I will never forget the day I heard Ethan sing for the first time. He was a high school freshman and enrolled in my beginning guitar class. Students were completing their end-of-semester performances. They all picked songs, learned them independently and performed them for the class. I always encourage students to sing, but many of them are intimidated at the idea of using their voices in front of their peers.
But here was Ethan — singing Pumped Up Kicks quietly and confidently. I couldn’t help but tear up at the sight (he teased me for that later). There is nothing quite as incredible as connecting with kids through music, and I have found that popular music is a great vehicle for doing just that.
But why popular music?
Even though most adolescents consume popular music (i.e., music that is commercially available and includes popular genres such as rock, pop, and hip hop), there is often a disconnect between in-school music classes and out-of-school experiences with music listening. According to a 2011 study by the National Association for Music Education, only 21% of graduating seniors participated in their school music program. That means that nearly 80% of adolescents are disconnected from school music despite being active music consumers.
In the end, we want our students to be engaged. We want them to find positive outlets for self-expression. And we want to know that our work matters and will matter for years to come. During the past 15 years as a public-school educator, I have had the privilege of using music in the classroom as a tool for connection and community. Here are five ways I’ve found that popular music can boost student engagement:
Music connects with students’ cultures
Students enter the classroom with a wide range of musical experiences and preferences. By including popular music in a classroom, teachers can give students the opportunity to share what matters most to them and offer new avenues for connection. My students love sharing tracks every Friday when we do our “class playlist.” I learn so much about them by the music they pick, and I get to sit back and be the student while they teach me about the music that means something to them.
Across the country, our communities and student populations vary widely. Even within the same district, one school might have a majority Korean population while another has a majority of Hispanic students. What and how we teach should be different for both of these schools. From country to K-pop (Korean pop), traditional tunes to Mexican pop, diversity in music is just as broad as diversity in culture. If we want to boost engagement in music education, we need a culturally relevant curriculum.
Music creates conscious consumers
Adolescents are inundated with music all day long—through social media, advertisements, and curated playlists. But how often do they engage in active listening? How are their music preferences shaped? When students actively listen to and learn popular songs, they engage with music in a whole new way. One great way to do this is to have students dissect a popular song (much like the award-winning podcast, Song Exploder). Through purposeful, directed listening, students get excited about consuming new music and learning more about the lyrical depth and how the song was produced.
Music promotes autonomy
Much of our school music programs are centered on the large ensemble model. Students learn to sing or play an instrument within an ensemble and to read primarily from notation. While there is value in this experience, there is also a lack of connection between in-school music-making and out-of-school music-making if students cannot be autonomous musicians. Teaching students to play popular songs on the guitar or piano can be a gateway for self-directed learning in music. If you pair those experiences with tools or software that the students can access at home, they can continue to grow and develop musically for years to come.
Moosiko, an online platform that teaches guitar using modern songs, derives 100% of its lessons from student requests. In 2020, some of the most requested songs by students included Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, Fly Me to the Moon by Sinatra, and Put Your Head on My Shoulders by Paul Anka (a song released in 1959). Any idea where today’s students found these not-very-current songs? They were all used as backing tracks on TikTok, the popular social media app among teenagers. Culturally relevant music doesn’t just mean music that was recently released.
Music helps develop lifelong learners
In 2013, I studied students’ music learning habits by playing popular music for an event at my school. Part of that study included interviews with alumni who had graduated more than a decade ago. I wanted to know how their musical experiences in school shaped them and whether they were still playing music. Because of their musical autonomy developed through playing popular music, all of the alumni I spoke to were still playing music alone or with others. How cool is that?! They felt that the experience of learning and performing songs they loved developed a lifelong pursuit. For some, it was a hobby. For others, it was a part of their identity.
Music cultivates community
There is something special about being in a band and playing music with others. The creative give and take that comes with playing popular music, along with the experience of performing with others, is truly remarkable. Not only have I experienced the power of community from the stage, but I’ve also experienced it in the classroom. As students learn together in a supportive environment and provide critical feedback, they learn essential skills that can translate beyond the music room. The sharing doesn’t have to stop in the classroom. Consider setting up a local event and working with a coffee shop to host your student musicians.
Playing and making music is one of the greatest joys of my life. As educators, our number one goal should be to serve our students. We should strive to give every student the gift of a lifetime of making and playing music. Digging into the music they love and finding ways to reach them through music is one way we can keep those students engaged and excited to come to class each day and continue participating in the joy of making music for years to come.
Sarah Gulish PhD teaches at Lower Moreland High School in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. Gulish has taught in public schools for more than a decade, worked as a researcher, written books, recorded music, and been a touring rock musician. She is also the founder of a music publishing company, F-flat Books. She uses Moosiko in her classroom.
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