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Differentiated Instruction

“Differentiation is simply a teacher attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small groups of students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike.”

–Carol Ann Tomlinson

Essentially, differentiated instruction is meant to meet students where they are at and have materials and activities for each student to best reach their needs. This may mean two, three, four, or even 5 (or more) students are taught the same standards each with a different approach. Differentiated instruction is a hot topic in education right now and an idea highly pushed by districts and research. However, as many things are in education, this is a concept much easier said than done.

Historically, regardless of age-group and without considering the functionality of students, teachers stood at the front of their classroom and presented the material in a traditional lecture style format. Primary grades had more hands-on activities, but all students were generally expected to participate in the same experiences.

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Current research suggests the “old-school” way of teaching, standing in front of the classroom lecturing, is not best practice in K-12 schooling. This is especially true when teaching students with disabilities. Rather, scholars support the above mentioned idea of differentiated instruction. However, while a differentiated instructional concept sounds great and research supports this type of instruction for all students…research also suggests an overwhelming amount of teachers do not know how to use this practice effectively.

While there are growing amounts of resources to help teachers with differentiated instruction, let’s focus on a few quick ways to put this into action in the music classroom!

Recognize students learn in different ways

When preparing lessons in the music classroom include activities outside of strictly aural and musical experiences. The below graphic from Loving2Learn is a concise explanation of students’ possible learning styles. You’ll notice yourself resonating with one (or multiple) of the examples. Think of others around you, do you and these people share the same learning styles? The answer is likely not.

Your students don’t always have the same learning styles either.

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Let’s look at some ways to utilize each style of learning in music

Visual: This can be tricky in music, but come up with ways to visualize the music your students are learning about.

Use visual manipulatives to symbolize a music concept:

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(four hearts to represent 4 beats in a measure)
(Forte vs. Piano dynamic markings)
(Staccato vs legato articulation markings)
Making visuals for the music classroom is a relatively easy concept, but can be very time consuming. Looking for some visuals? Alternate visual notation? Assessments with visuals? Check out my Teachers Pay Teachers Store... It's a work in progress. Don't see something you're looking for? Email me! It's likely I have some form of it and just haven't adapted it for TpT. (again, this project is a work in progress)

Auditory: I feel as if this is a freebie in music...


Verbal: While, like auditory, this is also mostly self-explanatory. However, it is important to take into account what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.

Keep in mind, students (especially those with disabilities) do not process and receive verbal communication the same way adults do. Keep it short and sweet and make sure your point is clear and addressed to ALL students. Also make sure to have good voice projection and inflection in your phrases.

For example:

“Hey everyone! How was your weekend? Last week we went over a lot of stuff in class but I really think you all did great so this week we are going to add on by taking a deeper look and explore the form of music. Music comes in all different sounds, shapes, patterns. One way to describe musical patterns is through the use of form.”

Try instead…

“Hey everyone! You all have been doing a great job this year, I really appreciate it! Today we are going to start discussing form. Form in music is all about a structure and patterns within the compositions you hear.”

Kinesthetic:   This is a fun one...

Add some movement!


Did you know research suggests adults get up and move at least once an hour? Research for children and adolescences advocates for even more frequent movement!

So what does this look like in music?

Well dancing is a simple answer to this and a great way to incorporate movement in music. But what else? How about having students move around the room to answer assessment questions (kind of like four corners), your students with a disability who may need some extra help could be paired up with a peer buddy and move around with them. Same activity, two different needs, and an alternative assessment that meets the needs of a kinesthetic learner.

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Add other forms of movement, body percussion is a great one to incorporate rhythm, volume, and expression. Students could do this at their seat by patting their laps, snapping fingers, clapping, etc.,  or put the rhythm in their feet and march around the room using certain rhythmic patterns.

Students love to move! However, we often see students spending extended amounts of time at their tables working on worksheets. Let students have a 'brain break' of choice and let them choose a known song to freely move or dance to. Some students may choose to sit in their seats, and that's okay! Your kinesthetic learners will appreciate the opportunity to move around and get their wiggles out. 

Logical:   Common sense isn't always common... 

Let your students think things out on their own. Keep a "music mystery" on the board for your logical learners to think about while they aren't engaged in other work. For example, this could be notating out the rhythm of a popular song without the use of lyrics or melody and the students are challenged to name the song. This keeps them engaged in music while using a learning style they are comfortable with.

Always try to make the connections to things outside of music, especially when discussing an abstract idea such as "mood" or when allowing for student creativity during activities involving things like improvisation. 


Logical learners often connect well to numbers and systems. Things that fit together. Puzzles and building blocks make for great hands on activities for these students. 

Social:    When learning facilitates friendships...

This one is great! Traditionally and historically, people have always made music together. Music was something that was able to gather everyone regardless of age, gender, or musically ability. Let's keep this alive!

Peer buddies in music are fantastic. Have a student who may be struggling to sit with some other student(s) who are doing well with the current lesson content. Students enjoy helping one other and seeing them learn together is a beautiful thing. Yes, you have to be aware of bullies, or students who may not be as flexible (maybe they are a solitary learner and are not comfortable in a group environment), but allow your students the option to work together and collaborate in their music making and learning in your classroom.

Solitary:   Because we all need sometime to ourselves... 

opposite from social learners, solitary learners like to work alone. It's likely you have students diagnosed with autism in your classroom. Autism is a communication disorder that often makes it hard for students to communicate or socialize. These students may prefer to work alone, especially in higher stress situations like an assessment. That's okay!

Independent work, independent functioning, and independent thinking are all powerful tools for students to develop. While many times in music we work as a group, allow students the opportunity to work on their own as well. 

For more examples please see the "Examples From My Classroom" page. I use photos of various activities and explain various teaching techniques, many of which combine the above learning styles. Also visit my Instagram Page for more up-to-date ideas and examples.
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