the Mills online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership Program page to learn how teachers today can empower students to drive their own learning.

Sources

ABC7, “Schools Make Beautiful Music as Tool to Keep Students Focused During Remote Learning”

Education Through Music, Education Through Music Distance Learning Resources

National Association for Music Education, “Classroom Learning vs. Distance Learning in the Music Classroom”

PBS Learning Media, Music

Save The Music Foundation, Music Education Resources

Tech & Learning, “3 Digital Tools for Remote Music Education”