As the trendy ‘out there’ teacher has always known, song lyrics can be a rich source of inspiration for the introduction and revision of such crucial poetic elements as rhyme, rhythm, symbolism, imagery and emotive vocabulary. You can even use them to reinforce more traditional English language concepts such as parts of speech and punctuation.
Of course, there is a clear distinction between song lyrics and their more traditional English-teaching counterpart, poetry. Song lyrics often make little discernible sense, especially when the composer appears to have focused more on the integrity of the music rather than that of the lyric. After all, what on Earth is a ‘Wonderwall’?
This is not so much the case with poetry – published poetry, I mean – not the tortured angst of the painfully introspective internet balladeer. However, there is a very rich vein of quality song lyrics out there just waiting to be explored. Examples of much respected lyricists which spring to mind include John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Now, I’m not suggesting that every lyric written by such musical greats would bear intensive literary scrutiny… but some obviously would, e.g. the overtly political ‘Power to the People’, the sensuously surrealistic ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and the transcendent ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ which is so musically and lyrically sublime that it breathes new life into what would otherwise have been a mere repetition of a rather tired cliché. Of course, if you are really ‘hip’ (which I’m obviously not, having used such an archetypal 60s word) you could even delve into the lyrics of artists who are currently in vogue… if you find them to be sufficiently meaningful, that is. And, even if you don’t, their obvious lack of depth might be a wryly amusing learning curve in itself!
I certainly intend to make much use of two classic songs from the last century: ‘Vincent’ – Don McLean’s moving eulogy to tragic artist Vincent van Gogh – and the sublime, ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’, the Oscar winning musical theme to the 1968 box office hit, the Thomas Crown Affair. With regard to the latter, the metaphor which forms the song’s title makes no literal sense whatsoever; however, on a subliminal level, it implies much. The windmill comparison suggests relentless motion and so has connotations of uncontrollable, racing thoughts. The grinding action of such a large machine further implies a psyche in crisis. In this respect, the metaphor works on a similar level to Macbeth’s agonised cry: ‘O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!’
Of course, you could also experiment with the holy grail of cross-curricular links and record your own deeply symbolic anthem with the aid of a willing collaborator in the music department. It’ll look good on your CV, and it’ll put you ‘out there’as well – just as we ask our students to put their own credibility on the line when they perform something for us.
But if musical self-glorification isn’t your thing – a teacher’s creativity should be seen and not heard! – then leave your comfort zone severely intact and go with the greats. If nothing else, you will have introduced your students to a classic song… and given yourself a well-deserved quality three minutes in the classroom!
* The following downloads illustrate how song lyrics might be used as a teaching aid and, if you wish, can be used as ready-made 30 minute lesson plan with extension activities.
- Watch the music video of the song Jealousy with your classes.
- Then download the lesson plan and activities to accompany this here.
English Teacher and author