Should I Use Popular Music in My Classroom?Oct 05, 2021
Popular music is something that can be surprisingly divisive within the music education community. People who don’t support the use of it within the classroom have many reasons for their lack of support such as:
- The subject material is inappropriate
- There’s not as much value in popular music as in classical music
- You can’t teach music standards with popular music
I’m here to tell you that all of the above are FALSE! Let’s go through each point and dissect exactly what the argument is, and why we ultimately should value popular music within the walls of our classrooms.
Inappropriate Subject Material
Sure, there are songs that are inappropriate for the classroom, but part of your job as the teacher is to vet the material and make sure it is age appropriate. We do that all the time with all of our activities! We don’t just go through each day teaching the same thing to all grade levels. My third graders would be lost if I tried to do fifth grade activities with them, and my fifth graders would be bored senseless if I did second grade activities in their class.
Part of the fun of using a variety of genres in the classroom is being able to find songs that your students connect with and are enjoyable for you as the teacher. All genres have songs that are appropriate for young audiences, you just have to look for them!
Popular Music Has No Value
This one is just flat out wrong. If popular music had no value, it wouldn’t be popular! Music of the people (ie, popular music) becomes popular for a reason. Now, it may not be because the music is rich with rhythmic, melodic, and/or lyrical complexity. It may be popular just because it is fun, it is relatable, or it is easily accessible. When teaching students, we need to meet them where they are before we can take them where they need to go.
Some students may not be inherently interested in music class, and they may struggle to connect with quarter notes or sol-mi patterns. Applying those concepts to songs they already know and enjoy is a great way to get them on board and connect with the material.
You Can’t Teach the Standards
As I mentioned briefly in the point above, you absolutely CAN use popular music to teach your standards. In fact, our national standards for music education include “singing… a varied repertoire of music,” “performing… a varied repertoire of music,” “listening to, analyzing, and describing music,” “evaluating music and music performances,” and “understanding music in relation to history and culture.” Unless I’m mistaken, none of those standards specifically state that classical music is the only means in which to achieve those standards.
Students can watch a performance of any genre and have a discussion on whether or not it is good. One of my favorite activities to do with my older students is to have them watch a well-respected performance of the Star Spangled Banner (I typically choose Lady Gaga) and compare it to Fergie’s rendition at the NBA All Star game in 2018. Watch it for yourself and tell me that students wouldn’t have a great time describing that performance! I’ve had eighth graders have some very lively discussions when comparing the two videos.
Okay, but HOW do I use Popular Music?
Now that we’ve established the value of popular music, it’s time to talk specifics! How can you integrate other genres into your lessons? My first suggestion is to find music educators on Instagram and see/listen to what they’re doing in their classrooms. Two of my favorites are Franklin Willis and Katie Wonderly. The two of them often have great ideas for how to incorporate popular music into their lessons at various grade levels. Franklin Willis even has great dances and rhythm stick activities for sale on his Teachers Pay Teachers store!
Another resource I often use for popular music is YouTube. Through the pandemic, I found some great videos for boomwhacker and rhythm stick play alongs that my students absolutely loved. Guided play alongs are a great way to get students to practice tracking the music, and they make great sub plans!
There are endless ways to use popular music in the elementary music classroom. Don’t let the naysayers keep you from utilizing this great resource to help your students! Do you already use any popular music in your music class? We’d love to hear how you incorporate it, and how your students react to it!