Using Music to Teach Poetry

By Justin Lim on March 21, 2010

One of the most fundamental principles behind good teaching is to tailor lesson plans to the needs of students. In my Reading Advancement classes, all of my kids struggle with reading comprehension and have yet to master the use of literal language. How then can I expect them to cope with the figurative language and complex themes found in poetry? My answer has been to use music!

Here are some ways that you can enhance your poetry lessons by using popular music titles:

1. Teaching the basics - One of the best ways to introduce students to figurative language, poetic form, and sound devices is to use lyrics from popular songs. Take snippets from various songs and print them out so that students can read the lyrics as they listen to short clips. Here is a brief list of poetic elements that I've taught using songs with great success:

  • Metaphor - My Girl by The Temptations, Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve
  • Simile - Like a Rock by Bob Seeger, Turn Me On by Norah Jones
  • Hyperbole - Ain't No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye
  • Allusion - Hey Leonardo by Blessed Union of Souls, 1985 by Bowling For Soup
  • Persona - Beat It by Michael Jackson
  • Rhyme Scheme - Can't Take My Eyes Off of You by Frankie Valli
  • Alliteration, Assonance, Consonance - Dear Mama by Tupac Shakur¬†

2. Engaging English Learners - Another advantage to using music to teach poetry and poetry analysis is that many popular songs have music videos. My class happens to be largely comprised of ELs, which means that I often have to incorporate a great deal of visuals. Music videos are helpful because not only do they provide some context for the song lyrics, but it also gives me concrete references so that I can explain abstract concepts.

To download music videos from Youtube, simply go to and paste the url into the field. The site will provide you with a link to download the clip.

3. Higher level thinking - Although I use a great deal of contemporary music in my poetry unit, I still want to make sure that my kids have an appreciation for the classics that many of us love. In order to do this, I often have my students compare the themes found in popular music to the themes expressed by famous poets. For example, I might have my kids compare a song by Tupac Shakur to a poem by Langston Hughes, both of whom stressed the struggles of African Americans in their respective social contexts. 

I like to use popular music in my poetry unit because it's a great way to liven up the class and to show kids that many of the themes expressed in the classics are still salient today. Before I close though, I'd like to make a final note. Make sure that you use discretion, as some songs may contain inappropriate lyrics. In some cases, it might be necessary to find edited versions or play only short clips.

What are some ways that you teach poetry? What about those of you who teach poetry to English Learners?

Warm regards,

Justin Lim

Rosemead High School

El Monte Union High School District



Your method is incredibly amazing. Tell you what? My students went absolutely revitalized when I took this method in one of my poetry classes. Everybody loves music. And because of it, they all appreciate poetry now. Thanks a lot.

By the way, I made a parallel discussion about music and poetry making your blog as one of my references. In my article, I made use of the songs that you've cited. They're all great.

Hope to read more about your blogs.

Kind regards

Prof. Edgar R. Eslit

I understand having a hard time finding contemporary music for younger children, but I have had huge success in using popular music to teach my 8th graders. For even older kids, there is a great book called Hip Hop and Poetry. It includes classic poems to compare to contemporary rappers such as Eminem and Tupac.

Songs I Use:
Written in the Stars by Tinie Tempah (great hyperbole)
does use the word "damn" so I take that out.

Airplanes by BOB (alliteration, simile)

Just a Dream by Nelly (imagery, repetition)

Wide Awake by Katy Perry (allusion)

Firework by Katy Perry (onomotopoeia, alliteration, metaphor)

In the End- Linkin' Park (mostly for analysis)

Stereo Hearts by Gym Class Heroes (metaphor-big time!)

Beautiful by One Direction (countless poetry devices)

I am working on my lessons for next year and your list was very helpful! I noticed you didn't have anything for personification. I am going to use "The Lighthouse's Tale" by Nickel Creek for both personfication and alliteration.

[Edit: Response]

I'm glad that it was helpful! I'll need to look into that song myself!



Justin, thank you for your suggestions. I totally forgot about the song "My Girl".

I know for my poetry workshops I like to use Lupe Fiasco's "Kick Push" as an example of imagery & onomatopoeia. The kids love it.

Thanks again!

The only problem with some of the song choices is that they are either not as relevant as they could be and not as appropriate. For example, the simile song choices (which I was specifically looking for) had a song choice that talked about a woman wanting to be romantically (if not sexually) involved with a man. I teach 4th grade and had a bad gut feeling about sharing this with them. I would just looking more for songs that are a little more constructive, although I love the idea of teaching such wonderful poetry attributes through such a powerful medium as music.

[Edit: Response]

Hi Jessica,

I definitely understand your concern. This post was more geared towards teachers who teach at the secondary level, where many of the poems taught deal with subjects like love (even sex at times), racism, and morality. I definitely would not have used some of those songs (or poems) with 4th graders and feel that you were right in following your gut. Especially, when it comes to using music, discretion is very important.



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