Posted by & filed under How to learn languages with songs and the media.

We Didn't Start the Fire promo CD

We Didn't Start the Fire promo CD cover with lyrics

While politicians bicker about how to re-organize and finance schools, parents worry about their children’s academic performance and low-performing students struggle to follow lessons, we are forgetting about a free, fun and extremely powerful tool to help us learn and remember: music.

When Billy Joel’s song We didn’t start the fire came out in the 1989, history teachers across the country used it in their classrooms to teach about all of the historical references from Harry Truman to Tiananmen Square.

Here’s a video with photos to illustrate the We didn’t start the fire song lyrics:

The power of music in the brain

Why did religious leaders put Biblical verses in hymns and songs?

It wasn’t just because their congregations might not have been literate, it’s because people are more likely to remember what they hear in a song than what they read in a book or have heard spoken.

Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks explains in his book, Musicophilia, that music activates more parts of the brain than language does. This is why catchy jingles from television and radio commercials stick in our heads better than last night’s homework assignment or shopping list.

Music sticks

We need to harness the power of song in the classroom to help students retain information.

Dr Karen Ludke of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development recently published a paper with her findings proving that singing in a foreign language can help people recall phrases with greater accuracy.

According to the BBC article, Singing in a foreign language helps people learn to speak it, Ludke’s research shows that students who sang a song in Hungarian performed twice as well as those who had only learned the same Hungarian phrases just by speaking them. Having lived in Hungary and studied the difficult language of Hungarian myself, I can say that I remember a Hungarian folk song better than the lists of vocabulary words I had to memorize weekly.

My specialty is foreign language education via songs, TV, movies and other media. When I’ve taught English as a Second Language and Spanish and used songs with my students, not only did my students stay awake, but they were more enthusiastic and they remembered grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation better than when they just learned the materials in their text book.

Sesame Street is a prime example of how putting educational content to a melody is effective. We associate the show with children’s songs for about spelling, counting, colors and other topics but even adult language learners use Sesame Street to learn English and use the foreign language versions of the show to learn their target languages.

Middle school and high school students nationwide learned lessons in grammar, science, economics, history, mathematics, and civics via the educational songs in the popular television show, School House Rock. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t exist anymore.

I bet that many adults nationwide can still intone “I’m just a bill, yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill” and the rest of the lyrics to How a Bill Becomes a Law better than they can remember much else that they learned in their US Government class. Do you remember this song?

Music is not just child’s play.

Adult use songs too.

National Public Radio reported in its story, Singing in the Key of Science , that Haverford University Physics Professor Walter Smith sings Einstein’s theory of relativity on his baritone ukulele. This Harvard trained physicist makes original compositions and he changes the lyrics of tunes from known songs like “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to explain energy eigenstates and other physics terms and concepts.

We need more teachers and professors like Smith. I know I would have enjoyed physics much more had I learned some of the concepts to a tune. More importantly, I would remember much more about physics now as an adult. The point of education is not just for us to memorize and regurgitate information for a test. It’s for us to use the materials in our lives.

Even as an adult, songs can play a role in our ability to remember even basic information. Russian is my first language. I came to the US at the age of 3. I learned to read and write in Russian before I went to Kindergarten in California. However, there was no ABC song in Russian when I was a kid. Even though I am literate in Russian, I don’t remember the order of the Cyrillic alphabet. When I have to find a word in a Russian dictionary, I have to consult the alphabet on the first page of the dictionary and look up each letter of the word I am looking for to be able to locate the word in the dictionary. This is a tedious process I never have to do in English. Even adults in the US, no matter how tired they may be, can find something alphabetically by singing the ABC song and remembering the order of the alphabet.

We don’t have to rely on a TV show or a rock star to get us to learn with music. Students, teachers and parents can make their own songs. Take a popular song, change the lyrics to be about molecules and atoms, and the next thing you know, chemistry test grades go up!

You don’t have to be Lady Gaga or Frank Sinatra to make your own songs. Even those who think they can’t sing, can still benefit from learning a song. Music will still permeate their brains whether they have perfect pitch or not.

Although songs are not the panacea for our declining educational system, music is a free tool anyone can use.

Improving student performance is not just about how to spend our tax dollars, it’s about being nimble and doing what already works. It’s the music, stupid!

* In case you’re wondering, the word “stupid” in the title is not meant to offend anyone. It comes from the 1992 US Presidential Race when the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” was coined to bring attention back to the economic problems of the country.

Photo credit of the Billy Joel CD cover: www.eil.com

  • Matthew Richmond

    Great article. Brought back a lot of memories especially those watching Billy Joel singing ‘We didn’t Start the fire’ live in Sydney, 1991. Cheers.

    • SusannaZaraysky

      Thanks for reading! I would love to see Billy Joel in concert and thank him in person for making the song, “We didn’t start the fire”. He doesn’t have any concerts planned in the US as of now.

      • Matthew Richmond

        To be honest I haven’t heard much about Billy Joel since I saw him duet with Elton John in the 2001 Elton John Dvd Madison Square Garden. Oh, he did lecture a bit about music which I caught a glimpse of a few years back.

        I think it helps a lot if you like the music of language you are learning. I am an Australian living in Colombia and I must admit I am not a rhythm man, so to speak, so I’m a bit non plus with the music here.
        I like melody and lyrics, so I have had to search for bandas latinos that serve that function. I like the following latin music: la música de carlos vives, Franco de vita, Joe Arroya, Roberto Roena, Luis Guerra, Jose Luis Perales, Luis Fonsi, Pablo Milanes, Maná, Juan Luis Guerra, ricardo arjona, Silvio Rodriguez, joan manuel Serrat, Jerry rivera, asa de aguia, y céu.

        I did some writing contracts recently about language learning for a man in Norway. I used some links to your great videos and affiliate sites with full disclosure of course. I am a big admirer of your polyglot abilities.

        My colombian partner said you sounded almost equal to a latino. I wish i had your gift. Well done and thank you.

        Matt K

        • SusannaZaraysky

          The good thing is that there is a huge variety of music in Spanish. If salsa doesn’t float your boat, but Silvio Rodriguez does, I just hope you have a good dictionary with you. Silvio’s lyrics are beautiful and I very much appreciate his music but I often need to look up words. This is not a bad thing! Juan Luis Guerra gets in his social commentary in his merengue and I like that.

          Thanks for your kind words and for sending people my way!

          • Matthew Richmond

            On the subject of great music, I definitely recommend Brasil’s cacion ‘Asa de Agua – Gladiador’ which you will find easily enough on you tube.

            Look forward to reading more from you. Have a lovely day Susanna!

  • Musicophilia is one of the most interesting non-fiction books that I’ve read. I find it fascinating the way that human brains are wired to understand and to process through music. Great post!

    • SusannaZaraysky

      I am glad that you are also singing the praises of Musicophilia!

  • Great article as usual, Susanna. I definitely believe in the power of music as a learning aid/tool. I think you should add one more argument to your post: music is a gateway to the culture of a country, and knowing music that the locals really love can also prove to be a great way to make friendships and to attract attention, and it’s a great topic of conversation too!

    I’ve had so many conversations about music back when I was in Korea, and Koreans were always pleasantly surprised to see how much I knew about Korean music. It really helped me to form bonds and friendships from people of all ages, not to mention that it actually helped me to learn the language.

    • SusannaZaraysky

      Indeed, eyes light up when you talk about music that resonates with people! Thanks for adding this point.