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Using Pop Songs in your Music Classroom

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Using pop songs in the music classroom: Includes specific examples for integrating pop music into your lessons!

Today, I'm writing about something somewhat controversial–a topic that five or so years ago, I would have shied away from completely: using pop music in your music classroom.

There are a few reasons I have shied away from using pop music in the past. Even before I began my Kodály training, my thought was that kids hear pop music ALL THE TIME. Why do they have to hear it in my class too? When I began my Kodály training, I heard the same sentiment: we should be teaching them music of the masters, and folk music that is accessible and part of their heritage.

I still believe that it's very important to use folk music and music of the masters. If you stepped in my classroom on any given day, 95% of the time, that's what you'll hear. However, my thinking shifted a bit after some lively discussions with colleagues and some soul searching. Here's why I've used pop music recently in my classroom (and keep reading until the end of the post for some quick ideas to get started!)

Reasons to use pop music
Connections

The most important reason, in my mind, for using pop music at times in the music classroom is to connect music of the past to music of the present. I once had a discussion with my husband about this. He is by no means a fan of typical pop music–he likes all kinds of somewhat obscure bands like Deer Tick and Wilco and My Morning Jacket–but his argument was this: how are they going to connect the music they learn from you to the music they listen to?
I didn't have an answer then, except that they'd have to do it on their own. But why shouldn't I help that connection? Wouldn't it help them see the big idea that the music concepts they learn from me happen in ALL music? And isn't that a powerful big idea?
Many of us were taught that we should only use the best music (a sentiment I completely agree with!)…but why does that mean we shouldn't ever use pop music? I think the elephant in the room is that many people think that all pop music is bad. In my opinion, that's not true. A decent amount of pop music is not the best quality, but there are plenty of good pop songs. You just have to find them!

Relevance

Yes, we can argue that pop music is like junk food and they get enough on the radio or on their iPods, but to be relevant, shouldn't we have them listen to a little pop music? And I don't mean the Beatles (although they are probably my favorite band of all time!) I recently had my students figure out how to play the first measure of “Best Day of My Life” by the American Authors (which I'll write about later in this post) and although my kids were SUPER excited about it, I had a student mention that the song was two years old, and couldn't we do something more recent? So if the American Authors, after two years, have lost a teeny bit of relevance, the Beatles don't have very much relevance at all!
Of course, I'm not advocating for no Beatles lessons, because like I said, I LOVE the Beatles. I'm just saying that to be relevant to the students' environment and experiences, we should be searching for music that they know and love. I've heard a few people say that pop music is like the folk music of today (but that's a whole other blog post, and probably one that's even more controversial!)

Joy

When I have used pop music, the excitement in the room is palpable. Students are jumping up and down with glee. Not that they never jump up and down with glee for other music we do, but seriously, they get pretty excited. My number one goal for my classroom is that it is joyful, so this is a pretty good reason to try it!

Reasons using pop music can be difficult

So after thinking about how to include pop music in my lessons (since my training didn't include it at all), I realized the reason it can be so hard to do is that pop music keeps changing. The #1 hit that everyone loves in 2016 will surely not be #1 in 2017, and in five years it may be somewhat obsolete. So this means we have to change our pop music lessons, at least every few years, so that they remain relevant.
Then, of course, there is the issue of appropriateness. SO many pop songs are just not appropriate. Maybe kids don't realize the true meaning of the song–as was so often the case with music I listened to growing up–but still, there are songs we just can't do, no matter how much the kids love them.

Ideas for using pop music

After considering the reasons why I wanted to include pop music more, and why creating lessons using pop music is tricky, I have come up with a few ideas over the last couple of years that have worked for me and my students. I am truly at the beginning of this journey, so will blog more as more ideas come to me! Here are a few ideas to get started on your journey:

Keeping the beat

If you can find a pop song that has a steady beat, you could play a game called “Follow me.” Simply do the same motion for 8 beats and have students mirror you. Then when you change to a different motion, they do too! Halfway through the song, you could have student volunteers lead the beat! This works even better if the students have done this same activity with Beethoven or Brahms or Miles Davis…they they try it with pop music! “On top of the world” by Imagine Dragons is great for this activity!

Playing a song on instruments

I have recently found a couple songs with Orff accompaniment on Pinterest. Here are arrangements to check out:

Best Day of my Life” by American Authors
Happy” by Pharrell Williams
Ho Hey” by the Lumineers

My fifth graders recently learned tika-ti (2 sixteenths/eighth) and they already knew syncopa (eighth/quarter/eighth) so “Best Day of my Life” was PERFECT! I had each kid pair up on a barred instrument with a friend, wrote the first measure on the board with rhythm and note letters, and had them figure out how to play it! So fun!

Pulling rhythm or melody from a song

Just like we might use “Sammy Sackett” for half note or “I got a letter” for low la, so we can figure out which pop songs lend themselves well to which rhythmic or melodic concepts! I haven't done a ton of work with this, but Christopher Roberts has found a couple Taylor Swift songs to use for concepts; read about it in this blog post on our collaborative blog, the Kodály Corner!

Using songs by Lessia at I am Bullyproof Music

After lamenting to myself about how many songs I just couldn't use because of appropriateness, I started listening to music by my friend Lessia at I am Bullyproof Music…and I had a big a-ha moment, that I should be using her music to help make connections! In Lessia's words, she wrote her songs “with kids beside me telling me what they wanted me to express for them – so they could sing that mature wisdom over and over again.” The songs have a great message, they are accessible, they are appropriate…and best of all, the kids love them!
So far, I have tried the songs “Miracle” (I kind of HAD to try that one!), “Monkey,” “Einstein,” and “Gift in this Present,” and each has been a big hit with my kids (3rd grade and up.) I even used “Gift in this Present” for my 3rd grade program (read about that here) and “Einstein” for my 4th grade program (read about that here.) I've also used the songs to practice concepts (like 3/4 for “Gift in this Present”) and to discuss lyrics and parts of a song, such as verse, chorus, and bridge.
Whether she's writing and singing about fighting self-doubt, or stopping to enjoy the present, Lessia's lyrics are very meaningful…and her music is super catchy! My fourth graders even begged to play Musical Chairs with Einstein on their reward day! If you want to hear more of Lessia's music, I suggest checking out her store and/or her blog. I've also been collaborating with her; we've created sets to help teach “Einstein” and “Gift in this Present,” and I also included “Monkey” in my Poetry set. You can see more of each set below:

     

I have to give a big thank you to my friends Donna Gallo, Frank Gallo, and Lessia Bonn, who were huge influences in opening up my eyes on why and how to use pop music in my classroom.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! What are your favorite songs to use, and why? Are you still struggling with using pop music? Feel free to comment below, and have a great day!

4 Responses

  1. Hello Aileen,

    My name is Ryan, and I spent 21 years in the Navy Band as a Trombonist, and now I am pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching, Music Education.

    I came across your article as I’m doing some research for on of my classes and I found a lot of what you are talking about is great with pop tunes. I totally agree that using pop tunes can be a great way to incorporate music ideas and concepts that engage students and can transfer to other musical situations they encounter. My idea is, any and all music has great potential to be useful when teaching music. The trick is getting and keeping the students engaged and interested. Most kids aren’t going to want to listen to “classical music” like Mozart, so why not find something that interests them? If we hook them first, then we can slowly take them where we want.

    I am currently working on a unit topic, “interpreting music”, which I know has many layers. I was thinking of starting with a few lessons that will be on musical form. My first thought/idea, is to have the students play along to a popular tune (if they are playing instruments). If they are younger, not playing yet, in a general music class, or have a disability, a differentiated approach would include allowing them to choose between singing, using percussion instruments, drawing, and body movement etc.). It’s ok if they don’t even know the tune (chances are they might), or are not able to find the correct key (it’s probably going to sound bad) that’s ok. The idea is that it gets them engaged (hopefully interested) while listening/playing to a familiar tune (and can be the beginning stages of incorporating improvisation and composition for future lessons). After they get a chance to engage with the music, I would have an open discussion of how sections sound different, feel different, and why – and continue to unravel how musical form works etc. After they understand the concept, I would work back in history chronologically, all along the way incorporating cultural issues and political historical content that may have influenced the composer (why they wrote their music).

    If you have any other thoughts I would love to hear back from as I continue my studies. Thank you.
    Ryan-

    1. These are good thoughts, Ryan!
      Another thought with younger elementary is to isolate a phrase that they can sing, or that they can clap the rhythm to. For example, “Best Day of my Life” by American Authors has phrases in do pentatonic that students could sing in solfa, and “High Hopes” by Panic at the Disco has a brass line with ti-tika, or one eighth/ two sixteenth, that students can clap (just learned about that one!) I’m hoping to compile a list by concept, with pop songs that are appropriate and relatable for students, for next year. 🙂

  2. Hello Aileen,

    I am a first year music teacher. I am planning on doing progressive music concerts this year. Mainly because my students have not performed in a very long time (due to covid) and many of them are anxious. I teach 3rd and 4th grade. The concert I have created is a glow concert to get them excited on stage. There are a few secular songs I plan to do on the concert. Do you have any tips on teaching students to sing pop music? Some of the songs we are doing include: “Can’t Stop This Feeling,” “Fireflies,” and a few more.

    1. Hi Alyssa! That sounds like a fun concert! Two suggestions: have students sing in the same kind of voice they would use for folk songs (without vibrato, without runs, etc.) This will be better for their vocal development and will still sound great! I would also say to not feel pressure to do the entire song. You can always edit the track so it’s just a portion of the song.
      Have you seen these blog posts? They might be helpful:
      https://mrsmiraclesmusicroom.com/2021/08/kid-friendly-pop-song-lesson-ideas.html
      https://mrsmiraclesmusicroom.com/2017/06/special-effects-for-performances.html
      https://www.musicalaabbott.com/2016/10/concerts-because-it-was-fun.html

      Good luck and have fun!

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