Music and Creativity in the Classroom

Copyright © 2014 Maria Simeone

IBM recently polled 15,000 CEOs across the Nation who identified CREATIVITY as the #1 “leadership competency” of the immediate future [1]. Yet, current demands on teachers and administrators leave little time for “creative pursuits” and exploration – let alone time to reflect on the experience! What can be done, when there is such a seeming disconnect? How can we realistically prepare students for the 21st century’s “conceptual age” while meeting current benchmarks? How do we motivate students to think creatively when they’ve predominantly been trained to “find the one right answer”? To explore the possibilities, we need to look at the nature of creativity and the role music plays in stimulating our innate imaginations.

Initiating Creativity in the Classroom

The process of creativity involves the ability to formulate multiple questions with multiple answers (called divergent thinking). When we settle on the best combination of these solutions (called convergent thinking) and they have value, we call that “creativity”. So first, to cultivate this innate skill, we need to encourage students to ask lots of questions! Fortunately, this is a natural capacity. The average preschooler asks 99’s of questions throughout their day about their world and how it works. But, by the upper-grades, many of these same children have learned to stop asking. When the questions stop, disconnect occurs. Students become disconnected from their own thoughts, opinions, and passions. Passion is the fuel of creativity. To reignite their inquisitiveness, we need to provide a safe and supportive environment so that they feel it’s safe to ask lots of questions – questions that are meaningful to THEM. We initiate their inquiries, by encouraging students to come-up with questions that are connected to their immediate environment, their immediate experiences. This exploration can take all of a few minutes at the beginning of the day. (These short sessions also provide ample material for future lesson plans!) We can and should use music to prep the environment prior to these question/reflection sessions, as the right music has the power to turn resistance and hesitancy into openness and willingness. Music that is familiar, with a steady and consistent beat can deactivate the brain’s “fight or flight” response – the resistance some students may communicate when presented with a new challenge. The right music, played softly, will relax the mind and body, and students will automatically become more willing to participate. While there are many nuances to choosing the right music, music that is purely instrumental, played softly at a moderate “walking speed” can be particularly helpful. Ravel’s Bolero, is one example. Many of the piano works by Bach, are another. These types of “classical” music (piano, string or woodwind in particular) possess a steady, predictable beat while also being musically complex. Such music is effective at bringing the brain and nervous system into a state of relaxed alertness. Relaxed alertness, or what is also called the “alpha state”, is the optimal state for new learning, problem-solving and creativity. It’s the brain-wave state we most want to support in the learning environment.

Exploring Creativity

The day begins and your students enter the room with music playing faintly in the background. As they become situated you pose a “what if” or a “what do you like to do best” question. You pass-out UNLINED paper and softly shift the music to Saint-Saen’s Aquarium or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The magical, flowing and spacious quality of the music (played so softly that it blends into the background like musical wallpaper) begins to stimulate the creative centers of their brain, evoking images/symbols/metaphors – the very language of creativity. The music’s texture brings a sense of novelty, inspiring natural exploration. By having students brainstorm on unlined paper, in a non-linear fashion – they are more accurately mirroring the pathway of the brain’s creative thinking process—one that is circular in nature.

This circular process supports the brain’s actual form and function.

The momentum in the music will continue to motivate those who “can’t think of anything else.” The imagery/symbol nature of the exploration will support those whose creativity is often stymied by worries of spelling, punctuation or even the physical demands of writing itself. Like all great inventors, scientists and musicians, the “best (creative effort) is often last”. So, encourage students to fill their papers with ideas and images knowing that the music will bring them deeper and deeper into their endless imaginations. The process can also be easily connected to the day’s teaching concept. This divergent thinking activity, which can be done in 5-10 minutes, will instantly engage students with meaning and purpose for the day’s lessons.

Sharing Creativity

Deep learning happens most profoundly in groups. Therefore, after the initial brain-storming, have students share their ideas in pairs or small groups. In their small group, students combine their collective ideas into best solutions. “Aha!” Pupils have now created something of value derived from their own imaginations! This “Aha!” creates its own “music” in the brain. Dopamine (the motivation chemical that says, “That was rewarding! Let’s do it again!”) is secreted and we have just reinforced a very positive learning experience, intrinsically! In addition, this satisfying process happened within a social context, reinforcing camaraderie in the classroom. This bonding potentially reduces or even eliminates future behavior problems. Students are now connecting to their passions, gathering support for their ideas and working as a team. They are collectively reigniting their creativity through music.

Our Students and Their Future

The rules of intelligence are changing. Creativity, divergent thinking and innovation are all becoming the differentiating factors in today’s world [2]. These differentiating factors are also crucial for a resilient and successful life. Students who have cultivated an active imagination become adults who are better adjusted, have healthier relationships and are more optimistic about their future. Music plays a key role in this evolution into adulthood. Music is a way of learning about all of life, and is an ongoing gift we need to give to all of our students. Through music, our students, as well as ourselves, can learn more deeply, feel more profoundly and connect with one another more meaningfully. Music is the very link to our humanity. Through music, we can inspire students to imagine a future filled with creative solutions to the world’s problems and to create healthier options for day-to-day living. Through music and our endless imaginations, life becomes richer and sweeter. It meets us wherever we are at, and brings us joyfully to our full potential.