Songs are great teachers. We live in a world in which culture and entertainment mingle. We live in a world where teachers are not the only authority when it comes to information. Songs work fine with any age. There seems to be a deep relationship between rhythm and speech. Sensitivity to rhythm is a basic and necessary first step in learning a language. In using songs and music in the classroom we are exposing students to the rhythms of language. Nevertheless, we must carefully choose the lyrics of a song we want to use in class as many of them either contain bad language or bad models. They may also contain grammatical mistakes and they may only marginally teach the language points you want to focus on.
Besides picture stories, songs – which are music and words – have a story. Mark Booth puts it very simply: “The song embodies myth and we step into it.”
There are many types of songs which can be used in the classroom, ranging from nursery rhymes to contemporary pop music. There is also a lot of music written specifically for English language teaching.
Songs are powerful. They are non-threatening and which is more they can acquire strong emotional associations with people, events or places. In other words, they are hard to forget. We tend to react emotionally to songs, or a song reflects our emotion at some point in our lives. Songs create their own world of feeling and emotions. They have a public as well as a personal quality. They make the listener react as if the song was sung for the listener personally.
Gardner (1983) distinguished eight styles of learning, and students in his ‘aural/musical’ category will have a lot of benefit from learning through songs. They are strong in singing, picking up sounds, remembering melodies and rhythms; they like to sing, hum, play instruments and listen to music.
This is not to say that learners with other learning styles cannot benefit from songs. Of course they can, because in the activities we develop with songs we can dance and act (physical learning style), read, draw and do puzzles (spatial intelligence) tell stories, and write (verbal learning styles).
Songs can be used as texts in the same way as a poem. Songs and music can be used as an incentive for conversation, role-play or even creating new poems. Furthermore, songs are part of what makes a generation a generation and the current generation is a global rather than a parochial one.
Reasons for using songs in the classroom
1. Classroom atmosphere – Whenever we bring a song to class our students will be delighted because while hearing and learning it they will feel more relaxed and more secure. It is sure that the teacher will not evaluate the way they are singing and singing is relaxing in itself.
2. Language input – Songs gather all types of language (very old, very modern, slang, formal and informal etc). By giving children different types of songs we will expose them to wider language input. Moreover, the language used in songs is a “living” one.
3. Cultural input – Songs are a reflection of the time and place that produced them. Think for instance of Bob Marley’s activist songs or Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise.
4. Rhyming schemes – Songs are in fact simple poems. Patterns of sound and stress are repeated in regular sequences.
5. Performance – Unlike drills, which are often boring, the learners can sing songs or read poetry aloud without feeling this to be an unnatural process. The fact that group performance masks individual errors increases self-confidence.
6. Ambiguity – Any song and poem means more than one thing. It has a public and personal meaning that can be used to everyone’s advantage in teaching. As each individual interpretation is valid this can lead to almost infinite discussion ground.
7. Celebration – Songs are a change of pace in our overstuffed curricula. They are a celebration of rhythm, of life, of time. Or it can be actually a celebration song that we sing – Happy Birthday song, for instance. Other songs mark other special events that people are either happy, or proud, or sad about.
8. Conversation – Songs are a launching pad for conversation.
9. Memorability – Songs are hard to forget. So, that will be the case also with the language contained in them. If we want our kids to be happy and to remember over time about our English lessons, we would certainly want to include some songs in our teaching.
10. Playfulness – One of the key factors in learning a foreign language is to enjoy it. Enjoying it means being able to play with it, to test its flexibility. Poetry and song are the best media in which this can be done. Through interactive writing tasks, they can reach out for the limits of the language and the possible themselves.
11. Reactional – In the case of poetry and song we speak neither of an interactional use of language (as when we want to be sociably pleasing) nor of a transactional use (as when we give instructions, express our opinions and needs), but a reactional one. The main purpose of reactional language is neither to make people feel comfortable nor to procure a utilitarian result, but rather to make people react personally to another person’s verbal sensibility. All literature does this, in fact. But poetry and song have the advantage of doing this in little space.
12. Motivation – There is an obvious motivational element in learning songs in a foreign language, and especially in English, which is the language of popular music.
Gardner, Howard (1983), Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences Basic Books, New York
Curtain, H., & Dahlberg, C. A. (2004), Languages and children: making the match, Boston, Pearson
Griffee, Dale T. (1992), Songs in Action, Prentice Hall, United Kingdom