Elizabeth Peterson | January 2018

Listen to Learn

Integrating music into my classroom has been my passion for over 18 years. This love of music and teaching served as the catalyst for becoming an arts integration specialist who now incorporates all the arts into other content areas. My journey thus far in the teaching field has been filled with creation, connection and reflection through music and the arts. There is no doubt in my mind that both arts education AND arts integration can work together to foster student learning and growth.

How We Listen

My research in listening to music led me to discover three ways in which people listen to music: passively, responsively and actively. Each manner in which we listen is unique and all can be beneficial to both you and your students. Through musical listenings there are ways to integrate content, build social-emotional competencies and just plain have fun!

Passive Listening

Passive Listening occurs when you are not really paying attending to the sounds or music around you. It goes in one ear and out the other, as the saying goes. While at first I though this manner of listening didn’t have a place in the classroom, my thoughts have evolved over the years. In fact, I now use Passive Listening nearly every day in my classroom!

Soundtracking my Classroom has been an essential component to my room and my students’ learning. Each day, throughout the day, I use background music to calm the atmosphere of our open-concept classroom like a warm blanket. At first, I draw students’ attention to the sounds of the calming alpha-wave music (much like that which you would hear during a massage session). We take some time to become self-aware as we take deep breaths to help calm the body and focus the mind. Then the music melts into the background as our lesson continues. I have special music or sounds I use during a whole class lesson, for independent work or for when the students are creating something unique.

The music serves as a sort of white noise helping to drown out the sounds of the hallways and keep us focused on the task at hand. Many students forget the music is still playing, myself included. And when a student starts to grow anxious, I help him to come back to calm by bringing focus back to the music before getting back to the work. It’s a great self-management tool.

Responsive Listening

Soundtracking my Classroom is like being my own DJ and this bridges the space between passive and responsive listening. In Responsive Listening, your body responds to the music be it by singing, moving or tapping. You could even say that students are Responsively Listening as they allow some calming music to fill their bodies with peace and focus before allowing it to melt into the background.

My favorite way to use Responsive Listening is for fun! I try to do some of this each Friday with a seasonal craft or small content-driven project. I’ll play upbeat music that the students can sing along with or bob their heads to while they work. This type of listening can help to build social-awareness as it is a great community builder. Students will find themselves singing the same lyrics or moving to the same grooves. Smiles are shared and that’s always a good thing!

Active Listening

When we Actively Listen to music, our ears and brain are engaged. Our focus is solely on the music as we listen for themes, instrumentation and details that we may miss if we listen either of the other ways.

Finding time to Actively Listen to music can be tricky at first. You would need anywhere from 5-15 minutes to do so effectively, but the investment of time is well worth it! I listen to music actively with my students nearly every day during our snack time. We all gather at the rug to eat together and listen to a new piece of music each week.

Teachers who have studied using Active Listening techniques with me have come from all grade levels and subject areas. I’ve had middle level teachers use Active Listening time during the last 5-7 minutes of the period as a reward for getting work done. One high school ELA teacher that took workshops with me based a unit of study where Actively Listening to music was at the heart of a long-term writing assignment. Use Active Listening throughout the school year or in carefully chosen times during the year.

Listening in this manner is the topic of my book Inspired by Listening. In it, I provide information, lessons, activities and reproducibles to implement Active Listening experiences with your students. These are things I’ve used in my own classroom allowing my students many opportunities to listen and learn!


One of my favorite integrated Active Listening assignments is to have my students listen to Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian. Through their repetitive listenings (that’s a key component of effective Active Listening experiences) and my guiding questions (another key component to help students hear details in the piece), students begin to develop a creative story that follows the musical form of the piece. Stories emerge of circuses and cartoons, chases and troubling situations. Each story has a complete story line from the setting and rising action to a climax and resolution. All this inspired by listening to a piece of music – actively!

Not every integrated writing piece needs to be this lengthy, though. Students can respond to music through a list of words (perhaps focusing on a part of speech you are studying) or by creating a single simile. Poetry can be written in response to the mood of a piece of music too. When I taught middle school music, I used Active Listening strategies with a seventh grade class and one poem in particular moved me deeply. A girl was inspired by a piano piece by Chopin and the words she used to illustrate how the piece made her feel were profound.

Dark clouds
Life is hard to maintain
When you’re alone
Dancing in the rain
The pain
It’s irresistible

Language isn’t the only way to integrate listening experiences into your day. Math plays a part too! Patterning in music is a fun study and can only be achieved through Active Listening. You can use classical music for this, or better yet, popular music, and chart the patterns for intro, verses, chorus and endings of songs.

Another thing to try is to keep track of the ratio of time it takes for the guitar solo to begin in a song. It’s actually quite fascinating! Try it out by playing a variety of songs with guitar solos and see where in the progress bar the solo actually begins. (NERD alert on my part!)

History is another place for Active Listening. Music is created in time and will also reflect what is going on at that time in history. For example, Beethoven was revolutionizing music in time when aristocracies were falling to the common man. In the study of another era, Civil War songs are some of the best primary sources for events and human emotion.

When I taught 8th grade general music, my co-worker and I used music to take students through nearly every war America was part of from the American Revolution to Dessert Storm. It was through these songs that students got to feel more of what the people were experiencing. It was a way to understand the events more personally.

Social-Emotional Learning Throughout

Active Listening is the perfect marriage of intellect and emotion. You can reflect on both the musical aspects of the music: patterning, tonal qualities, overall form, musical themes, phrasing of notes; but you can also discuss the emotional aspects of the music: how it makes you feel.

That’s what music does. It makes you feel something. Drawing students’ attention to this can really help them to achieve better self-management. When they understand how different music affects them (self-awareness), they can choose what they listen to carefully.

Playing around with different tempos, dynamics, genres and instrumentations can be a fun experiment. I do this with my own self every so often. There have been times when I catch myself feeling overwhelmed and angry for longer than a day. I tune into what music I’ve been focusing on and try to change it up. More often than not, I find that I’ve been listening to a lot of hard rock and heavy metal. Even though that is my favorite type of music, if I listen to it constantly, it can get me in a bad mood. So, I’ll listen to a pop music station or some Baroque music to break the cycle. It’s amazing how much it really makes a difference!

The type of music you listen to enhances your mood. So, if you are sad, and play sad music, you will remain sad. This can be like therapy for some, helping them work through their emotions, bringing them eventually to a better place. For others, they can get stuck. It helps to be fully aware of these affects music has on the brain.

You can work with recognizing and labeling emotions with you students using Active Listening time. After listening to a passage, ask students to tell or describe the emotion they feel. What’s interesting is that students will not all experience the same emotion. This will lead to great discussions about how we can sometimes feel the same way about a situation, but other times feel differently than our peers. These are important ideas to explore as students work on social awareness and it can be accomplished while listening to music!

Start Playing Music!

Music is a very powerful tool for ALL teachers. It can serve as a means of inspiration for writing or enrich the study of history. It can also help to regulate emotions and aide in focus for learning. There is certainly a place for music in every classroom and education office. It is my sincere hope that you will find where music can play a part in your room!

About the Author

Elizabeth M. Peterson, C.A.G.S in Arts, Leadership and Learning, is an elementary school teacher, arts integration specialist and host of www.theinspiredclassroom.com. She loves to provide Teacher-Centered Professional Development through workshops and arts retreats which focus on arts integration, STEAM and SEL through the Arts. For more information, please visit her website or email her at Elizabeth@theinspiredclassroom.com.