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.
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.
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.
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.