A Dollop of Dopamine: Using Feel-Good Music to Manage Students’ Moods

by Willy Wood

We have all had the experience of listening to a favorite song, and we all know the powerful positive effect it can have on us—how it can bring us out of a bad mood, or energize us to face a long day.  Just about everyone has a favorite song, a favorite CD, or a favorite recording artist that they turn to when they need an emotional lift.  We use music to “self-medicate” and to manage our moods all the time.  This type of music is what I call “feel good” music.

The question is, can we use this same kind of music to get a similar effect in our classrooms?  The answer is a definite “yes!”  In fact, judiciously using feel good music is one of the fastest ways to energize students, engage them, and create classroom community.

First of all, let’s talk about how it works.  And right off the bat, I will admit that there’s a lot we don’t understand completely.  For example, do the characteristics of the song play a major part in its effect?  With some types of music (for example, energizing music or calming music), the characteristics of the tune are crucial.  But it’s not so simple with feel good music.

As a generalization, most feel good songs tend to be upbeat and bouncy, but that’s hardly true across the board.  Some of the songs that put us in a good mood are slower and far from bouncy.  And genre doesn’t seem to matter, either.  Some people have feel good favorites that are hard rock—or country, or classical, or jazz, or rap, or…well, you get the point.

Another question is, does it matter if it’s instrumental or has lyrics?  Again, not really.  We all have some favorite feel good tunes that are instrumental.  I would hazard a guess, though, that for most people, the majority of their favorite feel good tunes have lyrics.  And this brings up another reason why a particular song might be a favorite—the lyrics say something of importance to listeners, something they identify with.

Yet another reason that a particular song becomes a favorite is that we all create associations between different parts of our experience, including songs.  A common example is when a couple identifies a particular song as “their” song.  Why is it their song?  Probably because it was the song that was playing when they first kissed, or had their first dance together, etc.  So it’s not just the song itself that makes us feel good, but also the positive associations that are connected with that song in our memories.

What all of this adds up to is that, when we hear a favorite song, we get a rush of dopamine in the pleasure/reward centers of our brains.  Having a favorite song come on the radio is like taking a giant bite of chocolate, or parking all day without feeding the meter and not getting ticketed, or…or anything else that makes us feel good!  It’s an instant shot of pleasure.

So, let’s get back to classroom application.  How can you harness and employ the power of feel good music?  Well, obviously, you’re not going to play this kind of music while you are doing direct instruction or while students are working on an academic task of any sort.  While having such music on might make students feel good about being there, it also would seriously distract them from learning.  So the best times to use feel good music are the transitions—when students are coming into class, getting materials out or putting them up, transitioning between tasks, and as they are leaving the room.

Just imagine the following two scenarios.  In Scenario 1, no music is playing as students come into class.  What are they thinking about?  Whatever was running through their heads out in the hallway on the way to class.  Maybe someone called them a name, or they passed their reflection in a mirror and saw that their hair isn’t looking so hot today, or they’re wondering what’s for lunch.  Who knows?  Whatever it is, their minds are generally distracted and not focused on coming to your class and learning.  Unless you do something, students are allowed to continue to revolve these thoughts around in their heads, and it takes much longer to get them focused on task.

In Scenario 2, as students approach the door to your room, they have the same thoughts revolving in their heads as in scenario 1, but in this case, something is different.  As they walk through the door, they are greeted by a song that they enjoy.  Immediately their thoughts go to the song and the pleasurable associations they have with it.  They start bopping along as they head to their seats in the midst of a dopamine rush.  The bell rings and you let the song play for a few more seconds as you take roll.  Then you suddenly cut the music off and call the class to attention.  There are some grumbles and pleas to hear the rest of the song, but you gently switch their focus to the day’s lesson.  Because the song switched their focus from outside of the room concerns to inside the room, they are much easier to refocus than the group in Scenario 1, and because of the extra dopamine in their systems, they are now in a much better mood to tackle the subject matter of the day’s lesson.  It truly is a magical thing—and all you had to do was put a song on just before they came in!

But let’s step back for a minute and talk about the challenges of using feel good music in the classroom.  Certainly, feel good music can be perhaps the “trickiest” use of music, if you aren’t careful.  In my experience, it’s almost impossible to find even a single song that everyone likes, much less a number of them to use for variety.  We all have our favorite genres of music and our favorite artists.

And then there are those associations I mentioned earlier.  A song that the majority of people love might make another student break into tears because that was the song playing when her boyfriend broke up with her.  There’s no way to predict such reactions.  The best you can hope for is to find a number of songs that most of your students like and keep them rotating.

If you work with older students and you implement the use of feel good music for transition times, you might institute some type of “nomination” system, where students get to bring in favorite songs for you to play for this purpose.  The advantage of having students pick the music is that they get a huge kick out of hearing their favorite song, the one they nominated, played in class.  Believe me, you will instantly become that student’s favorite teacher (at least until you give him homework again).  But be careful—if you work with older students, especially, you might need to set up some kind of screening procedure to check the songs for appropriateness.  When I taught high school, students could nominate songs and turn them in to me.  I would listen to them at home and, if they were OK to use, I would play them.  If not, I would return the song to the student and we would have a little talk about appropriateness.

My advice would be to get together a playlist of songs that you think have nearly-universal appeal as your starting place.  I have found that a lot of 1960’s music still works well today, as the kids have heard all of these songs on TV commercials.  Or you might start by gathering together some “greatest hits” collections.  The reasons these songs were hits was because a large percentage of people liked them.

Once you have your starter list, begin using them as described above for transitions and observe the kids.  That’s the key to becoming good at using feel good music in the classroom—kid-watching.  You will be able to tell if they like a song or not by how they react.  If most of the kids don’t like a song, cross it off your list and don’t use it again.  If most of them like it, keep it in your list.  Keep experimenting over time and tweaking your list.  Soon you will have a collection of songs that work like a charm.

For more detailed information about using feel good music in the classroom—and much more—see The Rock ‘N’ Roll Classroom: Using Music to Manage Mood, Energy, and Learning, by Rich Allen and Willy Wood (Corwin Press, 2012).

Happy listening!



Willy Wood is the co-author, with Rich Allen, of The Rock ‘N’ Roll Classroom: Using Music to Manage Mood, Energy, and Learning (Corwin, 2012).  Willy also serves as President of Open Mind Technologies, Inc., an educational consulting firm.  In addition to doing workshops on the brain and effective teaching practices both nationally and internationally, he publishes a regular e-newsletter entitled Neuro News.  If you would like to be added to Willy’s mailing list to receive Neuro News, or to contact him about his presentations, e-mail him at willy.wood@yahoo.com.


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