Monday, November 24, 2014

Using world songs in the classroom: a teacher’s guide to sourcing songs and how to teach them

Some teachers find themselves having to lead singing sessions at their school, but don’t have that much experience of using songs from the world music repertoire (‘world songs’) or of teaching songs by ear.

children singing

Here is a short guide to using world songs in the classroom with some handy references to warms ups, song sources, and how to lead choirs.


why ‘world songs’

  • level playing field – the songs will be unfamiliar to everyone so all will be learning together;
  • harder to learn songs we already know – especially since we mis-remember them!;
  • English lyrics not remembered well – because we often paraphrase rather than remembering the exact words;
  • small number of words – many foreign songs don’t have many words or verses;
  • emphasis on listening – because the sounds and harmonies are unfamiliar, it encourages singers to listen more carefully and to become more aware of vowel sounds;
  • many interesting harmony singing traditions – a chance to explore a variety of singing genres;
  • huge and varied repertoire – if you stop limiting yourself to songs in English you realise how big the world is!;
  • unfamiliar rhythms and vocal techniques - opportunities to explore new rhythms and harmonic structures;
  • scope for context work – e.g. geography, cultural differences, language, etc.;
  • more opportunities to engage body – lots of cultures have corresponding dance moves to songs as well as clapping, body percussion, etc.;
  • opportunity to “be someone different” - unfamiliarity with sounds and language allows singers chance to explore different personas and frees them up in general.

preparing to sing

  • always begin with a warm up – it’s important not only to prepare the voice and body to avoid any strain or damage, but also to act as a transition between everyday life and music-making;
  • ‘warm up’ the imagination – and the body, ears, attention, etc. as well as the voice;
  • vary exercises each time – but come back to old favourites too;
  • make it fun and playful – use plenty of visual imagery and silliness;
  • incorporate songs you’re rehearsing – can incorporate tricky bits of songs you’re currently working on;
  • ease into singing – rather than making warm ups a standalone section of your rehearsal;
  • don’t take complete control – give some responsibility to your singers, e.g. ask them how they might make a better sound.

teaching by ear

  • keep all parts occupied so nobody gets bored;
  • build harmonies gradually – get everyone singing short sections in harmony together;
  • break songs down into meaningful ‘chunks’;
  • be clear and simple;
  • know the song inside out before you teach it;
  • start simple – begin with rounds and chants before moving on to more complex harmonies;
  • choose songs with few lyrics;
  • don’t drill words separately – song lyrics are stored together with the melody in a different part of the brain from, e.g. poetry;
  • might need large lyric sheets on wall – if a song has lots of words. This is better than hand-outs as singers can then look at you and use their bodies without pieces of paper getting in the way
  • might need diagrams – if a song’s structure is really complex (or has lots of repetition) then you might use some kind of pictorial representation;
  • don’t give out sheet music – to those who can read it. Resist the temptation. It means that everyone will be in the same boat and nobody advantaged;
  • engage whole person – body, ears, eyes, etc.;
  • keep things moving and don’t get bogged down. Fine-tuning comes later.

choosing songs

  • there are many different types of song, each with its own challenges;
  • move from simple to complex – roughly speaking you might move from rounds (easy) to polyphony (each part has its own melody line) to full harmony to tricky rhythms and clapping/ movement (hard);
  • choose a mix of songs for each session: culture, language, rhythm, difficulty, etc. – keep it varied;
  • research your songs well – there is a lot of misinformation out there and contemporary arrangements which purport to be ‘traditional’.


Here are some relevant posts from the past (just click on the title):


  1. Preparing to sing: why bother?
  2. Preparing to sing: what should a warm up consist of?
  3. Preparing to sing: physical and vocal warm up ideas for choirs
  4. Preparing to sing: hip wiggling and knee bending
  5. Sing like you speak – the ‘folk’ voice, or how to sing like a Bulgarian
  6. Singing in harmony 1 – how do they do that?
  7. Singing in harmony 2 – small group skills


  1. How to teach (and learn) a song by ear
  2. Learning songs by ear
  3. How can you possibly teach songs without a piano??!!
  4. Why some singers find it hard to learn by ear (and what you can do to make it easier)
  5. Start as you mean to carry on (giving out starting notes)
  6. How to deal with song lyrics
  7. Tackling complex song structure without written music
  8. Asking for sheet music in a ‘learn by ear’ choir
  9. Dancing the song (associating movements with song melodies)


There are also plenty of resources on the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network website: Just click on Resources in the top menu and you’ll find Songs, Songbooks, CDs, Books and much more.
  1. Where do you find all your songs?
  2. Finding songs for your choir
  3. Why can’t we sing more songs in English?
  4. Why don’t you sing songs from India?
  5. Finding out about songs: don’t believe everything you read!
  6. Easy songs for your choir 1: what is ‘easy’?
  7. Easy songs for your choir 2: rounds, chants and call & response songs
  8. How to sing a song in a foreign language


  1. Do you have to be a good singer to lead a choir?
  2. Do you need perfect pitch to lead a choir?
  3. The six qualities needed to be a good choral director
  4. What the job of choir leader involves
  5. Training to be a choir or singing workshop leader
  6. How to tell if your choir leader is rubbish
  7. What are rehearsals for exactly?
  8. Balancing fun with rehearsing for concerts
  9. When rehearsals go bad
  10. Help! How to deal with choir members who sing out of tune?
  11. There’s always one! – coping with different singing abilities in a small group
  12. Helping singers learn to hold a harmony part on their own
  13. Taking a song from source to performance – the many roles of a choir leader
  14. How to use gestures to conduct your choir effectively
  15. How to get the best from your singers: don’t tell them it’s hard
  16. Singing and moving – at the same time!
  17. Never tell someone they can’t sing – it is brutal, damaging and untrue


  1. Does ‘world music choir’ actually mean anything?
  2. Finding a niche for world music choirs
  3. Standing up for your choir (or do you use chairs and sit down?)
  4. Choirs that don’t perform

I’d love to hear from you teachers out there. Was this a useful post? Is there anything else you’d like me to write about? Did I miss anything important? What was most useful?

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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