The Benefits of Using Pop Music in Lessons

Apr 25, 2019

This week we’re going to talk about something that is somewhat controversial – a topic that some shy away from entirely: using pop music in the music classroom.

For many music schools, there’s seems to be a sentiment that kids hear pop music everywhere they go, so why should they have to hear it in their lessons too. Many simply feel that they should be teaching the music of the masters, and the occasional folk piece that is both accessible and a part of the students’ heritage.

And while it is true that the work of the masters is important, every once in a while, it’s a good idea to throw a little pop music into the mix. Here’s why:

Make a Connection

Possibly the best reason to use pop on occasion in the music room is to connect music of the past to music of the present. Think about it this way: most people get into music to play what they enjoy, and for most people, that’s some sort of pop. But if all they are being taught is the classics, it’s much harder to connect the musical concepts being learned with the music they’re listening to. Pop in the classroom can help make that connection.

A lot of music programs stress using the very best music to learn with – and while that sentiment is a great one, it often makes the assumption that all pop music is bad. Sure, there’s a lot of pop music out there that isn’t worth the time it would take to learn, but there are just as many great pop songs. They just need to be found!

Relevance

Let’s face it, classical music isn’t exactly relevant to most music students’ lives. Which means that it can be hard to get excited about it. On the other hand, pop music is something most people care about, especially people who are interesting in becoming musicians. In fact, the average American teenager listens to music for about 4.5 hours of music every day. That’s about 18% of their lives. What’s more, classical music makes up only 1.4% of music sales across the globe. But most music programs are rooted in conservatory models of music with Western European art music. Encouraging students to choose to learn a song or two that they actually like and listen to makes it much easier to get excited about practicing, which in turn allows for much faster progression.

Music Theory

Learning the latest Adele song isn’t really going to help many students on their next written music theory exam. But if that student is really looking for functional and practical music theory, pop offers a lot of opportunities for learning. Most pop music relies on relatively basic chord progression, which opens the door for a wide range of conversations about chord progression and how these chord structures can be expanded with the addition of passing chords.

With students who have a little more experience under their belt, this subject can be expanded into topics like:

  • Improvisation
  • Extended chord tones
  • Chord substitutions and re-harmonization
  • Music analysis
  • Transposition
  • All kinds of accompaniment patterns, and more!

Any pop song offers all sorts of teaching opportunities if approached correctly.

Rhythm

One of the biggest musical benefits of pop music is the rhythmic element – especially syncopation. These kind of rhythms are found throughout pop music, and are something students and teachers sometimes shy away from, thinking they’re too complicated for those just starting out. But in reality, because pop is so familiar to most students, the rhythms are much easier to teach since the students already know what they should sound like. This helps open the door for the all-important eye-ear connection between what  the rhythm looks like on the page, and what is sounds like. What’s more, students who are happy and excited about the music they are trying to learn are often more willing to push through their current skill levels to achieve their goal of playing a piece they love.

Ear Training

One of the quirks of pop music is that most of it didn’t start written down on a piece of paper. Which means that it doesn’t make a lot of sense by the time it finally does end up on the staff. The rhythms can be complicated and fly over students’ heads, and the melody (the part usually sung) is often just the same couple of notes over and over again. None of this means it shouldn’t be used to teach – just that it might be better to leave the sheet music out of it sometimes.

Which makes pop music perfect for ear training. Students can listen along, clap to the rhythms, sing it, and even piece together their own version. This is a much more fun and creative way to develop a musical ear than the traditional approach.

Jammin’

With all the countless hours practicing, learning to play music can sometimes be a bit lonely, especially for students who are taking private lessons. But if some friends can be thrown into the practicing mix, everyone is much more likely to keep practicing and playing.

Right about now you’re probably asking yourself, “What does this have to do with pop music? Students can get their social music ‘fix’ playing duets and trios, right?”

Of course they can, but with a few pop songs under their belt, they’ll be able to play with more of their musical friends. If enough students know enough pop chord progressions then they can play together in a more exciting and engaging way – they might even form a band! At the very least they’ll have more opportunities to jam when they’re with their friends.

A lot of music programs shun pop music, thinking it’s too boring or mass produced. But the truth of the matter is not only is there a lot that can be learned from pop music, it also helps promote strong practicing routines and encourages students to progress quickly.

Looking for a program where you or your child can learn your favourite pop pieces?

We’ve got plenty of programs that utilize pop and rock music to make learning fun! Check them out here.