How can pop music teach?

Woman by Public Domain Pictures available on Pixabay under CC0 1.0

In Year 11 my English teacher asked us to bring in a song and analyse the lyrics attached to it. “Analyse, uck!” I thought, “This is going to be awful.” Not only were my music tastes very different to my peers (see previous post on my lacking pop culture knowledge) I was also useless when it came to finding the hidden meaning in art of any kind. Instead of using a Buddy Holly song (which I would have preferred). I chose a song off a CD that my boyfriend at the time had given me. I suspect he was trying to make my taste in music more “cool” and “relevant”. Did I like the song? No. Did I associate with it? No. Did I do badly on the assignment? Yes.

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Evanescence cover by Evanescence188 available on Deviant Art under CC BY SA 3.0

Now for a different story. In Year 7 my science teacher asked each of us each to complete a presentation on a type of energy. My good friend and I choose nuclear energy. One day after class, bored and sitting on the oval we made up a song to go with our presentation. To the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh) by the Tokens, another classic favourite. It went:
In the atom, the quiet atom,
The nucleus splits tonight.
In the atom, the quiet atom,
The nucleus splits tonight.
Ooo-way nuclear, nuclear power!
Was the song necessary? No. Did we enjoy the assignment? Yes. Did we do well? Yes.

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The “smiling atom” by Nuclear Power Yes Please available on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

I have shared these two stories to demonstrate that music can teach but it needs to be linked to other concepts and needs to be enjoyable.

Linked to other concepts

Although I agree that there is a place for song lyrics to be analysed, songs can be used in the classroom for more than that. The use of music in the classroom should relate to concepts students are learning.


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Jimi Hendrix cor 01 by Lulz Fernando Rels available on Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Music is able to tell stories and the topics within songs can sometimes be controversial. However, rather than shying away from such topics we should allow students to engage with them and discuss them in the non-judgemental environment of the classroom.  The feelings portrayed in music can also be used as a stimulus for students own creative poetry or story writing.


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University Pop Music Program by Mike Licht available on Flickr under CC BY 2.0


Popular music is located within a time period, so what a fascinating way to teach students history.  I still remember when I was about 10 or 11, listening to Don Mclean’s American Pie and my mother telling me about the history of the song. She told me that it was written at a time of disillusion in America at the beginning of the 1970’s. Suddenly, the song made sense and I had learnt some history.

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United state of art by qthomasbower available on Flickr under CC BY SA 2.0

Another wonderful trend becoming more common in the classoom is the use of music to teach concepts. If you haven’t yet found the website Flocabulary you really should check it out. The creators have developed hip hop and rap songs on a variety of topics. Here is one of their videos:

Enjoyable

In the first of my two stories I wasn’t able to fully engage in the task because I didn’t enjoy working with the music I had chosen. Music is such a powerful means of engaging students in learning.  Whatever music we decide to use in our teaching it is imperative that our students find connection with it, as they should when studying any art form. All students will have different opinions of music. Using popular music will often cover the interest levels of most students, however it is also important to allow students the opportunity to use self selected music.

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Elvis Presley promoting jailhouse rock by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc available on Wikimedia Commons under no copyright

To conclude this is currently my favourite song to use in the classroom, mostly because I also enjoy the original song and it is a brilliant short video to show at the beginning of any grammar lesson:


Music has been used for centuries to pass on knowledge. As a form of popular culture it holds so much potential for the classroom. Would you agree that it is now time for more teachers to harness the power of music in their teaching?

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4 thoughts on “How can pop music teach?

  1. Have you seen “Horrible Histories”? One of the things I like most about it is the way they use songs. There’s one song per episode, often using (an) existing piece(s) of music, with very catchy lyrics relating to a particular figure, issue, period, event, etc. Sometimes the content can be useful for specific facts, sometimes it’s more general information (the rulers song is a pretty good way to memorise English rulers in order, if that’s your thing). The musical structure helps with memorisation, and children are reportedly motivated to learn the songs. I’ve also heard similar things about the educational usefulness of “Schoolhouse Rock” from Americans.

    Music can tell you a lot about a time period. By looking at music from a particular time, you can slip in a lot of stuff about the historical context, about attitudes towards specific issues, about other cultural things referenced in the lyrics – hook students with the music, then slip in the education while they’re distracted. Depending on what you’re studying, lyrics can function as primary sources (e.g. if you’re looking at attitudes towards the Vietnam war, you can look at songs to explore that). You can also look at song lyrics as poetic forms, which might make lessons on poetry more interesting for the students.

    Music can also offer some variety to the lesson – it’s not just you droning on about something, you’re varying the delivery vector of information to make lessons more interesting. I like the Weird Al clip for that (thanks for introducing me), grammar lessons can be uninteresting at the best of times, and the clip tells them why they should care.

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  2. Elizabeth – your proposal that ‘music can teach’ struck a chord with me (no pun intended). I agree that it is an underutilised resource in our classrooms. Today, teachers seem to rely more on YouTube and visual media but the concentration required to listen to lyrics and make meaning of the cadence is second to none. I can vividly recall, years ago, the emotionally wrenching impact created in my Year 11 History class by using ‘I was only 19’, and ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. It stirred a ‘consciousness’ within the students which was only harnessed, at the time, for their assessable outcomes but, if I were doing CRN600 then, I would have more knowledge about using their responses and emotion to foster engagement with civic and political understandings.

    I know that establishing music into a curriculum can construct pedagogically valuable stimulation encouraging learning for students. Within the area of education, music can be a powerful teaching aid contributing to wide ranging brain health and long term success at school. In my research, it indicated there are many developmental benefits for students such as problem solving, spatial intellect and acquisition of speech articulation as well as enhancing team work abilities (Phillips, 2006). In addition, it was fascinating to read that literacy and literacy skills are improved by music.

    You might be interested in reading some work by Jean McIntire (2007). She suggests ‘literacy is developed through music’ whereby students are engaged in an interesting learning environment allowing student expression ‘such as writing, drawing and interpretive movement’ (p.44). With the increased verbal linguistic intelligence music provides, students are better able to read, listen, communicate and understand in order to construct and express language in a written form. This understanding and meaning-making may be carried further to artistic dimensions of creativity incorporating drama, dance and drawing.

    Thank you for your post and, yes, it is time for teachers to ‘harness the power of music in their teaching’.

    References
    McInire, JM. (2007). Developing literacy through music in Teaching Music, v15 (44).

    Phillips, C. (2006) Twelve benefits of music education, http://www.childrensmusicworkshop.com/twelve-benefits-of-music-education Accessed 29 September 2015.

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  3. Great post! One of the great things about pop music is that all of the lyrics are available online. For my 1:1 class, this is freaking reading gold because it allows me to provide lyrics to tons of songs and get kids reading without much work on my part, and tons of buy-in and engagement on their part.

    Again, super post, and great blog 🙂

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    1. Thanks! Such a great idea to use lyrics as reading material as well! I love it! Will definitely be trying that in my reading groups this week. That’s totally it! All about engagement 👍

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