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Music for visualisation

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Music can be used in so many different ways in language teaching. These days I am especially interested in facilitating students' creativity in a variety of ways and in this article I want to look at some ways of making the most of music to raise students' awareness of their own creative powers in English. 

The activities I describe are adapted easily to different level groups and types of courses and are even suited to those students who have a less developed musical intelligence.

  • Visualisation
  • Visualisation in the classroom
  • Collaborative story-making
  • Collaborative story-making in the classroom

Of course instrumental music is ideal for creating moods and associations and can enhance guided visualisation. Film scores can be very evocative and have the advantage that they are often designed to be evocative and unobtrusive at the same time. Also one piece or track tends to move smoothly into the next without very abrupt changes.

Visualisation in the classroom
One example of this kind of activity involves students describing an outdoor place they love and an experience there. I recently did this activity with a group of mixed nationality adult learners. It followed some reading of short extracts, mostly from novels, which described outdoor settings in rich detail. It led on to creative descriptive writing and the work they created was powerful and vivid. There was also a great deal of interest in reading each other's pieces as they were very varied despite sharing a common set of stimuli. The content was either entirely true, complete fantasy or somewhere in between.

  • Ask students to sit comfortably and tell them you are going to ask questions and they can answer them in their heads, but they shouldn't worry if they miss some questions.
  • Tell them that afterwards they can talk about their experience if they want to and reassure them that it is not important to remember every detail. Invite them to close their eyes before putting on an extended piece of music like the score to a film.
  • Explain that they can just relax and listen to the music and the questions you ask for about 10 minutes. Once the music has established itself, start guiding them through the visualisation.
  • The following script can be used as a guideline. Pause for several seconds between each instruction or question:
'Listen to the sounds in the room around you…Now listen to the sounds inside you, your breathing…You're in a very special place outside, not in a building. It's a place that you know very well. You've known this place for many years. You love this place. You're here on your own, there's nobody with you…How old are you?…What time of year is it?...What's the weather like? Can you feel it on your skin?...What can you smell?...What sounds can you hear around you?...What sounds can you hear in the distance?...You look around, what can you see? What colours do you notice?...How do you feel about being here?...Now you see somebody coming. You're very happy to see this person. Who is it?...They tell you something you didn't expect. What do they tell you? How do you feel about this?....What do you do?...Now I'm going to stop speaking for a minute. Please keep your eyes closed. I'd like you to see what happens……………..OK, now listen to the sounds inside you…Listen to the sounds in the room around you and when you're ready you can open your eyes.


  • In pairs or small groups, students can describe and compare their experiences during the visualisation. It's worth tuning in to different people and to reassure those who found it hard to concentrate that this is a very normal response.
  • Students can then begin their descriptive writing staying as close as they like to their visualisation experience. They might opt to compile and display the resulting pieces to be appreciated by fellow students.

Collaborative story-making
I love telling and creating stories with students. Collaborative oral story-making can be very challenging and I find that students rarely create truly stirring tales when using prompt cards or going round the group getting contributions from each group member in turn. However, when used effectively, a piece of music can make all the difference, as described in the teacher resource book Spontaneous Speaking.

For me teacher modelling is a key element in a story-making activity. Students need to see how it is done before they take over the role of teller. Music is extremely effective, not only for creating mood but also for bridging gaps while the teller waits for inspiration or searches for the right word. The same guidelines apply as with visualisation and I nearly always use film scores.

Collaborative story-making in the classroom
Once the students are seated comfortably in an informal layout like a semi-circle, I reduce lighting levels in the room and invite them to listen to a story. I start the music at fairly low volume so that it is unobtrusive. The students may go into story-listening mode and be reminded of when they listened to stories as children at home or in school. Once the mood is established, I am ready to start the story.

  • I give a description, which I have prepared and practised before the class, of a scene that fits with the music. At the beginning of the story I am the main character and I am unaccompanied. I tell the story in the first person as if it happened to me, but am careful to avoid putting my own signature on it. For example I don't make it clear if I'm male or female or whether I'm an adult or a child. About a minute into the story it is time to start to invite contributions. I ask very simple questions such as 'I saw someone walking towards me. Who was this person?' or 'Did I open the box or leave it on the table?' Sometimes I ask more open questions like 'So what did I do next?'
  • I accept the first answer and continue the story incorporating the student input while now and again asking for further input with such questions as "What did I do next?" "What did the voice say?" or "Describe the old woman." Remaining sensitive to cultural and individual group members' sensitivities, I accept every contribution and include it in my narrative. When I sense that the group is ready, I invite a willing student to take on the role of storyteller and give them my seat. It is usually a good idea at this point to recap the story so far and to remind the new storyteller to ask for and incorporate other students' ideas in their telling. The accepting of others' offers is the key element of collaborative and spontaneous storytelling. They can hand on their role when they choose or I advise.

It is easy to sense the right time to intervene and ask the final storyteller to bring the story to an end. I might decide to prompt them to reincorporate the key characters and events in order to tie up loose ends. I might even step back into the role myself to do this. Once the story has ended, I make groups of 5 or 6 to create their own tales. This time I might use a different piece of music, which will ensure that the story is distinct from the first.

Further reading
Spontaneous Speaking: Drama Activities for Confidence and Fluency by David Heathfield. DELTA Publishing 2005

If you have any suggestions or tips for using music in the class you would like to share on this site, email us and put 'Music' in the subject line.

David Heathfield, Teacher, Writer, UK

First published in May 2006