Solfège and Taylor Swift? Why not?

Hi all!  Christopher here.

Over my winter vacation, my 11-year-old and I road-tripped to see extended family, spending 16 hours in the car over a number of days.  When he was young, we listened to a lot of Jill Trinka and Pete Seeger, but now that he’s hit the tween years, we’ve definitely moved towards pop music.  Lots of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Beyonce, Sam Smith, and Arianna Grande in the car these days….

As a Kodály-inspired music teacher, I stress folk musics from the US and around the world.  For the most part, my students like the songs and games we do, but I occasionally get questions like, “Why don’t we ever sing any songs that we know?” It’s a good question, I think, one that warrants consideration.  I’ve always told them that they can hear that music on their own, and that an important part of my job is to expose them to new musics.  Which is true.

But I don’t think it’s completely true.  Pop music is part of their lives, and sometimes I grow concerned that if we don’t include this repertoire in some capacity in our classrooms, the music that we do will be considered “school music,” which the kids will see as different than “real music.”  And it seems to me that many of those skills addressed in Kodály-inspired classrooms can be addressed through a variety of repertoire.

So, in an attempt to bridge pop music and music skills, I decided to connect music literacy  and Taylor Swift.  T.S. 1989 is her new album, and it is on constant playlist around my house.  There are a lot of other musical skills that you can address with pop music, but for this post, I'm going to focus on solfège.  

On my family trip, I solfège-d and handsign-ed Taylor’s latest releases, activities that my son regarded with raised eyebrows and obvious disdain.  (Dork alert: I actually often try to solfège along with pop music when I’m out for a run.  Seriously, it helps keep my solfège skills up, particularly with all those songs in minor keys.  My son rolls his eyes at that one, too.)  This time, I thought about how the material might work in my classroom.

Why I like this album overall:
(1) First of all, her songs have a lot of repetition.  Like so much pop music.  Verse-refrain-verse-refrain-bridge-refrain-refrain: If it’s a good refrain, it gives you many times to practice it.  Within her melodic lines, there are a lot of repeated notes, as well, which makes it easier.  When thinking about doing this in class, I want the kids to practice solfège skills, but I don’t want to make it so hard that they don’t have fun while doing it – that’s really the main point.
(2) Second, the vocal range of a lot of Taylor’s songs on this album is pretty small (notice how she and I are now on a first-name basis?  Sometimes, I just refer to her as TS, her initials, because we’re getting to know each other pretty well).  Arianna Grande and Beyonce are much more virtuosic, and practically, that would be harder for kids to do.  Taylor's tessitura works for the most part, as well.
(3) Swooping is a given in pop music, but TS doesn’t do it as much as a lot of pop singers.  It’s hard to sing solfège where there are all those different notes in there.
(4) Most of her music falls in major keys.  So much pop music is in minor, and while my older kids sing in la-based minor, it’s more difficult for them.  I don’t want this experience to be too difficult.

Here are some of the songs that I came up with:

Why I like it:

-       Like, OMG, the song is so fun!!! (Insert emoticons here).  For real, it is one seriously catchy tune.
-       Totally works to practice fa because:
  1.  The tune opens with a lot of repeated notes on do, allowing the kids to start with a really clear sense of the tonal center; 
  2.  The first time fa happens is mid-way through the chorus, so they’ve had a ton of time to practice the more well-known solfège notes; 
  3.  The text right before the first fa is “It’s a new soundtrack” -- kind of like fa is a new note; 
  4.  The first fa occurs on the downbeat of a measure, which makes it pop out.  Or at least pop out more than the way that fa often operates, as a passing tone.
- Even though my focus is fa, the rhythms are pretty simple (rare for so much popular music, which tends to have super-complex rhythms).  So switching between rhythm words and solfège, for example, is definitely doable.

Potential problems:
-       Taylor swoops a bit, although not a ton.  It happens in the chorus.   I plan to simply address it with the students: I’ll demonstrate one phrase where she swoops, one where she doesn’t, and have them differentiate.  If they sing just mi while swooping between re and mi, I think I’ll just note it, and move on.

How I’m considering using it:
-       After learning fa (next month), I’ll have them read my hand signs that will lead to the song; then play the song, ask them where else they heard it.  Or:
-       Have them learn the song from notation, fairly late in their practice.  Then have them sing along with the recording.   

The second of this album’s number one hits!  I’m sure there will be soooooo many more!!!  Insert more emoticons here.

One of the issues with pop music is the language that can crop up.  Way too much sex.  Way too much drugs.  Way too much objectification of women.  (Incidentally, there are also a fair number of women-power songs out there – Cher’s Woman’s World is a super-fun dance number; Lily Allen’s Hard out Here pokes fun at the different expectations of male and female pop stars.)  Taylor is pretty clean, but there are still lyrics on the album that I don’t think are great for the classroom.  In fact, most of the songs have textual content that I don’t want to use.  Her latest number one hit, Blank Space, isn’t horrible – but you might not want to use it at the elementary level because of these lyrics:

-       “Got a long list of ex-lovers” (not “starbucks lovers,” which is what I thought it was for the longest time…)
-       “I could show you incredible things.”

Again, they really aren’t bad.  But personally, I think they’re better for older students.

Why I like it:
-       Great tune.  Always, start with the music!
-       Like Welcome to New York, it has a LOT of repeated notes on do in the opening section, really allowing the listener to get a solid sense of the tonality.
-       Challenging intervals: fa,-do and so,-mi.  In the end of each verse, the patterns repeat three times in succession, really allowing that interval to get in your head.

Potential problems: 
-       Text.  See above.
-       More swooping than Welcome to New York, particularly in the chorus.  Not enough so that it’s not doable, but something to discuss with the students.
-       The range is pretty big, a tenth. Definitely doable, but you’ve got to take that into consideration.
-       The rhythm is much more complex than Welcome to New York – like so much pop music.  Although I’ve notated the rhythm here, I would probably just put the solfège syllables on the board, without the rhythm at all.  The rhythm just makes it more complicated.

I haven’t notated all the songs on the album, but other songs that can work to practice solfège skills:

Why I like it:
-       A catchy dance tune, this was the first number 1 hit from the album.  Part of the point of doing pop music is to give our students something that they know, and it seems like just about everyone knows this one.
-       It is in extended pentatonic!  For older beginners in a choir setting, it could serve as a solid piece to give them experience with do, re, mi, so, and la.  (Towards the end, there’s a fa, but it’s incidental).
-       The tonal center solidly centers on do; you can really feel the tonic.

Potential problems:
-       The relatively fast tempo and lack of repeated notes makes it more difficult than the other two songs, above.
-       The range is pretty large, about an octave and a half.
-       Text: Some of it is mildly problematic, like “I go on too many dates.”  Not a big deal, depending on your context.

Why I like it:
-       This is a fantastic song to practice low ti.  The chorus repeats the same pattern over and over: re-mi-do-ti,-do.
-       Before you get to the low ti, there is a whole verse of patterns of do-do-do-la,.  Those two notes really get into your head before you hear the first low ti, about a minute into the song.

Potential problems:
-       The main motif in the chorus has some sliding between re and mi.
-       The text is about a breakup and waiting to get back together.  Not super-problematic, but it may be that with elementary students you don’t want to sing songs about dating. 

Really, the songs on the album are almost all pretty accessible.  The text is often a mild issue, one that I want to consider carefully. But the music itself is pretty easy.

If you have other pop songs that you’ve used in the classroom recently, please post them below.

Taylor and I say: Rock on, everyone!


  1. I love to do stuff like this as warm-ups for chorus or mystery songs for older grades especially. I either project the solfege in a form like you have or have them read from handsigns. It gives them their pop music "fix" without having to take too much time on it because they know it is just reading practice. My students love it! Thanks for figuring out the Taylor Swift songs for me :)

  2. I used "Dynamite" in this way when it was popular 3 or 4 years ago. (For low la and low so practice). It's so nice to find decent pop songs that can bridge the gap between between "their " music and "our" music. Thanks for your post!!

  3. Very interesting! Great ideas. I mentioned this work on my music composition blog at
    Thanks Christopher!

  4. Love this. Thanks Christopher. I mentioned your lesson ideas in my blog for our music composition teachers.

  5. What a find!! I tried using your transcription of 'Welcome to New York' with 14-year-olds yesterday and they loved it. Looking forward to developing this idea! :)


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