Background music sits in the background and isn’t paid much attention to. However, over the course of two years I have begun to realise the important role that background music can play in my communication classes, particularly as I try to build a supportive classroom environment where students feel comfortable enough to take risks.
My use of background music began when I started a new position teaching English in Japan. I had particular trouble getting my non-English majors to start speaking in group activities. It was not an issue of ability, the same student in a one-on-one situation with me would be able to communicate their ideas, but when put in groups or even pairs there was always a great deal of hesitation in getting started. There seemed to be a pause after I gave a prompt to start, while students looked around at each other to silently decide who would be the first to speak (and thus be heard by everyone else in the room).
A colleague suggested that I play some music in the class so that students didn’t feel so self-conscious. I selected some popular music in the target language, the type of music that my students might be listening to, and that was upbeat. This proved difficult as I am no fan of pop music, and actually was quite proud, in 2015, to not have ever heard a Miley Cyrus or One Direction song. Those days are well behind me!
The upside of selling out to the commercial music machine has been having communication classes where students are no longer visibly hesitating to start speaking. The start of a speaking activity begins with music playing, and this provides an explicit and clear starting point for an activity. The music is not so loud that students can’t hear each other, nor too loud that I can’t hear as I move about the classroom, but nevertheless it appears to bring a sense of comfort to the students.
As the term has progressed I have begun to ask my students for their input about the music artists that they want played in the background, and I sometimes get asked the names of particular artists and songs that are playing. Popular culture can be a great motivator for language learning, and so I hope I may have introduced them to some more tools that they can integrate into their everyday lives. Some students have also been motivated to attend our weekly karaoke club, where they learn and sing songs in the target language.
A word of warning I have learnt from experience. I noticed that after using background music for speaking activities for some time, particularly in classes with lower levels of proficiency and confidence, students seemed to be becoming reliant on the comfort of the music. I observed that when a particular song had a quiet beginning, or during gaps between songs, the conversation would sometimes come to a standstill. I didn’t want the music to become a crutch, and so I have started to gradually turn down the volume of the music to help avoid this.
Stopping the music also provides an effective way to get students’ attention. In classes where there are large numbers of students all speaking at once, it can be difficult to get everyone’s attention when it is time to move on to the next activity. However, it is a great indicator that students are totally engaged when the conversations continue even after the music has been turned off!
OVER TO YOU …
*Do you use background music in your classes?
*What tips do you have for using background music?
*What types of background music do you like to play?
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