How to improve your English listening with music

If your goal is to improve your English listening, music is a natural first step. After all, English-language rock, pop, and hip hop music are played in a variety of settings around the world. You’ve likely listened while visiting a shopping center, buying food in the supermarket, or enjoying a drink at the bar, so why not use it to your advantage?

In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of using music to improve listening, illustrate with funny English song examples, and end with a 5-step guide for making the best of music as a learning tool.

The benefits of listening to music in English

Music can be a fun, low-stress way to develop your listening in English. It brings exposure to many new voices, lots of fresh vocabulary, and better comprehension through repeat listens.

Adapts to the way you learn

Learners with varying styles can use English songs to improve listening skills. While auditory learners connect to the sounds, visual learners enjoy music videos, and kinesthetic learners connect to the rhythm. Some people even learn best while moving to the beat (= dancing)!

Lots of new vocabulary

Like reading and watching movies, music is a good source of words and phrases that you might not otherwise hear. The more you’re exposed to new vocabulary, the easier it is to understand in context.

Lyrics are readily available

Not even native speakers understand every word in a song, so don’t feel bad if it’s hard at first. Lyrics are widely available on the Internet and in streaming apps. Many of these apps allow you to follow the lyrics as you’re listening to the song, so you can associate the sound with the spelling of the words.

Music videos add context

Sometimes music videos will add the context you need to solidify your new vocabulary. If you’re looking for a good place to start, some of our favorites are “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyonce, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, and “Hello” by Adele. You can also check out Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 best music videos.

Repetition builds comprehension

Most songs are less than 5 minutes long and are available to listen to while you drive, commute, or shop. The more you hear the same words, the more likely it is that you will remember and be able to use them. Though you might understand only 25% of the lyrics in the beginning, you’ll gradually improve your listening to 50%, then 75%, and so on.

Lots of variety

Because singers from different regions and countries often pronounce words differently, music can help you recognize words you already know from a variety of voices. 

Relevant knowledge

Music is a great conversation topic to discuss with people around you. The more music you listen to and understand, the easier it will be to talk about it with both native and non-native English speakers.

Drawbacks of listening to music in English

Woman listening to music on public transit.

As much fun as it can be to listen to English songs, it’s not a perfect method. When you parrot songs (= repeat words and phrases blindly), you can learn phrases that don’t exist, use wrong grammar, or even offend people. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you develop your listening skills.

Lyrics are easy to mishear

Even native speakers mishear lyrics. Taylor Swift’s song “Blank Space” is famous for this. Although many people hear, “All the lonely Starbucks lovers,” the correct line is, “Got a long list of ex-lovers.” (Although people might seem lonely in Starbucks, there is no such thing as Starbucks lovers.) 

Another great example comes from The Eurythmics’ famous titular lyric, “Sweet dreams are made of these.” People mishear it as “Sweet dreams are made of cheese.” (Maybe some people’s dreams are, but that’s not what the band meant!)

The subtext matters

It’s important to understand the story and context behind English song lyrics before you imitate what you hear. Whether it’s curse words, discussed in Lupe Fiasco’s “B*tch Bad,” or sensitive subjects, like the 1972 conflict described in U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” you don’t want to accidentally cause offense by repeating something you heard in a song.

Wrong grammar galore

Singers often play with grammar and meaning. The more you use English songs to improve your listening, the more you will find that songs don’t always use standard English.*

Don’t believe us? Here are a few examples:

  • In Justin Timberlake’s hit “What Goes Around… Comes Around,” he sings “When you cheated, my heart bleeded.” The correct verb form is “bled,” but Timberlake needed a good rhyme.
  • The lyric “I can’t get no satisfaction” repeats throughout The Rolling Stones’ iconic song “Satisfaction,” but “can’t go no” is a double negative. Unfortunately, “I can’t get any” didn’t sound as catchy.
  • Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” features the lyric, “You and me could write a bad romance,” when “you and I” is the correct use.

*Be aware that English dialects like African American Vernacular English may use different grammar that is standard and equally accepted within those communities.

It’s not a substitute for studying

While listening to music is fun and entertaining, it’s still a passive activity – and putting music on in the background doesn’t count as “studying.” If your goal is to use English songs to improve your listening skills, you can make even more progress by actively listening to a podcast, the radio, or another favorite method. 

How to use music to improve English listening skills

Now that you know the pros and cons of using music to practice listening, you can listen smarter. Here’s how to get started.

1. Listen first

The best way to start is at the beginning! Listen closely to an English song of your choice. Try to notice how many words you can understand without judging yourself.

2. Look up the lyrics

Now, it’s time to compare. Find the lyrics online and read through slowly to help you fill in the gaps. What did you hear correctly? What surprises you? What words or phrases have you never heard before?

3. Repeat

Listen repeatedly so you begin to associate the sounds you hear with the lyrics. The more you repeat the song, the stronger this connection will become. 

Try different methods: listen with the whole lyrics in front of you, watch a lyric video, or follow along using a streaming app that highlights the words as they appear in the song. Strong visual learners might try listening with the original music video to build context for the lyrics (but keep in mind that not all lyrics are connected to the music videos).

4. Sing along

As you listen, you might naturally find yourself singing along as you learn the lyrics. This is good: Singing can help you commit the words to memory. If you’re shy about your voice, remember that you don’t have to sing in front of anyone – or sing at all! You can also say the words quietly as the artist is singing, and use the lyrics as a visual aid.

5. Ask to make sure

Once you’re more familiar with the song, you will find yourself with some new vocabulary. But because music genres are so diverse, you might not know how useful or appropriate it is. 

We recommend asking a friend about whether the words and phrases are common in English and the right situation(s) to use them. Now that you understand, you may also start hearing this new vocabulary on the news, in movies, or at work.

Plus, if you hear the song again while you’re out and about, you’ll have an impressive new achievement to show off!

Need a good song recommendation?

Every Thursday lesson of Plain English includes a song of the week, specifically chosen for English learners by Jeff and JR. It’s called “JR’s Song of the Week.”

Not yet a member of Plain English? You can join here; it’s free.

What do you think about using music to improve English listening skills? Let us know – we’re all ears! (= listening attentively)