Saturday, February 13, 2010

Music is the soul of language

When I was a kid my parents kept the radio on even at night. Even this day I can see this old Dorota in front of my eyes. It was a wedding gift they got from my uncle. During communism such gift was a treat of great value. And they did make use of it.

Music has always been around although I have never been able to play any musical instruments or sing. I got used to having it around and music became a part of my life

Although it may sound the opposite, this post isn’t about how much I like it. 

It’s about how useful and beneficial listening to music may be in the ELT classroom.

You see, back at school I was always better at English than other kids. We all had the same start in grade 6 but I somehow knew more. Never had serious problems with pronunciation and grammar... Well, some sentences simply sounded either good or bad.

I took me some time to figure out why I succeeded in learning English whereas some of my friends did not. I’m sure you already know what I’m hinting at – it was all because of the music.

On the Polish radio (and that’s my guess) around 10% of music played is in Polish and the rest is in English. That’s a generalization, of course, but most commercial stations arrange it this way. Hence, subconsciously, I was exposed to the English language most of the time. I didn’t focus on form or meaning. I used to hum songs to myself just because I liked how they sounded.

Some three years ago I decided to give it a try and started using background music in my classes. The results were not miraculous – eventually a few hours of listening to music in English was not enough to expect some radical changes.

  • To begin with, I managed to get a pretty good rapport with my teenage students as I let them bring music of their own and asked what they liked. All the hip-hop or whatever it was turned out to be slightly tiring but they thought I was cool. Fair enough.
  • It also became easier to get the students’ attention. When the music was suddenly turned off or simply faded away, they knew that it was time for something new and were instantly ready for it.
  • Students appeared to be calmer when exposed to soft music in the background. When I wanted them to discuss important issues I chose, for instance, Dido or Sting. They were more involved in the conversation and listened to each other more carefully. On the other hand, when I played lively and energetic songs, the students were having more energy and fun but the class was a lot louder.
  • They seemed to enjoy taking part in activities lot more and with greater enthusiasm when their favorite music was played
  • My 2nd graders really liked ‘Accidentally in love’ (aka the 'Shrek song') and asked for it all the time. A few weeks after I started using background music my colleague asked them to prepare mini dialogues between two animals. She had a lot of fun but couldn’t understand how the kids learned all the phrases they used. The dialogue one of the pairs created went something like this:

‘Hello! What’s your name?’
‘Hello! My name is horse Debbie!
‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine, thanks, and you?
‘I’m fine. What’s the problem baby?’
‘Dog Jake is speaking Turkish and swinging on the chair!’*
‘Ok, bye bye.’
‘See you later’

Silly as it looks, if you know the song I mentioned, you should realize that ‘What’s the problem baby’ was a phrase they picked up just by listening and enjoying the music I brought to the classroom. To me, the dialogues my kids created were amazing and I couldn’t have felt more proud!

My little experiment also proved that children can be exposed to any kind of music even if it’s music for adults where they sing faster and use more complicated vocabulary.

Now here is the conclusion.

I’m not claiming that my success in learning English should be attributed solely to the radio I listened to as a kid. I’m also not saying that background music will magically transform your students into fluent English speakers. It may help though so why not use it?

Has anyone of you tried?

*Obviously the ‘speaking Turkish’, ‘swinging on the chair’ and other phrases from the mini dialogues were what the students picked up from their teachers ;)

Thanks Mike for the inspiration! J

That's more or less what our old radio looked like btw :) 


  1. Great stuff! I love the example of the children's dialogues.

    I've done a pretty successful activity over the past few years, setting a writing topic and playing Mozart in the background while the students write. A key thing is making sure the students don't worry too much about spelling and grammar and just let their ideas flow.

    I should point out that this isn't my own original idea - I saw it in Music and Song by Tim Murphey (Resource Books for Teachers)

  2. I have been considering using background music in lessons because I read somewhere that music can facilitate learning. I think it is supposed to help students associate what they covered in class with a particular melody.

    I haven't considered it from the point of view that students might passively gain added awareness but it's natural that they would.
    Either way, music lessons in general are immensely popular with students so incorporating some music into every lesson is sure to be a winning idea.

    I encourage my students to expose themselves to as much 'English' as is possible and this would certianly be one way to increase that exposure, and hopefully they will take this strategy from the classroom and into their homes.

  3. Mike and Leigh - I'm glad you've found my ideas useful :)

    Mike - Mozart while writing sounds great. You can also play 10 different pieces of music and let students note down whatever comes to their minds and later compare.

    Leigh - I also tell my students' parents to make their kids listen to songs in English at home. In my case it worked anyway :)

  4. I've used songs successfully with everybody from young kids to adult business people. When I've mentioned this before , some people want to know what songs might be suitable for business English.
    The secret to getting business students to accept the idea of learning using songs is to point out clearly what the specific language point is to be practiced.
    Here are some examples of ones I've used successfully with adult business students (usually I do gapfills - I know it's conventional but conventional doesn't always have to equal bad)
    Present Simple;
    She's not just a pretty face (SHANIA TWAIN)
    Present Continuous;
    Tom's Diner (SUZANNE VEGA)
    If I were a rich man (ELVIS)
    Money Money Money (ABBA)
    Past Modals;
    The day before you came (ABBA)
    Present Perfect;
    Stiil haven't found what I'm looking for (U2)
    etc etc etc

  5. I also like the idea of using songs for pronunciation: Fool (by Shakira) is one I've earmarked for the future - pronunciation of different vowel sounds and lots of rhyme in it.

  6. Wow, what great ideas you have :)Haven't thought of using songs for pronunciation in the way you mentioned Mike!

    Thanks for sharing!
    My favourite is 'Summer of 69' (Bryan Adams) - it's perfect for practising Past Simple
    'In the shadows' (The Rasmus) - Present Perfect Continuous
    'When I'm sixty four' (the Beatles) - articles
    'All I wanna do' (Sheryl Crow) - prepositions

  7. Great stuff. That reminds me of another good one for prepositions; 'Moon over Bourbon Street' (Sting)
    Must dig it out again.