By Dr Caroline Ardrey (Project Research Associate)

microphone-1562695Song is central to our culture and integral to our learning processes. Key events in our lives are marked by music; from the familiar ‘Happy birthday’ to school songs, Christmas carols and wedding marches, singing and playing musical instruments are part of celebration and ritual practices in almost all cultural traditions. Most of us, either through nature or nurture have the ability to identify music which is appropriate to the occasion. In the Western world, our formative years are marked by music, from lullabies, nursery rhymes and playground chants to learning the alphabet and our times tables. It is not mere coincidence that song plays such an important role in our educational culture, and is used to help us learn fundamental skills: there is something inherently memorable about setting words to music. After all, most adults can probably dig up nursery rhymes from the depths of their memories, even if they have not recently revisited them with young charges, and lots of children learn well-known songs in other languages, such as ‘Frère Jacques’, without actually knowing what the words are, let alone what they mean.

Song has underpinned much of my own education, not only supporting my language learning – native as well as foreign and classical – but also opening my eyes to history and to other religions and cultures, in addition, of course, to helping me develop my skills as a musician. It was through song that I first encountered spoken French aged around six, from a delightful VHS cassette called ‘Bonjour Les Amis’, designed to equip the under eights with basic language skills by combining repetition of spoken phrases with call and response singing. But it was not only in the Modern Languages that song aided my learning: I owe a working knowledge of Latin to choral singing from the age of seven, and am certain that I can credit passing my Religious Studies GCSE to the fact that I backed up most points in the final exam on Christianity with ‘in the Bible it says [insert line from anthem / psalm here].’ However, for me, it was the reciprocal relationship between two things I have loved since childhood – singing and languages – that defined my education and have strongly influenced my career pathway. I developed both my vocal technique and my French pronunciation through learning and performing classical art songs such as Fauré’s ‘Clair de lune’ (a setting of Verlaine’s poem of the same name), whilst at the same time improving my grammar and vocabulary through a love of French pop music from the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The very stuff of song

Matters of love and loss, growing up and growing old, religion and doubt, celebration and lamentation, stability and displacement, friendship and fluctuating moods – euphoric or pessimistic –all these personal and yet universal themes are the very stuff of song, whether contemporary or classical, and across most if not all of the world’s languages: in short, song provides a means of navigating the many events, processes and rites of passage which define all of our lives. Because of this, song is an immensely ‘relatable’ way both to learn a language and to gain insight into another cultural mind-set, exploring how these themes have been addressed by singers and songwriters, and through oral traditions. Crucially, singing in another language allows for a more natural acquisition of vocabulary and linguistic patterns than that offered by the artificially-constructed modes of learning which are a necessary part of most formal teaching methods. For me, singing and singing along to French music helped to develop vocabulary, not topic-by-topic as in the thematically grouped lists given to me by my A-level teachers and undergraduate tutors, but rather through an ‘organic’ process of acquiring words pertaining to the diverse facets of human existence addressed in song, as well as enabling me to gain a more instinctive sense of grammatical and syntactical patterns.

Research in the fields of education, psychology and neuroscience all support the argument that song is a very effective way of aiding and promoting the learning of both mother and other tongues. In the 1970s, the German publisher Langenscheidt seized upon the benefits of song, producing the ‘SingLingual’ method of learning German (though uptake of similar song-based methods for learning other languages and by other companies in the industry has been surprisingly small). Nevertheless, school Modern Languages textbooks, and English textbooks for speakers of other languages still invariably include songs within proscribed units of work, though teachers’ willingness to use these educational songs varies and is, probably, directly linked to the willingness of their pupils to get involved in singing them. Unfortunately, trying to teach a group of thirteen year-olds French or Spanish through simplistic ditties composed by pedagogues is likely to put them off languages for life. Fortunately, there is another way to make the most of music in language learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. Moving away from textbook tunes and cloze text activities, it seems that the most effective way to learn a language might be to forget about the pedagogy and just enjoy the music.

The power of the earworm for language-learning

The unconscious ‘osmosis’ of song into the brain is one of the main advantages of using music as a tool for teaching and learning languages. When we listen to a song, in the majority of cases we are not making a concerted effort to learn the words, we’re just experiencing and appreciating the many elements that come together to make up that particular piece of music: the lyrics are important, but our brains are also processing rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, dynamic variations and so on. Professor David C. Rubin and Dr Wanda Wallace at Duke University have devoted over twenty-five years to studying the relationship between music and memory, looking at diverse aspects of this link, from the implications of ballad structure on textual recall to the potential benefits of playing music to those with Alzheimer’s disease. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the pair conducted a study to look at how setting words to music affects textual recall. They found that subjects learnt three verses of text much more easily through song than they did through speaking, provided the melody was the same. Conversely, Rubin and Wallace also discovered that, if the melody for each verse was changed, their subjects found it far more difficult to remember the words. There are a number of possible reasons why song lyrics ‘stick’ more easily than simply trying to memorise lists of vocabulary. Professor Ian Cross, Director of the Centre for Science and Music at Cambridge University argues that music ‘gives us a hook to hang the words on.  We know that if the words don’t match with that temporal structure they can’t be the right words’, this pattern is supported by a song’s ‘melodic structure’. Repetition clearly has a part to play: it stands to reason that the more times you hear a song, the more likely you are to remember it. However, Wallace and Rubin’s findings suggest that simpler and more familiar songs put less cognitive load on the brain than those with complex melodies, intricate harmonies or long phrases; once we no longer have to think too hard [1]about the tune, it becomes easier to ‘hang’ the words onto the melodic and rhythmical structure of the music.[2]

When we recall lines of songs in a particular language, we are bringing to mind words and grammatical patterns; we can then draw on this knowledge to help us understand that language and use it to communicate in everyday situations. Moreover, if we come across an unfamiliar word in song lyrics, we may be able to use our contextual knowledge of the song to help us fathom out its meaning; once we have established the meaning of a new word, we are more likely to remember it because we associate it with a particular song. Beyond aiding in the recall of vocabulary and of grammatical and syntactical patterns, listening to music or – even better – singing in a foreign language can help us to improve our intonation and accent. While songs often use dialect and modern pop songs may not model impeccable standard forms of language, what they do offer is a natural mode of spoken production; with this in mind, it seems logical that we should seize ‘the power of the earworm’ as a means both of facilitating language learning without foisting traditional techniques such as modelling, repetition and back-chaining which, while effective to a certain extent, fly in the face of modern teaching strategies designed to enthuse and engage young (and older) learners.

Lasting recall

In recent years, there has been an alarming trend amongst more able British schoolchildren of using dictionaries, school resources and internet tools to write high-level assessment pieces in Modern Language subjects, then ‘downloading’ this onto a page under controlled conditions or rattling it off in oral exams. While the ability to memorise hundreds of words of foreign language text is an impressive skill, it is not the same as actually learning that language. This technique leaves many controlled assessment candidates in a sticky situation if they forget just one or two words, especially if they lack the security in grammar and vocabulary needed to get their text back on track. What’s more, most controlled assessment candidates seem unable to remember much of their carefully prepared piece beyond the immediate exam period, reducing the process to a simple game of passing exams. In order to promote lifelong language skills, we need to explore ways of boosting vocabulary retention and developing learners’ grammatical skills, so that we can move from simple recognition to lasting recall of linguistic information: music may just hold the key to unlocking this shift. In his blog for the BBC, psychologist Tom Stafford here at the University of Sheffield explains that becoming familiar with a song involves our long term memories: it is thanks to this shift from short- to long-term memory, which causes certain pieces of music to become so deeply embedded in your mind that the mere mention of an annoyingly catchy tune is enough to make it go round in your head all day.[3] While the irritating earworm is, perhaps, a less welcome aspect of music’s tendency to lodge in the long-term memory, it could help you learn a language for life, rather than just memorizing odd phrases which are forgotten within days.

Recent research has found a strong correlation between musical ability and language learning aptitude. A study conducted by neuroscientists Markus Christiner and Susanne M. Reiterer at the University of Vienna concluded that singers are typically good language learners because they ‘are in the possession of an enhanced auditory working memory and vocal flexibility’.[4] Reiterer and Christiner also note in the article that, while musical ability is generally linked to an aptitude for language learning, singers tended to be more capable of remembering syntactical patterns and reproducing accent than instrumentalists. The findings of Christiner and Reiterer’s research indicates that song is a very effective tool for promoting various aspects of language learning and supports the argument that music ought to be a priority on the educational agenda. A greater emphasis on song within the context of the school curriculum would not only broaden children’s musical and cultural knowledge and skill base, but also strengthen and potentially accelerate both native and foreign language acquisition.

Languages are not an end in themselves but are intrinsically and intricately linked to other academic disciplines; it is through language that we articulate personal and social experience, that we share ideas and that we learn more about the world we live in. Learning a foreign language provides intimate insight into other mind-sets and cultural experiences, it allows us to communicate better with people of different nationalities and to appreciate their literatures, their films, their music and their media in their original and untranslated state. With its very particular effect on the human brain and its ability to cut across social, cultural and economic divides, song is one of the best tools we have for learning other languages and gaining a different perspective on other cultures.


[1] Many neuroscientists, psychologists and music scholars have researched the causes of ‘earworms’, that is the phenomenon of the song that you just can’t get out of your head. See for example: Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain: Written by Oliver Sacks, 2007 Edition, (Picador, 2007), pp. 44-53.

[2] Why are song lyrics so easy to memorise?” The Naked Scientists: Science Questions, Mon, 20th May 2013 <>

[3] ‘If you have got a particularly persistent earworm you can suffer an attack of it merely by someone mentioning the tune, without having to hear it. This proves that earworms are a phenomenon of long-term memory, rather than merely being a temporary “after-image” in sound.’ Tom Stafford, BBC Future  “Why catchy tunes get trapped in our heads” <> 11th April, 2012.

[4] Markus Christiner and Susanne M. Reiterer, ‘Song and Speech: Examining the Link between Singing Talent and Speech Imitation Ability’, Frontiers in Psychology, 4 (2013) <>.