Music in the Classroom

I love music and I’ve always been a little jealous when I hear about other faculty who play songs before class that relate to the topics of the day. George Chauncey famously played gay anthems before his U.S. Lesbian and Gay History lectures at Yale. I’ve heard Anna Haskins sets the tone for Intro Sociology lectures with music here at Cornell. And both Dirk Mateer and Rebecca Stein connect songs to the topic of the day in introductory economics classes.

In the fall, I tried playing music in my Applied Econometrics classes. It’s not that hard to find songs inspired by economic or social issues, but artists don’t write about probability, statistics, or even causal effects very often. Instead, the songs I played were puzzles where students had to listen to find the (sometimes tenuous) connection. Lots of former students sent me their suggestions (thank you!) and I was able to fill out a whole 27 lecture econometrics-related playlist. The music also provided some much needed energy to an 8:40am class. To be honest, I’m not sure how many of the students noticed or cared about the puzzles, and even I found the range of genres we traveled through during the semester a little unsettling.

This semester I’ve been playing music in my Intermediate Microeconomic Theory class, but I’ve narrowed the range and dispensed with the puzzles. It’s been a heavy diet of 80’s new wave: Howard Jones, The Cure, New Order, OMD, and even Kajagoogoo. I play it before class and during the one or two short “problem breaks.” It’s closer to what David Malan does by playing dance music to get the energy up before his CS50 lectures at Harvard and Yale. Again, I don’t know how much my students like 80’s music it, but it sure improves my mood.

And I haven’t completely dispensed with connecting songs to content. I did play “Radioactive” (by the Firm) when we started talking about firms. We also did a close reading of the lyrics of OMD’s “If You Leave” to determine if the singer was behaving as an oligopolist (i.e., strategically) or a monopolist. We decided he is playing a dominant strategy. Maybe it’s just cheap talk, but he is at least saying that his actions are not dependent on the actions of his partner. e.g.,

If you leave
I won't cry
I won't waste one single day
But if you leave, don't look back

In the end, I don’t think there is one “right” way to integrate music into a class. If there’s a real connection between song and topic, that’s great. If the songs are puzzles or a way to break up silent periods before or during class, that can work too. On the other hand, don’t play music you hate just because you think they might like it. The last thing you want is to start class in a bad mood.