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Why Letting Students Use Their Favorite Songs Helps Them Learn Faster

Zach VanderGraaff • August 2022Modern Band • August 2, 2022

Bringing in popular music your students love has been a hot-button topic for many music teachers. When I started teaching, I was told to avoid letting popular songs into my classroom.

As I’ve gained experience and the students have changed, I started to challenge this assertion. Why shouldn’t we try to better reach our students where they’re at and celebrate what they love? 

I realized there are five main benefits to letting students use their favorite songs, and the kids even started to learn faster!

Harnesses Student Enthusiasm
Students are balls of energy and enthusiasm. Half of the battle is managing it in constructive and not chaotic ways. Sometimes, controlling the classroom results in dampening their fire.

By letting them bring in their favorite songs of any genre (if it’s appropriate), I can direct their enthusiasm and energy into constructive learning. More energy equals faster learning.

If I think back to how I grew as a musician, it was usually by challenging myself to learn a piece or song I was invested in learning. Why shouldn’t I do this with my students too?

Every September and January, I give my students a survey, and ask for examples of music they enjoy. From here, I pick options throughout the year and tie their songs into my lessons. It’s amazing how they light up when they hear the songs they picked.

Connect Musical Concepts in a Real Way
As experienced musicians know, music skills transfer across genres and instruments. Kids and newer musicians have a harder time seeing that. For example, I might use a simple folk song like Mary Had A Little Lamb to reinforce quarter, eighth, and half notes. If I leave it with this, the students will have trouble applying their skills to a new song or piece. However, if I connect it to one of their favorite songs (such as the chorus of Enemy by Imagine Dragons), they learn the ideas with more depth and are better able to apply them.

Raises Student Buy-In and Engagement
One of the biggest problems most music teachers have is student engagement. Are they paying attention to what you’re trying to teach, and what are they doing if they’re not paying attention? This is where behavior problems and slower learning come into play. If they aren’t connected, they won’t learn.

Usually, this disengagement shows when one of two things happens:

You’re making their brains work too intensely for too long.

They don’t care about the song material they’re using.

Either way, choosing popular songs or letting them pick the songs increases engagement and willingness to work through the tougher times.

I can remember when I was learning some basic fingerstyle guitar techniques; I didn’t care for the exercises (and I’m a music teacher, so I know how important they are). The best progress came when I started to learn Blackbird and Sweet Baby James on top of the exercises. I was more engaged and had a boost push through the tough learning. Your students will too, if you let them pick their songs.

Builds Relationships Between Teacher and Student
Another important aspect of teaching building relationships with students. They’ll work harder and push themselves when they know and trust you. They’ll be more open to your feedback and take it to heart (without getting crushed) when you tell them they completely messed up a certain part. On the teacher side, the more you know them, the better you can guide and motivate them in their learning.

One of the easiest ways to get to know a person is through their taste in music, so by letting them choose some of their faves, this relationship will build faster. As an elementary music teacher, I only got to see my students once per week in groups of 30+. That didn’t leave much time for relationship building, so using their songs gave me a shortcut to getting to know them a little better.

Validates Their Self-Identity
Music is such a personal and emotional thing to many of us. A lot of who we are is tied to the music we enjoy. Young kids are still discovering who they are and put a large amount of weight on how others perceive them.

By approving of their musical taste by letting them use their favorite songs, we tell them it’s OK to be who they are. It’s OK to like the things they like. With this approval, they’ll feel safer and learn faster. They’ll also feel better about themselves and their self-identity. The confidence boost will stick with them for days, weeks, or more. At the end of the day, teaching music is awesome, but what we really want is to inspire them to be more well-rounded and complete humans, right?

Swallow your pride, let go of the preconceived notions of what music should be, and give the students a chance to pick their songs in your classes. You’ll be amazed at the results.

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher in Michigan and the founder of the Dynamic Music Room, a music resource website for music teachers, parents, and musicians of all types. 

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