Incorporating Pop Music into the Classroom for Deeper Learning

Marie Allsopp

Purdue University

The power of using music and emotions to engage students’ attention, stimulate learning, and increase retention is often overlooked. As a faculty member, I look for ways to make class enjoyable, pique student curiosity, and incorporate meaningful exercises to engage students with course content. The use of an attention-grabbing activity can increase student participation and improve short and long-term retention (Gruber, Gelman & Ranganath, 2014; Howell Major, Harris, & Zakrajsek 2015). In addition, novel information that stimulates emotions and curiosity also improves recall and retention (Fenker & Schutz, 2008).

Introducing pop music into the classroom offers a creative strategy as a novel attention-grabber, a connection between self-text-world, and a method to activate emotions, to ready the class for learning.

Given that humans tend to pay more attention to material that they “like” (Holli & Beto, 2014), it behooves us as educators to assist students in the learning process by delivering lectures that they actually enjoy. Oblinger (2003) argues that millennials get bored easily and expect variety, meaning the format of traditional lectures for an entire class period may not hold their attention (Roehling, Kooi, Dykema, Quisenberry & Vandlen, 2010). All of this, combined with the fact that smartphones and other devices vie for attention, means that classroom lectures will need to evolve to meet the needs of millennial learners. A presentation by Dr. Ron Berk at a Lilly Conference in November of 2015 introduced me to the concept of purposefully using popular music and songs to teach course content. The idea of applying music as a teaching strategy was unique to me and pushed me outside of my comfort zone in the classroom. In the remainder of this blog, I will describe how I subsequently adapted a Nutrition Education and Counseling Skills course to incorporate music as a pedagogical technique.

Berk (2008) has identified potential learning outcomes of using music in the classroom, such as fostering creativity and increasing memory of content. There are many techniques for incorporating music into teaching (Berk, 2008); however, the technique that will be discussed further is the use of music as a “content grabber” (Berk, 2008). According to Berk (2008), three potential learning outcomes include:

• Focus students’ concentration

• Make learning fun

• Establish a positive atmosphere/environment

Initially, as I looked at course content, I had to intentionally decide what content students grapple with and what specific music choice would parallel the lesson content and be relevant to students. I planned to start with the basics, developing client interview skills for nutrition students. In the course, students are likely to approach role-playing activities with trepidation, especially at the beginning of the semester. Additionally, students tend to focus on the rote interview questions rather than the subtle nuances of creating a conversational tone and reading body language. It seemed fitting to use a short clip of “Something to Talk About” by Bonnie Raitt, a song that was used to focus student’s concentration on the content covered in chapter two (Communication) of the Nutrition Education and Counseling Skills textbook (Holli & Beto, 2014).  The reading material emphasizes the importance of recognizing nonverbal cues when counseling patients and/or clients (Holli & Beto, 2014). During the class lecture, students listened to an excerpt from the song and were asked to list the nonverbal behaviors mentioned:

“We laugh just a little too loud

We stand just a little too close

We stare just a little too long

Maybe they're seeing something we don't, darlin'

Let's give them something to talk about

Let's give them something to talk about

Let's give them something to talk about

How about love?” (Eikhard, 1991).

This exercise focused students’ attention on laughter, physical space, and eye contact, which are key aspects of nonverbal communication, discussed in the textbook (Holli & Beto, 2014) and also opened the door to beginning a discussion on how those nonverbal behaviors differ by ethnicity and culture.

“We are Family” by Sister Sledge is a great song to help make learning fun. The following excerpt below is used as a “content grabber” during a lecture on material covered in chapter six (Counseling for Behavior Modification) highlighting the need to include the client’s or patient’s family and significant others when planning lifestyle and diet changes (Holli & Beto, 2014).

“We are family,

I got all my sisters with me

We are family

Get up everybody and sing

We are family I got all my sisters with me

We are family

Get up everybody and sing” (Edwards & Rodgers, 1979).

“Happy” by Pharrell Williams was a fantastic vehicle to development of a positive atmosphere/environment in the classroom because it is upbeat and emotionally uplifting. Therefore, this song was not only used as a powerful tool to create a festive atmosphere, but the lyrics complemented the material in chapter twelve (Implementing and Evaluating Learning) on the use of hedonistic scales to evaluate the degree to which many participants “liked” various aspects of a program (Holli & Beto, 2014). An excerpt from the lyrics to “Happy” is included below.

“(Because I'm happy)

Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

(Because I'm happy)

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth

(Because I'm happy)

Clap along if you know what happiness is to you

(Because I'm happy)

Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do” (Williams, 2013).

After the hedonistic scale was referred to in the lecture slide, during which the music clip played, students were asked to provide a synonym for hedonistic. The song created the perfect atmosphere for further discussion on the application of hedonistic scales or happiness indexes.

Music is one way to capture students’ attention and present a novel learning opportunity and it is a powerful one. With the plethora of songs, it is possible to find music that corresponds to just about any course content. As with all published work, do be sure to read fair use guidelines so you are using music properly and giving artists credit for their work.

Discussion Questions:

• Of the material you teach, what is one area you feel would be particularly well adapted to a class session with the inclusion of music?

• What are the advantages/disadvantages to having students identify potential music clips to be used to illustrate course content.

• What would you see as the biggest challenge to you using this teaching methodology?


Berk, R. A. (2008). Music and Music Technology in College Teaching: Classical to Hip Hop across the Curriculum. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 4(1), 45-67.

Edwards, B., & Rodgers, N. (1979). We Are Family. [Recorded by Sister Sledge]. On We are Family. [7-inch single]. New York, New York: Cotillion.

Eikhard, S. (1991). Something to Talk About [Recorded by Bonnie Raitt]. On Luck of the Draw. [CD]. Los Angeles, California: Capitol Records.

Fenker, D., & Schutze, H. (2008, December 17). Learning by Surprise. Scientific American. Retrieved from

Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B.D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). State of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron, 84, 486-496.

Holli, B. B., & Beto, J. A. (2014). Nutrition Counseling and Education Skills for Dietetics Professionals, Sixth Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Howell Major, C., Harris, M., & Zakrajsek, T. (2015). Teaching for Learning 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success. London, UK: Routledge.

Oblinger, D. (2003). Boomers, Gen-xers, and Millennials: understanding the new students.

EDUCAUSE Review, 38(4), 37-47.

Williams, P. (2013). Happy [Recorded by Pharrell Williams]. On Despicable Me 2: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. On Girl. [CD]. Miami, Florida: Back Lot Music; i Am Other; Columbia Records.

Roehling, P.V., Kooi, T.L.V., Dykema, S., Quisenberry, B., & Vandlen, C. (2010). Engaging the Millennial Generation in Class Discussions. College Teaching, 59(1), 1-6.

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