Did you know that Beyoncé and Adele are excellent English teachers?
Can you believe that famous old songs by Michael Jackson, The Beatles and Elvis Presley are perfect for learning English grammar?
The ancient philosopher Plato said that “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”
Of course, Plato lived thousands of years ago, so that quote may seem a bit complicated to us today. I think if he had to say the same thing on Twitter, he might say something like “Music is excellent because it has the power to move us.”
As an English teacher, I try to use that idea by including songs in as many classes as I can.
I enjoy using music in my classes and, more importantly, my students enjoy it too.
Today we’ll look at—and listen to!—21 great English songs that can help you learn English.
First, we’ll look at some songs that include a lot of good vocabulary for specific topics. Then, we’ll examine some of the most important grammatical structures in English by taking a closer look at some songs that use those structures.
How to Learn English with These Songs
There are two main ways you can use this article and the songs here to improve your English.
If you want to learn actively, you can listen to the songs while following along with the lyrics. Each song in this article includes a link to the video and the lyrics for that song. If you’re in the vocabulary section of this article, you can make a list of any new words you find, focusing especially on the target topic for that song. And if you’re in the grammar section of this article, you can notice when the songs use the mentioned structures and then follow the included links to do more exercises to practice the structures.
You can also simply listen to the songs without taking any notes. You won’t exactly “absorb” the English vocabulary and grammar structures automatically, but you may be surprised how much you can learn just by passively listening to songs. And if you hear something that catches your interest, you can always return to the song later on to find more information about the words or structures.
But no matter how you use these songs, you’ll likely learn something about English from them.
I’ve tried to choose songs from many different genres and years, so I hope there’s something that you like.
Let’s start with some songs that can help you increase your English vocabulary.
Start Learning English with 21 Popular Songs!
Songs for Learning English Vocabulary
Obviously any song that has words can help you increase your vocabulary in some way. Here I’ve chosen a few songs that are useful because they include specific types of vocabulary. For each topic, I’ll include the song as well as some comments about the vocabulary.
1. “Friday I’m in Love” by The Cure
Topic: Days of the Week
One of the first things that most people learn in a new language are days of the week. If you can’t talk about the days of the week, it’s almost impossible to make plans or to talk about your routines.
Whether you think the days of the week are easy or hard to learn, you can still enjoy this classic ’80s song by The Cure. Some of the lyrics are a bit confusing (at least for me), but at least the days of the week are in the correct order so you won’t get them confused!
Generally the days of the week aren’t especially difficult to learn, but some of my students do have difficulties pronouncing “Wednesday” and “Thursday,” and they often confuse Tuesday and Thursday because they look similar.
2. “We’re Going to Be Friends” by The White Stripes
Topic: School and Childhood
This song is a reminder of what it’s like to be young and innocent.
It has a really simple sound and the lyrics talk about things that children do at school. For example, it talks about learning how to spell, and it also mentions things like books, pens and uniforms.
The video for the original version of this song (shown above) is okay, but it just shows a guy (Jack White) playing guitar while a girl (Meg White) rests on a sofa.
If you want a video that’s a bit more visual, check out the Jack Johnson version of the song with a fan-made video that has a lot of pictures of the vocabulary in the song.
3. “You’re My Best Friend” by Queen
There are probably millions of love songs, but there seem to be fewer songs about friendship.
Well, even though this song has “best friend” in the title, it’s more about a romantic friendship.
In the lyrics, Queen’s singer Freddie Mercury sings about how sometimes things get difficult, but his friend is always there to help him when he needs it. It’s about faithfulness (being consistent and staying together with someone). Freddie sings that his friend has “stood by” him “in rain or shine,” which is another way of saying that they supported and helped him during bad times (rain) and good times (shine, sunshine).
So, this song is a nice reminder about what friends should do for each other.
4. “I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash
Topic: Places and Geography
Johnny Cash was a singer known for singing country songs about criminals and people who had difficult lives. Johnny didn’t actually write this song, but his version is the most famous one.
In it, he tells a story from the perspective of a hitchhiker (a person who tries to get a ride on the side of the road). A truck picks up the hitchhiker, and the hitchhiker then tells the driver about all the different places he’s been.
The lyrics are really fast, but that’s part of the fun. He lists around 100 cities, states and countries, and you can see how many you can understand. The vocabulary for different places is interesting, but it’s also good because you can notice how he rhymes different place names (for example, “Oklahoma” rhymes with “La Paloma” and “Colorado” rhymes with “Eldorado”).
5. “Just a Girl” by No Doubt
Topic: Gender Relations
First of all, the word “gender” basically refers to being “male” or “female” and the typical characteristics of each .
There are many different songs about how society treats men and women differently.
Pink’s song “Stupid Girls” is a good related song, and Lady Antebellum even has another completely different song that’s also called “Just a Girl.” And Beyonce’s song “If I Were a Boy” is excellent, but we’ll be talking about it later in this article. But personally, this No Doubt song is my favorite one to use in classes when we talk about gender issues.
In this song, Gwen Stefani (the singer) sings about how she’s frustrated because society thinks that women are weak and that people treat women like they’re helpless. She uses good vocabulary to express that frustration, saying that people stare (look at her continually) at her like she’s in captivity.
Another good phrase to notice is “I’ve had it up to here.” That means that you’re completely tired and frustrated, and you’re not going to accept a situation anymore.
6. “Bad Luck” by Social Distortion
I’m always surprised at the conversations we have in class when we talk about superstitions. It’s an interesting cultural topic, and there’s a lot of good vocabulary related to superstitions.
Of course, there are also other songs about superstitions, including “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder and “Superstitious” by Europe. The Stevie Wonder song’s lyrics do talk about some things related to superstitions, but the Europe song is more about how the singer is not superstitious.
The lyrics for this song focus a bit more on luck than on superstition, but there’s still a lot of good vocabulary. The singer talks about how he always loses in poker, pool and life in general, and he mentions superstitions like black cats, broken mirrors and how he always “sings the blues” (which means that he’s always sad).
7. “Black or White” by Michael Jackson
I’ll admit it: I’ve always liked this song—the Michael Jackson album “Dangerous” was the first cassette I bought with my own money!—but I never really understood the lyrics until recently when a student played the song in class.
The message is clear. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or any other color. We’re all equal. The lyrics are a bit difficult to understand (even for a native speaker like me) but the message is maybe a bit more obvious when you watch the video. There are many helpful images that will improve your understanding in the video.
If you can tolerate the first two minutes of the video, then the song starts and it shows Michael Jackson dancing and singing throughout the world with all kinds of different people. At the end of the video, it shows people morphing (transforming) into people with different skin colors and genders.
It’s a nice message about how, even though there are many physical differences in people throughout the world, we’re still all equal.
8. “Don’t Mug Yourself” by The Streets
Topic: British English Slang and Pronunciation
The song “Don’t Mug Yourself,” and basically anything else by the rapper called The Streets, is really British, at least to my American ears. But that means it’s a good example if you want to hear and see more about the differences between British English and American English.
In the song, the singer talks about how he’s going to call a girl he likes, but his friend is warning him that he shouldn’t mug himself (do something to make himself look foolish or stupid).
It’s interesting to hear the pronunciation, and there’s a lot of good slang and vocabulary in the lyrics, but just be aware that there are some bad words.
Two (clean) words that are common in British English, but not American English, are the words “fancy” for “like” (when you like a person romantically) and “oi” (an expression to interrupt or get someone’s attention).
Songs for Learning English Grammar
Just like in the vocabulary section above, any song that has words will also include grammar.
But what if you want some more examples of specific structures that you’re learning in class? If that’s what you need, you’ve come to the right place!
For each song, I’ll include the name of the grammatical structure, some links to explanations of the structure, and a few examples of how the song uses that structure.
9. “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas
Structure: Present Simple Tense
You probably already know the present simple tense (also called “simple present”). It’s one of the first structures most people learn in English, and we use it to talk about things that happen commonly or frequently in the present or to talk about characteristics of people or things. If you want to review it, English Page and the British Council’s Learn English site both have good explanations and examples.
This song is about how we can’t control life or death, and eventually, everything turns into dust. Almost all of the lyrics are in present simple, but some clear examples are lines like:
- All my dreams pass before my eyes
- Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever
10. “Since You’ve Been Gone” by The Outfield
Structure: Present Perfect Tense
This song is about a guy who misses someone who left, and he sings about what he has been doing since that person left.
This song is also great for learning an English tense called “present perfect.”
We use the present perfect tense to talk about things that started in the past and are still happening now. It’s common to contract the subject (like “I,” “you” or “we”) and the verb “have” (for example, saying “I’ve” instead of “I have”) and that happens a lot in this song’s lyrics.
Some examples of the present perfect in this song include:
- Since you’ve been gone
- I’ve just been fooling around
- You’re not the only girl I’ve ever had
There are some good reviews of this grammar structure on English Page and the British Council page. There are also some other great songs that use this structure, such as U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
11. “And She Was” by Talking Heads
Structure: Continuous/Progressive Tenses
There are actually a couple different continuous (also called “progressive”) tenses in English. There are continuous tenses for the past, present and future, and there’s also the perfect continuous for the past, present and future.
That gets complicated, so I chose a song that mainly uses the present continuous (with a form of the verb “to be” in the present and a verb ending in -ing) and the past continuous (with a form of the verb “to be” in the past and a verb ending in -ing).
Some examples of the present continuous in the song are:
- She’s making sure she is not dreaming (two examples)
- Now she’s starting to rise
And some examples of the past continuous are:
- She was lying in the grass
- The world was moving
- She was drifting through the backyard
12. “Summer of ’69” by Bryan Adams
Structure: Past Simple Tense
We use the past simple tense to describe things that started and finished in the past. In other words, these are completed actions. Here’s more information on English Page and the British Council’s page. The past simple is one of the first things that intermediate students learn because it’s so common.
The main difficulty that many students have is remembering the past forms of the irregular verbs in English. If you’re not sure what those are, regular verbs end with an “-ed” in the past forms, but irregular verbs have many different forms in the past.
There are charts of most of the irregular verbs in English, but you just have to just practice them and memorize them over time. Fortunately, there are also some tricks to help you learn irregular verbs.
In this song, Bryan is remembering the past and what he and his friends did when he was younger. Some of the song is in the present but a lot of it takes place in the past.
Some examples of the simple past that have regular verbs are:
- That summer seemed to last forever
- We needed to unwind
And some examples of the simple past that have irregular verbs are:
- I got my first real six-string, [I] bought it at the five and dime
- We were young and restless
- When you held my hand, I knew it was now or never
13. “Ready to Run” by The Dixie Chicks
Structure: Future Tenses
There are several ways to talk about the future in English. We don’t have time to go into a lot of detail about all of them here, but the most common ways are:
- The future simple (“will”)
- The future continuous (“will” and an -ing verb)
- The “going to” structure (a form of “to be” plus “going to” plus a verb)
- The present continuous (which we’ve already talked about), if we include a future time word
I chose “Ready to Run” by the Dixie Chicks because it uses a few of these forms, but I’d also recommend “The Land of Hopes and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen.
Some examples of the future in “Ready to Run” are:
- I’m gonna be ready (the “going to” form, which is informally pronounced “gonna” sometimes)
- I’ll buy a ticket to anywhere (future simple)
14. “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles
Structure: Modal Verbs
Modal verbs (also called “modal auxiliaries” or simply “modals”) can be tricky, mainly because they can mean different things.
Briefly, a modal verb is a word that you put before a verb to indicate things like possibility, obligation, permission, etc. Common modal verbs are can, will, must, may, should, need to, have to and might, but there are others. The British Council has a good explanation and if you want some exercises you should head over to English Page.
Because they’re so essential, almost every song has at least one modal verb. One I like to use in classes is “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles. Some examples of modals in that song include:
- Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?
- Our love may soon be gone
- We can work it out
- Only time will tell if I am right
15. “Always On My Mind” by Elvis Presley
Structure: Perfect Modals
Now we’re starting to get into the more complicated English grammar structures.
Perfect modals (also called “past modals”) use a modal (like in the previous section) but we use them to talk about the past. Basically, you’ll need to use this structure:
- a modal + “have” + past participle
Since many songs talk about the past, a lot of songs have perfect modals. One of my favorites is “Always On My Mind,” which was made famous by Elvis Presley. Some examples of perfect modals in the song are:
- Maybe I didn’t treat you quite as good as I should have
- Little things I should have said and done, I just never took the time
16. “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran
We use conditionals to talk about possible actions and the results of those actions. We usually divide them into four types:
- Zero Conditional
- First Conditional (also called “present/future real”)
- Second Conditional (also called “present unreal”)
- Third Conditional (also called “past unreal”)
Conditional sentences usually have two parts: a condition and a result.
These can get complex, so this section will be basic so it doesn’t get confusing. You can always read more about conditionals and do exercises at English Page.
We use the first conditional to talk about real possibilities, usually in the future. Normally, the condition is in the present tense and the result is in the future.
When talking about this in class, I like to use the song “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper but my students especially like “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. In this song, Ed sings to a person he loves, wondering how things will be in the future. Some examples of the first conditional in the song are:
- When my hands don’t play the strings the same way, I know you will still love me the same
- When your legs don’t work like they used to before […], will your eyes still smile from your cheeks?
17. “If I Were A Boy” by Beyoncé
Structure: Second Conditional
We use the second conditional to express unreal (imaginary) possibilities and results about the present. It a bit confusing because the condition is in the simple past and the result uses “would” plus a verb.
For example, you could say “If I were tall, I would be uncomfortable in my small car.” In this example, the reality is that I have a small car and I’m not tall; I’m just imagining a different reality.
A really great song for this “If I Were A Boy” by Beyoncé. She imagines what she would do if she were a boy and how society would treat her differently. Basically, the entire song is a big second conditional sentence, but some examples are:
- If I were a boy, I think I could understand how it feels to love a girl
- If I were a boy, I would turn off my phone
18. “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” by Adele
Structure: Third Conditional
The third conditional is used to talk about actions in the past—but it’s unreal, meaning that we’re imagining different conditions and results that didn’t actually happen. This structure is pretty advanced, and it’s one of the trickiest things for my students to learn.
Adele’s song “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” (the original version by the Steeldrivers is also great) uses this structure to talk about a woman who killed her lover. She’s singing from jail, talking about how and why she killed him. Almost the whole song is in third conditional, but you can see examples in these verses:
- [I] never woulda hitchhiked to Birmingham if it hadn’t been for love (“woulda” is an informal way to say “would have”)
- [I] woulda been gone like a wayward wind if it hadn’t been for love
19. “Hope You Never” by Tom Petty
Structure: Hope Phrases
There are many different ways to talk about hopes, wishes, dreams and desires in English. I put this section after the conditionals section because normally we talk about hopes using the first conditional and we talk about wishes by using the second conditional.
I know, it’s strange because the words basically mean the same thing, but grammar is just weird sometimes.
One common way to talk about hopes is to use two names or subjects. In that structure, the first person is doing the hope and the second person is the topic of that hope. For example, I can say “I hope I pass my exam.” I can also say “I hope she passes her exam.” Notice that in both of these, the verbs are in the simple present.
A good song that uses hope phrases is “Hope You Never” by Tom Petty. It’s a sad breakup song but it has some good hope phrases like:
- I hope you treasure your independence
- I hope you never fall in love with somebody like you
20. “Stressed Out” by Twenty-One Pilots
Structure: Wish Phrases
There are also different ways to talk about wishes, but a common way is very similar to the hope phrases in the last section.
We can have two people, and the first one makes the wish and the second one is the topic of the wish. The biggest difference is that wishes are unreal (or impossible), so you need to change the second verb to the past tense to indicate it’s unreal.
That may sound a bit confusing, but you can see many examples in the song “Stressed Out” by Twenty-One Pilots:
- I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words
- I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang
- [I] wish we could turn back time to the good ol’ days
21. “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Structure: Reported Speech
I said earlier that third conditional was one of the hardest things for my students, but reported speech may be even more difficult. Reported speech (also called “indirect speech”) can be confusing, but you can find a complete explanation of how it works at English Page, which also has exercises.
The thing to remember with reported speech is that you’re repeating what someone else said. In other words, you’re reporting that person’s speech. To indicate that we’re using reported speech, the most common thing to do is to move the verbs into the past.
Again, it can get a lot more complex than that, but the song “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd is one that I use with my students to practice reported speech. In the song, a man describes a conversation he had with his mother. For example:
- Mama told me when I was young, “Come sit by me, my only son, and listen closely to what I say, and if you do this, it’ll help you some sunny day.”
This is direct speech, but if we change this line from to reported speech, it looks something like:
- His mother told him when he was young to go sit beside her. She told him to listen closely to what she said and that if he did that, it would help him some sunny day.
Even though the song is in direct speech, it’s a good activity to practice making reported speech sentences.
Now that you have all these song ideas, all that you need to do is to turn up the volume and start learning.
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Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.
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