Popular Music in the Classroom: Where to Begin?

By Morrison, Sarah | The Canadian Music Educator, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Popular Music in the Classroom: Where to Begin?


Morrison, Sarah, The Canadian Music Educator


"Yes, I introduce children to classical music. Pop music they listen to anyway, there seems to be little point in teaching it therefore (Green, 2002, p. 138)."

Defining "popular music"

It is difficult to find a precise definition of 'popular music' as the meaning of this construct has shifted historically and can vary in different cultures. For the purpose of this article, 'popular music' is defined as music belonging to any number of musical styles that are accessible to the general public and distributed commercially. "Classical music" will refer to music of the Western classical cannon. The term 'popular music' can refer to many sub-genres including pop, rock, dance, rhythm and blues, alternative, reggae, rap, and hip hop, but it stands in contrast to the genres of jazz and western classical music.

Let me begin by stating that I do not consider myself to be an expert in popular music performance nor do I consider myself to be a specialist in the field of popular music studies. So, why am I, a formally trained soprano and choral conductor, writing about popular music in education? Like much of the population, I am a consumer of popular music of many styles. I enjoy listening to popular music from Canadian bands like Metric and Bedouin Soundclash to solo artists Justin Timberlake and Madonna and nothing wakes me up like listening to the "top seven at seven" on 103.5FM on my way to work. As a young musician, my enjoyment of popular music and my passion for solo and choral singing were very separate in terms of informal listening or singing along to CDs (without scores), to piano lessons, choir rehearsals and music classes in school (with pencils, sheet music and conductors). It was not until I began teaching vocal music myself that I questioned why the music that my students were plugged into at all times outside of my classroom did not have more of a presence inside my classroom. I began wondering how to better incorporate popular music into formal music education.

I started off by simply observing my music students. I noticed that students would look forward to the opportunities that I gave them to choose their own solos or small ensemble pieces and would invariably choose popular music songs. They were often reserved or restrained when singing folk songs, choral ensemble pieces or Italian art song, but would enter or exit my class belting out a pop tune with no hesitation. I noticed that students often chose to reflect upon their performances of popular music outside my classroom in their vocal portfolios. For example, one student wrote about auditioning for "Canadian Idol" and how this experienced helped to increase her vocal technique in terms of stylistic devices. I was fascinated by the intrinsic motivation that occurred when students were given the choice to sing something that clearly meant something to them. I had always used a mix of what I judged to be "good music" from all genres, including popular music, in my classes for listening and analysis purposes. I had encouraged research presentations on all aspects of popular music and had even used popular music riffs (Backstreet Boy songs are great for this!) as solfege exercises in sight singing. But in spite of all of my good intentions, up to this point a few years ago, I had never really incorporated popular music in the areas of performance and composition.

Teacher attitudes towards the inclusion of popular music

I began to think that I should try to incorporate more popular music into my classes in meaningful musical ways, but was unsure where to begin. In my research on teacher attitudes towards the incorporation of popular music into formal education, the lack of comfort or facility that many music educators feel in teaching popular music emerged as a common theme. Music educators faced with leading popular music ensembles or classes may feel that their university or college music methods classes did not train them to teach these types of ensembles in this style. …

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