Classroom Management

Using Music as a Teaching Tool (Ep. 084)

It seems like every kid loves music in some way or another, and the guys are talking today about how that love can bring inspiration and influence into your classroom. Whether you use songs or videos in your lessons, or just add some music in the background during class, it can be a powerful tool. Join Andrew and Tim as the discuss deciding on the environment they want to establish in their classroom (5:15), why music seems to only be found in the art room (9:00), and how concepts from the music world translate into student art making (15:30). Full episode transcript below.


Resources and Links:




Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show’s produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick. It wasn’t too long ago that I bemoaned a little jealousy that I had about all our brothers and sisters in teaching, those music teachers. I’m trying to wrap my brain around how we get a parent group that’s as lively and, pun intended, vocal about our art program as their teachers are about the music program. So I really am just trying to get there. I’m striving. So I may come across sometimes as kind of a grumpy, anti-music type of guy but we go really well together. Visual arts and music, we’re both creative endeavors. They’re both ways that students, more importantly, can really express who they are, what their personalities and tastes are and how they communicate. And I think that’s why music and art are so popular and why they go so well together.

And we’ve all probably wrestled with playing music in the classroom. It can totally work and set a fun environment but it can also be a really big distraction. Our noisy classes will always rise to be louder than anything else that’s playing in the background. So is it worth it? It’s a tricky, slippery slope to think about what we allow in regards to music, how we leverage its use in the classroom. There’s no one better to bring on to help me navigate this slippery slope than Mr. Tim Bogatz.

So in kind of an unusual turn this podcast really is about classroom management. Is it building a great environment or is the music causing a big distraction? Now as we’ve started off the new year some of us are already to think, “Maybe we need to bone up on some classroom management tips.” I mean maybe this new year is already kind of running off the tracks a little bit. If that’s that case then there’s nothing better than checking out AOE’s Classroom Management class. The big thing that I’ve always loved about teaching AOE classes and also being a student of AOE is how I learn alongside some awesome, diverse teachers. There’s nothing like having that hive mind, right? It’s always great to get different art teacher’s perspective and ideas on things that we’re all grappling with. So do yourself a favor and head on over to and check out managing the art room. It’s a two-credit class and it starts at the beginning of every month. Well let’s bring on the maestro himself and kind of see how he does things when it comes to music, Mr. Tim Bogatz.

Hey Tim, thanks for coming on today for what might be a bizarre and short talk. I’m not sure how this is going to go.

Tim: Hi. I’m excited too but when you first brought up the subject of this episode I was like, “We sure we want to do an entire episode on this?”

Andrew: Well, I think so. I tried to kind of get some questions together that kind of broaden it past just do you use it or not.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: But that is going to be one of the questions. I do think the art room is very different. A lot of teachers will play music in the background, inspire their kids that way or let their kids do headphones. So first off, I want you to dig into that divide amongst art teachers. Do you play music in the art room or do you like to keep it more quiet so students can focus?

Tim: I like to keep it quiet in my room and I don’t think that’s because I’m a control freak by any means but it may be.

Andrew: You can tell yourself that, yeah.

Tim: But no, I like to allow kids to concentrate. There are a lot of kids that work better when they’re listening to music but there are also a lot of kids who are very, very badly distracted by music. And so I don’t want to put them at a disadvantage because I just want to listen to music or because I want to have the cool classroom where kids listen to music. And so I have the happy medium of just letting kids put in their earbuds and listen personally while they’re working. Obviously not when I’m talking or presenting. But as long as the room stays quiet for those kids who need it to be quiet, then I’m happy. So I’m not opposed to music but I don’t want to force it on all my kids. What about you?

Andrew: Well, I’ve kind of adopted more your philosophy. I used to be the teacher who all day, every day cranking loud stuff and it was just a party and it was fun.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: If kids didn’t like the music I was playing it’s like, “Too bad!” It’s like, “We’re having fun here.” There’s been some things in the last year, bigger class sizes and just some more behavior, class management stuff that I had to deal with. I’m like, “Well, we’re not doing music. We cannot do this.” But I still do allow kids to do what you’re saying which is to put the headphones in. And again, with the caveat that it’s not so loud that you can’t hear me, you’re not doing it while I’m demonstrating or when it’s clean-up time. Even then though, I totally agree with what you’re saying that there are some kids who get really distracted by music.

I also think though that that doesn’t end just because a kid has headphones in because then it’s like, “Hey, check out what I’m listening to on Spotify or Pandora.” And then they’re grabbing their friends next to them and making them look at their phone and the playlist and sharing headphones and they’re both vibing together with this music. So it doesn’t put all of our problems to bed with just using earbuds. But I don’t know, I try to find a happy medium and I have classes where we do listen to a lot more music because the environment is they can handle it and we have a little bit more fun. And then I’ll have a class period the very next period, it’s like, “Nope, we are not listening to music because you guys are just too bananas.”

So let’s imagine though that there are teachers out there who do like to let their kids have music on in the background. Do you make them listen to the hideous old music that you like or do you take requests, subjugating yourself just to being a DJ? Do you come up with a playlist? What do you think people should do with that?

Tim: Well, I like to do the DJ thing but start it off with my own songs. So I’ll play one of mine and then we can jump in to whatever the kids want to listen to. And so maybe that’s the best of both worlds solution right there. But Matt Christenson, one of our writers, did a great article on how he does the music list, which we can link to and I’ll encourage everybody to read, where he is kind of playing DJ for the class but he has a very fair way of doing that, making sure that every kid gets a chance to pick things. Their selections are validated. We’re not putting down other people’s opinions, their choices of music. And it is a really inclusive way to do that. And he talks about he uses it for motivation and engagement, just a lot of really good ideas there. And so I think if you are going to play music, yeah, you need to do stuff that you enjoy. And so I think that’s totally cool if you want to do that and I also think that kids need to be involved as well. If you want them to be engaged, let them choose some of the music that they want. So, I don’t know, what’s your approach?

Andrew: Well, when it’s really worked well I have done something similar to what I think Matt does but a little different. I do a Spotify playlist and I’ll tell kids, “All right, we’re going to make a class playlist and you all get to tell me a favorite artist and I’ll pick two or three songs of that artist.”, and then we’ll just put that on shuffle. And then it’s kind of random. The one thing I think I struggle with, and it’s a kindness thing, it’s a classroom management thing, is 80% of my class will like rock and hiphop and then you’ve got those couple of kids who really like country. And then when the country music song comes on or the station or the country music day you have these other kids that start rolling their eyes and, “Who likes this junk?”

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: And it’s like, “Well that’s super mean.” And that’s where I have to pull back and say, “This is a privilege, if you all are abusing it we will lose it.” And I try to teach kindness through that but that really irks me because it’s like everyone has different tastes. And then sometimes it does become a bit of a hassle. You always have those one or two kids who are like, “Hey, will you play this next? Next I want to hear this. Can I just go on your computer and …” It’s like, “No. You should be doing artwork.” And now this has just turned into music appreciation class. So clearly we’re out of balance here a little bit.” So I do think the music issue is kind of a balancing act. It can be a positive thing but it can also, like you said, distract kids a lot. Do you think that we, and I think I asked this a few weeks ago about why do we get, as art teachers, so wrapped up in these concerns that other people don’t? You don’t see often a science or math or a fourth grade classroom who’s just jamming out to a Spotify playlist. What is it about the art room that so many art teachers do this? What’s the benefit?

Tim: I think, well, enjoyment is the big one for both teacher and kids alike. And I think a big part of it is as teachers we know that we have a unique classroom, we have a unique environment that we teach in, we have a unique culture that we have in the art room. And so I think a big part of that is we want to embrace this and we want to continue to be unique. And this is something that we can do easily and not everyone can do in their own classroom. It doesn’t work well in classes that are lecturing for a long time and places where kids are reading. But there’s so much that can sync between art and music just with the creativity aspect of it and the fact that it can help kids get into that artistic flow. And I think that anything that can help our kids we want to embrace, we want to use. And so that’s why I think you see it in a lot of different classrooms.

Andrew: So this is kind of a weird question because we’ve spent the last couple of questions talking about do we do it, do we not do it? How do we manage it if we do do it? Okay, I want to take music and art kind of to the next level. And maybe this is where I fall on that last question which is why do we do it? I think, number one, it builds rapport. But number two, I think that there are some intrinsic sort of connections to the music world and the art world. Primarily they’re both creative. They hit our students and us kind of in the same region of the brain. So I want to ask you, do you think that there’s even different things that different music genres and different artists can teach our students about making art? Does that make sense?

Tim: Yeah, absolutely.

Andrew: We talk about let’s show our artists or our students all these artists. Could you ever see yourself even like, “Okay, today class we’re going to look at the work of Sean P. Diddy Combs and what he’s done when it has come to his career.” Would you ever go that far?

Tim: Probably not with P. Diddy but …

Andrew: Come on, come one.

Tim: No, I can definitely see that happening because, like we said, there are a lot of connections between art and music and the biggest amongst them I think would be things like expression and storytelling and emotional understanding. And a lot of those things that we want our kids to be able to do, a good song or a good album is another way to show kids how that’s done. And so I think if you’re sort of broadening the base of inspiration and where you’re getting ideas from, music can absolutely play a huge role in that. And so I think there are a lot of different ways to do that, where if you bring in a certain song that tells a good story or multiple songs that tell good stories, give those as examples and then talk to kids about how they can share stories through their art. That’s a very valid connection and I think a lot of teachers are doing that and a lot more could be. And so, yeah, to answer your question I think there’s a lot that can be taught through music.

Andrew: Yeah, and I think we’ve been talking a lot recently about storytelling. And there’s a podcast that I know both you and I really like which is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. In one of his newer episodes he talks about the divide in the world of people who like sad songs and who don’t like sad songs. And he looks at the world of rock music and then country western music and how rock doesn’t really do sad very well but country music does do sad really well.

Tim: Right.

Andrew: And it got me to thinking about, “Oh, that’s a great example to our students.”, who basically, let’s be honest, whether you’re a music student or an art student you’re dealing in the world of creativity, right? So telling a story, conveying an emotion. How do you write a song or make a painting that is so sad that your audience members feel weepy or moved to tears, right? So I think country music, if I think about genres, great at conveying misery, heartache, despair.

Tim: Right.

Andrew: Rock music is like bravado and like, “We can do it!” And especially if you think about Indy rock or punk rock, the sort of DIY mentality. I even have a book on punk rock posters from the 80s and 70s where it’s like they would just xerox stuff and tape things and making scenes. And it’s like that sort of ethos I think is really great. And then you get into I think the art form and the art genre that really speaks to students today which is hiphop, which is it’s a little bit rock and roll. Let’s be honest, it’s a little bit silly too. The bravado is so over the top. It’s almost like professional wrestling. And I promise you we’re not going to do a whole podcast about professional wrestling but it’s like, “I’m the greatest. I’m the best. And now I’m going to write a four minute song telling you how I’m the best.” It’s like, “Come on. Your ego is so out of control.” But I think for students to make artwork sometimes they have to have a little touch of that, “Oh yeah, I’m the baddest. I’m the best.” And if you can tap into that through music I think that there’s something really nice that you can explain to kids that way.

Tim: Yeah, I like that. And confidence is never a bad thing.

Andrew: Yeah.

Tim: I got to say I’ve never thought about it like that so I like this. I like this.

Andrew: Yeah, and I got to say the other thing I’ve used hiphop a lot recently, the last couple years, to explain to students the idea of synthesis and sort of appropriation. Like okay, so you can look at an image online and you can look at Pinterest and you can look at the work of a famous artist, but if all you do is recreate it that’s stealing. Think of it like sampling. And then I talk to them about hiphop. So DJs and MCs they’ll borrow a couple stanzas from this song and then mix it with this song and then put something new on top of it so it still kind of feels like the thing that they’re referencing but it’s different. And a lot of kids, when I talk to them about well it’s like sampling and hiphop, they’re like, “Oh yeah, like I totally get that.”

Tim: Right.

Andrew: And I think when I started getting into that conversation with students was when I had this light bulb of like, “Okay, so music appreciation can actually shed some light on art concepts for our kids.”

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve done entire writing assignments on sampling and how does what Kanye is doing with his music compare to what Jeff Koons is doing with his art? And it really gets kids thinking and discussing and sometimes arguing about the relative value of those things. And so I think there are a lot of lessons there.

Andrew: So do you do any specific art/music project lesson plan crossovers?

Tim: I think things just come to me every once in a while. I do have a sketchbook assignment that I repeat a lot where kids will find poetry or find lyrics to a song and create an artwork based on that. It’s super simple but if kids can choose their music and choose to make art based on music they love they’re always really engaged with that. If we go back to that storytelling we were talking about just a few minutes ago, I’ve done a lesson on that where I bring in a Johnny Cash song and just other different songs that tell a really vibrant, really good story. And we just spend a day listening to music, reading lyrics and discussing how the artist can tell a story through their lyrics and then transfer that into art. How can we tell a story through our art? And just kind of develop that a little bit and kids really enjoy listening to music, they really enjoy having that discussion. And it usually leads to some pretty good pieces. Those are just a couple off the top of my head that I’ve done before that have worked pretty well. What about you? Besides the hiphop bravado, what else are you bringing in that you really enjoy doing?

Andrew: Well, I actually haven’t done a whole lot of that because I got to say I got a little bit burned out I think in the early 2000s. I felt like I was seeing a lot of art projects, and I don’t mean again to throw aspersions in anyone’s directions when I say this but the project which is paint your emotions while listening to music is a project that I actually am not a big fan of because I feel like it doesn’t quite have enough structure to it to really tap in to the kids digging in enough to it. So I think I always tried to stay away from music. That being said, I stayed away from music as a specific connection and hook to a lesson plan. But that being said, I’ve been seeing a lot of music videos online that I like that use a lot of stop motion animation and crazy sort of technological stuff that seems fairly doable for a kid and an iPad or a kid and an Apple computer or something. I think I need to reimagine some music video type projects that I want to get doing.

Tim: I like those ideas.

Andrew: Okay, so I got to get you out of here on this because there’s that expression that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. So neither one of us are young pups, right?

Tim: Right.

Andrew: We’ve been around a while. I want to ask you specifically a couple of musical genres that you like and contemporary music artists that you like in that genre so that people know that we’re not just stuck in songs from the 80s and 90, right?

Tim: Okay, are these … Okay. You go first and I’ll figure this out while you’re talking.

Andrew: Okay, so I’ve had a fascination with this group for a while. I think it’s two guys in the hiphop world called The Hood Internet. Now this is not necessarily a safe for school or safe for work band to check out because what they do is they’ll smash together Indy rock with then hiphop. And I know for some people out there they think that’s a horrible combination.

Tim: I was just going to say that sounds terrible.

Andrew: Oh my gosh, I love them. I love them to death. Okay, so this is one that is definitely safe for school and I like a lot of kind of electronic ambient sort of background music that’s just kind of soothing. There’s a band I like called Tycho and I just have gotten into them in the last couple weeks. Very soothing, you could have this on in the background. And then I like a lot of Indy rock so there’s a band I just discovered not too long ago, Hold Your Horses, and I like them and they have some pretty funky, quirky videos out there.

Tim: Okay, cool. I like those. All right, so I didn’t listen a ton to what you were saying except for that part that just sounded ridiculous. No, when you asked I started thinking about artists that I’ve used in my classroom so maybe these aren’t new, cutting edge but artists that I’ve taught with before. If we’re talking hiphop two groups I love, especially for the storytelling idea, first one is The Roots. Amazing, amazing music and most kids know them from Jimmy Fallon’s show at this point. But they’ve been around for 20 years, 20 plus, and so you can always show or listen to stuff from them. And then one guy that I love is named Aesop Rock and he just beautiful storytelling through his music. Just a little bit of Indy hiphop that I think works really well.

As far as rock music I love OK Go and their videos especially. I wrote an entire article on how to use OK Go videos to teach different art concepts. And once kids are watching those videos they love listening to the music as well. They really get in to that. So I use them a lot. And then finally, if we’re just listening to music and you’re just letting me choose and I want kids to work, we’re going classical and I’m going to say Beethoven because I love the classical genre if you want kids to focus. If we’re talking about it not being a distraction, just some good background music, classical’s always good. But yet Beethoven is dramatic enough that kids can get really excited about that and really get into it if they’ve got some energy to burn. So I really think, yeah, Beethoven is a good choice if we’re … Yeah, you weren’t expecting me to go classical there were you?

Andrew: I was not. I was not, no. I was thinking Emo, something dark and sad and forlorn.

Tim: Well, I mean Beethoven, he’s also sad and dark and forlorn.

Andrew: Yeah, I guess so. He’s the original Emo artist.

Tim: There you go.

Andrew: Well hey man, thanks for coming on. I enjoyed this talk and we’ve oddly given our listeners some new musicians to go and check out so that’s kind of cool.

Tim: I like it. Thanks man.

Andrew: Yeah, bye.

Well I hope that wasn’t too odd for you all to hear two old guys kind of talk about music they like and how we use it in the classroom. I think as an art teacher it is important to stay relevant with what our kids are listening to as it really does help us connect with their interests. I always get a kick out of it when students kind of come up to me and clue me in to a new musical artist that they think I might like. It shows me that they trust me, that they’re extending that olive branch and saying, “Hey, here’s what I’m in to and I hope you like it too.” I’m a really firm believer that how musical artists approach storytelling and crafting a message has so much overlap with what visual artists do. And there’s a lot that our students can learn from the appreciation of music, the use of music and kind of thinking about what musical artists do to tell that story. So find your jam or jams, enlist your student’s help and see what the oral landscape can add to your classroom.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. You know it’s not too late for all you amazing art teachers out there to get in on some early bird pricing for the upcoming Art Ed Now Conference happening on February 3rd, 2018. If you head on over and sign up before October 12th deadline you get in for the very low price of just $99. And I’ve attended so many of these and every time I fill up my bucket for a whole year with just some awesome ideas. So it’s totally worth it.

Some of my all-time favorite AOE contributors are presenting like Lindsey Moss on No-Stress Sub Plans, Don Masse on Building a Mural Program and Shannon Bell with some great classroom management ideas. So do yourself a favor, run, don’t want, over to your computer right now and get on over to and check out this conference already. Seriously, start running. I want to see some high knees people. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on All right, thanks for listening.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.