Music helps learning in so many different ways—it can lower stress and give you energy, for example—but in this post, we’re going to explore specifically why you should learn English with music. Not only are English songs a great source of advanced vocabulary, but learning English through music has a lot of other benefits, too! (One of my personal favorites is #7!)
This is also a deeply personal topic for me. From my teenage years through my twenties, I was passionate about learning French. I used to rush home so I could catch the French news on TV (this was before YouTube, so that was my only listening opportunity!), I read novels in French, and I even signed up for extra classes through the French embassy in Washington. French was my life. A few years ago, I got in a bad horseback riding accident. I hit my head three times at a full gallop, right in the part of the brain that processes foreign languages. (And no, I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Lesson learned!) Suddenly, my French was gone. All those years of study, just gone. Eventually, the headaches and the mood swings that came with the concussion went away, but even now, I can’t form even the most basic sentences in French. But do you know what hasn’t left? I can still sing you every word of the Edith Piaf songs I learned all those years ago. Every single word, and I remember what they mean. That’s literally the only French that remains with me, but it underlines for me just what an amazing tool music can be in your journey to learn English. One day, I’m going to get my French back, and when I do, you can bet that music is going to be a big part of my strategy!
1. English songs help you build an advanced—and natural!—vocabulary
There are so many great things about using songs to study English, but you know me, anything to do with vocabulary is going to be at the top of my list! When you learn song lyrics, you’re not just learning new vocabulary, you’re also learning it in context. Without studying endless lists of collocations, you can get a feel for collocations without even thinking about it. In the last song in the video below, for example, you realize that we play a trick in English, not make a trick or do a trick.
Also, you’re more likely to learn advanced vocabulary in songs than in other places. Why is that? Songwriters often have to come up with creative language in order to make something rhyme or fit in with the rhythm of the song. On the news, pundits are likely to use the first word that comes to mind, and those words are usually common words that you already know. But English songs often feature quirky, advanced words. They’re words that native speakers know and use, but they’re more likely to be new for English learners.
This is true of every genre of music, but since I love old musicals, I’m going to show you three examples from old musicals!
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2. The words you learn through music will stick with you
I told you about my own experience with this in French at the beginning of this post, but why is it that we remember the words we learn from songs better than other vocabulary words?
There are lots of reasons, actually!
First, you’re activating multiple parts of your brain when you incorporate music into language learning. Your brain forms connections for these words that it doesn’t form for words you learn from a textbook, for example.
Secondly, what do you do with songs you like? If you’re like me—and every person I know—you play them over and over again! You play them when you’re getting ready, when you’re in the car, when you’re working out, etc. We all know that repetition is key to remembering new vocabulary, and with music, we give ourselves that repetition willingly.
Additionally, repetition is usually built into the song itself! Most songs have a chorus that repeats throughout the song. So, not only are you getting repetition when you replay the song, but there is repetition even if you listen to it just one time. Brilliant!
In Ancient Greek mythology, the nine muses “presided over song, and prompted the memory.” In fact, they were the daughters of Zeus, the chief god in Ancient Greece, and Mnemosyne, whose name means ‘Memory’. In other words, these nine musical goddesses were the daughters of Memory herself! Cool, right?!
3. When you learn English with music, you’re learning culture, too!
If you want to speak English like a native speaker, you can’t simply rely on having an advanced vocabulary. (That’s still really important, though!) You need to understand the cultural references that come up in conversation, too. Those bits of history and culture that everyone knows about in your target language? You need to know those.
Movies are one great place to pick up those cultural references, but you will also learn about the culture of the English-speaking world when you learn English with music. Because I’m a huge fan of old musicals, this example is also going to be from an old musical! In this song from Gigi, the main character is nervous about going out with a man later that night. She sings, “On to your Waterloo, whispers my heart. Pray I’ll be Wellington, not Bonaparte.” This is a cultural reference that almost every native English speaker would understand. Waterloo is the famous battle where Napoleon was defeated by the Duke of Wellington.
On top of that, sometimes a song is so popular that it is the cultural reference. Just about everyone in the U.S. knows the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” for example.
4. And having a few songs that you love in English will give you something to bond over with native speakers!
Music is a major part of every culture, and it forms a part of who we think we are as a culture. No matter what our differences are, music brings us together. If “The Irish Rover” starts playing in an Irish pub, everyone stops their conversations and starts singing along. (At least that’s what happens in the pub near me!) We laugh and we smile, and the song gives us something in common. Imagine how incredible it would feel as a non-native speaker to be able to participate in a moment like that.
You don’t have to be at a pub or a concert to have that type of experience, though. Maybe you play English songs in the car and you give a native speaker a ride. You could end up having a great conversation about music together! And you don’t even need to rely on this type of situation. Music can make a great topic of conversation for small talk, which can happen anywhere!
No matter how you do it, if you’re able to talk about music with a native speaker, you’re likely to form a much deeper connection than if you talk about the weather, for example.
If you need some ideas for songs to start with, I highly recommend Alberto Alonso‘s YouTube playlist, The Morning Singer. Not only will you get some great ideas for English songs to learn, but since he’s an English teacher, he also discusses the vocabulary in the songs. His main audience is Spanish, so he does translate some words into Spanish, but most of the content is in English, and he always puts the words in English on the screen, so you can look them up and write down words you don’t know. Whether you speak Spanish or not, you’re going to love this playlist!
5. Listening to English songs is great for passive learning and multi-tasking
When you study from a textbook, you have to set aside time specifically for that. You have to focus, and if you’re like me, you need both solitude and silence. (For those of you who can study in noisy areas, I’m jealous!)
But listening to music isn’t studying. You might choose to study the lyrics when you first encounter a song—and I recommend that you do!—but when you’re listening to the song, you don’t need to be sitting at a desk with your glasses on. You could be taking a walk or cooking lunch. You could be alone or with friends, sleepy or wide awake. You can play music in the background while you’re doing any number of things, and while you may not be giving it your whole focus, it’s still registering with your brain on a passive level, and you’re giving your brain a little reminder to keep thinking about English.
When you learn English with music, you’re also giving yourself some great, passive accent training! This is especially true if you sing along and consciously try to imitate the singer. I taught a beginner’s level class at my local jail for a couple of years, and every couple of months, we would learn a new song as a class. (My students were amazing, by the way! You should have seen them doing the theme song from Gilligan’s Island!) Some of these men spoke relatively well, and some of them spoke with such strong accents that they were difficult to understand. But let me tell you, when they sang, each one of them sounded almost like a native speaker. I don’t know the science behind that, but for whatever reason, they were able to imitate the sounds of the language much better when they were singing than when they were speaking. It served as fabulous accent training for their speaking in general.
6. It’s fun! Learning English through music will never burn you out!
I don’t think this one needs much explanation. I love music, and I know you love music, too. When you use songs to study English, you’re giving yourself a fun way to improve your language skills. You will enjoy yourself, and you’ll never get burned out doing this.
7. And when you incorporate music into your English learning, you give yourself some great opportunities to get competitive!
I love using games and competition to practice vocabulary. And if you’re creative, you can think of ways to turn almost anything into a competition.
Would you like to see how you can turn learning English through music into a competition? Join Alberto and I in this musical English drinking game! (Thanks to everyone who showed up live! It was great interacting with you!)