February 17


Learning English 7 Songs With Modal Verbs

By Gordon Gaffney

February 17, 2022

Learning English 7 Songs With Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that express necessity or possibility. We usually don’t use them on their own but with another verb. It is always better to learn English by seeing these modal verbs used in context and one of the most interesting and fun is through musics with modal verbs in English.

The main modal verbs in English are:


There is also the present conditional, which like all present tenses, also uses have.

Can have/could have
May have/might have
Will have
Should have/would have
Shall have
Must have

Let’s begin with a simple modal verb, "can":

⦁ “I can see clearly now” by Johnny Nash

Learning English 7 Songs With Modal Verbs

A very famous and beautiful song released in 1972 which was a number 1 single in the USA. The modal verb can is repeated throughout the song. It has been covered many times, including by Irish band “The Hothouse Flowers” and has become one of their most well-known songs.

I can see clearly now the rain has gone

Can = ability in this context.

He has the ability to see now the rain has gone.

And it’s the same for the next line:

I can see all obstacles in my way

He has the ability to see the obstacles in his path.

Here is The Hothouse Flowers’ version:

And another famous version by Jimmy Cliff with lyrics:

However I think most students are interested in discovering famous songs with more complicated modal verbs.

⦁ “The Man Who Sold the World” by David Bowie, with cover version by Nirvana

David Bowie is probably my favourite artist, I have listened all of his albums and I was lucky enough to see him in concert in 2003 in Dublin shortly before he stopped performing live due to ill health. Luckily for me this concert was released on DVD.

The famous cover version by Nirvana helped bring David Bowie to a new younger audience at that time in 1992. It had a big effect on me growing up.

Here is a very beautiful video of Bowie’s original version with lyrics in a handwritten style from David Bowie’s own YouTube channel.

I must have died alone a long long time ago.

Must means something that we were sure or certain.

From English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy, you can read my analysis of 2 English grammar books here.

Learning English 7 Songs With Modal Verbs

And must have means something that we were sure or certain of in the past:

Learning English 7 Songs With Modal Verbs

So David Bowie is certain or sure he died alone a long long time ago in the past.

Here is the famous Nirvana version on “MTV unplugged”, the idea of unplugged is that it was acoustic and that not many instruments that required electricity were used.

⦁ “I Should Have Known Better” de Jim Diamond

Learning English 7 Songs With Modal Verbs

More classic pop from the 1980’s!

As a child of the 80’s many of these songs remind me of growing up. This is a very catchy song, catchy means a song that you remember easily, and maybe that you can’t forget about it, you can say it is stuck in your head.

I Should Have Known Better is the most famous song by Jim Diamond and he uses the common contraction in songs, and in everyday speaking, where:

Should have is pronounced as "shudda".

You can read more about curiosities of the English language where I talk about this contraction in here.

This is the perfect conditional which we use in the past conditional. The past conditional is often used to express regret, that the present is not how we want it.

It makes sense that this structure is used a lot in music because regret is a theme in many songs from around the world. If you need a good English grammar book you can read my analysis of two of them here.

I Should Have Known Better

Jim regrets getting romantic with somebody, he didn’t know he would regret it at the time, now he remembers how he acted and wishes that he did know that he would regret it.

Here is an unofficial video with lyrics on screen, however the creator has used footage of Jim singing and has made a good video:

Official video here:

⦁ “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor

Another very famous music with modal verbs in English. This is an interesting song as it is another example that contains many very complicated grammatical structures including the perfect conditional which as we said is used in the third conditional/past conditional.

The third conditional in any language is complicated, just think about it in Portuguese. Sometimes you need to think “is this structure correct?” as you speak normally in your native language, so using it correctly in a second language such as English is extra difficult.

I explain conditionals in depth in my online video course ”Fluency in English”, more than 4 hours of video and over 70 lessons made exclusively for Portuguese speakers. This course will help you speak more like a native by eliminating the common mistakes Portuguese speakers make in English, for example look at this video below and ask yourself “Do I form sentences in English like this?”

Back to I Will Survive, there are a lot of regrets in this music, she wishes she did things differently in the past, she wants the past to be different:

I should have changed the stupid lock
I should’ve thrown away the key

So she did not do these things, but she wishes or wants that she did them in the past.

From the grammar book:

Learning English 7 Songs With Modal Verbs

The official video is here:

And one with lyrics on screen here:

⦁ “I Might Be Wrong” by Radiohead

Radiohead are one of the most well-known and respected bands in the world.

In this music with modal verbs in English they use might, which means maybe or possibly, it is similar to talvez or pode ser in Portuguese.

I might be wrong
I might be wrong
I could have sworn I saw a light coming on

I might be wrong means it is possible I am wrong

I could have sworn is another complex construction, as shown before this is the perfect conditional and it is used in the third conditional.

Here to swear means to believe something is true. It is used in court, when you are a witness you swear on the bible to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

So I could have sworn means that in the past I was certain something was true but it probably or possibly was not true.

The official video is here:

And here it is with lyrics on the screen:

⦁  “We Shall Overcome” by Joan Baez

Learning English 7 Songs With Modal Verbs

This song is very famous because it is an anti-war, protest song that is still sung a lot at peaceful protests around the world today. The versions by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez are probably the most well-known.

The origins of the song are from “I'll Overcome Some Day", a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley that was first published in 1901.

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome, some day.

We shall overcome means we will overcome.

In general we only use shall with I and we, it is not used with you, he/she/it, they.

The song is a nice example of the word shall which is used sometimes in everyday speaking, you can read about it in a blog post coming soon.

Here is Joan Baez singing it on the BBC in 1965 with lyrics on screen.

⦁ “It Must Have Been Love” by Roxette

I love hearing these cool 80’s pop songs of my childhood. This time from Sweden’s Roxette. Although not native speakers, in general Swedish people speak excellent English and some of their most famous bands wrote and sang their songs in English. As well as Roxette, of course there is Abba and also Ace of Base, who were all successful in native English speaking countries and also non English speaking countries.

This uses the same modal verb in English, must have, as David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”.

It must have been love but it’s over now

The singer Marie Fredriksson is sure or certain it was love in the past but that relationship and feeling of love is finished now, so there is some regret there.

It must have been good but I lost it somehow

Again she is sure or certain it was good in the past but it is finished now, because she lost it and she regrets that.

Sadly Marie died aged 61 in 2019. Here is the official video in English, and with over 500 million views it is not just me that likes it!

The song was used in the movie Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, here is a good video with clips from the movie and the lyrics on screen.

You can check our blog posts on musics with past continuous here or learn English with activities with music.

What songs did you already know? Did you know there were so many modal verbs in them? Leave it in the comments!

Gordon Gaffney

About the author

Gordon is The Irish English Teacher, creator of this blog and many products to help all students learning English as a second language, but with a focus on Portuguese speakers.

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  1. I just found your blog this morning and I am thrilled. I have always encouraged my students to use music as a means to improve but you have done a masterful job of aligning great music with specific teaching points. I just through my own boring lesson plan (on modal verbs) out the window.

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