Why music? The various potential roles of music in the foreign language classroom

Seminar Paper, 2018
13 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction: why music?

2. Neurological benefits

3. Music in the lives of students

4. Emotions and the unifying effect of music

5. The benefits of music as authentic material

6. Perspectives, problems and concerns

1. Introduction: why music?

Just like language, mathematics, and other forms of intelligences, music should be part of all educational structures (Seel 2012: 2402).

Music can be an extremely versatile tool for the foreign-language teacher. It has the potential to support and improve learning on a variety of levels: it can activate, motivate, or relax students; it can help memorization of vocabulary or language structures; it can bridge cultural gaps or contribute to the emergence of a learning community; it can have neurological benefits; it can be used as authentic learning material or in the form of a ritual; and so forth. Theoretical and empirical work has been carried out to support these claims—of which many must feel obvious to foreign-language teachers, since music and song are essential parts of human culture and play a significant role part in the language- learning of infants—but these works are scattered across a range of disciplines from anthropology to linguistics or neuroscience and, to the best of the knowledge of the author, cannot be found in collected form in any publication.

One important reason why application of music in language learning must seem logical or natural to many teachers is that music (especially song) and language are similar in many ways: Both are based on the production of sounds and rely on factors such as melodic recognition, pitch, volume, stress, tone, rhythm, or pauses. Neither could be learned without exposure to these sounds—except sign language, in which visual input is used (Mora 2000: 147). In addition, both respectively apply symbols whose recognition in context is required to understand them. Infants, In fact, do not make much of a difference between music and language at all, according to Chen-Hafteck: "Music and language are the two ways that humans communicate and express themselves through sound. Since birth, babies start to listen and produce sound without distinguishing between music and language, singing and speech (Chen-Hafteck 1997: 85)." These similarities can be capitalized on to support language learning, for example in combination with the repetitive nature of many music pieces.

Music surely has its place in foreign-language classrooms but it is not a standard ingredient for many teachers, especially not after students move on from elementary school to the higher class levels and school becomes less playful, and instead more serious, syllabus-, and exam-oriented. Music in foreign-language teaching does not play a major role in didactics either, as its omittance from the 716 pages of the Handbuch Fremdsprachenunterricht or the 399 pages of the Handbuch Fremdsprachendidaktik illustrate. Since however the benefits of using music in the foreign language classroom can be manifold, this paper aims at collecting its various advantages and possible applications in order to demonstrate the versatility and great potential as a learning resource of this essential feature of human culture.

2. Neurological benefits

Much research has focused on the processing of music and language in the brain using EEG, fMRI, and other imaging technologies since Patel proposed in 2003 that "language and music overlap in important ways in the brain, and thus studying the nature of this overlap can help illuminate interesting features about the functional and neural architecture of both domains (Patel 2003: 674)." Studies often aim at discovering if similar functional areas of the brain are activated when involved in musical or linguistic activities, frequently motivated by the underlying assumption that musical training is conducive for language learning, be it a first or second language. This area of research has produced distinctive and detailed findings with regards to specific linguistic features and specific regions of the brain; for example Kunert et al. in their study discovered that music and language syntax Interact in Broca’s Area (Kunert et al. 2015).

An important distinction in relation with language learning of course is the differentiation between being exposed to music and actively producing music. A study by Kraus et al. observed a cohort of children over the period of one year with one group taking music appreciation classes and the other group attending the same classes but after six months switching to instrumental training. The research indicates that with regards to language learning actually producing music is advantageous to engaging with music on a less active level, as the group learning instruments "had faster and more robust neural processing of speech than the children who stayed in the music appreciation class (Kraus et al. 2014: 1)."

Hallam provides an overview of the benefits discovered in research that has been carried out in this area (Hallam 2010: 271–272). Especially regarding phonological skills there is broad evidence for the positive effects of music on language learning. Hallam highlights the significance of these findings of neurological research concerning the role and beneficial effects of music on language learning, also noting the importance of beginning at a young age and keeping up the active engagement with music:

Overall, the evidence suggests that engagement with music plays a major role in developing perceptual processing systems which facilitate the encoding and identification of speech sounds and patterns: the earlier the exposure to active music participation and the greater the length of participation, the greater the impact. Transfer of these skills is automatic and contributes not only to language development but also to literacy (Hallam 2010: 272).

Of course the occasional use of music in the foreign language classroom cannot have the same effect on brain development and corresponding language learning as comprehensive musical training. However, since it has been proven that music and language are sharing some neural processing structures and since music has been proven to have positive effects on for example phonological skills, pairing the two in the foreign language classroom seems logical and consequential.

In general, the relationship between music and academic performance needs to be assessed carefully though, since it is not entirely clear what is cause and what is effect in this regard:

While there are many studies that indicate significant and positive correlations between music learning and performance in academic subjects such as language and mathematics, a causal effect has not been determined thus far. It is uncertain whether students with higher academic achievement are drawn to music learning or music learning has led to higher academic achievement (Seel 2012: 2402).

In addition, as Hallam notes in this context, musical activities may be linked to other factors beneficial for academic achievement, such as having supportive parents (Hallam 2010: 277), which is why it is difficult to determine a definite causal relationship.

3. Music in the lives of students

Thaler contends that music can be a strong motivator for learners and collects ten aspects conducive to motivation specifically for the use of pop music in the TEFL classroom, all starting with the letter a:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Thaler 2012)

Even though some of the aspects Thaler mentions are bordering on platitudes (Attraktivität or Abwechslung) and many are not only valid specifically for pop songs (Auslegbarkeit or Aktualität), he also brings up some important themes that point to why music provides a great opportunity for language learning and learning in general. Several of Thaler's points can be grouped together as they all have to do with the lives of the students, namely Adressatenorientierung (a), Aktualität (b), Authentizität (c), Alltagsbezug (d), and Allgegenwärtigkeit (e). All these factors can be conducive to learners' genuine engagement with a learning subject, in this case a foreign language:

Teachers know first-hand that it is usually easier to motivate students to work with material such as a book or the lyrics of a song if it deals with a subject that has a connection with their own lives (a). In the same way, students will more likely engage with material in the course of their language learning if it is current material—which should be easy to find, considering the never-ending supply of pop music (b). As (most) songs are not written for the purpose of learning, this specific type of material will also be authentic and therefore more effective for language learning (c). Finding a song dealing with a topic relevant for the everyday lives of students might increase learners' motivation yet further (d). Finally, it might even be the case that students will find a particular song playing on the radio or somewhere else in their surroundings and will thus be exposed to it more frequently, or, even better, they might choose to play the song on their own volition because they enjoy listening to it (e). An additional strongly motivating reason can be the wish to understand the lyrics of their favorite songs. All these factors have the potential of making music a suitable and fertile resource for learning in the foreign language classroom.


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Why music? The various potential roles of music in the foreign language classroom
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie Arbeitsbereich Didaktik des Englischen)
Kompetenzorientierung im Englischunterricht
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M.A., M.A. John Schulze (Author), 2018, Why music? The various potential roles of music in the foreign language classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/501020


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