So, you want to play songs in ESL class—good for you!
When you think of using music for ESL classes, you almost always think of something catchy, something with simple lyrics and something that’s easy to sing along to. What you don’t usually think of is songs without words or featuring mostly instrumentals.
“Why would I use an instrumental song during an ESL class? There’s no English!”
That may be so, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re useless in class. In fact, they offer a wealth of benefits to the students in ways you may have never thought.
The magic of instrumental songs is that they’re the same in every language. They’re universal, like mathematics. What you hear and understand in one corner of the world is the exact same as what someone on the other end of the world understands. Nobody is ever lost in translation. On top of that, when you have music without lyrics, students don’t have their guard up. Usually a student will feel some anxiety trying to decipher what they’ve heard, get lost and then feel even worse! Who wants that?
Straight off the bat, instrumental songs of various genres have different benefits such as enabling creativity, calming the central nervous system and even improving cognitive development.
Essentially, instrumental songs are background music to enhance other parts of the thinking process instead of being the core part of the activity, as most songs usually are. Background music has been known to have beneficial effects such as improving mood, focus and calmness. Those are just to name a few, but here I’ll explain which genres work best, when they work best and some examples of songs to use in various elements of ESL lessons. You’ll be shuffled—that is to say, you’ll be amazed at how songs with no words can be so beneficial for your students.
The Best Instrumental Music Genres and Songs for ESL Classes
The following genres are listed in no particular order. Each one offers different benefits, as you’ll soon see.
Genre I: House Music
House music is synonymous with late night parties, discos and clubbing in Ibiza or somewhere, but what some don’t know about house music is how the continuous upbeat tempo can put our brains on continuous “active” mode. If you’ve heard house or any other form of electronic music, you know that it’s a bit repetitive and meant for dancing until 4 AM, but what differentiates house from other forms of electronic dance music is that its repetitive yet danceable elements are the most important parts of the song.
This is where the benefits come in. With this rhythm, especially used in group/mingling activities, the classroom vibe is more social and the mental rhythm of the brain is on autopilot and concentrates better. Don’t believe me? Try it out the next time you have a rudimentary task to do and see how much you get done in an hour. This works best for activities that involve individual creativity and focus, like writing activities. It makes group work amongst peers more jovial since this continuously upbeat music is in the background. You might catch some students grooving without even realizing that they’re caught up in the beat. Music to the ears, supplements for the brain.
Genre II: Classical Music
Now it’s widely known that classical music has profoundly positive effects on test scores, relaxation and attention. I mean, how can it not? It’s beautifully crafted music that was created by absolutely passionate geniuses using musical instruments.
In fact, in a surprising study it was discovered that heart patients gained the same benefits from listening to 30 minutes of classical music as they did from taking 10 mg of the anti-anxiety medication Valium. Imagine your whole class on Valium. The tranquility, ever so serene.
But which classical music to use, and when? You don’t want to bore your students, but instead you want to create a “smart environment.” The same environment when you visit a large bookstore with intellectual people glancing through literature.
The best classical music is the kind that isn’t too slow and somber and that isn’t too fast and vivacious—it needs to have just enough energy so the tempo is right, not dull and not distracting. With some calming classical music, students can release the tension they came to class with and start to learn with relaxed minds. You can leave it on at a low volume all during the class or during individual/group activities. All of a sudden, the ambience becomes calmer and students are feeling good. Not to mention how it can make the teacher more tranquil too!
Genre III: Ambient Music
Ambient music is a hybrid of atmospheric noise with a sort of visual tone. It’s often quoted as being a type of music that “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” In layman’s terms, it’s optimal background music.
I’ve discussed the benefits of background music in the classroom already, but ambient music is a whole different field. Ambient music by definition is a style of instrumental music with electronic textures and no persistent beat used to create or enhance a mood or atmosphere. And that’s exactly what it does.
Now for ESL classes, ambient music can fuel creativity and patience and is good for individual activities like worksheets, diary entries or even homework. Ambient music can put students in a dream state and clear their mind of the fog and garbage that sabotages them from learning how they want to learn. Once it sets in, the mind floats and allows itself to be calmer (our word of the day) and more creative. It’s best used for individual activities so students can delve into their zones and learn in a better state.
Genre IV: Pop Song Instrumentals
Even though the unheard lyrics play a big role in the ESL classroom, instrumentals of famous songs in pop music history (from the last 50 or so years) are still meant to be background music (or karaoke music). Chances are that the students will know some of these songs and even some of the words of the chorus and verses. The more popular, the better.
Pop song instrumentals work great with groups or any sort of activity because, as the students hear the songs, they consciously or subconsciously sing the words that they know in their head (or aloud at times) and voila! They’re already thinking in English and the gears are already turning.
These songs work great with younger students, especially when working together. Even if they don’t know the song, there’s still a good vibe going around the class since most pop songs have pretty upbeat tempos and music. A pop song instrumental is also great to start off the day during a warm-up activity to get the brain going in English early on.
Oh, and it’s great for impromptu English karaoke sessions in class as well!
Genre V: Miscellaneous Instrumental Songs
These are any songs of any genre that don’t have words. Quite simple really, but when to use them?
Well, for some writing/warm-up activities I like to play bits of diverse instrumental songs, very different of course, and have the students write down the various thoughts and feelings that pop up within them in reaction to the songs. I call it “Mind Writing.”
For example, I’ll play a song and ask the students, “what, who or where does this song remind you of and why?” and they write a few sentences. Then I’ll play another one and ask them to write their response to the question, “what three words come to mind when you hear this?” or any other abstract question. You could even ask them to make up a title or some lyrics. You can ask any question really. Get creative with it.
After a few songs, they exchange papers and share answers out loud. It’s quite fun to see the different things people submit and how people interpret music and their ideas differently.
Any song works well, but instrumentals work best since they don’t have words and can be more freely interpreted.
15 Great Songs to Try Out in ESL Class
Here are some examples of songs from each genre and why they’re good to use. You’ll get a feel for the genre and the songs and then start to find songs that you know that could work well too.
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1. “I Remember” (Instrumental) by Deadmau5
Straightforward minimal, and dead easy to tap your foot to. Creates a nice productive rhythm throughout the 9-minute track.
2. “Replica” (Original Mix) by Afrojack
Upbeat but still focuses on the beat, which will have students in a mingling mood. Great for partner/group activities as background music to encourage productivity and fun.
3. “Friends” (Original Mix) by Solomon
A simple song with a universally enjoyable beat that puts your mind in a focused trance after about the 3-minute mark. Great for individual work to keep the concentration going.
4. “The Thieving Magpie” by Rossini
A classical classic for its exciting tune that avoids becoming too boisterous. With its exciting buildups and overall flow, you can feel yourself getting smarter listening to it. But in all seriousness, its a good song to use for any occasion since it’s calming and at the same time stimulating.
5. “Loquasto International Film Festival” by Mark Mothersbaugh
While still falling under the genre of classical with its style and orchestration, it’s a modern song that serves the same effect as most classical music songs, with a modern twist. Great background music to relax and entice students’ minds.
6. “Prelude No.15 in D-Flat Major” by Chopin
A wonderful Barnes and Noble-esque song that will soothe any tension students may be carrying and leave them feeling cool, calm and collected. In fact, I recommend just leaving Chopin on for the whole class on a medium volume setting for that very reason.
7. “Bambi” by Blackedout
The definition of chill. It does the job too, great for solo activities where the students can tap into their subconscious minds and use their knowledge to its fullest potential, which is one of the major purposes of ambient music in the classroom.
8. “Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun” by M83
Much more on the therapeutic/meditative side of ambient music, this track is good for solo worksheet work, pair work or something very low-key since it creates a calming atmosphere that can ease tension students may have.
9. “Intriguing Possibilities” by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Genre: Ambient / Dark Ambient
Representing a slightly more moody genre known as “dark ambient,” this song is more progressive and is good for more focused/creative work in groups. I suppose it makes sense why it’s from “The Social Network” soundtrack, a film about focused and creative minds.
10. “Baby” (Instrumental) by Justin Bieber
Genre: Pop Instrumental
With over a billion YouTube views, the original song is ubiquitous and chances are good that the students know the words and will be thinking of them as this instrumental version plays. They’ll be lifted up by its fun chorus and melody while it’s playing. This, along with other pop instrumentals, is great for warm-up activities to start the class in a fun mood or to even close the class with some group/partner activities on a high note.
11. “Shake It Off” (Instrumental) by Taylor Swift
Genre: Pop Instrumental
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, you already know the words or at least some of the words to this—same probably goes for your students. Students may know just a few words here and there, but that’s more than enough to get their minds starting to think in English.
It’s a good song to use since many words throughout the chorus are repeated, not to mention it’s only been played everywhere for the past year. This is a good background instrumental piece to play at any point in class where the students are talking to each other to complete an assignment. It’s high energy, fun and promotes friendly interactions.
12. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Instrumental) by The Rolling Stones
Genre: Pop Instrumental
A great go-to for its simplicity, classic rock status and ease of remembering, this is a good song to use for its simple lyrics and chorus. Not to mention, just the guitars and drums in the song along put people in an upbeat mood. This is an ideal song to keep positive vibes flowing during warm-up activities and worksheet work.
13. “Girls Like You (Instrumental)” by The Naked And Famous
Genre: Miscellaneous Instrumental
A great song for “Mind Writing” activities since the instrumental is pretty hard to categorize into a certain genre and can influence some creative answers. Adding an intriguing question along with it can make for a good writing activity.
14. “Munster” by Freckles
Genre: Miscellaneous Instrumental
A simple yet good song best used as background music to keep students relaxed during something like a partner activity or a writing activity. Very good for “Mind Writing” since any question can be used with it (for example: “if this song had words, what would it be about?”).
15. “Magic Spells” by Crystal Castles
Genre: Miscellaneous Instrumental
Very good song for group work since it’s fun, different and mysterious. A favorite for “Mind Writing” and an even bigger favorite for warm-up activities since it sets a nice mood.
Those are just some examples but, with these various genres, you can use songs that aren’t even in English to your advantage in the ESL classroom. Who would have thought?
But for real though, with different advantages and benefits for each genre, there are numerous ways you can use them to not only provide some background music that will increase productivity and relaxation, but also to supplement and inspire some writing and creative activities as well.
House music can increase the positive vibe and focus amongst students, classical music has the power to comfort the students’ scrambled minds when learning a language, ambient music sets a tranquil and patient mood for activities that require individual focus, pop song instrumentals get minds searching for the lyrics and thinking in English thanks to their familiarity and catchiness and miscellaneous instrumentals are the perfect backdrop for various creative writing activities.
I recommend trying out some instrumental music from these genres in your ESL classes, and you’ll soon see how, even though these songs don’t have lyrics, they can still enhance the English learning environment through the power of music.
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you liked these songs, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.
You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.