Music in the Classroom

Technics turntable.

Drop the needle.

Next week I begin teaching a class that I designed called the History of English Language Popular Music Elective (HELP ME).  It’s a five-week class that will feature a decade of popular music each week.  The class meets every day and each day will feature a different song.  We will listen to the song, review and analyze the lyrics, and then listen to the song again and sing along.

There are many goals for this class.  First, it will expose students to songs that everybody knows to give them a foundation in popular cultural.  When a song comes on the radio, I’d like students to be able to say, “Isn’t that the Beatles?” just like a native speaker might.  The class will also include some linguistic content from each of the songs.  It could be a specific verb tense, idioms, pronunciation or whatever, but this will be an English class.  Finally, through the changing periods and genres of music, we’ll be able to talk about history.  Many changes in our culture are reflected in popular music.

Here are a few songs that I’ve identified for inclusion in the class:

All Shook Up by Elvis Presley – This song has lots of good metaphors and is a good example of an early rock song.

A Hard Day’s Night by The Beatles – There are some good examples of the present perfect in the chorus.

Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones – A Stones song has to be included, but many have very repetitive lyrics.  Paint It Black has lots of English to work with including colorful metaphors that students could be asked to interpret.  It could also be contrasted with What A Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong, which also has colorful metaphors.

I have a few others, but that’s a start.  Do you use music to teach ESL or EFL?  What songs do you use?  Share them in the comments below.  I’d like to know.  If there is enough interest, I’ll share my final set list once the class is finished.


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8 responses to “Music in the Classroom

  1. Mike Dombroski


    In case you haven’t thought of this one: “If I had a Million Dollars” by BNL your fellow Canadians. A fun song with a grammar point.

    • Mike, this is a great song for teaching conditionals and some interesting and punny vocabulary! The first verse almost always makes an appearance in my grammar class. I think the whole song may have to be used in the music class. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • Aaron Schwartz

      I was going to mention the same one as Mike, buy I’d also suggest “Man of Constant Sorrow.” I don’t know who original wrote it, but the Soggy Bottom Boys Version from O’Brother Where Art Thou is a good one and there’s a Dylan version too. It uses present perfect and “have” as a possessive and it includes one weird OSV sentence (My face you’ll ne’er see no more) that can be the exception to the rule. It was great chatting with both of you this weekend.

      • That’s an interesting suggestions, Aaron. I know just the song you mean — my wife hates my particular rendition, but the movie version is well done, plus there would be some video we could include. I’m not sure it qualifies as a song that “everybody knows” but I’ll give it a look. I sure enjoy belting it out, to my wife’s chagrin. Maybe my students would enjoy it too. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Lary

    it wouldn´t hurt to teach with a song from this century. Students hate it when we tell them we´re going to listen to a song because they know that is going to be an oldie!

    • This is a fair point, and we’re going to get there. By doing a decade per week we will still be able to squeeze in a few songs from the 2000s. My intention is to give students a grounding in classic songs that are still very popular today — songs they might hear on campus, in a sportsbar or club, on tv, or at a football game. In the words of Ziggy Marley, if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future. The most important criteria is that the song has something we can talk about as an ESL class (a grammar point, some useful pronunciation or vocabulary, etc.). Any suggestions for more recent songs that are worth exploring? I’d love to hear some examples.

  3. Pingback: Musical Inspiration « ESL Technology

  4. Pingback: History of English-Language Popular Music Elective « ESL Technology

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