When I was in college, I was part of the marching band. (I played violin. Yes, we had violins in our marching band. No, that’s not a traditional band instrument. Yes, it was strange – but the marching cellos were stranger.) I went to every home football game and an away game or two every year, as well as a lot of basketball games

One of the things that sports arenas try to avoid is dead air. If something isn’t going on in the game, they want music, or the announcer, or an ad to be going. It shouldn’t be quiet. The one exception to this is when a player is injured – then it’s quiet, out of respect. Every year, the new drum majors learned that if they didn’t get the band to start playing quickly enough, the press box would put on some canned music. (We were not fans of this.)

Dead air is boring.

Math class should not be boring.

Therefore, I play music in class.

This started last spring. We were in the midst of AP review, which involved students doing a lot of work and me doing almost no talking to the group as a whole. It got kind of boring. Also, class met an hour before the rest of the school that year, so the kids were pretty sleepy. One day, I opened up Pandora, put on a very safe station (usually soundtracks), and let it play in the background.

Eventually, it spread to my other classes. It was the end of the year, and I was willing to try anything to keep them focused on this year instead of college in the fall. Music helped. This year, after a week or two of quiet, I missed it and started up again.

Now, I don’t play music all the time. Not while I’m talking – no need to tire my voice out anymore. Not while they’re taking a quiz or a test. But if I’ve given them problems to practice or explore on their own, then I’m probably playing music. This does a number of good things to my classroom culture.

1.) Students ask for help more.

There’s something about the silence of a quiet classroom that’s intimidating. If they ask for help, everyone will know. So, they have to really have given up in order to risk everyone knowing that they’re asking for help. When music’s going, someone across the room can’t hear them, so it’s safe to admit that they don’t know something.

2.) They collaborate more.

I think that they’re afraid that if they talk to a neighbor, I’ll get on them for talking. I’ve no idea why – I want them collaborating! – but in addition to giving them cover from their peers, it gives them cover from me. I can actually still hear most of what’s said – they music isn’t that loud – but they feel safer. If I don’t turn the music on, they don’t start talking.

3.) Class is way less boring.

A good party has atmosphere, which involves music. Math class should be a party, so it should have music. Dead air = boring.

4.) This plays well into the shots game.

Yesterday, I talked about the mini-basketball hoop in my room. Students earn the right to take a shot and earn house points for doing certain things. Correctly identifying the movie that the song is from is one of those things. Telling me the composer for the piece of music is another. (I play classical sometimes, too, although rarely.) This is one of the few times that not everyone has an opportunity at earning a shot; normally, if you finish the problems, you can shoot. Here, only the first person gets a shot. So, yes, my class is a running game of name-that-tune. I like that there’s an element of competition that doesn’t favor stronger math students.

5.) It starts conversations.

“Oh, I know this! I know this! It’s, uhm, it’s….Star Wars!”

“Oh, I’ve never seen it.”

“What? You’ve never seen Star Wars?! What kind of movies do you watch, then?”

And we’re off…

What I love most about teaching is spending time with students. Don’t get me wrong, the math is great, but I can do math in an office by myself. It’s students that make teaching special. And this is one more thing that we can talk about.

Now, if I taught a different group of kids, would I do this? I’m not sure. My kids are mature enough and responsible enough that they can refocus when I hit pause. I know that they can handle it. If they ever prove me wrong, or if they just have a really excitable day, then I can always turn the music off.

The best compliment I’ve ever received on my teaching was when a student said, “This class is like my therapy.” It wasn’t the math that prompted the comment either – it was the atmosphere. And a big part of that is the music.


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