How to Improve Your Classroom Culture with The Music List

Other than playing on cell phones, I can’t think of anything students love more than listening to music. I wish I could count the number of times I have heard students proclaim, “I can’t focus without music. Can we please listen to some music?” If your school is like mine, all electronic devices, including headphones, are not allowed during class time. So how can we, as educators, use music to motivate our students and also to create serious leverage for classroom management? The answer is to implement The Music List!

What is The Music List?

The Music List is a classroom management strategy I use in my high school art room, but you could certainly adapt it for middle schoolers or even younger students. It allows all students to have a say in the music played during class while making sure the selections are appropriate for school. Here’s how it works.

Music List Logistics

There are some important materials and implementation strategies needed in order for The Music List strategy to be successful.

music list set up

  • A Laptop or Cell Phone with Internet Access
    The most important aspect of The Music List is that students choose the songs. Almost any song students want to play can be found on YouTube (and that includes the radio-edit versions). As long as you have an electronic device that can search the Internet, you have a source for music.
  • Speakers
    Speakers that can amplify the music throughout your classroom are neither enormous nor expensive. Any basic set of portable speakers is fine. Make sure they can hook up to the auxiliary port on your electronic device.

Implementation Strategies

Choosing Students

The key to making this work is that no music is played until all students are actively engaged and working. At that time, I call out “Music List!” which alerts students that it’s time to select the songs for the day.

In my classroom, I have students raise their hands and rotate around the room calling on students to add to a master list we keep on the board.

name list

However, you could have students write their own names down as they enter the room or pull names from a hat as well. There are many ways to go about it. Just make sure you have a fair system in place and communicate it well to your students to offset complaining.

Choosing (Clean) Songs

Giving students the power to choose the songs for the day helps develop a positive and empowering classroom environment. However, sometimes students will want to play songs with profanity or inappropriate material. Of course, those versions of the songs are not allowed. Luckily, almost every song that students want to play has a clean, radio-edited version!

example of clean song on YouTube

YouTube is a great resource for finding school-appropriate versions of songs. When searching, just type in “clean” after the artist and song name. In my room, if a student plays a song that includes profanity, I stop the song and that student loses his or her turn immediately. Students will test this at first, but after students start losing their turns, they figure it out.

Maintaining a Positive, Inclusive Atmosphere

There can be a dominant musical genre that the majority of students want to hear. Sometimes this creates pressure for students who don’t want to hear that genre of music. It must be made clear that all forms of music are important and valid or else The Music List will cease. If students complain, criticize, or pressure other student music choices, The Music List stops for the rest of the day.

3 Benefits of The Music List

student chosing song

The incorporation of The Music List has multiple benefits for student classroom culture. Not only can it be used to motivate engagement and work ethic, it can also be used as a tool to improve classroom management. Here are 3 ways The Music List strategy can benefit your classroom.

1. It increases student motivation and engagement.

It is essential students know listening to music is a privilege, not a right. Music is a reward for the class when every student is working and doing what they are expected to do. When waiting for the entire class to begin working before starting a music list, students will hold each other accountable. Students might ask for music, but I can look around the room and respond, “Not quite yet…not everyone is working.” Students will immediately help encourage and motivate any peer who is lagging to get it in gear.

2. It’s a powerful classroom management tool.

Students will become hooked on The Music List almost instantly. They will look forward to art class and think about what songs they want to play in advance. Because of the profound effect it has on students and the classroom environment, the music list can become a strong source of leverage. When students are rowdy and restless and I’m trying to get their attention, I can start taking time off their Music List. All it takes is to write “Lost Music Time” on the board and start making tally marks. Students will regulate each other.

3. It increases student self-esteem.

Music has a lot to do with identity, especially in adolescence. Being able to choose and hear songs students identify with stimulates a sense of belonging and active participation. Students may need to work up the courage to play a song for the entire class, and once that happens it can be a moment of personal transformation. I have seen students come out of their shells once they made the choice to play a song. This empowering experience can also help develop teacher-student relationships.

The Music List is the most potent form of motivation and leverage I have. It is relatively simple and students will regulate each other around it. As artists, many of us value the stimulation of our musical choices to enhance our practice. The same powerful potential can arise from a systemic, regulated use of The Music List.

What experiences have you had playing music during art class?

What questions or concerns come up when thinking about implementing a music list?

Matt Christenson


Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.


  • Audrey Colwell

    I think music is powerful for people of all ages! Great post. I was hoping to see a list of the songs you use in your class! Would you be willing to share the song titles? Do you have a YouTube playlist you’d share?! :) Thank you!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Audrey! Great, yet difficult, question. Since I have rigged it so that I always play the first song, that changes every day. But since the majority of my students will play Hip-Hop, I usually start with a different genre. I’m a big Mana fan (rock band from Mexico), so I’ll play some Mana, Tom Petty, Bob Marley, Katy Perry (her Friday Night song is fun to play on Fridays), some Europe “Final Countdown” when it’s close to summer…but I actually don’t have a playlist. I think that is something I may try this year to accumulate some songs. Thanks for the idea!

  • Patricia Parrish Wolfe

    I think the point is to let students take ownership of the choice of music while the teacher controls the process. I’ve always played music to encourage focus, creativity, and enjoyment of their work time, but I’ve provided the choices, with student input. I’m going to try this management technique instead, starting with the first day of class. I think it could be great! Thanks.

    • Matt Christenson

      Sounds good Patricia! I think it could work out great for you, too. To build anticipation, I actually don’t let the students choose songs until the first few days go by, and I play music that they don’t really care for on purpose…letting them know that they can be the ones to take over the music list as soon as I feel that they are ready and earn it. Good luck!

      • Patricia Parrish Wolfe

        Ha ha! Good idea.

  • MsU

    At the elementary level I ask students to suggest songs that they like and then I search for a “clean” version of it. I get grief sometimes for playing a Kidz Bop version of their song choice but I tell them I care about what is going into their heads and hearts too much to not paying attention to what the song is saying. We use songs to transition at the end of class so they know when clean-up time starts. I have also played classical music or world music – no lyrics – during their studio time. Thanks for the hint about searching for songs with “clean” designation on YouTube – I haven’t tried that yet. For videos I do filter them through just to avoid links that might be inappropriate for my students. – Try this link in your browser if you want to see how it works.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Ms. U! looks like a great filtering system! I am really glad to hear that you are letting your students know at an elementary level that it matters to think about the lyrics and what the artist(s) are saying. The younger they start that the better. Thanks for sharing!

  • Abby Fliehler

    Awesome! I do something similar where they earn playlist time for quality clean up for my middle school class. Then we make a Spotify list and which ever group “wins” clean up gets to listen to their playlist the next class. Then I have their list of clean songs saved and ready to go. Love incorporating their interests into classroom routine. They get sick of listening to my 90’s alternative rock all the time:)

    • Matt Christenson

      That sounds awesome Abby!

  • Shawsha

    Great suggestion! I think I will implement some form of a “Music List” into my older classes this year as a reward. Another thing that I’ve found that students love, musically speaking… are instrumental versions of popular songs. They have fun guessing the melody and sometimes it’s just plain funny to hear “Shut-up and Dance” done in instrumental bluegrass, for example. :)

    • Matt Christenson

      Right on Shawsha! I like the instrumental version idea and the fun things you can do with that!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hey Shawsha! I like the idea of hearing some instrumentals. Whenever I play a melody without lyrics, my students always ask where the words are at…

      • Shawsha

        How funny! I’m sure I’ve had students to ask something like that before. It’s funny to have an instrumental version of a song on and one of the students suddenly recognizes it. “Hey, I know this song!” Sometimes followed by karaoke.

  • Shelley Stolt Williams

    I did this last year with my classes, each class created a playlist on Youtube. As a first year teacher, I would say this was the best classroom management tool I have used so far!

    • Matt Christenson

      Alright Shelley! I agree with you…it can definitely provide some solid leverage in the classroom.

  • Kris S.

    I’m a new art teacher for the fall… setting up a YouTube play list for music never occurred to me… I have been pondering how to get a middle school appropriate list for playing in class. Most of the classroom teachers I observed while in college played music in class, sometimes it was a reward and some played it all the time. I found, in my art classes in college I worked better and faster while I listened to music with my headphones.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hi Kris! YouTube really comes through. 99% of songs that students want to hear WITH a clean version can be found there.

  • Rainey

    I use music in the classroom now, but you have some great ideas that I am going to implement this year. Thanks for sharing. I like to play Vitamin String Quartet because they play popular songs without lyrics. At first the students think I am making them listen to Classical music, but then they are like, “Oh my gosh, I know this song! It’s Lady Gaga!” Sometimes we tun it into a guessing game while they are working on their projects.

    • Matt Christenson

      The guessing game sounds like a fun addition to class, Rainey!

  • Denise

    I used to do this as well…and still play music in my room. But I find this system used to get a bit tedious-SO this year I’m going to have student WRITE down a few favorite artists, songs, etc…on a getting to know you sheet, or even an Exit Ticket….and create a playlist-and set it on random. Same idea, different approach! Thanks for a great article.

    • Matt Christenson

      Great idea Denise!

  • Gloria Budz

    I love to play cultural music when I am teaching a cultural lesson. I highly recommend Putumayo. These cds are created for students, so I know that even if the music is not in English, I can trust that it is clean language. My favorite is the African one and students don’t even realize they are dancing and drumming while the music is on.
    Another thing I do is play very calming music when I need to reign them in from behavior that is too off the wall or they’re just not working in the manner I need them to be. I can’t tell you how many times I play Enya and within 10 minutes, I have quieted a very noisy, unfocused class. Not only that they ask questions about the music, ask for song titles so they can request them when they come to class. A hands down favorite, “Storms in Africa.”

  • Zoe Kyriacou

    Thank you for the excellent articles Matt. I’ve just finished reading your ‘Painting with purpose ‘ post……really, really helpful. Brilliant! I wanted to ask about the music list though….when you have your students pick out a song, do they come up when it’s their turn, find their song online and play it, then up with the next person? Just thinking through the logistics! Is it abit stop, start, stop, start, or does it flow? Wondering if having an online list the students can add to might be better. Thanks again Matt!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Zoe! I’m so glad you have enjoyed the articles! For the music list, you’re right…for me, it is one student strolls up, chooses a song, and once that song is over, the next student in line does the same. All I ever have to do is write the list on the board and play the first song (when I feel like the class is all working hard and ready to rock). I love your idea of the online list to prevent the start and stop times…if you try that out, let me know how it goes! Thanks Zoe.

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