Picture this – a classroom full of students excited to dive into the world of poetry, not because it’s required, but because they can relate to it, understand it, and appreciate it. Using music as a tool for teaching the elements of poetry has the power to change students’ perceptions of an often misunderstood genre. Ask students to read Emily Dickinson and explain her use of an extended metaphor? Insert groan here. Ask students to listen to Katy Perry’s “Firework” and explain her use of an extended metaphor? They’ll be much more excited to dive in. Listening to music allows students to practice identifying and analyzing poetic devices like metaphors, similes, imagery, and rhyme in a more relatable (and enjoyable) way. If you think music can transform your poetry unit, stick around. We’re about to explore how you can use teach poetry with music and how it can help your students appreciate the beauty of language.
Ways To Use This List
Before diving into the list, consider how to incorporate it into your poetry unit. My first and favorite way is through stations (surprised?). Review the different figurative language or poetic devices you intend to cover beforehand. I like using the notetakers found here and here, but it would also be easy to make your own! Then, set up a few listening stations around the room. Based on the list to come, I would set up the following:
- Station #1) Metaphors & Similes
- Station #2) Imagery & Personification
- Station #3) Idioms & Oxymorons
- Station #4) Alliteration & Onomatopoeia
Invite students to BYOD (bring your own device) and headphones to each station. Then, at the station, have them choose one of the songs to listen to and analyze. They may need to hear songs twice and read the lyrics as they read to be most effective with their analysis in a short period.
Stations are a powerful tool in the classroom because they incorporate movement and get students out of their seats. They also break up the period into manageable chunks, making class time fly quickly. However, if you prefer to manage your “stations” digitally, assign four separate “assignments” or tasks on your Google Classroom or Canvas.
Another powerful way to incorporate these songs into your poetry unit would be using a choice board or learning menu. Following the structure above, you would make four columns:
- Column #1) Metaphors & Similes
- Column #2) Imagery & Personification
- Column #3) Idioms & Oxymorons
- Column #4) Alliteration & Onomatopoeia
Then, under each column, make 4-5 rows of song choices. Students must complete one task per column, so they can choose which song to analyze!
Does that make sense so far? Let’s jump into our song list!
Metaphors & Melodies
Metaphors and similes are music’s most commonly used literary devices in poetry. The melodies bring them to life! Check out this curated list of pop songs that make teaching metaphors and similes with music effortless.
- “Firework” by Katy Perry – “Baby, you’re a firework / Come on, let your colors burst” is just one example of the many metaphors in this song. A song that encourages listeners to express themselves through metaphors will always have a place in middle school.
- “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor – Does this instant pump-up song ever get old? Use it to discuss metaphors (overcoming adversity), imagery, repetition, & alliteration.
- “Happy” by Pharrell Williams – “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof” is an excellent example of a simile for feeling light, joyful, and free. Also, it’s a great song to use for imagery and repetition.
- “Let it Go” by Idina Menzel – It’s possible that this song isn’t quite ready to return to the classroom yet, but just in case you’re ready, it’s an excellent resource for similes. What does the cold really represent?
- “Roar” by Katy Perry – The pop queen of metaphors. “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire” makes great use of imagery and metaphors to convey determination and perseverance, right?
- “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson – “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a metaphor for resilience and growth and a great example of hyperbole.
- “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake – Another pop song with a metaphor for feeling happy and carefree, “I got that sunshine in my pocket, Got that good song in my feet.”
- “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars – This song is riddled with figurative language! See how many examples your students can find.
- “Better Together” by Luke Combs – A great challenge with this song is to see how many examples of similes and metaphors students can come up with. A needle in a groove, oil & water, coffee & sunrises, etc. Then have them choose their favorite one and explain why.
- “The River” by Garth Brooks – Chances are not many of your students will be familiar with Garth Brooks, but this song is timeless. After analyzing, use the line “A dream is like a ______,” to have students generate their own similes.
- “Stereo Hearts” by Gym Class Heroes – Obviously, I saved the best for last. Can you tell I grew up in the 90s-00s? This song is a jukebox stuffed full with metaphors. Plus, you might end up with some Gym Class Heroes fans after incorporating this one. Other opportunities with this song include hyperboles, imagery, rhyme, & alliteration.
Picturesque Pop: Imagery-Rich Songs
Ready to introduce imagery and personification? Pull in pop songs from the list below to show your students how descriptive language and sensory details can be used to create vivid images and inject inanimate objects or abstract concepts with human characteristics. Whether it’s Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and its imagery of the darkness or Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” and the imagery of the bustling city, these songs will give your students a fun way to look for these literary devices.
- “Clean” by Taylor Swift – Okay, this song is actually really good for teaching symbolism, but since I don’t have a section dedicated to that, let’s roll with a healthy dose of imagery. The sky turning black, the wine-stained dress, the flood, etc. This song is well-rounded enough that you can dabble in a bit of it all.
- “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus – “I can almost see it. That dream I’m dreaming…” is a phrase that instantly creates the image of visualizing a goal. Cyrus only continues to build on this imagery as the song progresses!
- “Til You Can’t” by Cody Johnson – Love the line, “If you got a dream, chase it, ’cause a dream won’t chase you back.” Inspiration by personification for the win! Use this song to cover repetition and imagery as well.
- “Happy” by Pharrel Williams – A song that does double duty. I referenced the simile above, but this song also contains a line of personification: “Here comes bad news talking this and that….”
- “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey – “A singer in a smokey room, smell of wine and cheap perfume” this song calls upon more than one sense, making it a great example of imagery.
- “Hello” by Adele – Here me out, this song contains one word used over and over again that creates an image of persistence and desperation. Can you guess what it is?
- “Counting Stars” by One Republic – “Lately I’ve been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be…” creates imagery of a restless mind and unfilled dreams.
- “Wake Me Up” by Avicii – “Feeling my way through the darkness, guided by a beating heart…” establishes an image of uncertainty with only the heart as a guide.
- “We Came Running” by Youngblood Hawke – “Under a pale blue sky / You never felt so cold / Another sleepless night / How could you ever let go?” This inspirational song creates imagery of running towards something with arms outstretched.
- “In My Life” by The Beatles – The lyrics create vivid images of places, people, and memories, prompting students to consider the important people, places, and memories in their own lives.
Songs to Unlock Idioms & Oxymorons
Idioms and oxymorons are unique aspects of language that add both depth and cultural context to our communication. Introducing either device through music can be a great way to allow students to experience them in context and understand their meanings. The list below contains a curated selection of songs that are a great starting point for your poetry unit.
- “Heads Will Roll” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Use this timeless song to discuss the idiom that means someone will be held accountable for a mistake or failure.
- “Fly on the Wall” by Miley Cyrus – Common idiom, uncommon song.
- “Blackbird” by The Beatles – The phrase “blackbird singing in the dead of night” is an oxymoron, as blackbirds are generally considered active during the day.
- “Alone Together” by Fall Out Boy – The title says it all. Note that this song is for mature audiences as it mentions getting high.
- “Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel – The phrase “sound of silence” is an oxymoron since silence is the opposite of sound.
- “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift – “And he’s long gone when he’s next to me” is an example of an oxymoron.
- “Underdog” by Alicia Keys – This song is a great way to bring in a phrase your students likely hear often. Pull it in when you want to teach students about the power of someone or something not expected to win or succeed.
Songs with Sound Devices
If you want to include songs with various sound devices like alliteration, consonance and assonance, onomatopoeia, and identifiable rhyme schemes in your poetry unit, consider songs like the ones below.
- “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious – There is not a better song out there for teaching alliteration. This song is so fun, plus you don’t have to stop with alliteration. Play it again and list for about assonance & consonance. And when students have finally had their fill, let them write their own alphabet aerobics.
- “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift – Yep, this one makes the cut on multiple lists. Look at a few examples of her alliteration – “Bandaids don’t fix bullet holes /’Cause baby now we got bad blood….”
- “Believer” by Imagine Dragons – This one is riddled with alliteration. Check out these lines: First things first / Second things Second / You break me down and build me up / Believer / Believer.
- “Counting Stars” by One Republic – Students will love the predictability of this song’s rhyme scheme.
- “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz – Can students pick up on the meter of this song? How about the rhyme schemes? (Does contain minor profanity)
- “Boom Clap” by Charlie XCX – The Boom Clap in each chorus is a great example of onomatopoeia.
We rarely get the opportunity to embrace students bringing their earbuds to class and listening to music. But when it comes to teaching your poetry unit? Music might have the power to revolutionize the entire experience. Using popular (and not-so-popular) songs will make your students more excited to analyze and understand poetic devices. From the metaphors and similes in Luke Comb’s “Better Together” to the idioms in “Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel, these songs will provide a more relevant and engaging way for your students to connect with poetry.
Have a recommendation? Drop it in the comments below, or share it on my post on IG!