Using Latin Songs

It has taken me quite a few years to incorporate music and song into my High School Latin curriculum in a way that works for me and for my students. What I have developed (so far) has been really positive, in that I get to play and sing with my classes every day, and this is a source of joy (or at least lighthearted fun) for me and for my students, and something we can look forward to every class of every day. My approach allows music to be both a kind of break from instruction, but is also central to my work of promoting acquisition. I have found that most of the Latin that my students spontaneously produce in speech or writing comes either from their knowledge of song lyrics or from their FVR reading. For this reason, I feel justified in spending 5-10 minutes of every class on our Song of the Week. The following information may strike some as overboard, but every detail I discuss here has helped prevent music time from breaking down and seeming like a waste of time for us all–and I have definitely felt this at times over the years. If you take the time to set up your procedures and expectations, music time can be both a joy and support your academic goals.

Song choice

This is more crucial than you might think. It is important to choose a song that students already know, can easily sing, and to find a Latin version that is not too complex in terms of words per line. Certain genres work better than others, and some Latin versions simply don’t match up syllable-wise. You also need to practice singing (or saying) it in advance, because you will have to guide and conduct them, especially in the beginning. The most popular songs I have done with my students are: Catullus’s “vivamus” (Tyrtarion version on Youtube), Sweet Caroline, Non Longa Via est Romam (video on Magister Craft’s website), I Want it That Way, Country Roads, Eye of the Tiger, Gaudeamus Igitur (selected appropriate lyrics)

the handout

It is important to give the song to students in both English and Latin, so students know what they are singing. Do parallel text if you can fit it onto a page (landscape orientation). Also, I like to use commas and dashes and line spacing to support the syllable placement in the song. This helps me and them. If you have access to musical notation of the melody and/or chords, offer this as a separate handout. It’s not helpful for most students and could overwhelm the page.

Introducing the song

I always start by showing a youtube of the original song in English (or original language). This doesn’t have to be an actual music video, and in many cases you may not want to show the video if it contains inappropriate content, or outdated and potentially offensive representations. I often prefer to show a youtube video that has the English lyrics on the screen. This ensures that everyone in the room knows the song. Don’t assume that all students know even a very familiar song. You run the risk of making students feel left out if you don’t do this. I give the handout beforehand, and ask them to look at it while they listen and think about how they might sing it in Latin using the words on their page.

Then, I will say or sing the first few lines and/or chorus and have them repeat each line or phrase. Then we might try getting through a chorus/stanza together. Some songs will require us to work our way up to the actual song over the first few days.

daily practice

At the beginning of each class, after the greeting and calendar, we will go through the song together. If there is a Karaoke version online, I will often use that, even if the goal is to play it on instruments Friday. I might go more slowly, focus on a difficult part, spend a few minutes talking about something in the song, or a translator’s choice. Having the Latin and English gives students a better idea of the decisions that a song translator must make. It’s important not to have students sing along with a fast track too early. Spend the first 2-3 days practicing together more slowly going through the entire song, before attempting a faster tempo.

the performance

This can be as formal or informal as you like. For songs that lend themselves to instruments (Sweet Caroline), students may bring in their instruments. Or you might keep it simple and use a karaoke track. The point is, that the class will “perform” the piece, that is, sing the whole song with gusto, uninterrupted, maybe with gestures, movement, etc. Maybe you or a student wants to record it on video for sharing on a school website (get permission, if required).

Latin Songs folder
Here is where I keep all the handouts I have created for song of the week. I try to give credit to the translator when possible. Feel free to use/modify as needed. If you make an improvement, please share it with me.

Youtube playlist:
here you will find videos to support teachers and learners who want to use music for learning Latin.