Open ears: why listening to many versions of a song is good for you

pedagogy corner May 10, 2022

Has one particular version of a song really resonated with you while others don't even come close? I experienced this with Jeff Buckley’s interpretation of the Leonard Cohen song, "Hallelujah." Though I like many versions of it, to me, nothing compares to Buckley's. So, why can listening to many versions of the same song be such a powerful exercise in the classroom?

Interpretation is the ultimate test for a good song. If a song can withstand interpretation—if speeding it up, slowing it down, re-harmonizing and re-imagining it only brings out more of its flavour—then it’s a good song.” - James Hill

It does seem that songs that can stand the test of time are ones that can be re-interpreted and appreciated in many different ways. In a classroom setting, having students listen to a song’s many interpretations can be a really fascinating exercise in deep listening. Consider questions like:

  • What’s different about this version?
  • What instrumentation is being used?
  • What have they done to the melody/harmony/rhythm of the piece?
  • Is it in a different key?
  • How does all of this change the feeling or mood of the song?
  • What’s your favourite and why?

Listening to many different versions of a song can also help you broaden your own creative thinking and consider new ideas for arrangements that you compose, whether for yourself or your students. What can you do with a melody or lyrics that could make a piece interesting for your students? Or to introduce some specific pedagogical aspect? Or perhaps use in a different performance setting?

Interpretation is the ultimate test for a good song.

There are many good reasons to do a deep dive into a song through listening in this way. Let’s give it a go here!

We’ll take a tried and true example from the Great Popular Songs book here on Uketropolis: "Hard Times Come Again No More." This classic by Stephen Foster has been covered innumerable times over the years by artists like Bruce Springsteen, Mavis Staples, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and more, and there has been a truly wide range of interesting interpretations. Take a listen through a selection here and consider which you like best and why? Enjoy!

Hard Times Come Again No More

James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma 


Bruce Springsteen


Mavis Staples


Bob Dylan 


Rufus Wainwright with family 


The Camerata Chorus of Washington


The Chieftans with Paolo Nutini 


EmmyLou Harris 




The Swingles (a cappella) 


Are there any other versions of this song that you love? Share your favourites over in the Uketropolis Community! And why not take a jump into creating a new arrangement yourself or challenging your more advanced students to try their hand at it?


Bonus: Though it’s not a cover of Hard Times, Anne Janelle is renowned for her delicious re-interpretations of songs and I couldn’t resist including one for you. Check out Anne’s sultry version of Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be? 


Cynthia Kinnunen is a music educator based in Guelph, Ontario, and is part of Team Uketropolis. Artwork by Suvi Coulson. 

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