Music Cues

Class is Better with Music

For students to become self-directed learners and constructive members of society, they should direct their own behavior to impact their circumstance.

Instead of teachers yelling and nagging, music cues can direct the student action.

Instead of micro-managing (“Damien, take out your notebook.”), we’re helping students direct themselves and manage their own time. This develops a sense of confidence, especially among students with special needs, who will thrive under this structure.

Now, instead of the teacher shepherding all the students to get their notes/pencil/highlighter ready, the teacher leads a group of internally-motivated students toward a common goal.

A trail guide, not a shepherd.

My psychologist sister uses the term “internal locus of control” when we talk about my classroom. It means that I — the teacher — am not the one directing students to do everything. Because it’s exhausting.

"You need Mark in the office? Thank God."

“You need Mark in the office? Thank God.”

You’ve been there, right? Chasing down students, monitoring the behavior of a dozen distractors while a dozen others sit patiently waiting for you to get your act together?

I certainly have been there, and it ain’t much fun.

Music cues, as I mentioned here, provide that “internal locus of control”1.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this is: I’m not the one directing them to begin. Instead of, “Mark, please sit down and take out your planner.” I can say, “Anna, what is everyone else doing right now?” Or even better, “Damien, the song’s over.”


I recommend Music Cues for any teacher who wants to make their voice count in the classroom. An effective teacher is one who doesn’t say anything that a student (or music) can say.


First, I’ve gathered a bunch of songs into a Google Drive folder, along with a spreadsheet with all of their names and lengths. Click the image below to go to that folder.

image of a Google Drive folder

Click to see

I paid full price for ONE song in my arsenal, and that’s just because I forgot to search my iTunes to see that I already had it.

homer d'oh

Most of the rest I got on Seriously, check it out. It’s awesome. Tens of thousands of TV themes from the last 50 years, all free to download (for teachers to use in the classroom).

Free Play Music is a Creative Commons site with instrumental music sorted by genre and downloadable in chunks of varying times.
Jamendo is another one.

If you already have a song and want to trim it in iTunes, here’s how (iTunes has updated, but the steps are pretty close to the same):

And the website has a pretty fantastic integration with Google Drive and Dropbox and makes it easy to analyze the sound wave and fade in and fade out. For somebody who appreciates the elegant solution, it’s the best option.

Second, click here to make a copy of my spreadsheet and fill it in with the music that you want for your class.

Logistics – How Do I … Music?

Teachers have shared with me a bunch of ways to trigger the musical cue. Here they are from least setup to most (hover over each one):

Or, have the students sing school-themed songs as they do a task. Tim Bedley does this; I’ve seen it in action.

To amplify your song, here are some suggestions (related to the black box above):

  • In-room sound system. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
  • Computer speakers. Cheap, easy to replace, loud enough.
  • Bluetooth speaker. Good if you’re playing songs from your phone anywhere in the room. (Spend a few extra dollars to get one slightly more powerful than you think you’ll need.)
  • Guitar amp with adapter. Just in case you’re presenting at a conference and you’re in the basement with no projector and no sound system and you’re livid but holding it together and not panicking and it’s a good thing you brought the amp just in case.
    (True story.)

Tips and Tricks – How to Start

Train Your Students

First, time how long it takes students to complete a task. Give your usual prompt of “glue the purple paper onto page 12” and time how long until most of the class is done. Let’s say it’s 200 seconds.

Next, find a song that’s upbeat and likeable, then trim it to be less time, maybe 180 seconds. My times for 8th grade RSP students are here, for reference (unhide the columns).

You will need to train the students. “Class, we’re about to glue the purple paper onto page 108. I have a song for this, it’s the Glue Song. When you hear this song, you’ll glue the purple paper onto page 108. Ready? Go.” And play the song.

It helps to have a visual cue, as well.


This page had two cues for it: The Cut Song and The Glue Song.

Pick 3-5 Songs to Start

This shift in classroom procedure will be weird for you and the students, at first. Start with a few songs and get them down cold, so that you and the students know roughly how long they are and where they go in the classroom procedure.

Only then will you add a new song. I made it to about 13 songs, but it helped to have slides like this to accompany the less-used songs:


A first-grade teacher in my district uses pictures to go with her songs.

Come to the rug. The RUG. The carpet over there. Quit chewing on the rug, boys and girls.

Come to the rug. The RUG. The carpet over there. It’s not the one from your house, it just looks like it. Yes, I promise.

But… which transitions should I start with?

Elizabeth asked me that question via Twitter.

Think about the stuff in your class that takes longer than you think it should. A music cue could smooth out that transition. My students also appreciated a “talk to your neighbor” song for several reasons:

  • It mandates “wait time” for the teacher; I can’t call on anybody until it’s over.
  • It allows students with language needs or disabilities time to process the prompt and think out a response.
  • It provides squirrelly students a chance to get out of their seat and chit-chat. Even if they burn through my prompt and talk about something else, they’re more likely to focus after the song ends.

Here’s a list of all the transitions for which I used music. Once you make a copy, update that list with your commands that music can give. Elementary teachers in my district have songs for “Line Up for Lunch” and “Grab your Book and Come to the Carpet”.

Think of the stuff that you wish students would do faster, then pick a few of those tasks to start. If you still aren’t sure, ask someone to come watch your class for wasted transition time.

Also, this doesn’t need to begin the first day of school. The payoff between “time it takes to teach them how the music cue works” and “when I start saving time on transitions” depends on the class, and for me, it was about 3 weeks.

Which means you could start using Music Cues in April, and it’d still be worth it.

Common Problems

Expect Compliance

It may take a while before all the students know what each song does. Practice and be patient, but eventually stop prompting them whole-group. Your expectation is that they glue, and when the glue song is over, move on.

If you do prompt them, a simple, “Damien, which song is this?” is enough. Because the close cousin “What should you be doing?” hovers dangerously close to being an unnecessary rhetorical question.

Play the Song One Time

I’ve seen teachers ask, “Does anybody need to play the song again?” Of course students will say “yes”.

If I’m Damien in the back row, I might be done gluing, but I’d love 180 more seconds to talk about the new Ariana Grande music video.

Nope, once the song is over, we’re moving on.

Let the Song Play Through to the End

By stopping the song, you’re reminding students that you’re in charge, but that’s not the point.

The point is that students direct themselves without you. Let the song play through to the end — one time — then move on.

Don’t yell over the song either. You look silly. The song is giving a command, you don’t need to fight it.

“This Song Doesn’t Get the Response I Want”

That happens. Pick a new song (same-ish length) and tomorrow, say this:

“Class, I didn’t like the song that we had for glue. We have a new Glue Song but everything else is the same. When you hear this song, glue the purple paper onto page 108. Ready?”

Click play.

Students will probably be stoked about a new song. If they suggest a different song, listen to their suggestions. This is one of many ways to build student buy-in for your class.

Example: Some teachers will use the music cue as an incentive. “Damien, if you can work well with your team for two weeks, I’ll let you choose the music cue for pack up your backpack.”

Well.... okay.

Well…. okay. Can it be Megadeth?


There’s tons to discuss here. Send me an email or tweet me and I’d love to talk more about it.


~Matt “Rock You Like A Hurricane” Vaudrey