I love using music in the classroom, and streaming services such as Spotify make this easier than ever. Some songs are better used to stoke up some energy during lessons, whilst the very best of all are historical sources in themselves, combining musical feeling with powerful lyrical content. In other words, popular music provides some of the richest, but most under-utilised, sources of historical interpretation that can be used in the classroom. By analysing the meaning of lyrics and placing them in their proper context, students are able to consolidate their knowledge and understanding in a highly engaging way. Moreover, collections of relevant songs can be organised into classroom playlists for use as atmospheric music during subsequent lessons or as a study aid during revision time.

Strategy 1. Provide a musically-themed timer to keep students on task

In lessons consisting of short bursts of activity on a regular basis, having a relevant piece of music to act as a timer is particularly effective to help students with time management. For example, I teach the Nazi school curriculum by getting students to write school reports for each other for a variety of subjects using various primary sources (for more on this, see my earlier blogpost “On School Report”). This involves an intensive blast of factual information, a short amount of time to write a report using the key terminology just provided, and then passing the reports around the class ready to write the next one for a different student. To maintain this pace, I start the activity with the report for ‘music’ and analyse the lyrics of the ‘Horst Wessel Song’ – the anthem of the Hitler Youth movement – as the central focus. I then give students three minutes to write their report, which is the length of the piece itself, and have the song playing in the background. As the exercise proceeds, students quickly get into the rhythm of how long they have left from the increasingly familiar tune.

I have also coded a dedicated classroom timer at ClassTools with 20 pre-loaded popular instrumental tracks of various lengths that you can bring up on your whiteboard. You can upload your own choices of music to it as well!

Strategy 2: Instrumental Music (for atmosphere and mood)

Classical music can be very helpful for creating a calm and purposeful working atmosphere, when a bit of Chopin or Debussy sets the tone perfectly. Even better, though, is when there is a relevant story around the composer to accompany the music and bring the topic into sharp focus. For example, when studying World War Two, give students a bit of background to the life – and tragic end – of Glenn Miller before playing some of his music (e.g. “In the Mood”) as the soundtrack for the main lesson.

Another piece I recommend is Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, made famous through its performance by Jacqueline du Pré (whose life story is gripping in its own right). Although now a well-established national favourite, fewer people are aware that it was inspired by the composer sitting on the cliffs watching British troop ships of the BEF heading off into the mist towards France in 1914. Less well-known, but perhaps equally moving, is “George Butterworth’s “On the Banks of Green Willow” by George Butterworth, a wonderfully elegaic piece by a young composer of the “Lost Generation”. A charismatic member of the “Bloomsbury set”, Butterworth joined the war to test his own mettle and quickly distinguished himself as a particuarly fine soldier, but was tragically killed during the Battle of the Somme and is now commemorated on the Thiepval memorial for the missing.

There are many other pieces of instrumental music whose historical context can be outlined at the start of the lesson and then used to provide a backdrop to the main activity. The best way forward with this technique is to start with a piece of music produced in the place or period being studied, then do some basic research around the context in which it was produced. Some notable pieces worthy of a listen in this respect include Beethoven’s Third Symphony (dedicated to Napoleon until he declared himself emperor, at which point the composer furiously scratched his name from the dedication), Shostakovich’s War Symphonies (arguably a subtle protest against Stalinism) and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, with its booming cannon commemorating Russia’s defence against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée in 1812.

Strategy 3: Individual Songs (for starters / plenaries)

Occasionally, a historical topic will be associated with its own clear corpus of music. Notably, slave songs and many blues pieces can be analysed for historical meaning, perhaps by placing the lyrics of numerous songs around the room and using the Silent Discussion method to ensure plenty of annotation. For example, “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton, a former slave trader keen to share how he came to see the error of his ways; “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley is a wonderfully evocative tale not just of being kidnapped into slavery, but also the challenges faced down the centuries by subsequent Afro-Americans.

The most fruitful individual performer in this respect is perhaps Hughie Ledbetter, better known by his stage name of Leadbelly. His “Pick a Bale of Cotton” is a classic example of a song which was designed to help the slaves stay motivated and maintain momentum in the fields. Moreoever, as with the classical composers outlined earlier, the life story of Leadbelly is worthy of study in itself for highlighting the hardships and injustices suffered by black Americans in the segregated south, and race relations in the United States as a whole in the period before the Second World War. Leadbelly, a convicted murderer, was recorded performing in prison by legendary musicologist Alan Lomax, and his songs include such superb material as “Bourgeois Blues”, “Midnight Special” and “Where did you sleep last night?” (covered by, of all people, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who described Leadbelly as ‘our favourite performer’).

Over the years I have built up a large repertoire of songs which have a strong historical dimension to use at particular points. A full list of more than 50 such songs, complete with suggestions about when they might be used, can be found at https://www.activehistory.co.uk/spotify/top_songs.php. Some of my favourites include:

  • William the Conqueror (DMX Krew): Why was King Harold defeated at the Battle of Hastings?
  • Cult of Personality (Living Colour): How important is the role of the individual?
  • Sophiatown is Gone! (Miriam Makeba): In what ways did black South Africans oppose the Apartheid regime?
  • Political Science (Randy Newman): What impact did the Vietnam War have upon American society?

Strategy 4. Write lyrics for an “ANTI-protest” song

Protest songs by definition are packed to the hilt with strongly expressed opinions and perspectives. These sorts of songs can be analysed in the manner just described, but another challenge could be to rewrite the lyrics of a song to provide the opposite perspective. Occasionally, history provides us with ready-made examples of such “Anti-Protest Songs” that can be used as an example. One illustration of this is when Neil Young’s derogatory “Southern Man” provoked the writing of “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Watergate does not bother me…does your conscious trouble you? Tell the truth!”).

After considering both of these songs, students could then be produced with a whole range of different songs relating to the topic in question. After analysing each one on its own terms, students should summarise the main protests being made overall, then consider how the most important of these could be challenged in fresh lyrics matching the tune of one of these songs. For example, after considering a range of Vietnam War protest songs (e.g. “Ohio” by Neil Young, “Eve of Destruction” by Barry Maguire, “Fortunate Son” by Credence Clearwater Revival to name but a few), students could produce the lyrics for an “Anti-Protest Song” supportive of American involvement in the war and the policies of a particular administration. This approach is not limited to bona fide protest songs: any song with a clear agenda (from “Victoria” by the Kinks to “Rasputin” by Boney M) could lend itself to the same treatment.

Strategy 5: Complete playlists (for in-depth projects)

This technique moves students still further from being consumers towards being creators, and brings the music itself to the forefront of the exercise. It can also be used in conjunction with the analyis and writing of lyrics already described. I use this method when studying the Civil Rights movement in the USA. Students are firstly presented just with the lyrics with a couple of songs from 1968 (“Trouble Every Day” by Frank Zappa and “If I can Dream” by Elvis Presley) and asked to anticipate, based on the tone of the lyrics, what style of music and instrumentation they expect to hear. After a classroom discussion, play the first verse or two of each song to see how far their assumptions were proven correct. Next, I provide students with a long of civil rights-era music and divide this so that each student gets three or four songs to consider. Their job is firstly to locate the lyrics of each song using the internet, and decide which two of these are historically the most valuable in terms of the references they make to genuine events and circumstances. Next, they use YouTube or Spotify to listen to each song, and make a final selection on their “best” song based on a combination of the music and the lyrics. Each student thereby nominates one song for the class ‘compilation’.

All of the research should then be completed and shared. Google Presentations are particularly good here, since each student can simply add their research into a separate slide.

If there are a large amount of students in the class, a balloon debate format could be used to reduce the total songs down to a streamlined compilation of perhaps 15 songs overall.

Thereafter, students are given the opportunity – perhaps as a homework exercise – to read the lyrics and listen to all of the songs that have been researched. In a subsequent lesson, each member of the class should then vote on their favourite three songs overall. These songs are then ranked by popularity and ideally turned into a collaborative playlist using an online music service such as Spotify. As an extension exercise, students could decide upon a running order and produce a “CD Inlay” providing brief context for each song as well as a suitable cover image.

This approach works well for a wide range of topics such as the American Civil War, the two World Wars, the Cold War, and Apartheid South Africa. For further inspiration, take a look at my wide collection of playlists for various history topics (https://www.activehistory.co.uk/spotify.htm).


Taking it further

  • Challenge students to add a final verse to their chosen song covering an aspect of the topic which is not addressed.
  • Rather than allocating songs out to each student and asking them to research the lyrics, simply print off the lyrics to each song in advance of the lesson. Place these around the room and then conduct a “Silent Discussion” exercise to identify some of the key themes and issues that appear to be raised. Then allow each student to choose one or more songs to research further.
  • Get students to create their own promotional music video for a song of their choice using photographs and other relevant sources to put the piece into its proper context.


Russel Tarr, 50+ Essential Songs for the History Classroom – ActiveHistory (Available at: https://www.activehistory.co.uk/spotify/top_songs.php, Last accessed 2nd November 2017)

Russel Tarr, Music for History Lessons (Available at: https://www.activehistory.co.uk/spotify.htm, Last accessed 2nd November 2017)

CLASSTOOLS.NET website, Classtools Countdown Timer (Available at: http://www.classtools.net/timer/, Last accessed 2nd November 2017)