English teachers, teaching your students how to analyze song lyrics needs to be a “go-to” strategy, a step toward deeper analysis of more complex texts.
Whether you’re teaching poetry, persuasive essays, or some other writing unit, analyzing song lyrics will give your students an opportunity to look at the different ways that language can be used to capture emotions and tell stories.
This close reading process will also help improve their vocabulary and grammar skills while they are having fun!
Here are some tips on how to teach students to analyze song lyrics so that they can gain valuable writing knowledge through a familiar medium they love!
Analysis of Song Lyrics
Taylor Swift makes analyzing song lyrics in the classroom easy peasy. Like her or not, you can count on her to write songs that tell a story, are layered in deep meaning, and littered with Easter eggs that are fun to try and collect (even for the non-Swifties).
Taylor Swift’s “Anti Hero” is a fun student-friendly song to bring into the classroom to practice analysis skills.
With callbacks to songs on other albums in lines like “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser,” you can challenge students to analyze the development of a theme across multiple texts (helloooo higher level DOK and those really tricky to meet standards!).
Lyrics like “I’m the problem; it’s me” coupled with the title setup an opportunity to teach the concept of anti-hero (I especially like the idea of teaching about anti-heroes after teaching about the hero’s journey) and challenging students to analyze how Swift herself could be seen as this archetype by analyzing other songs and conducting online research.
“Anti Hero” also has what appear to be two references to pop culture (30 Rock and Knives Out) that had even the swiftest of Swifties stumped online. These references are an accessible way to introduce the idea of allegory.
Taylor has really teed up the song analysis practice in English classrooms to be endless with so many rabbit holes to go down at every turn!
Song Meaning “Hallelujah”
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has a deep meaning making it a popular choice for teaching song analysis. The meaning of Hallelujah is about someone who was deeply in love and is mourning the guilt of the loss of that love.
The song can teach students how to analyze lyrics by pointing out that even though it doesn’t say so explicitly, this is a song about a break-up.
They can also learn other aspects of reading literature, like examining tone and form. Analyzing song lyrics enables students to apply what they’ve learned as they read other texts or songs.
After reading a poem or listening to a song’s lyrics, students should be able to answer questions like:
- Who is speaking?
- How do you know?
- What do you think the speaker’s feelings are?
- What does this tell you about their personality?
- Do these feelings make sense for the situation?
Good Songs to Analyze
When choosing good songs to analyze remember these three things:
- Choose a song that tells a story
- A song with a deep meaning or theme that challenges students’ inferential thinking skills works best
- Pick songs that students will know and be excited to listen to (that means that while “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is technically a great song for analysis, it might not be the most engaging for your students)
Here are some songs for teaching song analysis that will not only help you teach important analysis skills but also engage and delight your students:
- “Pray for Me” by the Weeknd ft. Kendrick Lamar
- “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons
- “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (this one is suitable for older students)
- “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga
- “Getting Older” by Billie Eilish
- “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo
- “This is America” by Childish Gambino/Donald Glover
- “Matilda” by Harry Styles
- “Victoria’s Secret” by Jax (does have some profanity – I’ve linked the “clean” version)
- “Vacation” by The Dirty Heads (does say “shit”)
How to Analyze a Song
Teaching students how to analyze a song is similar to teaching poetry or literary analysis, but using songs disguises the learning as a fun activity making it really engaging and accessible for all learners.
Start by having students listen to their song twice.
- Instruct them to listen through for the first time just for enjoyment and to follow along with the printed lyrics (or digital if you have a way for students to access the lyrics online).
- Then have them listen a second time but this time have them highlight and circle words and phrases that they think are important and interesting.
Challenge students to consider the following questions during their second time listening and to annotate the lyrics as they go:
- Who’s telling the story? What’s their perspective? How do they feel? What’s making them feel that way?
- What’s the mood of the song? Do the lyrics or the music contribute more to the mood?
- What figurative language do you notice in the lyrics? Why might the songwriter have chosen to include that figurative language?
- What could the songwriter be saying about human nature or society through their lyrics? How could you write a theme statement about these lyrics?
Once you’ve gotten your students started with the analysis process, make sure to involve your students. Ask them what they notice and use their insights to build discussion. Have them write a summary of the song or write a detailed analysis or work on a more creative, visual response.
Song & Poem Analysis Paired Text Lesson Plans
Make close reading, textual analysis and literary analysis of songs (and poems) less intimidating with these detailed, CCSS-aligned close reading song analysis lesson plans for paired texts. Integrated close reading, text-based writing, speaking, listening, and inquiry skills, make these lessons both engaging and worthwhile.
To help you save prep time, I’ve put together some awesome combinations for you HERE, including:
- Carrie Underwood’s song “Cry Pretty” & Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ song “Growing Up”
- William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” & Imagine Dragons’ song “Whatever it Takes”
- Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” and Tupac’s song “Still I Rise”
- Stephen Dobyns’ poem “Loud Music” and Incubus’ song “Dig”
When students analyze songs, they think about its overall impact.
What makes this song great, and why do you like it? What is it about this song that makes it stand out?
Thinking through these ideas with easily-accessible texts makes transferring their skills and knowledge to literature (ya know, the kind with the capital L) easier.
They’ll have practice analyzing craft moves like figurative language and allegory, but they’ll also have practice with those more complex reading strategies like making inferences and connections.
Have a song you think would be perfect to analyze in the classroom? I’d love to hear about it! Drop me a comment below to share!
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