Friday, February 23, 2007

So many ways to use a song

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

You don't always have to concentrate on music that you think the students will like. There will, in any case, be a spread of tastes in music across the class. What you need is a good reason for using the song and a hook of some kind that will drag the students along. This could be a tune, vocabulary, language or lyrics or task.

I've used pop, rock, blues, folk, punk, country, humour, doo-wap and other genres with a reasonable amount of success. I doubt that students would cover all these types of songs if left to their own devices but although they might not rush out and buy George Formby, Etta James or Bert Jansch CDs the songs work because they can see the language learning taking place, whether it's metaphors with Emmy Lou Harris, word play with the Everly Brothers or lyric prediction with the Five Satins.

So for me it's the task that is more important than the song, though the song may suggest the task. I really reccomend Alan Maley's Short and Sweet and Maley and Duff, Literature for a list of language learning activities for texts and examples of how to exploit and develop these activities. Maley uses written texts but you can do just the same with songs.

Here are Maley's 12 generalisable procedures with some very brief examples of how they can be applied to songs, though you should realise that there are many ways of interpreting each procedure and the examples shouldn't be looked on as limiting each procedure.

Many songs tell a story but condense it. Springsteen's Wreck on the Highway is an example. It's easy to add detail to the story and in this case you could get learners to comfort the dying man found after the car accident, an event slipped over in the song. They don't need to do it in lyric form.

Reduce a song to its bare bones. Pare it down to its message. If it's a story turn it into a two line newspaper report (yes, this is also media transfer - the procedures can overlap).

Rose Murpy's Busy Line can be turned into a telephone conversation. New York Mining Disaster into a news story, Chumbawamba's She's got all the Friends that Money can Buy into a bitchy conversation between friends.

Match songs with pictures using the themes to match. For lower levels one might use events in song and picture to match.

Select songs for language to be used in different situations. Rose Murphy's Busy Line vs Lou Reed's New York Telephone conversation for useful telephone chat.

Compare two versions of the same song, perhaps sung by a male and a female with small lyric changes. Compare Dylan's heroic John Wesley Harding with the real nasty little psychopathic J W Harding.

Listen to the song, give jumbled lyrics and ask them to put in order.

Retell the story. Tell Laura I love Her and Teen Angel work well for this. They can really ham it up and they love it. Leader of the Pack would work as well.

Any songs with depth can be used. Dylan, Bragg, Chumbawamba, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the list is endless. You could interpret less serious songs too, I guess.

Quarry words from the song to create a new text. write a parallel story on the same theme as the song.

Look carefully at the language of the song. Etta James Almost Persuaded: how does the almost in 'almost persuaded' differ from the almost in "almost sorry'? Change the adjectives for similar ones and see if the song changes meaning.

Make questionnaires on the theme of a song. Take Ivor Cutler's "our car can go fast on a hill" and get students to write another mock Children's reader:

Our car can go fast on a hill
With no brakes
And oil on the hub

It cannot stop
So it has a spill

Mum and Dad get a cut
See Bill bleed
Bleed, Bill bleed

Kate, do not cry.
If you do
Ann will be sad to see it
And Ted will fret.

Phil; run to the phone
For a nurse to make us well

I see nurse
Nurse, make us well
We are ill
From a spill
On the road

As we took a spill
Dad has a cut on his lip
It hit the wheel
As he drove fast

Mum cut her cheek
See how it shines

Bill is dead
He lost his blood in the crash

Kate, Ann and Ted are sad for Bill
He was their chum

Phil will walk us home
Along the pavement to our house
29 Redpond Avenue

...And then you could just sing along.

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