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When Do I Use Songs?
Chris Brewer, M.A.

     Chris Brewer, M.A., a noted authority on the integration of music throughout the curriculum, discusses the benefits of of music in our daily lives -- and the similar benefits of using music to enhance the learning environment.
     She discusses the use of music to elicit specific reactions that energize, focus, inspire and create other positive states of mind.

"If you have never tried using music in these ways.... please do!" -- Chris Brewer

Excerpted, with permission, from Chris Brewer's Soundtracks for Learning: Using Music in the Classroom.

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  Whether sung by the students or played from a recording, songs offer golden opportunities to motivate students, get their attention, or help them learn content. Researcher Michael Thaut and others feel that music works as a mnemonic device because musical patterns of melody, harmony, and rhythm naturally group sound (or lyrics) into units (Gfeller, 1983; Wallace, 1994; Claussen and Thaut, 1997). Content information put into song lyrics becomes chunked through this intrinsic musical patterning.

     Chunking is an important mechanism for memory coding known to be effective for learning and recall. Not only can musical chunking help our students manage large amounts of content, it also makes repeating information fun, facilitating the critical memory element of redundancy. An example of musical chunking is the “ABC” song. Most of us quickly learned the alphabet through this simple song and could easily sing it today because it is firmly encoded in our memory through numerous, playful repetitions.

     It also seems that students pay more attention to lessons that are connected with something relevant to their lives and music provides an excellent bridge. For instance, one study reports that contemporary vocal music has been played successfully to teach reading strategies to adolescent students. The study showed they responded with higher motivation and interest to the instructional reading strategies and that their reading confidence and fluency improved (Rivard and Bieske 1993). The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame provides lesson plans using rock songs to teach content and is a good resource for ideas (see page 268).

     But take note of when music with lyrics is not appropriate. I only recommend using songs when the lyrics help teach content, set a desired learning mood, motivate students, or direct a classroom transition. Music with lyrics can be distracting when you are speaking or students are reading or studying. Then lyrics may cause confusion in the brain because it is not clear which words to focus on. An exception is music with lyrics in a language other than the one understood by the listeners. Since these words do not have meaning for the listeners, the voice becomes just another instrument.

     You will find many fun and productive ways to use songs with lyrics in the classroom for, as Gene Buck says, “There is nothing finer on which to hang a memory than a song.”


Claussen, D. and Thaut, M.H. (1997). Music as a Mnemonic Device for Children with Learning Disabilities. Canadian Journal of Music Therapy, 5, 55-66.

Gfeller, K.E. (1983). Musical mnemonics as an aid to retention with normal and learning disabled students. Journal of Music Therapy, 20, 179-189.

Rivard, J.D., & Bieske, G.B. (1993, March). Using contemporary music themes to increase adolescents’ confidence and reading fluency. Journal of Reading, 36(6), 492-494.

Wallace, W.T. (1994). Memory for music: Effect of melody on recall of text. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, Cognition, 20, 1471-1485.






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