Pop Music in the Classroom

Pop Music in the Classroom:
Using Listening Examples to Teach Music Theory

By Ethan Lawrence

As a newer teacher, I still cling to the shred of hope that I can convince students to enjoy 20th century contemporary composers like Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, or even John Adams. What I have found is that no matter how this information is presented to the students, whether it’s after our discussion on music being organized sound, or after inviting them to “listen to how spooky this sounds,” the vast majority of the students do not find it enjoyable. After coming to terms with this, I went back to the drawing board in regards to how I can use listening examples to further my students knowledge of music theory, whether it’s chord progressions, discussing ornamentation in pieces, or even how artists make music take on a certain feeling.


Teaching Chord Progressions

I recently started exploring the explanation and understanding of chord progressions with my beginning guitar students and the first example they listened to was “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction. I chose this example not only because it follows a very nice I-IV-V progression (with a vi chord thrown into the chorus) but I knew most of my students had heard the song at some point. This provided me with a solid starting point for when I asked them to listen to and sing the bass notes of each chord so they could hear how the chords progressed.

This was also a great opportunity to tie back in the development of music in America and how this progression very closely mirrored that of our blues progression which we had learned in previous weeks, and how we could achieve such different styles of music using the same chord progressions. The two songs that the class looked at next were “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King and “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show, but we looked at the version that Darius Rucker made popular. Where “Stand By Me” was in the key of A, and “Wagon Wheel” was in the key of G, but capo-d on 2nd fret, putting it in A, we could talk about how a I-vi-IV-V and I-V-vi-IV (I-V-IV the second time) changed how each song felt, with “Stand By Me” having a more meaningful sound because we encounter the “iv” chord much sooner than we do with “Wagon Wheel”.


Other Examples of Music Theory in Contemporary Music

Not long ago, NPR had an in-depth discussion about appoggiatura and how that can affect the mood of a song, with some of the primary examples being Adele’s “Someone Like You” and “Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog. I have never actually seen the Muppet Movie, but I have heard Adele very prominently on the radio and otherwise over the past four years and found it much easier to discover the appoggiatura notes throughout the song due to my familiarity with it.

I also discovered practical classroom applications when we discussed and performed our first minimalist piece in orchestra, Philip Glass’s “String Quartet No. 2 Company.” If you are unfamiliar with the piece, there are many patterns that occur within the music that will repeat until the musical figure lines up to beat one again. This repetition of figures is the same method that Tomas Haake of Meshuggah uses when creating his drum lines for tracks to give the piece a very jarring feeling.


Making Musical Connections in the Classroom

I’m finding more and more that my students are more appreciative of the fact that I’m not trying to shove classical and contemporary music down their throats but instead, making connections with music that they may actually listen to and enjoy. If students are interested in something prior to a lesson, my hope is that they’ll make a much more firm connection and retain the ideas much more easily and recall the information much more readily when asked to do so.

I’ve also found it much easier to stray away from the idea of telling students that “this artist isn’t real music” or “this artist is just terrible” based simply on the fact that I don’t like that particular person’s music. I’ve also come to find that letting students know that I too listen to artists like Taylor Swift or Slayer or whatever along with the classical music that they expect me to listen to all the time seems to give me a more humanizing element in the classroom and a little more leverage when discussing “popular” music with the students.

The moment where this really kicked in for my students was when we were rehearsing “The Little Mermaid” (arr. Larry Moore) where the opening section has selections of “Part of Your World” that rely very heavily on the quarter note triplet figures to push the melody along. I found that after comparing those triplets to the quarter note triplets in Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” the students were much quicker to solidify the rhythm and could “hear” it much better out of context than they could before.


Once I found the rhythm in a context that they could easily absorb, if it was not something with which they were already familiar, they grasped the concept with a much higher success rate, much more quickly. I believe that there’s a lot that pop music has to offer to our music curricula that we’re currently trying to teach our students. The only thing is tracking down the particular examples that you need!

About the author:

Nov 17 - Ethan Lawrence photo

A member of NAfME for five years, Ethan Lawrence is in his second year as director of orchestras at John Champe and Loudoun County High Schools in Loudoun County, Virginia. In his free time, he enjoys playing folk music with friends and attempting to maintain an active lifestyle.

You can follow him on Twitter: @MrLawrence_Orch

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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, November 17, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)