So, what is so great about the heavy metal band Iron Maiden? Well, to answer that I would need to write a book, but it’s really the type of songs they write that makes their music a powerful tool for learning history with kids.
To demonstrate how a song can teach history with depth, let us look at Iron Maiden’s Alexander the Great, which is loaded with historical information. Plus, the composition brings the story to life in a memorable way for any listener.
Loaded with Information
Recently, I put on Iron Maiden’s Alexander the Great as my son did the dishes. Quickly, he became fascinated by the music and lyrics. After he completed his chores, he started asking me a number of questions about Alexander. Simply put, the song sparked his interest and he wanted to know more and more.
This tune in particular is loaded with rich lyrics. In fact, the tune starts with a quote from Phillip of Macedonia (Alexander’s Dad) who said, “My son ask for thyself another kingdom for that which I leave is too small for thee." This one statement inspired much of Alexander’s philosophy and thought. Once the music kicks in, the tune outlines the key points of his life, which go from Alexander’s birth in Macedonia to his death in Babylon.
Of course, this is not limited to the music of Iron Maiden. But, they have a number of songs that use history as a theme, such as Cry for the Indian’s, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and so on.
Music Helps Us Memorize
After his first listening of the tune, my son had the chorus memorized. This is great because he has already started to learn important information. After listening to the song a few more times, he memorized parts of the verse. Think about it, if you want your kids to memorize facts repetition is essential. Basically, the more they hear the more engrained it becomes.
If you’re like me, you probably have songs that you’ll randomly recall from your childhood or perhaps you’ve noticed that your kids will memorize a song in an instant. That is because music helps people memorize details. In their study of music’s effect on memorizing mathematics, Ahmad et al (2018) found that music induced better memorization in math students, as it activated left and right sides of the brain. Likewise, Wallace (1994) found that people memorize and recall information better when words (lyrics) are sung. So, let your kids sing way!
Embracing the Rabbit Trail
I want to take a moment and go beyond the music to look at areas that can be discussed in further detail. In her book Relaxed Homeschooling, Christine Owens (2019) calls these little side explorations rabbit trails. Rabbit trails are basically the endless side topics that can be discussed, which are part of literature, art, and music. Christine emphasizes that these tangents are an essential part of how kids learn naturally and should be embraced.
Likewise, musical lyrics have myriad of rabbit trails, which can be explored. Iron Maiden’s Alexander the Great is an awesome example of a song that is full of these tangents. Let me share two examples.
First my son noticed that there was a gap in the lyrics. According to the song, Alexander is born and then he starts kicking butt at age 19. So, my son wanted to know what happened between birth and adulthood. Well, his teacher was the philosopher Aristotle; so, he had an awesome education. This tangent gave us a reason to talk about Ancient Greek philosophy and thought.
Second, the “Gordian Knot” and how Alexander’s then becomes the “Master of Asia” is stressed during one verse. Likewise, this is loaded with a discussion on the legend of Phrygian Gordium, use of the phrase “Gordian Knot” as unsolvable puzzle, and how Alexander cut the knot (spoiler alert). As you can see, one line in the lyrics is loaded with all sorts of rabbit trails to explore.
Time & Last Thoughts
Sitting down with your kids and talking about a tune like Alexander the Great can enrich their understanding of the songs meaning, message, and history.
Why? Well, now becomes a shared experience between the both of you. Plus, if you use Iron Maiden, you can rock out while learning together. Of course, time is our most precious asset and it only takes a few minutes to listen to a song with your kids. So, dig into the words with your kids and learn something new together.
John Owens, Ph.D. is the author of Music at Home: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Musically Insightful kids, which can be purchased on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2R0oWtb
Ahmad, Y., Zanon, F., Ghazali, Z. Man, N., Alipiah, F., & Yunas, M. (2018). The influence of music on memorization performance of mathematics students. Proceedings of the ICECRS, 1(2).
Owens, C. (2019). Relaxed Homeschooling: How to Unlock the Secrets in Books and Life’s Hidden Curriculum. Kindle Publishing.
Wallace, W. (1994). Memory of music. Effect of melody on recall of text. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 20(6).