Hitting the Right Note

by Marjorie Frank


I’m guessing you remember a handful, perhaps even a large handful, of songs from your days as a preteen and teenager. I do, and the people I know do. We’re all about a thousand years old, so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here. It’s all about the words. The melody. The harmony. The rhythm.

Music has a powerful hold on us. As teachers, we can build on that power. We can use it to motivate, engage, guide, and teach.

You can guide your students to interact with music both as consumers and as producers. Within these two approaches are many possibilities, depending on your goal and your subject area.

Seven hundred fifty years ago, my Spanish teacher helped her class (which included me) develop listening skills by having us write the words to Spanish songs she played and replayed, line by line.  Hearing native-speaker pronunciation through song helped us move from language leaners who translated everything into English to leaners who could comprehend our new language directly, without translation. A friend and I took a next step of translating the words of an American folk song into Spanish.  With my friend playing the guitar, we rehearsed and rehearsed and then performed for the class. I remember the words to this day.

Imagine that kind of long-term memory at work for math, science, history, even grammar concepts! It can happen…. and it doesn’t have to be the result of class time spent listening to the same song over and over again.

Before you and your students become consumers of music, you need to find music they will want to consume. It’s easier than you may think.

To prepare for this post, I did a key-word search for “songs about photosynthesis.” What a result! I found many songs for middle schoolers, including one with a classic rock beat and one sing-songy folk tune. I also found a rap song with more advanced lyrics. Some of the songs were on YouTube, others were on TeacherTube, and still others came up as the result of a key-word search of Creative Commons.

Some songs consist of lyrics to a familiar melody; others are wholly new creations. Students and teachers as well as professionals perform. Many are illustrated with extremely effective art and animations.

I did the same key-word search at the iTunes store and found an album of songs about photosynthesis, life cycles, flowers, seeds, and more. Some songs on that album have a blues rhythm; some are rock; some are folk. You can hear several bars of each song before deciding to download—or not. A more general iTunes search for “science songs” yielded huge results.

In less extensive searches I found wonderful songs about the scientific method, commas in a series, commas in large numbers, and multiplication. I actually had to stop myself from searching and listening in order to write this post.

Once you find a song that works for your needs, you can email the url to your students, send them a digital file, or play it in class. Videos can be viewed and heard on a cell phone, an iPod, an iPad, or a laptop. Assign the song as homework. Encourage your students to listen again and again to memorize the words. They will embrace the assignment. (This is homework?) They’ll strain to get all the lyrics. They will sing….And they’ll remember.

Then plan a songfest. Does someone in class play the guitar? Keyboards? The ukulele? If so, you’re in luck. If not, bring in your laptop and try “Karaoke.” In either case, create a performance. Then give your students a chance to show off for others—both older and younger. Suggest they write the lyrics to guide a sing-along with their audience. If your students are very young, use the lyrics as a reading experience. Write them. Then point to the words as the kids sing along. The possibilities are endless.

In addition to performing songs written by others, your students can create their own. Challenge them to write new lyrics for a familiar melody. It can be a traditional song, a folk melody, or one that’s on everybody’s iPod. The “deal” would be that the lyrics need to explain, describe, or narrate a key concept. You can choose the topic and the concept or just the topic. Are your students learning about the Civil War? They can write lyrics about Abe Lincoln, Generals of the North and South, the Emancipation Proclamation. If your subject is math, challenge students to write lyrics that explain decimals, percent, or how to find the area of an irregular figure. If your subject is English, invite students to write about figures of speech, rules of capitalization, even paragraph structure. I think you get the idea. You’ll want to stress that the lyrics don’t have to rhyme in a traditional sense, but that they do have to be factually accurate. Then plan for students to share.

The world of rhythm, rhyme, and melody exists. If we can recognize it, perceive its strength, and harness it, we can go a long way to helping our students grasp and hold onto concepts for life.

Marjorie Frank

Marjorie Frank A writer and poet by nature, an educator and linguist by training, Marjorie Frank has authored a generation of instructional materials for children of all ages, including songs, poems, stories, games, information articles and teaching guides. Marjorie has two grown children, Adam and Ben. She currently lives with an artist (whose work you can see in the Kids Discover issue on Plants) and a dog that looks like a pig.