There is a growing body of research regarding the use and creation of popular music in school settings; in general this literature is targeted for the secondary level. Many teachers feel that children cannot and should not engage in popular music making, but children are perfectly capable and the music that is so meaningful to them should be a part of their elementary experience.
How can elementary music teachers include opportunities for children to engage in informal learning processes in the music classroom? In my article, Informal learning processes in an elementary classroom, I describe a study that I did with fourth graders in a general music classroom. This was a whole class cover project using one song that was popular amongst the children. We began by first copying the opening riff and from there proceeded to copy the entire song over the course of a few class periods. I was concerned that copying the entire song by ear would prove to be overwhelming for the children, so I divided this copying experience into two parts: first the students were asked to listen to the opening riff of the song and to work with a partner or small group to copy the riff. Following this, the students were asked to work collaboratively in one of four groups to copy: 1) the bass line, 2) keyboard, chording section, 3) rhythm and 4) vocal parts. The students successfully copied and performed the entire song together.
Adapting Lucy Green’s ideas relative to informal learning, to the elementary classroom in both general music and performing ensembles, I have discovered that aural learning is not a barrier to their engagement, which is largely peer directed. This is discussed in great detail in the article as well as the pedagogical approaches that I encountered and used throughout. I have always been pleasantly surprised at how well the students are able to work in this way and how much fun we have throughout the process.
In a recent covering project with fifth grade students I took the opportunity to interview the students in focus groups to understand from their perspective, how well they liked working on music projects that were aurally based. Here are a few quotes:
“I want to be able to figure it out myself. You don’t want to be one of those people that says, if you give me the song (notation) I can play it”
“I can express myself as a performer and have some…..bragging rights”
“It’s my talent, it’s what I do” (playing by ear successfully).
I am often asked in workshops or in conversations with other teachers how to best get started using popular music in the classroom. Popular music, the music that is popular to your students, should be part of the regular literature in the classroom. Popular culture and music that is intriguing to them should be a part of the dialogue about music. A good question to start the conversation could be, “Tell me about the music that you listen to at home?”, “What is your favorite song?”, “Who is your favorite artist, and why?” Then, as the teacher, it is your task to also listen to the music that your students enjoy and to figure it out by ear and learn about the culture that surrounds the music so you can also enter into an informed conversation with your students.
Aural experiences, copying music by using the ear, should be a part of elementary music, because in most cases, their aural abilities are much greater than their notation reading abilities. Our goal as teachers should be to cultivate the ear, sound before sign!
If you are uneasy about starting with a cover project in your classroom, then begin with using experiences in which students can copy riffs from songs that are familiar to them. You will be surprised at how well they are able to do this. The choice of music of course will vary from class to class but here are a few songs that my students have enjoyed covering or just copying the riffs.
“On Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons
“Dynamite” by Taio Cruz
“Clocks” by Coldplay
“Hey Soul Sister” by Train
“Firework” by Katy Perry
“In the End” by Linkin Park
“21 Guns” by Green Day