Using music to stimulate free-association and promote vocabulary building

Andrew Woollock, Ritsumeikan University


Quick Guide

  • Key words: Abstract and intuitive thinking, free-association, spatial reasoning, vocabulary building, aural exercise
  • Learner English level: Elementary and above
  • Learner maturity level:High school and above
  • Preparation time: 15 minutes
  • Activity time: 30-45 minutes
  • Materials: Handout (See Appendix A), CD, CD player


This is a simple and effective aural activity. The focus is not to listen for anything per se. The aim, rather, is to use a variety of music and music styles as a facilitator for language production. The music simply acts as a tool to stimulate free association of vocabulary, which the students then discuss.



Step 1:Make a handout (similar to the one in Appendix A) that provides a place for students to write down words that will come to mind in the following categories: color, country, season, age, emotion, food, weather, time.[MG1]

Step 2:Prepare a CD player.



Step 1:Pass out a copy of the handout to each student.

Step 2: Explain the basic concept of the lesson and the goals: i.e., that students will listen to some songs and are to write down any word or part of speech that comes to mind.

Step 3: Go through the words on the left of the sheet and check that they understand them. On the sheet above the English word there is a white box; this is for the students to write the Japanese (if applicable).

Step 4: Once the students understand the words and feel comfortable with the task, elicit some examples of appropriate vocabulary.

Step 5: Play the CD, but not for too long. By allowing insufficient time to complete all the boxes, you can encourage the students to not only think faster but to also be less possessive about the vocabulary they choose.

Step 6: Before the CD ends, while the students are still writing, put an appropriate structure or dialog on the board.

Step 7: After the CD finishes, explain and model your speaking activity.

Step 8: Once the students have understood the task, have them begin performing the speaking activity.



There are numerous ways to work with the speaking activity. To encourage your creativity, you might like to consider the following possibilities:

  • Have the students write the names of (for example) five students who have the same answers. This is guaranteed to get them moving and forming new pairs.
  • Get the students to record each other's answers and direct them during a Q&A session. This is a good way to check they are paying attention to each other.
  • With higher-level students, try having them work with the information as a starting point for short thematic conversations.
  • Draw a simple grid (like the one in Appendix A) and fill it with randomly elicited responses from the students. This can be fun since responses are often very unusual and abstract. The resulting intrigue and surprise can create a very jovial atmosphere.
  • You might also like to play the music in the background as the students perform the speaking activity so as to stimulate their senses.



When you make the CD, try and choose from a wide variety of musical styles. It's advisable to choose non-Japanese music and also music outside of both the mainstream and their usual listening scope (See Appendix B for an example compilation). This activity can act as a catalyst for students to broaden their musical interests and thus support their wider learning development.


Appendix A: Aural exercise handout

Appendix B: Sample CD