The role of songs in creating a positive climate for language learning

(Reading time: 5 - 9 minutes)

Teachers nowadays need to be using motivating up-to-date materials and learner-centered methods, which can promote a more effective learning environment. Songs could be a great learning resource which could increase motivation levels by creating a more effective learning atmosphere and in turn lead to more successful learning outcomes. My teaching experience reflected the learning outcomes of studies from researchers in other countries which had provided strong evidence of the effectiveness of using songs to learn English (Adkins 1997; Millington 2011; Fonseca-Mora et al. 2011). It also indicated areas of potential concern that need to be addressed if songs are to be successfully implemented into the primary language curriculum.

by Dr Maria Diakou, Cyprus Ministry of Education

Songs in language learning: cognitive considerations

Adkins in her paper ‘Connecting the Powers of Music to the Learning of Languages’ suggests that music ‘is a subject to be studied and appreciated as a separate skill, but music can also be used as a means for acquiring other knowledge’ (Adkins 1997:5). Furthermore music can be used as a memory aid. This finding is reinforced by Young (1992) whose study concluded that ‘melody seems to act as a path or a cue to evoke the precise information we are trying to retrieve’, and seems to leave a particularly deep trace in our memories’ (Young 1992:150).  These findings reflect Fonseca-Mora who examined the relationships between language and aptitude and musical intelligence’, concluding that ‘verbal practice associated with musical information seems to be more memorable’ (Fonseca-Mora 2000:152). This could be because foreign sounds paired with music are stored in long-term musical memory and are therefore accessible for mental rehearsal and memorization.


Songs in Language learning: Affective considerations

Le Doux focuses on the affective side of learning, notably the power of emotions, asserting that ‘minds without emotions are not really minds at all’ (Le Doux cited in Arnold and Brown 1999:25). Emotions are said to give us a more activated and chemically stimulated brain (Edwards 2011:104), and, from a language teaching point of view, could be ‘the key that opens – or closes – the door to language learning’ (Arnold 1999:107). According to Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis (1985), emotions have a strong influence on learning and can act as filters for controlling whether new language forms successfully flow into the language-learning system in the brain. As Gläser-Zikuda and Järvelä suggest, ‘learning processes cannot be understood without taking emotional and motivational variables into account’ (Gläser-Zikuda and Järvelä 2008:79) and negative emotions can prevent pupils from gaining maximum linguistic input.


Learning through songs develops a non-threatening classroom atmosphere in which the four skills can be enhanced. Music and songs in the EFL classroom can provide a break from classroom routine and may in turn help to maintain motivation levels.  Let’s not forget that most classrooms contain pupils with very diverse needs and abilities and, as Ara suggests: ‘Although children have an innate ability to learn a language, they do not learn properly if they find their lessons boring and unexciting’ (Ara 2009:168).


Reducing anxiety

While research indicates a positive link between motivation and effective learning foreign language anxiety (FLA) can have a negative impact on learning. As Horwitz et al. suggest: ‘Teachers and students generally feel strongly that anxiety is a major obstacle to be overcome in learning to speak another language’ (Horwitz et al. 1998:125). There is also evidence of an interrelationship between FLA and motivation from Millington (2011) who states that ‘by reducing anxiety, songs can help increase student interest and motivate them to learn the target language’ (Millington 2011:136). Fonseca-Mora (2000) is also of the opinion that using melody with new phrases lowers the student’s anxiety, as Lems (2005), argues strongly in favour of music in the language classroom to create a positive and fun environment which brings learners of all abilities together.


Limitations and potential concerns

It should be borne in mind that some pupils may not learn well through songs, as mentioned by Šišková, who asserts that music can sometimes serve ‘as a distraction and not as a means of learning the subject’ (Šišková 2008:13). Some pupils are easily excited and create noise and disturbance, which is a distraction for other pupils in class who then find it difficult to concentrate. The use of technical equipment, as suggested by Murphey (1992b:8) may alleviate this problem, in particular individual headsets which can minimise unwanted noise as well as aiding concentration.

There is a need for a variety of songs and carefully designed and motivating activities for participants to work with. Teachers need to rely on personal collections, but it is important that they make choices based on the factors above, including the potential of songs to maintain variety in the classroom, and focus on building up ‘a good repertoire of songs’ (Millington 2011:137) with linked interesting and engaging activities. Children do not like using the same song repeatedly and become easily bored.

Another factor to consider is amusia, also referred to as tone-deafness, which is ‘a difficulty in discriminating pitch changes in melodies that affects around 4% of the human population’ (Douglas and Bilkey 2007:915). Clarke et al. contend that amusics are unable to recognise familiar melodies and ‘cannot detect differences between melodies, lacking the capacity that is otherwise widespread in the population to hear ‘wrong’ notes’ (Clarke et al. 2010:134).  Patel further adds that there are also pupils with normal hearing who may show ‘impaired perception of harmonic relations in music, either following brain damage (acquired amusia) or due to a lifelong condition (congenital amusia)’ (Patel 2003:675). These aspects present additional challenges for teachers.


Research to date signals the many benefits, arising from the use of songs in language learning, which render them a valuable teaching tool. Nevertheless, there are factors that need to be taken into account if they are to be used successfully. Teachers should, therefore, carefully consider the purpose of any individual song and check whether it establishes ‘irregular sentence or stress patterns which have to be corrected when used in conversation’ (Richards 1969:161).

Through their potential to help children internalize positive values, songs thus have a great deal to offer the EFL classroom. According to Paquette and Rieg: ‘Since many children appear to be naturally inclined to hum or to sing a tune, it is beneficial to build upon their musical interests and enhance their literacy development simultaneously’ (Paquette and Rieg 2008:228). This connects entertainment with learning and, furthermore, enriches and activates the foreign language classroom.  Songs could as a result be used as supplementary activities since they can make an important contribution to challenging students.

Good preparation is essential, starting from equipment that should be available for pupils to use, such as headsets which allow them to listen to the songs at their own pace and without creating any disturbing noise. Teachers also need to help pupils understand that using songs is a part of the learning process, and that frequent use helps them become accustomed to this activity and not overreact.  The challenge for teachers is ‘finding and selecting songs that are suitable both in terms of vocabulary and topic’ (Millington 2011:136) and designing differentiated activities for all ability and age ranges.

It is also important to allow our pupils to have a say in the selection of songs within stated parameters. This helps them to feel more responsible and involves them directly in the learning process. In terms of song types, according to our experience, all kinds of songs, from nursery rhymes to pop songs can be used in the classroom and ‘may have not only an emotional function, but can also facilitate linguistic processing due to their simple and repetitive structure’ (Schön et al. 2008:982). •


  1. Adkins, S. (1997) ‘Connecting the Powers of Music to the Learning of Languages’, The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning and Teaching vol. IV, pp. 1-10 [online],  (Accessed 14 March 2015).
  2. Ara, S. (2009) ‘Use of songs, rhymes and games in teaching English to young learners in Bangladesh’, The Dhaka University Journal of Linguistics, vol. 2, no. 3:161-172.
  3. Arnold, J. (1999a) Affect in Language Learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Arnold, J. (1999b) ‘Visualization: Language learning with the mind’s eye’ in Arnold J. (ed) (1999), Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press:260-278.
  5. Arnold, J. and Brown, H.D. (1999) ‘A map of the terrain’ in Arnold J. (ed) (1999), Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press:1-24.
  6. Douglas, K.M. and Bilkey, D.K. (2007) ‘Amusia is associated with deficits in spatial processing’ Nature neuroscience, vol. 10, no. 7:915-921.
  7. Edwards, C.H. (2011) Democratic Discipline in Learning Communities, Theory and Practice, Rowman and Littlefields Publishers, Inc.
  8. Fonseca-Mora, C. Toscano-Fuentes, C. and Wermke, K. (2011) ‘Melodies that help: The relation between language and aptitude and musical intelligence’, Anglistik International Journal of English Studies, vol. 22, no. 1:101-118. 
  9. Gläser-Zikuda, M. and,Järvelä S. (2008) ‘Application of qualitative and quantitative methods to enrich understanding of emotional and motivational aspects of learning’, Editorial/international Journal of Educational Research, vol. 47, no. 2:79-83.
  10. Lems, K. (2005) ‘Music works: Music for adult English language learners’, New directions for adult and continuing education, vol. 107:13-21.
  11. Millington, N.T. (2011) ‘Using songs effectively to teach English to young learners’, Language Education in Asia, vol. 2, no. 1:134-141.
  12. Murphey, T. (1992a) ‘The discourse of pop songs’, TESOL Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4:770-774.
  13. Murphey, T. (1992b) Music and Song, Oxford University Press.
  14. Paquette, K.R. and Rieg, S.A. (2008) ‘Using music to support the Literacy Development of Young English Language Learners’, Early Childhood Educational Journal, vol. 36:227-232.
  15. Patel, A.D. (2003) ‘Language, music, syntax and the brain’, Nature Neuroscience, vol. 6, no. 7:674-681.
  16. Richards, J. (1969) ‘Songs in Language Learning’, TESOL Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 2:161-174.
  17. Schön, D. Boyer, M. Moreno, S. Besson, M. Peretz, I. and Kolinsky, R. (2008) ‘Songs as an aid for language acquisition’, Cognition, vol. 106, no. 2:975-983.
  18. Shen, C. (2009) ‘Using English songs: an Enjoyable and Effective Approach to ELT’, English Language Teaching, vol. 2, no. 1:88-94.
  19. Šišková, D. (2008) ‘Teaching Vocabulary through music’ a Diploma Thesis at the Department of English Language and Literature of Masaryk University in Brno.
  20. Young, D.J. (1992) ‘Language Anxiety from the foreign language specialist’s perspective: Interviews with Krashen, Omaggio Hadley, Terrell, and Rardin’, Foreign Language Annals, vol. 25, no. 2:157-.



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