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April 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Uplifting Sunken Spirits – Using Music to Explore, Empower & Enlighten

Chris Walklett is an educator, historian, teacher/teacher trainer and author who has been using music & songs in the classroom for many years dating back to his very first lesson in the mid-1990s. A lover of music both for energy and relaxation, its educational use is also something that is dear to his heart. He is the author of Teaching Tracks, a series of books that explore the multitudinous uses that this resource offers. Email:                                               



It goes almost without saying that life changed for us all recently when Covid, lockdown and its many resultant difficulties hit, further impacting not only on our physical health but also our mental health, peace of mind and general well-being. It was a time in which it was hard for even committed optimists (let alone the rest of us) to see past the present difficulties and into a brighter future.

These trying times though have also born witness to the best aspects of humanity. Few will forget for example the images, most famously from Italy, of singers and musicians serenading neighbours from their balconies whilst stuck in their apartments during lockdown. Thus, the gift of music was demonstrating its power to unite and uplift sunken spirits. 


Don’t stop (and don’t give up) 

In the classroom, both ELT (and otherwise) and Zoom (and otherwise), suitably chosen songs have offered the opportunity for solace and reflection or a much-needed injection of positive thinking. 

Prior to the commencement of the pandemic, a colleague shared how she used music to unite her ESOL students who were new to the country and didn’t know each other or indeed hardly anyone in the UK. She reflected thus, “the class was composed of young people, ranging from 16 to 19, all from different backgrounds, many of whom were LACs looked after children. The students were disconnected from each other, having no common language apart from their different levels of English, and were ultimately on their own in a strange country just trying to survive. Unsure of what to do or where their lives were headed, there seemed to be an understandable sense of pessimism and little hope for the future amongst the class members.” (Carol Samlal, ACL, Essex & NATECLA)

Spurred on by what she had seen in the coursebook Teaching Tracks and using both ideas and materials from here as well as her own, Carol employed the Fleetwood Mac song Don’t Stop, to try to inspire friendship and hope amongst these students. She implored them to focus on the core message of the song: that of not giving up and of always looking at each new day with renewed hope – asking questions such as, if a friend was going through a bad time what advice would you offer them about tomorrow being better? She also employed ‘warm’ imagery - sunshine, rainbows, smiley emojis, dream/thought bubbles and the like to draw out upbeat language and correspondingly uplifting thoughts from them.

The thematic area within Don’t Stop (that of positive future possibilities) could be reinforced with other songs too such as the ethereal Wings by Birdy, One Day Like This by Elbow, Mr Blue Sky by ELO, Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles or a host of others containing a similarly upbeat, yet crucially non-facile, message.


The whole of the magic

Professor David Crystal believes, “music has the power to engage all the emotions – from excitement to relaxation, from tears to laughter.” ( Indeed, it could even be said to have a magical or even miraculous quality too. Last summer (2021) highlighted the case of Thomas Leeds, a young man who’d had a road traffic accident. As a result of this, he suffered ‘face blindness’ – a brain injury leading to the loss of all his (pre-injury) memories including, heartbreakingly for those concerned, facial recognition of his loved-ones. 

However, some ten years later, he happened to hear the unique drum, keyboard and jangly guitar intro to a song, which appeared to spark recognition. By the time the lyrics to the Waterboys’, The Whole of the Moon, had kicked in, a series of flashbacks were taking place – leading to a ‘memory chain’ which enabled him through association to recall memories from pre-injury times. This was seemingly a miracle, not only for him but, by implication, for his loved ones too. ( The song that brought back his memory seems more than coincidental when one considers the story / message relayed within the song.

Music clearly has the power to ‘penetrate’ us perhaps because (as espoused by Daniel Levitin and others) humans are “hard wired for music”. This goes back to when we were born – or perhaps even further back, for recent research has shown that foetuses begin to ‘hear’ (or at least absorb and react to) sound from as early as seventeen to nineteen weeks. Experts believe that the experience for the foetus is akin to what listening to music underwater is to us.


Sound effects – visualisation

Professor David Crystal believes “music’s power to calm is well recognized” ( Lyric-less music in particular has been found to be effective in using techniques such as visualisation, where, with eyes closed, thus blocking out the ‘white noise’ from all-around us, we can focus and concentrate. Increasingly, in this fast-paced world, ambient sounds, music of a classical nature or the relatively recent field of frequencies are being explored in order to aid one’s ability to relax and calm one’s minds. Such types of music have even been known to facilitate creativity.

Visualisation techniques can be used for more than just enhancing our well-being though, they also present interesting possibilities for classroom usage. Activities such as conjuring up words of different types can be employed – getting students to close their eyes then asking them questions such as, ‘how does this piece of music make you feel?’ can get them to produce adjectives and other forms of descriptive language. More ambitiously, students can be asked ‘what story or scenario does this a piece of music bring to mind?’ which can lead to production of not just words, but doodles, sketches and suchlike. Afterwards they can then go on to explain what they have imagined or sketched.


Lyrics – feeling that thought!

The lyrics in songs can have an enormous effect too. As music producer, composer and social entrepreneur, Franz Fitzpatrick put it, “words and ideas are implanted into our subconscious through the music, reinforcing thought patterns that can affect our mood or outlook” ( 

Songs, that is to say the combination of music and words (commonly known as lyrics), have an even more special power. As Yip Harburg, the songwriter of one of the most famous paeans to optimism and a brighter tomorrow, Somewhere Over the Rainbow explained, “words make you think a thought, music makes you feel a feeling, but a song make you feel a thought.” ( Perhaps this is why Thomas Leeds’ memory recalibrated itself a decade later when he heard the vocals/lyrics from that Waterboys’ anthem – he both ‘felt’ and ‘thought’ things from his apparently forgotten past, which in turn set in motion the memory-chain process.


That music drives me crazy!

Music then has an innate ability to change and dictate the way we think and act. There has been considerable research for example on how certain genres of music with a particular message, energy or BPMs can affect your driving. Certain types of music may engender a devil-may-care attitude, making you exceed the speed limit or in some cases even far exceed it. It’s not an easy task to drive slowly or cautiously listening to NWA, AC/DC or pumping house music, right! Indeed, research has, perhaps surprisingly, shown that jazz (presumably the faster paced stuff rather than the ‘cool’ type) is the genre most likely to make you speed. On the other hand, it’s hard to get too hepped up about things when you’re listening to beautiful, calm, pastoral compositions such as Kate Bush’s Aerial or the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. And what is it exactly about listening to Steely Dan that makes you want to put your sunglasses on, wind down your window and cruise?


Exploring, enlightening and empowering - the teacher’s role

Such power over the way we both think and act is an attribute within music that is clearly ready and waiting to be harnessed. All that remains is for us to search for ways and means of making the most of what it has to offer.

Inherent in music’s ability to interact with us is the opportunity it affords to help us explore topics in a personal rather than abstract way, without the ‘preachier’ elements at times apparent in other forms of input. Music also offers ways to enlighten students to perspectives on issues which can help to give clarity and understanding. Ultimately this resource offers students the wherewithal to make sense of what is occurring in the world around them, engendering positivity and hope, but crucially these are grounded in realism rather than delusion.

We may find that our role as educators involves the need to enlighten students in the manner Alan Maley prescribed in his poem Teachers, namely educating them “how to think and feel.” He further advises we should “show them inspiration, aspiration, cooperation, participation, innovation – help them think about globalization, exploitation, confrontation, incarceration, discrimination, degradation, subjugation.” As well as demonstrating, through examples, “how inequality brings poverty, how intolerance brings violence, how need is denied by greed, how isms become prisons, how thinking and feeling can bring about healing.” ( I would suggest that songs are an excellent resource for doing this perhaps even the best going.

Using this resource will also be dependent upon barriers. These will include ones imposed upon you, including the syllabus and your classes’ needs and preferences, as well as those that are self-imposed, including the extent to which, like Alan Maley, you feel it’s your duty (or not) to educate and enlighten students in relation to more ‘political’ issues such as those relating to social justice.


Using songs to highlight issues – some thoughts

Commonplace issues nowadays like hate crime, bullying, abuse and violence can make it hard for young people to make sense of the world that they are growing up into. Such occurrences, and the confusion they bring, can lead to a sense that life is meaningless, leading to feelings of depression and other mental health issues, and/or feelings of loneliness.

There are however a plethora of suitable songs out there that can be employed to examine such issues. Loss, pain and loneliness are brought to the fore in REM’s Everybody Hurts, a track originally conceived when songwriter, Michael Stipe, discovered the shockingly high teen suicide figures in the USA. A more recent song is Lukas Graham’s 7 years, which looks at issues surrounding the difficulties involved in growing up. Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt, famously covered by Johnny Cash, which deals with the issue of self-harming, could also be employed. As could Video by India Arie with its promotion of positive self-image amongst young women and its focus on knowing your own worth.

Using carefully chosen songs and well-thought-out teaching materials based on them can help aid understanding of concerns of both a global and personal nature. In turn they offer the possibility of uplifting, motivating and comforting students, perhaps even acting as an aid to healing.



It’s possible that teaching via the medium of songs is not for all of us – perhaps it needs to be in our nature as it is a reflection of our identity as human beings, not just as teachers. As Alice Hamachek put it, “consciously, we teach what we know; unconsciously, we teach who we are.” (

Music and songs then are a resource which one should keep an open mind to and which should always be a consideration for classroom usage, for they contain a wealth of possibilities for exploitation in teaching and education. They are a timeless resource that can be used to explore, empower and enlighten in a way that perhaps no other input source can achieve quite so well or so succinctly.

They also contain within them the power to change thinking. Protest songs, for example, whether delivered aggressively, defensively, passionately, pleadingly or otherwise, are amongst the finest ways to highlight the multitude of important issues that are happening or that have happened in our world. Surely Jimi Hendrix was not wrong when he said, “if there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.”


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