A Brief Defense of Music In The Class Room and Various Lessons
A Brief Defense of Music in English Class
And a Sample Lesson
Firstly, English classes – especially the advanced level literature classes – are about communication. Literature and writing is the communication of thought across both space and time; in fact, you are not reading this as I am thinking it, nor in the same place I wrote it. Yet my thoughts are being re-created in your mind as you read my words. Amazing. What is even more amazing is that music can do much of the same thing WITHOUT words (although words are also admittedly important to music, oftentimes). But there is something that is even more powerful about music, inasmuch as it primarily communicates emotion, rather than simply thought. This ability to create and re-create emotion is music’s power. If writing communicates thought, music communicates emotion.
So, are there other reasons to teach music in English class? One particular reason comes to mind immediately: Historical Context. Understanding the historical context of a piece of literature is exceedingly important. Music adds another component to a simple discussion of the historical context of a piece of literature.
Thirdly, an analysis of music –especially pop music- can teach a student to think critically about art aside from that which is assigned in class. We as English teachers spend hours upon hours discussing the symbolic significance or thematic structure of the elements of literature; why not apply this same acumen to music? Chances of student involvement in something that is typically more engaging to an adolescent than Shakespeare or Bronte make it worth the effort.
Assignment 1: Historical context groups.
Students will be broken into music research groups for each unit during the semester. If, for example, during the course of the semester we were to read Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Catcher in the Rye, there would be four groups from the class, one for each book. Each group would be responsible for researching and presenting music from the era, geographic locale, and social strata of the subject of the book. For Hurston’s work the students would research early Southern blues music. For Great Gatsby it would be Big Band and Ragtime tunes from artists like Ellington or Joplin. Grapes of Wrath would look at early country and gospel music. Catcher in the Rye would research any pop music from New York in the 1940’s. This presentation would occur near the end of the literary unit, to give students a chance to prepare their musical selections and brief discussions of the significance of artist and song. The other requirement for the assignment would be the mandatory inclusion of any song which is specifically mentioned within the text.
Assignment 2: Socio-political/Geo-historical/Symbolic-Thematic Analysis of a Chosen Song. (Three week unit).
Each student will choose a song of his or her own liking. The only requirement for a song is that it has been recorded and is readily available to a mass audience (common on radio play, iTunes, CD, etc.). Students will sign up for a date to present their songs to the class. Songs must be chosen by sign up date; no two students may present the same song. Students may present multiple songs by the same artist. The students will be able to discuss their song beyond the simple and literal meaning of the lyrics. They will apply the methods used in the discussion of literature to popular music.
Requirements: On the student’s scheduled presentation day, he or she will play the song for the class and present a five to seven minute speech analyzing the symbolic, thematic, historical or socio-political implications of the lyrics, music, and artist’s intentions. All researched material will be properly cited on an accompanying handout for the class.
-Complete lyrics of the song, properly cited.
-Complete quotations from outside research, properly cited.
-A complete chronology of the writing, recording, publishing, and release of the song.
-A list of any awards, recognitions, influences upon the songwriter(s), influences which the song created.
Ideas for inclusion in presentation:
-Does the song have a deeper symbolic or allegorical significance? What is it?
-Was the song a response to a particular social event? Personal event from the songwriter’s life? Is the song dedicated to someone in particular? Does it refer to a political/cultural subject?
-Is the song associated with a particular era, either social, cultural or political?
-Does the song have a new meaning to our culture today (was it used in a commercial or a political campaign or a film)?
-What sorts of music, art, literature etc. influenced this particular artist? Was it inspired by another song or work of art or literature?
-What modern artists have been influenced by this particular work?
-What is your response to this work today as a modern listener? How does that differ from listeners when the song was originally released?
All students will choose a particular song (other than his or her own) from the presentations and respond in essay format to the song itself and the presentation. Students can respond as musical critics, adolescent music fans, literary analysts, or any combination thereof. Students should pick an aspect of the song or presentation (or both) that they find compelling and construct an essay around a thesis which explores that particular line of thought. Essays should be about 500 words (2 pages typed).