How to Pick the Right Sounds for Your Classroom

By James Rossi, Classroom Coordinator

Today’s post is part of a series on using the five senses to create an optimal learning environment. You can find other posts in the series here.

Sounds can be as valuable to your classroom environment as they can be disruptive. 

The key, in my experience, is picking the right sounds and using them with quality speakers. While chatter in a classroom is expected, there are many more sounds we compete with: gushing or clanking heaters, car horns and alarms, construction, sirens, planes, hall noises, and, in unfortunate cases, the yells of an out of control neighbor teacher or students. 

Sometimes, it’s even the silence that gets in the way. When things are too quiet and you can hear stomachs rumble, erasers drag, and fluorescents hum. I know I was the type to be bothered more by the small sounds than the big ones. The big ones were obvious, so my brain did not need to focus to understand them. It was the small ones it strained for, taking my attention away.

By integrating different types of sounds into the room, you control for another level of distraction and can exert an influence on mood. Music has always been very important to me, and some of my studies have included the effects of music on the brain and behaviors. I’ve even tested different principles with my students and discovered some things backed by studies hold true.

Use Music In the Classroom

Music is human and unique. It has an effect on the body that we can’t really put words to, and that gives it magic and power. There are a few different types to consider:

Calming Tones and Sounds

This includes meditation tracks – typically, with long tones and a soothing timbre these sounds are meant to relax, calm, and slow. Even having sounds of natural environments without the presence of music has benefits. Think ocean waves, a trickling stream, thunderstorms and rain.

White and Pink Noise

These are basically audio fuzz that interfere with sound waves coming from other sources, thus lowering the overall impact from them. They fill the emptiness of a room with no sound and can be soothing when not too loud. To me, they’ve always sounded like I was sitting on a plane somewhere near the engine. They’re not my favorite, so I do not engage these in my classroom, but to each their own.

Classical Music

There has been a significant amount of research into the positive effects of classical music on the brain, development, and performance. There are some, but overall, they are not limited to the genre.

Modern Music

This is anything not classical, really. I’ve found the greatest success with electronic varieties, movie soundtracks, video game soundtracks, and some new genres such as jazz-hop, lo-fi, and chill-hop. No lyrics is better than music with lyrics. Students are really loving lo-fi these days.

Learn more about how modern music – rock ‘n’ roll in particular – can be used during your lessons here.

Brainwaves and Binaural Beats

Brainwaves are the electrical patterns that occur naturally in every person’s brain as a result of neurons firing signals. These brainwaves occur at different frequencies dependent upon what you are doing and what is going on around you, and are active whenever your brain is – all day every day. 

By using music infused with these brain wave supporting frequencies, we give our brain a suggested pattern to follow. The benefit to this is we choose the pattern, for example, we might choose frequencies consistent with relaxed, stress-free states to help get ourselves there.

Binaural beats are the result of playing two very close tones that are selected for their interference with one another that creates the illusion of a third tone. Usually they are played so that one tone hits the right ear and the other tone hits the left. These binaural beats are also presented in ‘music’ as tones and have measured effects in coordinating brain waves and activities. Depending on the tuning of the frequencies, you can achieve different outcomes.

How Does Music Impact Us?

The one caveat to it all – preference takes precedence in which type of sounds will have the greatest positive impact. 

There have been many studies in recent years aimed at determining whether music has a positive impact on the learning process. The basic report – it does and it doesn’t. There are many details and nuances to the effects that music can have when basing the tests on learning outcomes such as recall and comprehension, but we also have to consider effects on mood and behavior. 

Ultimately, the biggest impact seems to come as a result of what music does to us as people, not what type of music it is. What is referred to as arousal. Ever hear a song that just grinds into your core and fills you up with something great that you can’t control? Ever get goosebumps because of the sounds that pour into your ears? Feel a literal tug at your heart?

The physiological impact is undeniable. When you have music playing in the background that suits your preferences, you will learn and perform better. Non-verbal music has been found to be better overall, but again; preference takes the lead because it excites us. When properly stimulated, we engage more with what’s around us.

Find a Good Set of Speakers

I think a good set of computer speakers for your classroom is an invaluable investment. Mine have lasted for many years. For $30-$60, you can get a set with three speakers that has the ability to accurately produce the full range of sounds necessary to make any of the things mentioned above successful. Think about it – that’s why we have different quality speakers. The higher-end speakers that include a subwoofer can produce the full range of sounds available to human hearing as well as some tones above and below our audible range. Brain waves and binaural beats in particular will work best with this. Beyond that, thunderstorm tracks are far more natural and relaxing when the thunder can really boom. Having higher quality speakers also allows you to tune the volume to lower levels while maintaining clear and present sounds.

Another benefit of good speakers is the theater-like audio quality you will get when showing videos. You’d be surprised how room filling three tiny speakers can be. It engages the students significantly more and helps them connect to whatever content you might be delivering. As a science teacher, videos help me communicate concepts at scales that are not possible without advanced equipment or a trip to space or through time. If I were using my terrible smart board speakers or tiny unpowered portable speaker, I would not get the same effect – I know this from experience, and this is why my room will always have speakers.

To top it all off, when no one else is around you get to rock out to whatever you love. Try starting your day singing along to your favorite songs at the top of your lungs. Make a playlist of the ones you know all the words too. Scream them. Love them. Let them surround you and give you energy. Now start your day with your students and tell me you don’t feel an energy no one can take from you.

How do you use sounds, such as music, in your classroom? Let us know in the comments!

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