Teaching english through music

Music can play a really important part in the language classroom. It can change the atmosphere in the room within seconds. Songs sung in English are listened to around the world and students can often feel real progress in their level of English when they can begin to sing along to the chorus or even just to be able to separate what at first seemed to be a constant stream of words! Songs are part of daily life for most people. Who doesn’t enjoy music at home, while travelling or studying, or even at work? Language teachers can use songs to open or close their lessons, to illustrate themes and topics, to add variety or a change of pace, present new vocabulary or recycle known language. But how do songs actually benefit your students? There is strong practical evidence supporting the use of music in the English language classroom; there is also a growing body of research confirming that songs are a useful tool in language acquisition. In fact musical and language processing occur in the same area of the brain (Medina, 1993).

Types of songs

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. A criticism of the latter is that they often lack originality and musical appeal but there are good examples to be found of stimulating, modern, ‘cool’ music, appealing to the real tastes of language learners. ‘Real’ music that the children hear and play every day can be extremely motivating in the classroom, too. However, the lyrics may not always be suitable: they may, for instance, contain slang or offensive words, there may be grammatical mistakes and they may only marginally teach the language points you want to focus on.

Which learners like songs?

Howard Gardner once said: “It’s not how intelligent you are, but how you are intelligent.” No two students learn in exactly the same way. In any classroom there will be a mix of learning styles, and one student may ‘use’ more than one style, depending on what the task or topic is. To appeal to these differences is a huge teaching challenge. Gardner 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).

Before bringing music into the class, it may be worthwhile to do a music survey or questionnaire to find out what the students enjoy listening to. As much as possible try to use music they will like. I have found that the students’ motivation levels are the determining factor in whether or not a song will work with them. If the students really like the song and the artist they become determined to understand. If you choose the task carefully even lower levels will be able to get something out of working with tricky songs where the language is way above their level of English.

Music in the classroom doesn’t always mean listening to a song and using the lyrics in some way. Music can be used in the classroom in a multitude of ways. Here are just five ways to use music in your classroom.

Speaking about the first way we can say about setting the scene. If music is playing as students enter the class it can be a nice way to settle the group. Give the class a few minutes to settle down and then turn the volume down slowly and use the end of the music as an indicator to the students that the class will begin. The second way is changing the tempo.

Music can be used to calm down an over excited class or to wake up a sleepy one. If you know that your students have high energy levels and sometimes need to calm down, try playing some relaxing music to put on as they work. At first they may find it strange but they will get used to it. With sleepy teenagers, try putting some of their favorite tunes on as they work. It may help to increase their energy levels.

Time limit is the third way. Instead of telling students they have two minutes to finish a task, or with very young learners a minute to tidy the room up after a craft activity, tell them they have until the end of the song. Play the music and when the song ends students should be paying attention ready to listen to the instructions to change tasks.

Feelings can be the fourth way. Different types of music will provoke very different reactions within your students. You can explore this by playing a selection of different types of music for a minute or so each and asking students to write some adjectives of how they feel when listening to the different types.

The last way is musical drawings. Give each student a piece of paper and some colored pencils. Tell them that you are going to play some music and you want them to draw whatever comes into their heads. As music is playing, all students should be drawing. After20 or 30 seconds, stop the music. Students stop drawing and pass their picture to the person to the left of them in the circle. Play the music again and they continue with the drawing the person next to them had started. Stop the music again, pass pictures on and this continues until the end of the song. When you have finished each student will have a picture that several students contributed to. Then it’s up to you what to do with the pictures. They can be used to describe to the group, to write a story about, or to pretend they were a dream the student had last night. The rest of the class can try to analyze the meaning of the dream.

Use different types of music to get different types of pictures. I’ve found that reggae and classic produce happy beach scenes and dance music gets futuristic city scenes. Beware – with teenagers this activity can be quite an eye-opener as it tends to reveal what is going on in their minds!

Songs provide a valuable source of authentic language and there are hundreds of ways to exploit them in the classroom. The internet has made it very easy to find the lyrics of songs. A search on Google with the name of the band, the song title and the word ‘lyrics’ will bring up a selection of sites you can use. Once you have copied and pasted the lyrics into a word document it is quick and easy to make an effective worksheet. Here a selection of ideas for you to try.

Start with a focusing activity: anything that will get students thinking about the subject of the song. Have them think about the title of the song, in groups of pairs. Find a picture that relates to the subject of the song and have students make guesses about it.

Highlight it is another tool for teaching language through music. Put a selection of important words from the song on your board. Have students ask each other what the words mean. Then, have students in groups write or tell a quick story that uses the words. You can also get students to circle, underline or highlight specific words or word categories.

This way of teaching is called Stop it. Again, write a selection of words on the board. Students must shout STOP any time they hear one of the new words. You could also stop the song before a word you want them to guess.

Have students lip sync the song before a team of judges in a Class Idol show. This allows them to become familiar with the words, rhythm, stress and intonation before actually singing the words out loud.

Cut the song into strips. Give each student one strip to memorize. Students put the strips in their pockets. They get up and tell each other their part of the song, without looking at their part or showing their part to anyone else. Students then organize themselves in the right order, speak the song and then listen and check. You can also have students put the strips on a table in order.

Question it is very good tool. Have students ask each other questions about the song (about the words, about the topics or about characters in the song). For more advanced students you could choose two songs of a similar theme, and split the class into two teams. Have each group listen to their song and draw up a list of (open or True/ False) questions. Pair each student with a member of the opposite team and have them take turns asking their questions.

Classic gap – fill is another exercise. Every language student at some point has been given a song to listen to and the lyrics with gaps in for them to fill in as they listen. This activity is not as simple as it sounds and before making one yourself think about why you’re taking out certain words. It may be better to take out all the words in one group, such as prepositions or verbs, and tell students what they should be listening out for. Another option is to take out rhyming words. Don’t be tempted to take out too many words, eight or ten is normally enough. To make the task easier you could provide the missing words in a box at the side for the students to select, or you could number the gaps and provide clues for each number.

It is a good way to use Spotting the mistakes. Change some of the words in the lyrics and as students listen they have to spot and correct the mistakes. As with the gap-fill limit the mistakes to a maximum of eight or ten and if possible choose a word set. You could make all the adjectives opposites for example. Another example of this for higher levels is to show the students the real lyrics and you correct the English and make it proper! E.g. ‘gonna’ change to ‘going to’ ‘we was’ change to ‘we were’ etc. This is a good way to focus on song language.

The next idea can be Comic stripping. Songs that tell stories are great for students to make comic strips out of. You have to choose your song carefully and spend time looking at the lyrics with the students and making sure they have understood the main ideas. Lower levels may need guidance as to how to divide up the song into suitable chucks that can be represented pictorially.

Ordering the verses is another way of using in the classroom. With low levels this is a very simple activity. Chop up the lyrics of the song by verse and give a small group of students the jumbled verses. As they listen they put them in order.

In the class you can use also Discussions. Certain songs lend themselves to discussions and you can use the song as a nice lead in to the topic and a way to pre-teach some of the vocabulary. They can start discussions on a topic or even become the centre of debate. This is especially true of songs that develop a particular theme.

Translating is very useful tool. Although some teachers oppose all use of the mother tongue in the language classroom, some students really enjoy translating lyrics into their own language. If you do ask students to do this ensure the lyrics are worth translating!

Writing the next verses is also a good tool which we used. Higher levels can write a new verse to add to a song. Focus on the patterns and rhyme of the song as a group and then let students be creative. If they are successful, the new verses can be sung over the top of the original!

Have students write a letter to the main character or the singer, send an answer to a person referred to in the song, rewrite the song as a story, write a story which began before the story in the song and led to it, or write a story which will continue after the song.

Change words (adjectives, adverbs, nouns names, places or feelings), and invent new lyrics for the melody. If you have karaoke versions of the songs you can then let students sing their own versions.

We hope that at least some of these ideas will be good for your classes. The more you use music in the classroom the more uses you will find for it. English songs can be used for a wide variety of ESL learning and teaching activities.

Seven reasons why we use songs in the classroom.

  1. They are authentic materials.
  2. You can teach culture and history
  3. Songs contain repetitions and repetitions enhance learning
  4. Good way to teach vocabulary
  5. Good way to teach grammar
  6. Good way to teach pronunciation and listening
  7. They are fun and they can easily energize the unmotivated

Why are songs so suitable?

We can’t generalize, but research has found that pop songs have characteristics that help learning a second language: they often contain common, short words; the language is conversational, time and place are usually imprecise; the lyrics are often sung at a slower rate than spoken words and there is repetition of words and grammar (Murhpy, 1992). Furthermore, songs are also known to lower the “affective filter” or, in other words, to motivate learners to learn. So, what positive contributions to language learning can songs make?

Socio-emotional growth

You’ll often find learners of any age singing together socially – when they are visiting friends, at a party or in karaoke bars. Teenagers and young adults seem to know an endless number of songs by heart and share them continuously through the Internet and portable music players. Even though it’s not always easy to copy this spontaneous love of music in the classroom, singing songs in and with a class is a social act which allows learners to participate in a group and express their feelings, no matter what their English is like.

Physical development

Songs provide a great opportunity for young learners to move around. Clapping, dancing and playing instruments stimulate memory, which makes it possible for learners to hear chunks of language as they sing and use them in different situations later. Older learners can also benefit from clapping, dancing, rocking, tapping, and snapping their fingers to music and songs.

Cognitive training

We all know the phenomenon of the song-that-is-stuck-in-my-head. With the right kind of song it is easy to simulate that in the classroom. Interacting with songs again and again is as important to language learners as repeatedly practicing a tennis technique is for a tennis player. The skill which develops from this is called ‘automaticity’. Learners get to know what to say and to produce language rapidly without pausing.

Cultural literacy

Now that most music is accessible to almost anyone anywhere, either through radio, CDs, DVDs and downloads from the Internet, learners can enjoy songs from all corners of the globe. Songs used in English classes can, in that way, shed light on interesting musical traditions in countries, but can also teach teens, young adults and adults to appreciate other cultures. For adult learners they can be “a rich mine of information about human relations, ethics, customs, history, humor, and regional and cultural differences’ (Lems, 2001).

Language learning

In a world where non-native speakers of English are likely to produce the majority of songs in English, learners have the opportunity to listen to pronunciation in a wide range of varieties of the language. Songs will help learners become familiar with word stress and intonation, and the rhythm with which words are spoken or sung also helps memorization. Again, this will enable learners to remember chunks of language which they can then use in conversations or in writing. As language teachers, we can use songs to practice listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Instead of doing your usual listening comprehension out of the course books, do a song instead. Get your students thinking about the subject and do any pre-teaching of vocabulary as necessary. As with standard listening comprehension, there are a variety of exercises that you can do with songs: true or false, matching exercises, open comprehension questions, etc.

You can use a song with a clear rhyme pattern to do some phonetics work on particular phonemes.

Some songs lend themselves well to vocabulary work. When possible, I have noted on the menu pages when vocabulary exercises are possible.

We like to have students listen first without the lyrics. We ask them to write down all words and phrases that they hear and share them with the class. Then we listen again with the lyrics and go over vocabulary. It is interesting to provide lyrics with several small mistakes and have students see if they can hear where they are.

It's great to use songs in the class, if only to do something a little different. But beyond using them solely to give your students some 'light relief', there are many other ways songs can be used in ESL classrooms to consolidate what students have already learnt.



  1. Lems, Kirsten, Using Music in the Adult ESL Classroom, ERIC Digest, 2001.
  2. Medina, Suzanne L, The Effect of Music on Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, ‘National Network for Early Language Learning’, Vol 6-3, 1993.
  3. Murphy, T (1992), The discourse op pop songs, TESOL Quarterly 26”(4), 770-774.
  4. http://www.freeplaymusic.com/
  5. http://www.ohhla.com
  6. http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/
  7. http://ddeubel.edublogs.org/
Year: 2013
City: Almaty
Category: Philology