How To Differentiate In The Music Classroom: Real Examples

image how to differentiate in the music classroom

Do you want to push your teaching to better reach all of your music students?

Has your administration been asking you to explain how you differentiate in the music classroom? 

Differentiation has been a buzz word for a while now, but it’s not just another hoop to jump through. Used correctly, providing multiple types of instruction for your students can be a game-changer for helping your students reach their full potential.

So let’s look into how to differentiate in the music classroom. 

When you differentiate your instruction, you provide multiple lanes of support and teaching tools to reach students at their own level and intelligences. In lessons, you can differentiate your instruction in some of these ways: 

  • Approach From Different Intelligences
  • Prepare To Step Back Or Push
  • Allow Students To Choose Their Level 
  • Group By Ability

Read on for more about how to differentiate in the music classroom with specific lesson examples included. 

What Is Differentiated Instruction?

As Laura Robb wrote with Scholastic, “differentiation is a way of teaching.” 

The main goal of differentiation is to provide learners with many avenues of support. She describes the following 5 elements as key to a differentiated classroom. 

Ongoing, formative assessmentStudents need to be assessed throughout the year to see what specific areas they need to improve on. 

Recognition of diverse learners – Your instruction should meet students of different abilities and learning styles. 

Group Work – Working in groups encourages learning from each other and from learners of similar and different levels. 

Problem Solving – Focusing on projects that problem solve rather than rote information allows for students to develop their learning how they naturally need to learn.

Choice – By negotiating choice in learning with students (where appropriate) you build intrinsic motivation that meets the students natural diverse interests. 

Some of these elements may seem tricky to implement which is why the next section includes applicable ways and examples of how to differentiate in the music classroom. 

How To Differentiate In Music Lessons

In this section, we’ll look at the 4 main ways I’ve found to differentiate in music lessons along with concrete examples you can apply to your teaching right away! 

Approach From Different Intelligences

The first way I like to differentiate is build my lesson so that I’m reaching multiple intelligences. Howard Gardner theorized 8 “intelligences” people possess in differing amounts which influence how they learn. 

He also said that to maximize our students’ potential we need to teach in ways that reach these intelligences. 

The 8 common ones are: 

  • Linguistic intelligence (“word smart”)
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)
  • Spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)
  • Musical intelligence (“music smart”)
  • Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)
  • Intrapersonal intelligence (“self smart”)
  • Naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”)

Under the umbrella of differentiation, teaching to different intelligence will affect all students positively and build better connections in the brain. 

Fortunately, in music, we do this naturally all the time (in addition to all of the other skills we already develop). The Kodaly-inspired classroom format of lesson plans reaches this naturally as well. 

Here are some ways you can naturally teach to each intelligence (which you may already do). 

Linguistic intelligence – Reading music notation 

Logical-mathematical intelligence – Counting rhythms

Spatial intelligence – Using pictures (or notation) to show rhythm value and pitch level)

Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence Move to the beat with your body, hand signs, body solfege

Musical intelligence – Ummm… yeah. 🙂 

Interpersonal intelligence – Working together in groups or ensembles

Intrapersonal intelligence – Building self-confidence with individual reflection 

Naturalist intelligence – Finding sounds and musical ideas in the natural world; timbre and how sound is made 

Prepare To Step Back And Push

When you write your lessons, you were probably taught to aim for the difficulty that the majority of your students can handle. Maybe you just naturally plan that way as well. 

And for the majority of your students, this works just fine. Those highs and lows, however, are either bored out of their minds of confused. 

This is often where behavior problems will begin to creep in. Or blast in like a herd of elephants.

Differentiating is planning for all learners, the highs and the lows. This is why I always prepare to step back and push ahead with the concepts. 

By including the step back (you could call it review if you wanted) you’ll reach your lows and move them a bit forward. By pushing ahead, you challenge your highs and show the middles what they’re reaching for. 

Example: In a lesson where my kids are practicing reading 16 beats of rhythm using quarter notes, paired eighth notes, and quarter rests, I could do the following: 

  1. Review: Have students read 4 beats of rhythm, then 8 beats as they’ve done in classes past. (Challenges lows)
  2. Teach: Work our way up to reading 16 beats of rhythm. (Challenges middles)
  3. Push: Read the 16 beats of rhythms backwards or in canon with T. (Challenges highs)

Most of your time will still be spent on the “Teach” part of the lesson chunk, but by preparing for the other two, you also meet your other learners. 

Allow Students To Choose Their Level 

Students are often quite at choosing an appropriate level for them. By presenting them with different options, they may self-select the right level, or they may select to challenge themselves (but this time, they’re intrinsically motivated). 

Example: When learning about ostinati, you can teach a few patterns at different levels. Then, you can encourage the students to choose the pattern they’d like to master. 

If they feel insecure, they may choose one more in their ability level and grow because of it. Or they may end up picking one harder them, but they master it because they chose it. 

These ostinati could then be extended on non-pitched percussion or barred instruments. 

Group By Ability

A big music education trend right now is the inclusion of centers in the music classroom. Centers are activities that small groups can rotate through while the T monitors or works with a single group to give them specific instruction at the group’s level. 

Whether you’re using centers or not, you may be helpful to occasionally group students according to their ability. Then, when you do group work you can assign a task suited to their level. 

Example: You ask students to create new lyrics to a song you’ve taught them (Miss Mary Mack, for instance). In these groups, you can hand them a paper to work on which has some prompts to help out. 

For the struggling groups, their paper can have all words already written except the rhyming words themselves. 

Middle groups can have a starting rhyming word, and they have to finish it. 

High groups get a blank page. 

Note: Now is the perfect time to get to those groups and give personalized, individual feedback. 

Example Of Differentiation In The Music Classroom

Here is an example of a 15-minute rhythm activity I’ve done with my kids that keeps these differentiation strategies in mind. You can use this in your classroom right away. 

Grade Level: Second Grade

Time Of Year: Early Fall

Concept: Review quarter notes, eighth notes, quarter rest

Student Objectives: 

  • Students will be able to (SWBAT) read 16 beats of rhythm with 80% accuracy. 
  • SWBAT quiz each other in groups of four using rhythm flashcards.
  • SWBAT play rhythms on rhythm sticks from rhythm flashcards. 

Materials: Slides containing 4 beat rhythms (4), 8 beat rhythms (4), and 16 beat rhythms (2); rhythm flashcards (grouped into high, middle, and low); rhythm sticks


  1. S. sit down from their opening song while humming Ickle Ockle in their preassigned groups of four (grouped by ability). 
  2. S. echo clap patterns using q-e-qr. 
  3. Reading Rhythms
    1. Review – S. read and clap 4 beats of rhythm. S. read and clap 8 beats of rhythm. 
    2. Teach – S. read 16 beats of rhythm (2) with think time before each one. 
    3. Push – S. are asked to sing the 16 beats of rhythm backwards. 
  4. The last rhythm is the rhythm to Ickle Ockle. 
  5. S. stand and sing Ickle Ockle. 
  6. S. replace the word with rhythm syllables and clap. 
  7. S. perform the rhythms with the following moves
    1. Quarter = step 
    2. Eighth notes = tiptoe 2 steps
    3. Rest = hands move in large shrug motion
  8. If time: S. create their own moves for each rhythm and perform. 
  9. Group Work 
    1. S. sit faces their preassigned groups. T. hands out rhythm flashcards matching each group’s ability. 
    2. S. take turns quizzing/coaching each other on the rhythm flashcards. For a challenge, a student may request to do the rhythm doubled with another one or backwards (or both). 
    3. T. monitors and gives individual feedback as possible. 
  10. T. transitions class out of rhythm cards and into a low-concentration movement activity. 

Note: I always try to link learning with a folk song or art song. 

What Differentiation Is Not

There are some common misconceptions about differentiation in general that may turn you off from these strategies, but don’t buy into it! Here is what differentiation is not: 

A different lesson for every student – While we do want to meet every student’s needs, this doesn’t mean we plan a different lesson for each one. 

This is impossible for gen ed teachers, let alone us music teachers who can see around 800 or more per week. By intentionally designing your lessons with a varied approach, you can do the same thing with almost no extra work. 

Higher students teaching lower students – Grouping students together should never result in kids teaching each other. Rather, you can have students coach each other and work collaboratively regardless of skill level because you provided a varied approach. 

Focusing on the low – Yes, we all want to try to catch up the students who are struggling. But this doesn’t mean you ignore the kids with middle or high abilities. 

Separating kids into “smart” and “dumb” – While the groups may end up being of the same ability level, this should be varied for this exact reason. Also, students with lower abilities have just as much capacity for creativity as the ones labeled as high. 

A fad that will go away – Though it may not have been called differentiation in the past and it’s name may change in the future, teachers should always want to better their teaching so that every student succeeds. 


I hope you enjoyed learning a little about how to differentiate in the music classroom. By meeting students where they’re at you can help everyone. 

I recommend differentiating by approaching from different intelligences, preparing to step back or push, allowing students to choose their level, and grouping by ability. 

Any questions about differentiation? Ask me below! 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher in Michigan with 12 years of experience. He's the President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and founder of the Dynamic Music Room.

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