Please Don’t Stop the Music! Using Music in a Writing Class

As many of us know, music is a great tool for teaching English.  It provides wonderful grammar exercises, opportunities for practicing listening skills, and topics for class discussions.  Moreover, reflecting social values, ideologies, daily life, and human relationships, music provides an intercultural component to teaching the language.  Music is also a source of authentic language use.  Finally, it creates a more pleasant setting in classroom.

Unfortunately, music is rarely used in writing classes.  Yet, there are various ways how music can enrich a writing classroom and provide an excellent ground for practicing important writing skills.

Let me share some of the ideas with you:

Background for a Writing Assignment

This is perhaps one of the most obvious ways of implementing music in a writing classroom.  A few years ago, I helped mentor preservice teachers enrolled in a teaching practicum course as part of their TESOL graduate program.  I observed a few teachers using this simple but effective strategy.  One teacher played pleasant background music at the beginning of each lesson while students were writing in their journals as part of their classroom routine.  Another teacher used the same technique when students were working on other writing activities.  I noticed that students were able to better focus on the task; they did not talk to each other or play with their pens, for example, and it almost seemed to me that the music helped them come up with ideas for writing.

Writing a Story About a Song

This activity can be used to help students practice writing stories or descriptions.  Choose a song whose lyrics points out a background story that inspired the creation of this song.  Ask students to write this story while they are listening to the song.  For example, students can create a love story that happened between two people and that inspired the creation of the song “Yesterday” by the Beatles.  You can ask students to share their stories with the rest of the class.  Although written on the same song, students’ stories can be very different from each other, and it’s always interesting to see students’ personal interpretations and views.  The stories get pretty creative, too. This is especially the case with romantic songs!

For this activity to be effective, you have to make sure students understand the lyrics of the song.

Selecting a School Song

This activity can be used when teaching about persuasive/argumentative writing or opinion essays.  It’s best done as a group homework assignment.  In groups, students will select a song that can be used as a school song and write a short persuasive piece about why they think this song should be selected as a school song.  Similarly, students can choose a country song, a class song, and so on.  The goal is to persuade the audience that the song they selected best represents whatever it’s chosen for.  You can even make it a competition.

Alternatively, you can have students practice writing descriptions.  In this case, they can choose a song that represents themselves.  In their writing piece, they will explain what personal values it reflects and why it best represents them.

Writing a Summary

Some students may think that writing summaries is boring.  It doesn’t have to be!  Especially if you ask them to write a summary on a musical video clip.  Music and visuals will make this activity much more interesting and still accomplish the purpose of the task.

Writing a Video Review

You can also use video clips for helping students practice writing reviews.  Similar to the previous activity, students will first write a summary of the video clip.  But in addition to the summary, they will have to include an evaluative component to their review.  For beginning level students, you can scaffold this activity by providing examples of phrases that students can use to write their reviews.  Some of these phrases are:

  • The song/video is about…
  • The mood of the video is…
  • The singer’s voice is…
  • The video reminds me of…
  • The video makes me think of…
  • What I like about this song/video is…
  • I don’t like…
  • The video is poorly made because…
  • A great quality of the video is… etc.

Teaching About Rhetorical Situation 

In my last post, I shared how video public service announcements can be used to teach the concept of audience.  A video clip on a popular song can serve the same purpose! You can expand the task by having students analyze other components of rhetorical situation—purpose, stance, mood, as well as rhetorical appeals used in the video (logos, ethos, and pathos).  Video clips are also great tools for teaching visual rhetoric.

Introducing the Topic of the Lesson

The last activity I wanted to share is not for using in a writing class (although you may find ways of doing this, especially if you have a theme-based syllabus), but this activity does involve writing, so I thought I’d share it.

As a way of introducing a topic of the lesson, a theme of the unit, or a main problem of a reading/book, you can play a song (or an instrumental piece) and have students write—while listening—their impressions about it.  They can also express their opinions and reflect on the problems that could be related to the song.  After they are done with writing, ask a few students to share their thoughts.  Then tell the students that this song features the topic of the lesson and ask them to guess what this topic might be.

I hope you will find these activities helpful in your classrooms.  Please let me know what other ideas you have for using music in a writing class.

To conclude, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Let us use this universal language to help our students better learn English!

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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8 Responses to Please Don’t Stop the Music! Using Music in a Writing Class

  1. SusanMatson says:

    Great posting. One of the greatest contributions of music is as a mood enhancer, which means that it can go a long way in easing the stress of writing in another language. That said, a few thoughts:
    –Many writers, like the person above, find loud music, upbeat music, and music with lyrics to be distracting while writing. On the other hand, “elevator-type” soothing music and classical music are useful for remaining in the background while soothing the writer’s efforts.
    –Having everyone know the lyrics can be a challenge, especially since there are strict copyright restrictions against distributing the lyrics to popular songs (folk songs are the exception). The class as a whole can listen to a song and decide what the lyrics are, which is beneficial as a listening comprehension exercise, but this does take time.
    –Once lyrics are determined and written down, it is a great way to finish a class, especially after a stressful activity like writing or a quiz, if everyone sings the song together. Some will be bashful: just say, “if I can sing, you can sing!” and encourage speaking the words out loud. It’s a great way for building sense of community.

  2. I myself like to write in complete silence and so music would tend to intrude on my thinking. But perhaps I could try it and see what students think.

  3. Using music in a language class. an innovative approach. great.

  4. Angela says:

    Hi, I’ve recently started experimenting with music as a background to writing and agree with you on its usefulness. I usually use a compilation of “easy listening” classics but do you have any interesting suggestions about pieces that have been successful…I’m ready to branch out a little. Angela

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