Why I Stopped Nagging My Students and Started Using Music Instead

Do you ever repeat yourself so many times that you wonder if you have become invisible? “It’s time for reading! Get your books out. Come on everyone, books out. Ok, seriously, books out. Why aren’t your books out? Blue table, books out, let’s go!” By the end of the day you’re exhausted just from this repetition.

Now imagine your students seamlessly transitioning from one activity to the next without you saying a word. This is the power of musical cues! 

I first learned about them from Rick Morris of New Management my second year teaching. Rick has since retired, but I used these strategies every year in the classroom and they are completely transformative. The best parts about using musical cues are:

  1. Music adds fun. Think about when you are cleaning your house. Are you more likely to be motivated by a nagging spouse or when you’re rocking out to good music? Which sounds more fun to you?? Musical cues helps our students bop along and perform the right activity to the music while we the teacher get to save our energy from constantly nagging them. 
  2. Music saves your voice. Do you ever have a day where you talk alllllll day and come home exhausted? Musical cues give you a reprieve from talking So. Darn. Much.

How do musical cues work?

Quite simply, you teach your students that a certain song or sound is a cue that correlates to a specific task. 

The key to this is that after you’ve taught the routine, don’t talk around it! If you say “I’m putting the music on now. What does the music mean? Music is over and you should be in your seats” that ruins the effect. The entire idea is the music is the cue, not your voice. 

One example is back when I had spelling tests I used the outro to SpongeBob as the “get ready” music. I put the song on without a word and my students knew they had to hustle to get ready and have their papers numbered. As soon as the music ended I said “number 1” and launched into the test. They knew I was starting as soon as the music ended and that made them get themselves prepared. If instead I said “Ok, I’m starting now, Are you all ready?” that’s giving the impression that I’m not really serious about the music being a deadline and it loses its power. So let the music be the cue, not your voice.

How do I get started?

Identify some transitions that would benefit from musical cues. It could be lining up, sitting on the rug, cleaning up, or returning to their seats. You can see my examples below. 

Choose some songs. Songs with strong beginnings and endings work well. Rick recommends using tv show intros for this reason, plus they tend to be short. My longest musical cue was the SpongeBob outro example above which was about 1:30. My other ones were mostly around 30 seconds. 

Be mindful when selecting the tone and mood of the song. Some songs like Yakety Sax are so high energy that you tend to get a chaotic response from the students. Similarly, mellow songs are nice but don’t always convey the appropriate sense of urgency. Early on you’ll have to experiment to find the proper balance that works for you and your class. Below I’ve provided examples that have worked for me.

Musical cues in my classroom

**For context, I used these in a 4th grade Spanish dual immersion classroom.

NBC tone- Name on paper

This one I got directly from Rick. I taught the kids to sing “name, number, date” to the 3 tones. Then a few minutes into any given activity I would play this tone and watch the kids all scramble to scribble down their names. Voilá, no more harassing kids to write their names on their papers!

How I Met Your Mother theme song- Whiteboards out 

This is a great song to use because it has a very clear beginning and end. Because it’s a little on the short side,it’s not great for something that takes longer (like lining up), so I used it as a cue to take out their whiteboards. 

Rugrats theme song- Sit on the rug

I taught 4th grade so we didn’t sit on the rug very often, but when we did I would play this song to transition them.

Upside Down by Jack Johnson- Clean up song

This song is both upbeat and mellow, making it a good clean up song. If it’s too high energy the kids get a little too wound up as they clean. This one keeps them moving but calm.

That’s All Folks outro from Looney Toons- Back to seats

Sometimes during work time we’d all be spread out. When it was time to go back to their seats, I put on this song. It’s probably not the best choice as it’s a little short and a little high energy, but my classes always loved it so I kept it.

30 second Jeopardy timer- Estimation180

My class loved to do the estimation activities from Estimation180. After I showed them the picture, I put on the Jeopardy music for 30 seconds. After the last “bum bum” they showed me their whiteboards so I could get a quick formative assessment. I occasionally used it for other similar whiteboard work.

If you’d like more ideas, you can read Rick Morris’s suggestions here


Musical cues completely changed the way I manage my classroom. I became a much more happy and energetic teacher when I was no longer nagging my class during every transition! 

Do you use musical transitions? Tell me about your experience in the comments!

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