When I was learning Spanish, I remember having to practice and sing a song as a whole class. It seemed like a waste of time while I was doing it because I hate singing (actually, I don’t hate singing but I don’t feel like I am good at it so I am embarrassed to have anyone hear me sing) but now, even 20 years later, I still remember some of the lyrics. Music is a powerful way to help students learn a variety of language skills but my singing sounds like metal scraping against itself, not pleasant to listen to. Also, I suspect I may be tone deaf or something. I do love listening to music though and I love using it in my classes. Here are some of the ways I have brought music to my students without subjecting them to any of my own singing or requiring them to sing.  

​1. Put on some music before class starts for the students who arrive early.

This is something I picked up from my Spanish teacher. I am one of those people who is perpetually 10 minutes early for everything. This gets on my husband’s nerves as he is perpetually late and doesn’t understand my compulsion, but that is beside the point. Being always early, I spend a lot of time waiting for things to start, usually I carry a book around with me and I get a lot of reading done.

In my Spanish class however, I didn’t have to read because my teacher would always show up even earlier than I did and put on some music in Spanish, a different kind each day. He wrote the name of the artist and the album on the board. So much of the music he played for us before class I loved, I copied the names of the artists into my notebook and I bought the CDs (this was when we still paid for music). I still listen to that music and I used to spend a lot of my free time listening to the songs he put up and looking up the vocabulary words. This was very clever of him since it involved me spending extra hours being exposed to the language voluntarily, he didn’t have to teach anything or grade anything.  

Even though English music is  widespread and students are not unfamiliar with English music, you can introduce them to songs and genres that they might not ordinarily listen to. It also gets them to come to class earlier and sets a friendly welcoming atmosphere.

Here is a list of genres and artists your students may not be familiar with:

Bob Marley – The king of reggae, his music often gets political and I always like that.
UB40– A lighter, more pop-style reggae

There are so many different musicals it is hard to choose a list.
Rita Hayworth in Sway Me is fun.
I also love the soundtrack to Hairspray 

I love Jazz, a few of my favorite artists are:
Nina Simone who vacillates between love songs an political protest.
Louis Armstrong is also amazing.

Ted Hawkins is one of my favorites. He says he didn’t sing the blues but his music is listed as blues so I am not sure what to make of that.  He spent a lot of time playing on the streets of Los Angeles. 
Janis Joplin is kind of blues and rock rolled into one and no one can argue with the power of her voice.

One of my favorite country songs is Jolene by Dolly Parton. 
The only concert my father ever took me to was Willie Nelson so I always smile when I hear his music.

I can’t listen to enough Leonard Cohen.  One day I found myself dancing around a bookstore in Ankara, Turkey to Dance me to the End of Love.  I am sure people must have thought I was crazy but I don’t care; it makes me happy to dance!

As a child of the 70’s, I went on many many road trips with my parents in our station wagon with the faux wood paneling on the sides.  We always listened to Joan Baez because she was one of the few artists my mother actually liked.  The decidedly “make love, not war” vibe is refreshing to me at the moment.  This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many, many more kinds of music to explore and enjoy.

2. Use music to energize Tired Students

My early morning Wednesday class is great; I love them, but when they arrive to class they look rough. Usually most of them have their heads on their desks and are doing their best to try to squeeze in another couple of minutes of shut eye.

I use music in the warm up activities to get them going. Sometimes I ask them what they are in the mood to listen to and sometimes I just give them something really high energy. One of my colleagues recommended “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves; it is perfect for getting people dancing around the classroom.

One easy warm up activity is to write 2 or 3 questions on the board
(I try to recycle target vocabulary in the questions). Then I ask everyone to get up and walk (or dance) around the room when the music stops the person who is closest to them is their conversation partner and they have to talk until the music starts up again. When it does, they have to say “Nice talking to you!” and walk around again until the music stops. I repeat this cycle 2 or 3 times.   

By the end of this, my students are awake and ready to tackle the next project.

3. Background music

One day while I had my students in small groups discussing their work, I stopped and thought about how unnatural the setting seemed. How often when we are conversing with friends do we do so without any music in the background? Not often! One of the things that makes a cafe or a party great, is the music. I am not saying put on loud, distracting, lyric-filled music, but some music in the background can make talking in groups feel more social and less awkward. It can also help when students are doing a reading or writing exercise in which the whole class is silent. A little music can even help students focus on tasks better and make them experience less stress.

A recent blog post entitled The Starbucks Protocol: Designing a Nurturing Classroom by Richard Rogers gives some great ideas on how to make classrooms more inviting.  He doesn’t specifically mention music but he outlines 8 other great ideas. 

4. One Fun Class Activity

Find 3 or 4 different songs with very distinct lyrics.

  • Cut the lyrics into enough lines so that each student in your class gets one line.
  • Then gather all of your students around you
  • throw all of the lyric slips into the air and ask your students to each pick up one slip (or catch it in the air if they can).
  • Then they must organize themselves into song groups.
  • Inside the group, they need to try and put the lyrics into order. When they are happy with their order.
  • Give them QR codes for their song and ask them to listen to it to see if they got the order right.
  • Then their group must perform the song. Now, remember I said that I would not require my students to sing? Give them options here, they can choose to sing the song if they wish or they can do a dramatic reading or act it out like a drama or if they have another creative idea for how to perform their song, go for it.

I like this activity because it is fun and active. It requires students to do lots of different things using different skills, and it has them working together. It also works for all different levels of students, you can choose easier or more difficult songs. You can also do follow up activities by asking students to react or respond to the songs, give song reviews or recommendations, or any number of other things that require students to produce their own language around the topics the songs cover. This could be a great hook when introducing a new unit if you can find songs about the unit topic.

5. Create a whole unit about music

After using music in my classes for fun and energizing purposes, I like to get all intellectual on them. Sometimes I even design whole units around the study of the role music plays in our lives. Some of the themes I have explored are:

  • music and the brain
  • music in advertising
  • music and religion
  • music and war
  • music therapy
  • music and social change

Movies about music and musicians that I love:
What Happened Miss Simone?
High Fidelity
Walk the Line
Heavy Metal in Bagdad 

or, if you are looking for something edgier, Straight out of Compton

What do you do with music in your classes? Do you have a favorite song or activity? Please share them with me, I am always looking for new ideas!

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