15 Songs to Use in ELA

Want to expose students to new songs, or make them think about old songs in a completely new way? Using music in the classroom is a great way to engage students, so here are some songs to use in ELA, and some ways to use them.


Using music in the secondary classroom is a great way to engage students, so here are some songs to use in ELA, and some ways to use them. (Blog post)


I’m going to link to the YouTube videos of these songs for your convenience, but please know that I do not always show music videos in my class. Most of the time, students just listen to the music. Music videos can be distracting, and sometimes inappropriate. Does it go without saying to always preview songs & their videos for content before sharing them? (Just covering myself here, folks!)

Songs to Use in ELA

  1. “Love Story” (Taylor Swift)

Little did I know
That you were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles
And my daddy said, “Stay away from Juliet”
And I was crying on the staircase
Begging you, please, don’t go.”


This song appears early in the year in my 9th grade classroom, and I use it when we review plot. I actually have students make a plot diagram of the song, and they love that the music actually crescendos as the protagonist reaches the climax of the story. It’s also easy to tie this song in with Romeo & Juliet and talk about allusions in music. (And, let’s be honestly, Tay-Tay is awesome!)


  1. “Cat’s Cradle” (Harry Chapin)

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you coming home, dad?
I don’t know when,
But we’ll get together then.
You know we’ll have a good time then”


I introduce this song in our Short Stories Unit also, and students analyze it for literary devices. It’s a great song to look at for mood, allusion, and irony. You can also pause this song midway and ask students what their expectations are for the ending – this song is upbeat and jovial at the start, so student expectations are often subverted.


  1. “The Lighthouse’s Tale” (Nickel Creek)

“I am a lighthouse, worn by the weather and the waves.
I keep my lamp lit, to warn the sailors on their way.
I’ll tell a story, paint you a picture from my past.
I was so happy, but joy in this life seldom lasts.”


This is another song my students tackle during the song analysis lesson in our Short Stories Unit. This sad song is sung from the perspective of a lighthouse, and you can pretty much tell from these first few lines that it’s going to be a downer. This is a great song to analyze for perspective, foreshadowing, conflict, and mood.


Read about more ways to use pop culture in ELA!


  1. “Handlebars” (Flobots)

“Look at me, look at me
Hands in the air like it’s good to be
And I’m a famous rapper
Even when the paths are all crookedy
I can show you how to do-si-do
I can show you how to scratch a record
I can take apart the remote control
And I can almost put it back together”


Okay, so this is one of my all-time favorite songs and if you haven’t heard it, you should go listen to it right now. In all honesty, I discovered this song set to a fan video about the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) in Doctor Who, and it has stuck with me ever since. This song follows two friends full of bravado and derring-do (they ride their bikes with no handlebars, after all), and then the song takes a major turn and becomes quite epic. (The original Flobots video is a must-watch) Great song to discuss conflict, foreshadowing, and tone.


  1. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (from Mulan)

“Let’s get down to business, to defeat the Huns
Did they send me daughters, when I asked for sons?
You’re the saddest bunch I ever met
But you can bet before we’re through
Mister, I’ll make a man out of you”


This is one of my favorite songs to use in ELA. Mulan is my favorite Disney movie, so of course I bust out this song when we get to our irony lesson. This song is a great example of dramatic irony, since the audience knows that Mulan is a woman, and Li-Shang doesn’t. But this song could get more mileage if you were so inclined — there’s a strong message about determination and bravery, even in the face of doubters (Sorry, Li-Shang, but you’re a doubter, bud.).

Using music in the secondary classroom is a great way to engage students, so here are some songs to use in ELA, and some ways to use them. (Blog post)

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  1. The Girl in a Country Song” (Maddie & Tae)

“Bein’ the girl in a country song
How in the world did it go so wrong?
Like all we’re good for
Is looking good for you and your friends on the weekend
Nothing more”


This song is an amazing lampshade of country music’s inclination to two-dimensionalize women. It’s also funny and full of heart, and a great way to introduce tropes to your students. This would be a great intro to students discussing tropes they see in other genres, and could even lead to a larger analysis of when genre standards become trope-y.


  1.  “Go to Sleep You Little Baby” (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

“Go to sleep you little baby
Go to sleep you little baby
Come lay your bones on the alabaster stone
and be my ever loving baby.”


You don’t have to teach The Odyssey to work this song into your ELA classroom. Although this is O Brother, Where Art Thou’s version of the Siren Song, your students can still appreciate how haunting it is without connecting it to the original text. This song was based on a traditional lullaby, but really subverts our expectations and becomes sinister by the end. This is a great song to use to discuss tone and suspense.


  1. “After We Shot the Grizzly” (The Handsome Family)

“After we shot the grizzly
After the airship crashed
After we lost the compass
After the radio went dead…”


Okay, so I’m probably a little weird for adding this to the list, but it’s a deeply macabre song that’s also really hilarious. I haven’t tried this in my classroom yet, but I fully believe that my students will appreciate this gallows humor. That’s really all I have to say about this – use it with a horror unit (like Edgar Allan Poe) or use it to discuss how comedy can be derived from terrible circumstances, and how masters of the craft accomplish that. You can also talk about tone and suspense, since it’s so jovial, but so dark.


Find resources for student-created songs in ELA.


  1. “Poor, Unfortunate Souls” (The Little Mermaid)

“Poor, unfortunate souls
In pain, in need
This one longing to be thinner
That one wants to get the girl
And do I help them?
Yes, indeed!”


It’s so easy to find Disney songs to use in ELA, and this one is perfect for discussing persuasion. How does Ursula woo Ariel into giving up her voice? How does she position herself and build ethos? How does she develop pathos and use logos? One of my favorite reason to use songs in ELA is to get students looking at familiar narratives through a critical lens, and this song definitely serves that purpose!


  1. “Be Prepared” (The Lion King)

“I know that your powers of retention
Are as wet as a warthog’s backside
But thick as you are, pay attention
My words are a matter of pride.”


Get it? Pride? Because he’s a LION! Har, har, har! While we’re talking about Disney, I wanted to let you know that I love this song, and the possibilities are endless for bringing it into the ELA classroom. There are a ton of word play examples in this song, along with rich opportunities for vocabulary study. I think it’s a great song to use to discuss diction and word choice, along with figurative language. It’s really got it all.


  1. “Re: Your Brains” (Jonathan Coulton)

“Heya Tom, it’s Bob from the office down the hall
It’s good to see you buddy, how’ve you been?
Things have been OK for me except that I’m a zombie now
I really wish you’d let us in.”


This song is another great find for teaching diction. Bob, a freshly-minted zombie, is very kindly trying to persuade Tom to let him in so that he (Bob) can eat his brains. The premise is dark, yes, but the lyrics are laugh-out-loud funny, and the use of corporate speak is practically charming. Maybe it’s also a metaphor for feeling trapped by our chosen professions, but let’s stay positive and focus on the brain-eating. 😉


Theme in Songs Portfolio: use songs to study theme.


  1. “We Become Silhouettes” (The Postal Service)

“I’ve got a cupboard with cans of food, filtered water,
And pictures of you and I’m not coming out
Until this is all over.”


This is a surprisingly jaunty fallout shelter song. The vibe is strong dystopian and you can easily talk about setting and conflict, but a metaphor crystallizes as the song continues and it’s possible to read this as a breakup song.


  1. “Eleanor Rigby” (The Beatles)

“Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?”


This classic Beatles song follows one sad woman who works in a church. Setting is strongly developed, along with an unforgettable character and a statement about anonymity in society. Students can also explore figurative language and examine this song as poetry. This is one of my favorite songs to use in ELA.


  1. “Nothing Better” (The Postal Service)

“Tell me am I right to think that there could be nothing better
Than making you my bride and slowly growing old together?”


We’re finishing this list strong. This song is one of my favorites to read like a book. We begin with a protag who asks ‘Will someone please call a surgeon?’ This plunges us into the action (great hook!) and we figure out in a couple lines that there’s been a breakup. Still, our protag is a lovable guy, it seems, and we sympathize for him. …And then the woman speaks:


“I feel I must interject here
You’re getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself
With these revisions and gaps in history.
So let me help you remember.”


This multi-vocality (or multiple perspectives) is a sweet surprise, and it becomes clear that our original protag is an unreliable narrator [[which I write more about in this post]]. We begin to see the whole picture and our allegiance shifts. Amazing storytelling!


  1. Sound the Bells (Dessa)

“Boys, sound the bells
The sun rose from the west today
I doubt we’ll see it set.”


This is one of my favorite songs in general, and especially one of my favorite songs to use in ELA. This seemingly-simple song develops a strong dystopian setting (or pre-dystopian, as in “save our society before it’s too late!”) and has some beautiful allusions and imagery. This is one of my favorite lyrics in any song ever:


“Looks like our writing on the wall
is lorem ipsum after all.”


This song lends itself to inclusion in your creative writing prompts, along with discussions of musical context and current events. Love this song.


What Next?


Check out these songs, and let me know what you think! In a couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about using music in the ELA classroom for The Secondary English Coffee Shop, so be sure to follow that blog for more ideas.


Using music in the secondary classroom is a great way to engage students, so here are some songs to use in ELA, and some ways to use them. (Blog post)


What are your favorite songs to use in ELA? I’d love to hear from you in comments. 🙂


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