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The Great Communicator

Today’s crossword puzzle:

23 Across “_____________ expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. “

Need a hint? It’s also called The Great Communicator. It lives in the heart, gets stuck in your head, and is made for your ears.

I’m talking about music, of course—an art form so powerful and yet so ephemeral that we often overlook it. Well, not overlook it, but often relegate it to the background, the soundtrack, the score. It’s an afterthought, a part of the sonic scenery, yet it still reigns supreme as one of the most powerful art forms that humans create and consume.

But what place does it have in virtual exchanges? I would argue that a skillful educator can make music a principal feature and a winning aspect of any exchange. Here are just a few ways in which music can play a role in your virtual exchange.


Long before movies and video had sound, they had music. In fact, the addition of a score, either by live orchestra or pre-recorded track, became an essential part of the first films. Thus, it should come as no surprise that your students know more about scoring their videos than they do about lighting, editing, makeup, costuming, or any other aspect of filmmaking. Simplified to an “add sound” button on their TikTok app, syncing music to video can lead young users down a melodic rabbit hole of the poly-symphonic spectrum from Top 40 bangers to “creative commons” or “copyright free” music. Harnessing the power of music in video was made possible and accessible early in the development of social media for good reason: it’s the easiest and most effective way to add expression and pizzaz to content.

Even if, in a virtual exchange, students are asked to talk about a certain topic, to not include some sort of backing track or intro theme seems unnatural. The content that they consume, from YouTube videos to podcasts, all includes music, and your students are naturally going to stick to what they know. In their quest to create content for your virtual exchange, don’t just allow, but encourage them to add tunes to their videos! It will add a certain level of production to their content that not only can make the process of learning more interesting and fun…but it can also be a form of…


Students can get nervous or feel anxious when asked to share about their home, community, or their life to strangers halfway across the world on camera. This will undoubtedly make some of your students hypersensitive to the choices they make when preparing their videos. Of course, no one likes the way they look and how they sound in a recording, and adolescents tend to fall victim to self-consciousness more often than we can ever know. Thus, giving them an economical way to control a major aspect of their “performance” (for lack of a better term) can empower them to take pride in their work. Not to mention, their choice of music can help them show their partners where their interests lie, whether they choose to identify with the mainstream and popular whims of internet culture or announce their uniqueness by scoring their work with sounds that linger on the fringes of the scatter plot.

Naturally, modern applications have made almost all the world’s recorded music available for the purpose of scoring content, and thus the amplitude of choice can now open endless doors of expression for your students. For example, do they create their own music, or know someone who does, and want to embed an original track into their video? Or perhaps they’re jazzed about an artist who they’ve just seen in concert, or who has dropped a new album that’s playing on repeat in their AirPods? Or maybe they want to participate in the latest social media fad of lip-synching to a sung or spoken track with a sudden jump-cut to them in a new setting or outfit? While none of these might necessarily satisfy one of your educational goals for the virtual exchange, it will definitely satisfy one of the most important underlying goals of all virtual exchanges….


Undoubtedly, you need no further convincing that music can connect people. Whether it’s sharing an obsession for the latest craze, singing along in unison to the song of the summer, or transmitting to a friend an infectious ear worm, music unites people and brings them together. Music has the power to do this over a screen, as well. Imagine how easily two adolescents can start a friendship just by vibing over their musical tastes—it’s the oldest trick in the book! Leverage this age-old conversational topic and let the sparks fly.

You want your students to enjoy talking and interacting with their virtual exchange partners, but if they need a little help initiating that rapport, music serves as an easy jumping-off point. Whether it’s a simple show-and-tell activity of a favorite song, or an in-depth analysis over a musical artist’s career, music serves as fertile ground for conversation, friendly debate, and enthusiastic banter.


Lastly, music tells us a lot about ourselves and each other. If you’re connecting your students to peers somewhere else in the world, one of the most common and fundamental ways they’re going to initiate their interactions is by comparing interests. What better way to jump-start this process than asking them to share new artists and songs that they groove to? For language-based virtual exchanges, you’ve just done yourself and your students a favor by introducing them to some current realia into which students can begin a deep dive. You might not be up to speed on what the kids are jamming out to these days, but the kids themselves definitely are. You might not listen to that kind of music, but if your students do, they’ll be hooked, and in the process start exposing themselves to the target language methodically, repetitively, and (hopefully) obsessively.

If your virtual exchange has to do with social issues, or important current events, music can prove a useful vehicle to those discussions as well. As is often the case, “where words fail, music speaks.” Perhaps the music that students find to share with one another pertaining to the topics discussed in the virtual exchange can launch a worthwhile debate. Moreover, the artist’s words can jump-start the conversation and give students the language and terminology to bandy about when in serious discussion. At the very least, a powerful song with a clear message can serve as an opinion to then evaluate and negotiate in your investigations.


As was famously said, “without music, life would be a mistake.” Dramatic, sure, but that’s Nietzsche for you. Nevertheless, the power of music to help people express themselves and connect with others should never be underestimated. And since you, an educator, are in the business of encouraging students to do both of these things, use the great tools you have to your advantage! Think of all the ways that music can bring to life your virtual exchange, and then hit play!