The principle condition of working with songs lies and depends on listening, which represents here the main medium of receiving information. A lesson with a song is based closely on listening, and therefore it is necessary to mention the basis of listening, its importance, and some difficulties, that can be encountered.
This article focuses on listening, and includes some theoretical ideas dealing with possible descriptions of listening, the importance of listening, listening difficulties stemming from pronunciation, and formal versus informal speech and teachers' expectations of learners' comprehension.
"Listening is a complex skill which operates at various levels. It is a skill which involves a series of different strategies and micro-skills that we use at different times for different purposes", state J. McDowell and Ch. Hart, who describe these strategies and micro-skills as follows.
- When we listen, we make use of information we already have about the topic being spoken about. The more we know, the less intensively we have to listen.
- We use the information we already have about the topic, and about how the language works, to anticipate and predict what is coming.
- We normally listen selectively rather than listening to every word. We listen for key words and expressions that give us clues to meaning, and not to every single word as many learners tend to do.
- As we listen and select information, we store it in short-term memory so that we can reinterpret it in the light of what is to come. We then store it in long-term memory, in the form of messages rather than in actual words. (McDowell, J., Hart, Ch., ListeningPlus, p. 7)
At this point it is worth mentioning a few words about catchy songs because they are closely related to short-term and also long-term memory. Certainly, everyone has already experienced personally the phenomenon of catchy songs — special and particular sorts of tunes, which, after hearing them, can stay in one's mind sometimes only for a while, sometimes for few hours, but sometimes also forever. Keith Duffy describes this phenomenon in terms of "brain itching and brain scratching (mentally repeating a song)". He carried out research, where the "test subjects were played snippets of familiar songs that had segments removed. Participants said their brains filled in the gaps — in fact, they 'heard' the removed parts of the songs in their heads. This was especially true in songs that had lyrics — as well as songs which evoked strong visual memories in participants." Paul Barsom wanted to find out what "exactly causes that initial itch". Even though he regards it as a pretty intangible thing he claims that "certain kinds of song al gestures or combinations seem to plug readily into our memory, like molecules coming together in a chemical reaction". In spite of the fact that P. Barsom listed some "factors that might cause a song to be catchy such as a certain familiarity, a cultural connection between song and listener, and repetition, there is no formula for 'catchiness”
Since the ideas of what listening is vary, let us give another explanation for comparison. Michael Rost defines listening "in terms of the necessary components", which listening consists of.
- discriminating between sounds;
- recognising words;
- identifying grammatical grouping soft words;
- identifying 'pragmatic units' — expressions and sets of utterances which function as whole units to create meaning;
- connecting linguistic cues to paralinguistic cues (intonation, stress) and to nonlinguistic cues (gestures) in order to construct meaning;
- using background knowledge and context to predict and then to confirm meaning;
- recalling important words and ideas. (M. Rost, pp. 3, 4)
And he adds that "successful listening involves an integration of these component skills" (p. 4). The students, learners of a language usually say that speaking is the most important skill to master. But hardly anyone is aware of the fact that before speaking we usually have to listen to be able to react then. And even if speaking precedes listening in a form of asking or saying something, in most cases this act involves expectation of response, which is, again, listening. So, we can definitely agree with Michael Rost, who wrote that "progress in listening will provide a basis for development of other language skills" (M. Rost, p. 3).
"No one knows exactly how listening works or how people learn to listen and understand. It is a skill which seems to develop easily for mother-tongue listening, but requires considerable effort where listening in a foreign language is concerned", claims Mary Underwood (p. 1), who also says that "listening is the activity of paying attention to and trying to get meaning from something we hear.
To listen successfully to spoken language, we need to be able to work out what speakers mean when they use particular words in particular ways on particular occasions, and not simply to understand the words themselves" (p. 1).
Jeremy Harmer describes three main reasons why it is also important to teach listening to spoken English. "One of the main reasons for getting students to listen to spoken English is to let them hear different varieties and accents — rather than just the voice of their teacher with its own idiosyncrasies. In today's world, they need to be exposed not only to one variety of English (British English, for example) but also to varieties such as American English, Australian English, Caribbean English, Indian English or West African English" (J. Harmer, p. 97). This is a cogent argument for involving listening to songs in a classroom, since the songs provide an inexhaustible quantity of different varieties of English. However, this advantage does not relate just to songs, the students can be "exposed to spoken English through the use of taped material which can exemplify a wide range of topics such as advertisements, news broadcast, poetry reading, plays, speeches, telephone conversations and all manner of spoken exchanges" (J. Harmer, p. 98).
The second major reason for teaching listening is because it helps students to acquire language subconsciously even if teachers do not draw attention to its special features. Exposure to language is a fundamental requirement for anyone wanting to learn it. Listening to appropriate tapes provides such exposure and students get vital information not only about grammar and vocabulary but also about pronunciation, rhythm, intonation, pitch and stress.
Lastly, just as with reading, students get better at listening the more they do it! Listening is a skill and any help we can give students in performing that skill will help them to be better listeners. (Harmer, J., p. 98).