How I Learn New Songs in 2012: A Technological Timeline and Call for More Music in Schools

I have always loved to sing – sing along with Hee Haw, other tv shows, the radio, records/tapes/CDs, etc. I loved music class in elementary school and took band and “folk music” electives in middle school. And, I have parents that always made sure I had some way to listen to music and they didn’t even seem to mind the long concerts in the car as we went to visit my grandparents. My brothers, on the other hand, always seemed to be doing something else to drown out the noise I was making.

I got my first stereo for my bedroom when I was 6 or 7. It was a record player with speakers. I would watch a show on tv, hear a new (to me) song, and then try to find the singer or a song with a similar title in mom and dad’s record collection. If I found something I liked, I would play it over and over and over again until I either scratched the record or knew the lyrics.  At lot of Skeeter Davis and John Denver songs were learned like this.  Too bad they never (as far as I can find) sang a song together!

The next stereo I got was when I was around 10 or 12. It was a “combination” system with a record player, two cassette decks (one player, one recorder), and an 8 track player/recorder. I still have this system, by the way. Actually, it is in mom and dad’s basement gathering dust. The first thing I did was to make a copy of all of the albums I hadn’t ruined yet. This took a while because I had to acquire the blank cassette tapes and then sit through the entire album to record it. I found more new songs to learn this way, though. At this point, with the cassette player to support me, I could listen to a verse, sing it, replay it, sing it again, and move on to the next verse. I could learn a typical song by listening to it twice in this segmented way and then once all the way through. I developed strategies for remembering the order of the verses as this was something I had to deal with having learned the song a verse at a time.  A lot of Linda Ronstadt, Bette Midler, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Rachel Sweet, and Kiss were learned this way.

I kept a notebook through high school where I would “test” my memory of songs. I would sit down and think of a song I hadn’t sung or heard in a while and write out the lyrics. Then, I would pull the appropriate tape from my extremely well organized collection and see how well I had done. Then, I would relearn the tricky parts.  I made my way through a particularly boring high school math class by writing the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” in my notebook every day.

I continued enjoying music and learning new songs through college and my years as a classroom teacher.  I used music in my classes a fair amount and enjoyed singing with my kids as I could.  We used math to analyze different vocal qualities of artists the kids were interested in.  I took kids to concerts around town generally shared my love of music with them.  Check out http://www.downbeatproject.com/ and http://forlauren.com/ to hear beautiful music two of my former math students are sharing with the world.  They are both genius and amazing young people.

About 10 years ago, I began using the web to try to track down lyrics to old songs I hadn’t sung in years or new songs I heard some where. Wow, have the web sources of lyrics grown over the past 10 years!

A few years back, I started searching YouTube for “free” videos of songs. Some people like to put the words in a slideshow, add the music to it and post it to YouTube. It’s interesting to think about the different legal aspects of this. So, I adjusted my strategy to include only official videos released by the artist.

Then came Shazam. With Shazam, I can “listen” to a song and immediately know the title and artist and possibly get to a number of resources like printed lyrics or YouTube videos – all on my phone! I tag a song, go to the YouTube video to replay the song, and learn the song in 15-20 minutes. Now, Shazam has added the wonderful feature of showing the lyrics in time with the song – I can see the words and hear the music at the same time. Two passes like this and I have a song, typically.

When I look at the affordances technology has brought me in terms of personal song learning, I wonder what of this time line is reflected in schooly learning for our 13,000 kids in my district. How is learning new words different from kids now than it was when spelling/vocabulary lists were handed out on paper on Monday followed by a Friday quiz. How about how we learn complex processes now?

Michael Thornton (@mthornton78) and a few of us engaged in a Twitter conversation this weekend because Michael shared . We don’t really use music much in school, do we? I learned a lot about conjunctions and bills and other stuff by watching http://www.schoolhouserock.tv/ as a kid – always in my living room, never in a classroom. I was 9 years old when SchoolHouse Rock first aired and enjoy it still!

Over my years in central office, I have talked with elementary music teachers about SchoolHouse Rock and other tools like it. I usually get met with comments like, “I have my own curriculum” or “teaching WITH music is different from teaching ABOUT music. I teach ABOUT music” or some sort of critique about the chords and rhythms or some other musical element of SchoolHouse Rock.

How can we better use music to help kids access academic content in meaningful ways? How can we use music as a means of kids showing what they know, understand, and can do? As Michael said in our Twitter conversation, kids can “watch, create, share” – watch (and hear) for models, elements of quality, and to learn new information; create their own versions to show what they know, understand, and can do; and, share with a world-wide audience to check their understanding, receive feedback, and improve upon the quality of their work so that others may learn, too.

I realize this post has two distinctly different themes – (a) technology has changed just about everything I do as a learner in the past 40 years or so, but it hasn’t changed much of what we do in schools to promote learning, and (b) music is a powerful tool that is perhaps under utilized in schools. I chose to put these two themes in a single post because, as artists from Jim Reeves to Iron Maiden have sung, “When Two Worlds Collide” interesting things tend to happen.

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