Bored with books? Take a break. Try learning more English through music! In this study guide, we’ll show you how to use the songs you love to improve your vocabulary, listening and speaking skills. Let the music play...
To make faster progress with your English, you should connect it with your hobbies and interests. This will give you more contact time with the language. If you love music, then why not try learning English through your favourite songs? This is a great way of improving your understanding and fluency. It can also be a welcome break from your textbook studies. Music contains more than just words and melodies. Let’s look a little deeper:
Culture: The lyrics of English songs are full of references to the local culture. For example, see how The Kinks (UK) talk about tea and toast in the song Autumn Almanac. English songs are like a window into the culture behind the language. They show how Brits and Americans live and how they think about the world. You won’t find this information in a textbook.
Accents: English is spoken in many different accents by people across the UK and America. The voices in songs make it easier to hear this in action and understand the differences between them. For example, Arctic Monkeys sing in a Yorkshire (northern) accent, while Blur sing in a cockney (London) accent.
Slang: English song lyrics often use slang words and phrases instead of Standard English. This is useful because it will teach you common informal phrases used by native speakers today.
Speed: Songs have different speeds – some are fast, others are slow. This means you can start with slow, simple songs and then use faster, more complex ones later. Native Brits and Americans often speak quickly so listening to faster songs is good practice for real conversations later.
Pronunciation: It’s hard to know how a word is pronounced unless you actually hear it. Songs are a fantastic way to hear English words spoken (or sung) by a local Brit or American. You can try to copy this pronunciation so you sound more natural when speaking English.
Access: Listening to music can be possible when other methods of study are not. For example, in the car, in the shower, or just walking around the house. With headphones, Spotify and a Bluetooth speaker you can listen to music anywhere.
Memory: The best English songs are “catchy” and will stay in your head for days. This makes it easier to remember any new words and expressions through repetition.
Fun: Learning English with your favourite songs is fun! Studying with music from time to time can help you take a break from boring textbooks and stay motivated.
2. How to use music to practise your English
Study with song lyrics
The easiest way to learn English with music is to listen to and then analyse song lyrics. Most popular songs will have lyric videos on YouTube, so you can read the words as you listen. You can also download song texts, print them and translate any new vocabulary. Singing along and trying to work out what the words mean will also help you improve.
Here are several websites you can use to teach yourself English through music:
Lyricstraining.com offers an interactive, fun way to study English through music. Using lyric videos, it asks you to fill in words from a song based on what you hear. There are hundreds of songs on the website, so you can choose your favourites to help you learn.
Lyricgaps.com offers similar gap-fill exercises with music videos. This website also includes a ‘Karaoke’ and ‘Quiz’ mode for many popular English songs.
Lyricstranslate.com is an international community website for translating song lyrics into different languages. If you find that your favourite songs do not have translations into your language, why not take this as a challenge, and translate them yourself?
Genius.com includes the lyrics to thousands of songs, so you can read the words while you listen. It also features comments written by users about what the lyrics have been written about and what they mean. This is a great way to engage with English music and push yourself to really understand what the songs are about. Try looking up a few of your favourite songs on this great site!
Pick up your guitar!
Play music yourself? Why not try learning some English songs?
Playing and singing English songs will make you remember the words and give you an emotional connection to the language. Here are a few easy English songs to learn on guitar:
Oasis – Wonderwall
Pulp – Common People
Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees
Ultimate-guitar.com has chords and lyrics to all of these songs and thousands more. If a song is difficult to play, try searching for “song title + guitar lesson” on Youtube to find a video tutorial.
You could take this a step further, and try writing your own song in English. Perhaps try to write lyrics using a particular area of the language you find difficult, or words that you struggle to remember.
Use a rhyming dictionary or website like Rhymer.com to help you write song lyrics that rhyme correctly in English.
If you enjoy playing and writing English songs, you could even attend a local “open mic (night)”. These are events where a pub or cafe allows amateur musicians to go on a small stage and play songs of their choice. If there are no open mic nights near you, why don’t you try starting one with your friends? Alternatively, just arrange to jam (play informally) with other musicians in English.
Sing along with karaoke
Karaoke is a great way to get yourself singing along to English songs – even if you can’t play music at all. Try to find a karaoke bar near you and see what English songs they have so that you can sing the words in a fun, judgement free environment.
If this isn’t for you, try just doing karaoke with your friends at home. The great thing about music is you can sing it anywhere: your car, around the house, in the shower. Choose a song, find the words and sing along! It’s all great practice.
3. Examples of songs in English by level
Everyone has a different taste in music. However, when using songs to study English, you may want to choose some unfamiliar tracks in other genres. This can help you to learn new words and expressions. If the song has interesting lyrics, then it can be of use in studying the language. Below are some examples of useful songs that have been divided by level:
ENGLISH SONGS FOR LOWER LEVELS
The Cure – Friday I’m In Love
The lyrics to this ‘90s classic are perfect for remembering the days of the week in English. The song also talks about all sorts of emotions and the words English people use to describe them. For example ‘blue’ is used to mean ‘sad’.
Just take a look at the verse below to see how this song can be of use:
Monday you can fall apart, Tuesday, Wednesday, break my heart, Thursday doesn’t even start, It’s Friday I’m in love
‘Break my heart’ is an English term which means: to be overcome with sadness. When the singer says Tuesday and Wednesday can ‘break his heart’ he is giving the days of the week human qualities. This is called personification.
In this verse you can also see ‘it’s’ and ‘doesn’t’. These are examples of contractions, where two or more words are joined together. In this case, the words that have been joined together are ‘it is’ and ‘does not’. Contractions are very common in English speech and informal writing.
The Beatles – Let It Be
The Fab Four hold a special place in British music history and their brilliant songs use words from all corners of the English language. This famous song sees the Beatles at their simplest and most beautiful.
When the broken hearted people, Living in the world agree, There will be an answer: Let it be
Here is that phrase ‘broken hearted’ again! Can you see that it’s quite common in English music? In this song, the people with broken hearts are told to ‘let it be’. This is a famous saying that means: ‘leave it alone, relax, it doesn’t matter’. The Beatles are telling us that our problems wouldn’t seem so bad if we just ‘let things be’ or accepted life as it is.
Adele – Hello
Slow and conversational, Adele’s Hello features everyday phrases like “how are you?” and “I hope that you’re well”. This English pop song is your chance to have a normal conversation with Adele. It is bound to stay in your head, making sure you remember all of the essential phrases it includes.
Hello, how are you? It’s so typical of me to talk about myself I’m sorry I hope that you’re well
‘How are you?’ is a must-know phrase for everyday conversation. It is how English people often start conversations: by asking someone how they are doing.
Among all the simple must-know phrases are some more complicated words to improve your vocabulary. In this verse you can see the phrase ‘typical of me’. This means it is ‘usual’ or ‘normal’ for Adele to talk about herself and her problems more than she listens to the other person.
You can also see more examples of contractions: ‘you’re’ is ‘you are’ and ‘I’m’ is ‘I am’. Contractions such as these are extremely common in conversations between native speakers and they will make your English sound more natural.
George Ezra – Don’t Matter Now
This song is an example of one that is in the charts right now. It is a fun, cheerful song about being carefree.
Sometimes you need to be alone Shut the door, unplug the phone Speak in a language they don’t know It don’t matter now!
The main line in this song is ‘it don’t matter now’. You will notice this breaks the rules of English grammar. However, it is common in some regional forms of English to say ‘don’t’ instead of ‘doesn’t’ with he/she/it. You can find this a lot in British and American songs.
Fresh Education – Metaphors and Similies
Fresh Education make hip-hop with one aim: to teach. Lots of their music focuses on the English language. In their songs, they look at everything from metaphors to poetry, and they give you useful words in every verse. Learning English has never been so funky!
A metaphor’s a comparison of a couple (of) things Two different pictures we want to fit in a single frame A more convenient description of how to see the world He’s a solid rock, she’s a black pearl
In this extract from ‘Metaphors And Similes’ they explain what a metaphor is, and then use their own metaphors as examples. A metaphor is when you describe something by saying it is something else. In this song, he says a girl is a ‘black pearl’ to say she is very important (or precious). Metaphors are used in a lot of songs so pay attention to them!
You can listen to Fresh Education’s music on Soundcloud
ENGLISH SONGS FOR ADVANCED LEARNERS
If your English is strong and you want to use more challenging music to test yourself, try listening to the words in faster genres such as hip-hop. Here are some examples of English songs you can use:
Stormzy – Big For Your Boots
Stormzy’s rise to the top of the British music scene has been incredible. In just over a year he went from freestyling in a park with his friends to being top of the charts! He is now seen as one of the best UK rappers. So turn him up loud and let ‘Big Mike’ lead you through some real English slang!
You’re getting way too big for your boots You’re never too big for the boot I’ve got the big size twelves on my feet Your face ain’t big for my boot
In this verse Stormzy cleverly uses the double meanings of the word ‘boot’. Firstly, he says ‘you’re getting way too big for your boots’. This is a common English phrase which means you are behaving as if you are more important than you really are. He then says ‘you’re never too big for the boot’. This is another English phrase meaning ‘no matter how big or successful you are, you can always be kicked out’. Finally, Stormzy turns to the literal meaning of boots: big shoes!
Stormzy also uses the word ‘ain’t’ in this verse. This is another regional form that is very common in songs and means ‘isn’t’ or ‘is not’. You will notice that he sings some words with a Jamaican accent: ‘dem’ (them), ‘ting’ (thing) and ‘yout’ (youth).
Bob Dylan – Like a Rolling Stone
Bob Dylan’s lyrics are often complex and tell stories. This song is an angry attack on privilege, in which a naive person from a rich family has to face the difficult realities of being poor on the street.
Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his lyrics in 2016. The poetry and beauty of his songs make them perfect for learning English at higher levels!
Dylan sings this song quickly so it is a good track to test your listening at advanced level.
You never turned around to see the frowns On the jugglers and the clowns When they all did tricks for you
In this verse Dylan uses a metaphor of ‘jugglers’ and ‘clowns’, who are circus performers. This metaphor is used to attack somebody who has used people as if they were ‘performers’ or ‘servants’ for their own enjoyment. The person does not notice that the circus performers are ‘frowning’ – meaning they are unhappy about what they are being forced to do (probably for money).
Blackalicious – Alphabet Aerobics
Warning: Only for the most daring English students! This song is one of the fastest you will hear in English. Each verse focuses on a different letter of the alphabet and lists rhyming words that begin with that letter. With everything from “irate” to “zealous” these are not easy words. However, if you are confident with your English and want to expand your vocabulary, you can’t beat this song.
Artificial amateurs aren’t at all amazing Analytically, I assault, animate things Broken barriers bounded by the bomb beat
From this verse you can see how the song uses complex vocabulary. The sentences don’t make a lot of sense, but there are plenty of unusual new words for you to learn.
Translated into more simple English, these sentences say:
Unnatural beginners (other rappers) are nothing special Using reason/intellect, I attack (rap) and bring things to life (with my lyrical storytelling) Broken barriers held together by a good beat
In this context the word ‘bomb’ can be used to mean ‘good’ – it is a slang term sometimes used in music. As you can see, the sentences do not make much sense, but if you focus on individual words they can be very useful. This track is all about the beauty of rhyme in English, so don’t try to translate it literally.
If a slang word or phrase in a song confuses you, then try looking it up on Urbandictionary.com. Write down the most common slang words and learn them to improve your understanding of modern English.
ENGLISH SONGS FOR KIDS
If you want to use music to teach your child English, and improve your own skills at the same time, there are many nursery rhymes and kids’ songs you can find.
Bussongs.com has cartoons and lyric videos for many of the best English songs for kids – from ‘Eyes, Ears and Noses’ to ‘The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round’. English nursery rhymes, like the ones found on this website, go through every area of essential vocabulary: from body parts to animals. Try some for yourself and then show your children how fun English songs can be!
Many of these songs are used to teach British and American children English, so they are very useful for someone just beginning to study the language!
4. How to talk about music in English
When native English speakers talk about music with their friends, they use all sorts of slang terms to describe what they are listening to. This can be quite confusing even to native speakers! Let’s take a look at some common words that Brits use to talk about the songs they love:
‘Tune’ means ‘song’. If you say ‘that’s a tune’, it means ‘great song’
That’s a tune! Who’s it by?
Amazing. Usually used to describe rap or dance music with a lively beat.
That DJ last night was playing some bangin’ tunes!
In time and together when playing music
This band sounds really tight
I don’t like the new Arcade Fire track
Music with a bouncing rhythm that makes you want to dance
Red Hot Chili Peppers are so funky
A warehouse party, usually with dance music, smoke and lights
Do you fancy going to a rave later?
Improvised singing (usually rapping)
Stormzy’s great at freestyling
A brilliant song that has stood the test of time. You can call any song a ‘classic’ – but other people may not agree with you!
Yesterday by The Beatles is a real classic
Trying too hard, sentimental, corny
That pop song is way too cheesy
A band that only has one hit song (their other music is not popular)
That band’s just a one-hit wonder. No real talent!
A copy (or alternative version) of another band’s song
Do you like that new cover of Across the Universe on the Samsung advert?
Commonly used instead of the formal term ‘concert’
My mate’s playing a gig tomorrow night if you fancy coming.
Memorable, melody that sticks in your head
I hate that tune, but it’s really catchy!
Like -ish, meaning ‘a bit like blues’. Also possible with rocky, grungey, etc.
I’d describe his latest album as bluesy rock.
5. Where to find the best new English songs
Regardless of where you live, you can always access English music via the internet. It is a good idea to build up your own music collection so that you can use this to improve your English. Your personal library might include your old CDs, MP3s, lyrics printed from the internet, music apps on your phone or websites you have bookmarked. Remember to take some familiar songs, but also some new tracks each week in order to look at different vocabulary and styles.
5 ways to find the best English music:
MAGAZINES & WEBSITES:NME.com is an English music magazine website that writes about new and existing bands. It offers an interesting way of finding out more about your favourite artists. You can also discover new songs and improve your English by reading articles each week.
MUSIC CHARTS: Check out the official UK chart website! Listening to music that is in the charts right now is a great way to learn the latest slang and stay up to date with modern English.
MUSIC AWARDS: There are several awards for new acts every year in the UK. In November the BBC releases a longlist for the ‘Sound Of’. The acts on this list are expected to do great things the following year. Keeping an eye out for these lists is a good way to stay up to date with the best new English artists and their songs.
SPOTIFY: This is one of the best ways to access music anywhere and anytime. It has lots of ready-made playlists with English music: for example, New Music Friday UK covers the newest English songs (plus some international ones). There are also playlists for specific genres, such as Classic UK Punk and UK Rap.
RADIO:Tunein.com allows you to listen to English radio stations from anywhere in the world. Apart from the benefits of hearing English spoken by natives, this is also a great way to find new music. For example, BBC Radio 6 Music is a radio station that has programmes covering every style of music, both old and new. You can also find the newest music on BBC Radio One. Every Friday they have a charts show, counting down the top 40 songs in the UK that week.
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