Using Humor As a Teaching Tool in the Music Classroom

I Suppose You Think This Is Funny: Using Humor as a Teaching Tool

By Sara Given


In college, I divided my time between music classes and performing in a touring sketch comedy group that met on campus. Teaching music was always my career path, but my time as a writer and stand-up comedian provided me with a few valuable life lessons:

  • Finding humor in difficult situations makes life easier.
  • People are more likely to remember something if it is funny.
  • If I ever get tired of living the lavish lifestyle of a music teacher, I can always fall back on the lavish lifestyle of a struggling comic.

While my time on the mic is now limited to introducing our next concert piece, I find numerous benefits in implementing humor into my daily teaching. Just in case you need persuading to goof around more, let’s look at the research.

…students ranked “sense of humor/ability to laugh” as the third highest motivating factor in the classroom.

A Brief Overview of Research

Research supports the use of humor in the classroom, citing that teachers who employ humor facilitate the retention of information, increase speed of learning, improve problem solving, relieve stress, reduce test anxiety, and increase student perception of teacher credibility. (Torok, McMorris, & Lin, 2004).

“Humor links the pupils and teacher through enjoyment. It can mold a collection of individuals into a group.”(Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching, 1950)

Finally, when Weaver & Cotrell (1987) asked what factors had the greatest influence on learning, students ranked “sense of humor/ability to laugh” as the third highest motivating factor in the classroom.


Who, Me?

If the thought of trying to be funny in front of a group of judgmental adolescents makes you squirm, consider this: teachers and comics already have much in common.

Given Graph 2

See? You’re already most of the way there! Let’s look at a few general guidelines:


General Guidelines

#1. Know your audience
Every good comic knows the demographic of his or her audience. For teachers, the age of our students plays a large role in what they think is funny. As you will see from this graph, humor develops in stages.

Wandersee, J. 1982. Humor as a teaching tool. The American Biology Teacher. 44 (4).


#2. A little goes a long way
As with any teaching strategy, overusing humor will diminish its impact. Weaver & Cotrell (1987) suggest 10-15 minutes of content with 1-2 minute humor “breaks” interspersed throughout. This may vary according to your class or age group.

What do YOU think is funny? This is the most important rule, because it is the one that will help you be convincing. Every comic goes through a phase where they try to emulate their idols. This approach always fails because, as we musicians know, there is no authenticity in “parroting”. Mogavero (1979) found that, “The form of humor is almost unimportant to the students. They seem to selectively perceive the type of humor they prefer as the type being used by the instructor.”


Types of Humor – What Is Your Style?

Joke Teller
<Insert viola joke here>

You don’t have to be Robin Williams to be the impressionist. If you enjoy funny voices or impersonating people, this is your stop.

Story Teller
Telling short, humorous stories is a great way to give your students a break from class while maintaining their focus.

A (very) brief guide on telling an interesting story:
A great story engages the listener’s emotions and senses. What were you thinking/feeling? What did it smell/sound/look like? Leave out bland details and describe how it FELT.

Improv Artist
The first rule is always say “Yes, and…” When a student suggests you rent a fog machine for your next concert, you reply, “Why stop there? Let’s shoot flames out of the stage!”

Physical Comedian
The physical comedian uses his or her face, gestures, body in a humorous way. I like using exaggerated conducting gestures to regain students’ attention and also work in a little cardio.


A Few Comedy Templates

Now that you’ve explored your comedic tendencies, there are strategies that comics use to deliver material. You can use any of these in the classroom setting.

The Rule of Threes
The Rule of Threes plays on the audience’s expectations. A comic gives a “normal” example of something, and then another. The third example is always something ridiculous, playing on the audience’s expectation of something “normal” and thus eliciting a laugh.

This is so easy to use in the classroom:
“Alright everyone, as we walk to the auditorium there will be no running, talking, or interpretive dancing.”

Ridiculous Absurdities
Students love anything silly or ridiculous. “Basses, this time play it as if you are happy little bunnies.”

I love conductor analogies so much I keep a list of my favorites. “Flutes, those trills sound like someone set off a car alarm. Play softer!”

Right and Wrong Examples
This is particularly great for music teaching. Model the right and wrong ways to do something, but make sure your “wrong” is really absurd. I like to use this with student posture during rehearsal.

This one is tricky. If you are not confident about coming off in an amiable manner, you should stay away from it. Teasing or sarcasm should never be directed at an individual student and never used when you are genuinely upset. The example for “Analogies” above serves as an appropriate example (as long as you say it with a smile).

Name It!
Students love when something has a special name; it forms an “inside joke” between you and your classes. You can coerce students into an insane amount of disguised repetition if you make it a game with a fun name.

Call Backs
A call back is a technique used by comics where they reference a joke from earlier in their set. It essentially becomes an inside joke between the comic and audience because it creates a bond by referencing an earlier shared experience. You can pull call backs from anything, a Rule of Threes, an analogy you made in class, etc.


Using Humor to Your Benefit

Here are a few common classroom goals and ways in which humor can aid in achieving them.

Developing a Sense of Community
– Story telling, call backs, and inside jokes form a bond between you and your students.

Instructional Pacing
– Ridiculous absurdities, rule of threes, and impressions can buy you a lot more focus from students.

– Analogies, ridiculous absurdities, and impressions get the message across in a way they might remember or even appreciate.

Clearer Communication
– Analogies or physical humor make information more memorable.

When You Make a Mistake
– Any kind of humor shows you are confident and sets a positive example to students for handling failures.

Easing tension
– Ridiculous absurdities, improv, and call backs relieve stress and ease student anxieties.


Finally, there are instances where humor can make things worse.


When to leave your act in the club:

  • A student is in a bad mood/sensitive
  • The students are already wound up
  • You are aware of a cultural barrier
  • You are upset
  • A student is identified for a special service
  • You are not funny


I hope you found a few clear and effective ways to use humor as a teaching tool and make your days a little more enjoyable. I would like to leave you with a few hard learned lessons from open mic night:


  • If something doesn’t go over, acknowledge it
  • You don’t HAVE to talk to be funny
  • Never, ever, ever invite a heckler on stage


About the Author:
Sara Given

Sara Given is the conductor of the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestras Junior Strings. She also teaches middle and high school orchestra with the Hilliard City Schools, voted one of the “best communities for music education” by The National Association of Music Merchants. This summer, she will serve as conductor of The Junior Orchestras at the Interlochen Center for the Arts Camp. Previously, she served as Master Teacher for The Ohio University String Project, a program that provides string instrument instruction to underserved communities in Central Ohio.

A frequent guest conductor and clinician, Sara has presented clinics for The National Association for Music Education, The American String Teachers Association, The Ohio Music Educators Association, and The Midwest String Teachers Workshop. Her work has been published in The Triad Journal for Music Education and Strings Magazine.

Sara is also a published humorist. Her book Parenting Is Easy will be available through Workman Publishing in fall of 2015.


Sara presented on this topic at the 2015 NAfME National Conference in Nashville, TN.


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