Against Music in ELT

This post is sure to incur some teacherly ire. A lot of teachers aren’t going to like this, because a lot of teachers love using music in English class. That includes me. However, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that music doesn’t have many of the benefits I once thought it did. I think there’s a very strong case to be made against using music in class, or at least against using it to teach certain aspects of the language.

Authenticity

A lot of student books, TESOL texts, even much of the literature related to the CEFR, treat music as a valuable source of authentic English input. Authenticity is a concept whose importance, and even meaning, have been brought under scrutiny, and music is a perfect example of why.

The purported value of authentic input is that it exposes students to real-world language and language features that they will need to grapple with, even if they’re messy. In spoken language, these include hesitation phenomena, connected speech, and backchannel signals. Because students really do need to learn to grapple with these messy features of spontaneous speech, I personally do believe in exposing students to authentic input at even the lowest levels.

However, most of these features are completely absent from or else drastically altered in music, because song lyrics are not spontaneous, but composed. A vocal performance is just that: a performance, and usually a carefully controlled one. The value of authentic speech in ELT is most often not the authenticity itself but the features of spontaneous speech. If you want to use music in class, authenticity alone isn’t a very good reason to.

Pronunciation

Many teachers like to use song lyrics to teach pronunciation. But before doing so, we ought to be aware of the ways in which a singer’s performance might differ from natural speech. For a jazz singer, for instance, crisp elocution is something to strive for. This makes many jazz performances inappropriate for teaching connected speech features. Song lyrics typically follow a poetic meter. Syllables are placed for poetic effect. This may lead to unnatural syllable or word stress, intonation patterns or other prosodic features. Likewise, either to force a rhyme or to draw out a syllable, the sounds of vowels can be altered significantly in song lyrics.

Lexis

There is even reason to believe that the very words used in song lyrics differ significantly from those used in speech. Song lyrics tend to be more “writerly” than “speakerly,” because they are carefully composed, not spontaneously produced. Research shows that the most common words in written and spoken corpora differ drastically. Writers (and songwriters) choose words for their poetic effect, and these are quite often rare words and phrases that we seldom hear in speech.


Now, this is at least in part a devil’s-advocate argument. I hope it’s clear that I’m not really telling anyone not to ever use music to teach English. There’s no doubt that it is a way to get students highly engaged with the language. However, before doing so, we should make sure that we (and, to a point, our students) are aware of the differences between song lyrics and spoken English, and incorporate music accordingly.

 

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard

Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.

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7 Responses to Against Music in ELT

  1. Jennifer Martin says:

    Hi, Rob,
    Glad you find time to blog! Discovered you through the post on Calm English.

    While I agree with much of what you said, to echo what some of the others have said, songs helped in my second language acquisition of Spanish — in most cases with high-frequency phrases that stuck in my mind, but with a few musicians, because I wanted to understand the lyrics and looked them up. I learned vocabulary well above my level at the time, but I never forgot it.

    I am also one of those people who hears a chunk of language and it instantly pulls up a song (or 70s TV commercial) in my head. If I had a decent singing voice, I would go through my day singing half of my conversations, so I believe that rhythm and melody have the power to make language stick. I have found that erasing the words in a dialogue we have practiced and then humming the words with the right rhythm and intonation is enough to bring the words rushing back into students’ minds.

    I tell my students it doesn’t matter if they don’t understand most of the song — I want them to remember the chorus. I choose songs that have choruses with high frequency phrases or structures I want to stick in their minds. I try to get them to sing along when the chorus comes around (and I sing too to encourage them — with my horrible singing voice).

    Also, singing along with silly songs has worked well for me, even with adults (it has to be a good group). I love “Song Drops” and some of Carol Graham’s jazz chants that are sung along to classic songs (“The Red Umbrella’ sung to Auld Lang Syne, “Who Told You?” sung to Old McDonald, and more). Perhaps not every student will benefit as much, but some really will, and will have fun with English, giving them more confidence and motivation.

    Also, I highly recommend that all teachers investigate the work being done with music and Alzheimer’s patients — and read or watch a video about how Gabby Giffords learned to speak again. Music uses a completely different part of our brains than regular language processing — but it is hardier than / outlasts other language memory and is an excellent trigger for recovering language.

  2. Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

    Thanks for the responses, guys! I knew this one would be a little controversial. As many of you observed, I’m not actually “against” music in ELT in any serious way; that was a little click-baity. I do, however, think that there are some things for which music simply isn’t very effective, but which many teachers use it for. Pronunciation is a big example.

    As a couple of you pointed out, one way that music can be extremely valuable is that it helps us to take in and retain big chunks of language that we may understand on the whole, but not word-for-word. As our vocabulary expands, we can often go back and say oh yeah, I have heard that phrase, like in the song… I’ve had this experience myself and I’m glad you pointed it out.

    Thanks!

  3. Jean Arnold says:

    Thank you for sparking some debate on why music shouldn’t be used in the ELT classroom, at least for teaching certain aspects of language. As a language learner, I can’t say that I agree. It was through listening to songs in a foreign language that I first was intrigued with studying foreign languages and became intent on figuring out what the singer was saying. Later as an English-language teacher in China, I was asked to learn a song in Mandarin for the university’s new year’s eve party. This experience further demonstrated to me the value of music in language acquisition. I learned to sing a song whose general meaning I understood, but whose word-to-word correspondences I didn’t know. Months later, in conversation, I heard words from the chorus of that song and it dawned on me what they meant, thanks to having heard those words many times over and the ‘SSIMHP’ (song-stuck-in-my-head-phenomenon).

    Regarding the point that spoken and sung language may employ different phonological features including syllable length, varying degrees of careful elocution, etc., I think you’re right. I frequently cannot make out English lyrics, so care in choosing understandable songs does need to be taken in order to motivate rather than demotivate ELLs. However, I don’t think that any ELL listening to the Matchmaker song in Fiddler on the Roof, for example, would think that the word “papa” or “mama” would be spoken with the extended vowels present in the song. That is, no one, even after hearing that song, would say, “My paaaaaapaaa wants my husband to be a scholar”.

    Music used in the classroom doesn’t even have to have lyrics. Music can be used as background music for other activities or to set the mood of the time in a history or American studies class; it can also be used as a topic for student presentations. In a paper by Professor Sarah Wilson (2013), Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, she explores “how the brain can change in response to music and the broad range of cognitive processes and behaviours this may impact. Powerful amongst these is the ability of music to prime the brain for future learning, whilst more broadly promoting our individual and social wellbeing”. If you do a google search on ‘using music to teach * ’, I think you’ll be amazed at what you find. Music makes learning more memorable.

    As you advocate in your conclusion, awareness of differences between song lyrics and spoken English is important. There are some differences in spoken and written lyrics, but couldn’t this be a topic for exploration? Perhaps a more accurate title for your blog would be “Against indiscriminate use of song lyrics in ELT” rather than “Against Music in ELL”. Music has so much to offer, not just in terms of language learning, but also for motivation, pleasure, creativity, relaxation, stimulation and more. Once you get a song stuck in your head, there’s no telling where the learning will end.

  4. Emily says:

    Very interesting post! I do not use music often in my teaching. When I do, it’s usually for pronunciation, and I tend to be disappointed in the results. Your post helps explain why that might be!

    A few of my colleagues recently presented on the importance of teaching listening and pronunciation together. In their awesome presentation, they used an example of poor prosody from Taylor Swift’s song “Blank Space.” There’s a line that the general public had trouble understanding the first dozen or so times they heard it. My colleagues pointed out why it was so difficult: one of the stressed words was “of,” which is really unnatural in English. So when Ms. Swift sang, “Got a long list of ex-lovers,” native English speakers often heard, “Got a lonely Starbucks lover” because the stress of that sentence (if not the content) made more sense. It was a great way for my colleagues to illustrate their point.

    Using a song for its anti-examples seems like an interesting broader strategy. Instead of trying to avoid or smooth out all the pitfalls of songs and their weird pronunciation, vocabulary, etc., you could ask your students to identify some and maybe even fix them or “translate” them into spoken English.

  5. Hana Tichá says:

    Great article! I’m a non-native teacher of English and I’m only saying this to illustrate the following point; I learned English as an L2 so I can attest to the fact that songs do help during the process. And my past experience is still reflected in my teaching. For example, whenever I teach past modals, *it must have been love* by Roxette pops up, when teaching wish clauses *I wish it would rain down* by Phil Collins or *I wish I were an angel* by Kelly Family come to mind immediately. So to use music in the classroom? – I don’t know. To use music to learn English? – Definitely! 🙂

  6. Charla New says:

    Very interesting post! It seems to me that your three main arguments are that music is unauthentic (for spontaneous speech), it may mislead some ELLs in proper pronunciation, and that few high frequency words are used in music. I could combat those assertions by giving examples of various genres that oppose those stereotypes, however, I believe that you aren’t considering that we may use music to teach various language skills, not just speaking and pronunciation.

    Currently I am taking a course that focuses on this very topic: Teaching English through the Arts. In the course we’re required to create lesson plans based on the Arts, as well as bring artistic objects to the classroom and explain how a lesson or activity could be based around such object. Some of the most simple uses of music in the classroom was to teach grammar concepts by focusing on authentic examples of the particular concept used in songs, or to teach spelling to pronunciation correspondence through rhyming and repeated word sounds that occur commonly in music.

    Although I am not ‘Against Music in ELT’, I do believe your post encourages ELL instructors to critically analyze classroom materials and resources as authentic language, and to model academic English in as often as possible in all aspects of the classroom. Thank you for this compelling post!

    Charla M. New
    Graduate Assistant
    Arkansas Tech University
    English Language Institute
    https://www.facebook.com/ArkansasTechUniversityELI/

  7. Elena Shvidko Elena Shvidko says:

    Thank you for the post and your opinion. Music is a valuable source in the classroom, and as you mentioned in your post, many instructors use it for a variety of reasons.
    TESOL Press is in the process of publishing a new volume in the “New Ways” series–“New Ways in Teaching with Music.” You may want to read it when it comes out.