Engaging All Types of Learners in the Music Classroom:

Tools and Techniques to Reach Different Types of Learners in the Music Classroom

By NAfME Member Brian Wagner-Yeung

Music teachers often have a difficult job creating exciting and innovative activities for students. These activities can include: singing songs, listening to musical examples, learning to play different types of instruments, learning to read music, incorporating folk dances, composing, and being exposed to historical and multicultural music.

Nevertheless, not every student who enters the music room learns in the same way, especially special learners. Music teachers can easily change the way instruction is presented to allow all students to have an entry point into the musical activities. Three key words that are used when discussing special learners include: adaptationmodification, and accommodation. In addition, differentiation can be incorporated into this group as well.

As mentioned, music teachers can easily change (or adapt) the way instruction is presented to allow all students to have an entry point into the musical activities. Some examples of adapted instruction can include:

  • color-coding
  • using non-traditional materials
  • using icons or pictures
  • and incorporating all four types of learning modalities


Adapting Music Literacy

Many students enter the music classroom without the ability to immediately connect with traditional music literacy. Music teachers can find alternative ways to allow students to connect with literacy. These can include:

  • color-coding
  • using icons
  • using rhythm flash cards to isolate sections in music
  • incorporating movement to teach rhythm or pitches
  • utilizing technology

When teaching rhythm, music teachers can easily differentiate how musical notes look to allow all students to have an entry point. Teachers can start with using a “go” and “stop” sign to represent steady beat. One “go” sign could be equivalent to a quarter note, and one “stop” sign could be equivalent to a quarter rest. Therefore: each “go” sign could mean one clap, and one “stop” sign would mean a sound of silence. Music teachers can also use icons to represent a specific command (such as clap, tap the drum, hit the claves, etc.). Teachers can also use color-coded note values to differentiate between different rhythms. For example: quarter notes can be green and quarter rests can be red (to connect with “go” and “stop”), eighth notes can be blue, sixteenth notes can be purple, etc. Lastly, teachers can also use traditional black-and-white notation. By providing four different ways to showcase the same objective, teachers are allowing more opportunities for students to connect with one, and eventually increase their demand.


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*These are examples of four differentiated levels of the same piece of music.


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*This is a musical example of teaching through icons.


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*This is the same musical example using color-coded notation.


A similar approach can be used when teaching melodic literacy to students. For emerging leveled students, they can use color-coding to represent the different pitches. The rainbow spectrum can be organized to teach a melodic scale (do is red, re is orange, mi is yellow, etc.) Teachers can start with colored circles representing a pitch, and have a student play it back on an instrument. Teachers can also begin writing notation with actual rhythm values, but still having each pitch be colored in accordance with the rainbow spectrum to help students differentiate between them. Lastly, students can have the colors taken away, moving up to traditional mu     s can also include note names or solfege syllables as an in-between step if necessary.

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These are examples of four differentiated levels of the same piece of music.


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This is a musical example using color-coded notation, also incorporating the original rhythmic colors.


In both of these examples, teachers are using a step-wise scaffolded system. Some students might need to begin on level 1 and move their way up, while other students can easily start at level 3. In both examples, you can also include speaking and singing (rhythm syllables and solfege syllables). For some students, they might easily connect more with speaking or singing, and this is still allowing them an entry point into the music-making.


Adapting Active Listening

All students can be taught how to listen to music. By incorporating all four types of learning modalities, students can easily connect with listening examples. These modalities include:

  • kinesthetic (movement)
  • tactile (touching)
  • auditory (listening)
  • visual (seeing)

Every listening example can be made to include these four types of modalities, which will increase student success.

While visual and auditory modalities are already common in music classrooms, kinesthetic and tactile can be included to. Movements or dances to teach the melodic contour can allow students to physically feel or trace the melody of the music. Listening maps in which students actually touch specific materials (ex: sandpaper to show rough, cotton balls to show smooth), can allow students to physically feel the music and this can transfer into other modalities.

One listening example to demonstrate this is “A Cuckoo in the Deep Woods” by Camille Saint-Saens from “Carnival of the Animals.” Below are the steps that can be taken to allow students to experience this piece through all modalities. The focus of this listening activity is to discriminate between the piano and clarinet sounds.

  • Have students listen to music. (auditory)
  • Have students tiptoe around the room to the piano sounds, and point up into the imaginary trees when they hear the cuckoo sound. (kinesthetic)
  • Have students follow a listening map showcasing the two different instruments. (visual)
  • Have students create their own listening maps and share with a friend. (tactile)

A second listening example to demonstrate this is “Aquarium,” also from “Carnival of the Animals.” The focus of this listening example is to recognize the different themes in the music.

  • Have students listen to music. (auditory).
  • Have students locate the different themes in a teacher-created listening map. (visual)
  • Have students create animal movements for each theme in the music. (kinesthetic)
  • Have students use animal shadow puppets to show the different themes. (tactile)
    • Teachers can include pre-made shadow puppets, or students can create new ones.


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*This is an example of a teacher-made listening map for “Aquarium.”


Adapting Composition Activities

All students are able to compose music, and composition should be included in the music classroom at all ages. Composition allows students to incorporate skills they have been learning, while allowing them to have a creative outlet. As with the other activities, composition can be made available with the proper amount of adaptation and differentiation.


Composition allows students to incorporate skills they have been learning, while allowing them to have a creative outlet.


By incorporating alternative types of materials and manipulatives, students can easily be motivated to compose and showcase their composition in alternative ways. Student compositions do not need to use traditional literacy, students can use fun types of materials to showcase their composition with the same results. Some examples of alternative types of materials include: construction paper, yarn, dried noodles, colored tape, popsicle sticks, and stickers. Below are two composition activities that can be taught by just using construction paper.

Long and Short Sounds Composition

  • First, create a sound bank of long and short sounds (vocal, natural, instrumental, etc).
  • Next, have students rip long and short pieces of construction paper.
  • Next, have students choose between the ripped pieces and tape it onto a larger “master score.”
  • Next, have students choose between the long and short sounds from the bank.
  • Last, have students perform their compositions just using ripped pieces of construction paper.

Composing with Colors

  • First, introduce how different colors can represent different pitches (easily connects with color-coding mentioned earlier).
  • Next, use colored construction paper and compose melodies on the board.
  • Next, have students play the songs on melodic instruments with colored connections (either use instruments that already follow the rainbow spectrum or you can tape the colors on).
  • Next, have students compose their own songs just using colored construction paper.
    • You can add more guidelines such as using pentatonic colors, or specific pitches if you want.
    • You can also add rhythm by using different sizes of paper.

Once all types of musical activities are adapted or differentiated, more students will find success in the music classroom. Alternative modifications can still be made for specific students or learners. Nevertheless, by allowing everyone to have an entry point, teachers will allow for a more positive music-making experience.



About the author:

Brian Wagner Headshot







NAfME member Brian Wagner-Yeung received his BA and MSED in Music Education from CUNY Queens College. He is currently split between two schools in Brooklyn: PS 370K and Brooklyn School of Inquiry. He has worked with students on the elementary, middle school, and high school level, where he has worked with students who have severe special needs—in addition to students who are gifted and talented. Mr. Wagner has taught: general music, string orchestra, musical theatre, and performing arts. He is a classically trained cellist, and currently plays regularly in the NYC area.

He has presented, and co-presented workshops for: NYSSMA, NYCDOE, SCMEA, OMEA, NJMEA, CMEA, NYSCAME, NAfME National In-Service Conference, NAfME Biennial Eastern Division Conference, NAfME Western Division Conference, and two online webinars for NAfME Academy. He has also presented lectures at CUNY Brooklyn College, CUNY Queens College, and NYU. In addition, he has had papers and articles published in: International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, School Music News, Tempo, Maryland Music Educator, and Bluegrass Music News.

Visit Brian’s websiteConnect with Brian on LinkedIn.


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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

July 21, 2017


  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA)
  • Educational Topics
  • Innovation
  • Special Education


July 21, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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