You already know how amazing music can be.
It can cheer you up or energize you.
It can make you feel strong emotions.
And it can make your feet want to dance on their own!
What you might not know is that music can do something else: It can teach you English vocabulary.
Do you listen to songs in English? If you do, great! You’re halfway there already. If you don’t, give it a try! Pop music from English-speaking countries is fun to listen to and usually has some great melodies and beats.
It’s these catchy tunes that make English songs such a great language-learning tool. You might not remember what you read in your textbook last night, but you can probably sing along to some English songs. From listening to (and reading) the words of a song—called lyrics—you can greatly improve your English understanding.
What are you waiting for? Put on your headphones, and let’s learn some English!
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What Kind of English Can Music Teach Us?
There’s so much we can learn from English music.
So, pop songs aren’t just fun to listen to. They’re also amazing English-learning tools. Even if a song doesn’t have any new vocabulary words for you to learn, there’s so much else you can learn from it. Modern songs can teach you about:
- Current slang
- Phrases and idioms
- Casual and informal words
- Popular culture
- Current events
That’s a lot to learn from just three minutes and a catchy melody!
How to Learn English with Pop Songs
To learn language lessons from English music, you have to become an active listener.
In other words, you have to listen carefully to all the words. You have to know their definitions and how the words are put together into sentences. You need to know the complete meaning of the song.
If you don’t understand something, you need to be active, look up the words and try your hardest to understand.
Here are some tips for becoming an active listener:
- Read before you listen. It can be difficult to hear the words in a song clearly, so it helps to see them written down before you listen. Use a website like AZLyrics or Google Play to look up the lyrics to a song.
You can also watch a music video with subtitles or just watch a lyrics video (which shows the words as the song plays). Reading the lyrics will help you find any words you don’t know, understand the meaning better and know exactly what the singer is saying.
- Sing along. It might feel silly, but singing along to English songs can really help you learn the words. You might find out that both pronunciation and fluency become easier when you have music to follow.
Once you know the words well enough, try turning the music off and speaking them normally. Singing the words may make you more confident and comfortable speaking them.
- Pay attention to the way the words sound. We admit, not all pop music has interesting or meaningful lyrics. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it! Hearing and understanding words in English songs is actually a huge accomplishment. It means you have learned the words well enough to recognize them.
If you’re listening to a song with a lot of repetition (and you haven’t read the lyrics yet), listen to the words. Try writing down the lyrics, then checking to see how well you understood the singer.
- Find the mistakes. Songs are like poetry. They can get creative in order to sound better or have a better rhythm. This means some songs use improper grammar or phrases. Try to spot where a song uses poor grammar or uses a word in the wrong way.
This is also something to keep in mind when you’re learning from songs, since what you hear might not always be correct. Double check things if you’re not sure, or ask a teacher or native English speaker.
Most importantly, have fun! Studying English with songs is a fun and creative way to give your brain a rest while still learning. So put away those textbooks for a moment, and take a break with these awesome hit songs from 2016!
The Top English Songs of 2016 for Learning English Words and Phrases
1. “The Sound” by The 1975
“The Sound” is a song about love. The band sings about loving someone who doesn’t seem to care much about them. Unlike most other songs, they use words and phrases from philosophy (the study of who we are and why we exist).
- Conceited: Someone who is too proud of themselves. A conceited person thinks they’re amazing (even if they’re not really all that great).
- Reciprocate: When someone gives you something, you can reciprocate by giving them something similar in return. If someone loves you, you might reciprocate the feeling. You can also do someone a favor in return for a favor they did for you.
- Sycophant: A sycophant is a “yes man,” or someone who uses flattery (saying nice things, compliments) to try to get a person to like them. This word isn’t used very often in everyday conversation, but it’s very advanced and useful!
- Socratic: Another word you won’t hear often in casual English is Socratic, which is a cultural reference to the ancient philosopher Socrates. The Socratic method involves teaching through asking the student questions that they have to figure out for themselves (instead of just giving them the answer).
- Prophetic: When a description of the future comes true, it’s prophetic. A fortune teller might be prophetic, but a fortune cookie rarely is.
- Cliche: An overused phrase or action that’s no longer original or interesting.
2. “Formation” by Beyoncé
Warning: Explicit lyrics (some cursing and sexual references)
In this song, Beyoncé says that no matter how rich and famous she becomes, you can’t ever take the South out of her. She makes several references to things people associate with the American South, like collard greens and cornbread (two types of food popular in the South).
It’s a good song to learn some slang and informal words and phrases, but it’s also an interesting look at the culture of the American South. Just remember that many of the things mentioned are stereotypes—and stereotypes are things that people say are true about a group of people, but they might not be true for everyone (for instance, not every Southerner likes collard greens).
- I slay: This slang phrase means you’re very amusing, cool or impressive. “Slay” literally means “kill.” In English slang, when you’re doing something well, you can say “I’m killing it!” with a positive tone. In the case of “I slay,” you’re so good at something, you’re killing it!
- Corny: This word actually has nothing to do with corn (the vegetable). Something corny is either overused or overly-emotional. A joke can be corny if it’s very obvious, and so can a romantic moment.
- Cocky: If someone is being very sure of themselves in an arrogant or overly-confident way, they’re being cocky.
- Formation: The way something is arranged, usually used as a military term (when soldiers line up, they’re getting into formation).
- Trick: A trick is something meant to fool someone, like a magic trick. In slang, this word is a very impolite term for a woman who teases or tries to fool or impress someone.
3. “Cheap Thrills” by Sia
Sia’s catchy tune has a simple message: You don’t need money to enjoy yourself. Just keep dancing! The song’s few lyrics repeat a few times, making this a great song to practice understanding English lyrics.
- Cheap thrill: A thrill is something exciting, but a cheap thrill is only exciting for a brief moment. Cheap thrills might be fun while you’re doing them but they aren’t very satisfying.
- Won’t be long: This phrase is a very useful way to say something will only take a moment. If you want to take a break, you can say “I won’t be long!”
- Hit the dance floor: Don’t actually hit the dance floor (it hits back harder, we promise). This phrase just means to go onto the floor and start dancing. You can also “hit the road” (start driving) or “hit the sack” (fall asleep).
4. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake
Another feel-good song, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is about how great dancing feels—and how great it feels to watch someone you love or like dance.
This song was used for the recent Disney movie “Trolls,” but if you listen to the lyrics you can also hear a more adult way to understand them. Can you hear both meanings?
- In my zone: This is a slang phrase that means you’re completely focused on what you’re doing. You might get in your zone when you write, make music or do other things that require skill and concentration.
- Phenomenally: Really, really well. A phenomenon is something amazing that you can’t explain. Something that’s done phenomenally is done incredibly well.
- Creeping up on you: This slang phrase means something that happens so slowly that you don’t notice it happening. You might have a feeling that creeps up on you, or a deadline that slowly comes closer until it suddenly appears.
5. “Stitches” by Shawn Mendes
If you watch the music video for this song, you’ll see the singer getting beaten up by someone invisible. This is meant to be a metaphor—a statement used to represent a different meaning. In other words, the singer isn’t actually getting hurt, but he’s hurt inside by his lover leaving him.
- Stitches: You can make a stitch by pulling a needle and yarn through something. You might also need stitches to sew up a big cut.
- Cut deeper than a knife: This phrase means something non-physical hurts as much as a knife would. It’s usually used when someone’s mean words or actions really hurt.
- Aching: To hurt in a prolonged or intense way. You can have a toothache or a stomach ache, but you can also have an emotional ache: an intense feeling of longing or sadness.
- Lure: To tempt someone away by offering something appealing. Lures on fishing lines tempt fish to bite them. The popular new mobile game Pokémon Go lets you set up lures to attract Pokémon to a spot.
- Reap what you sow: To reap and to sow are both farming words. To sow means to plant a crop (plant meant for food), while to reap means to cut or gather it. (A popular depiction of death calls him “the grim reaper,” because he collects souls like a farmer might collect crops). The old phrase “you reap what you sow” means that you gather what you plant. In other words, you’ll have to face the consequences of your actions.
6. “Heathens” by Twenty One Pilots
Written for 2016’s Batman movie “Suicide Squad,” “Heathens” is a dark-sounding pop song that says you should be careful who you trust, because you never know who the person next to you really is.
The song was written specifically for the movie, so it might actually be about murderers (after all, the movie was about Batman’s “bad guys”). But it can also be about the group’s fans, or even about the church. Listen to the lyrics and see what they mean to you!
- Heathen: In the traditional sense, a heathen is someone who doesn’t follow the religious teachings of a major religion like Christianity. The word can also be used to refer to someone who doesn’t follow a moral code. In other words, this is someone bad or uncivilized.
- Docked away: To dock something means to “park” or store it away. The phrase is usually used for ships or spaceships, but it can also mean to put something away.
- Psychopath: Medically, a psychopath is someone with a psychological illness that makes them act violently. Informally, the word is often used to refer to someone who acts crazy.
- Intention: What you mean (or intend) to do. You might have good intentions when giving someone flowers to make them feel happy and loved (even if it turns out that the person is allergic to flowers).
7. “All My Friends” by Snakehips ft. Tinashe and Chance the Rapper
Sometimes all the partying and dancing is too much, and it doesn’t end well. Instead of having a great time, this song is about what happens when the singer doesn’t enjoy the party, and ends up going back to someone she’s no longer in a relationship with.
There’s mild cursing (bad words) in this song, but also some great words to learn.
- Waver: When you waver, you hesitate or shake a bit.
- Wasted: If you waste something, you don’t use it or you use it badly. In slang, though, being wasted means being very drunk.
- Polar opposite: The North and South Poles are located at the top and bottom of the Earth, so two things that are polar opposites are completely different.
- Propaganda: Information that’s meant to make people feel or think something. Propaganda often uses lies or false information to spread an idea.
- Treachery: Treachery means betrayal, or going against someone’s trust.
8. “Here” by Alessia Cara
Alessia Cara would rather not party at all! This song is like a poem about what it’s like to be at a party when you’d rather be at home.
- Indifferent: You’re indifferent when you don’t really care about something.
- Hollering: To holler means to yell loudly, though in slang it’s shortened to “holla.”
- Congregating: A congregation is usually used to talk about a church gathering, but the word also means to gather in a group someplace.
- Standoffish: To be standoffish means to be distant and unfriendly.
Now that you see how much you can learn from just a few short songs, you can start learning on your own.
Next time you listen to a song in English, be an active listener.
Learn from the music!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
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