One of the hardest things for students to identify adequately is tone. Many of them are able to recognize what emotion is brought out in a text, but they struggle to explain how that is communicated. Most of them default to content analysis by looking at the story that is told, which doesn’t necessarily speak to a firm understanding of the function of tone. Because of this, teaching tone is greatly accentuated by the study of songs. Through this, students are able to understand the tone more clearly because they can recognize the musicality of a piece. The notion of using a song to teach tone isn’t new; however, today’s suggestion is to teach the distinguishing characteristics of tone through cover songs. For example, view the below to videos. The content doesn’t change, yet the two pieces have vastly different tones.
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Consider opening the class with these two videos (because everyone needs a little Jimmy Fallon in their lives) or providing them a commonly known song and playing them the lesser known cover, so they are able to see the striking difference. There are plenty of websites that list popular covers. My particular favorite comes from the New York Post and was written in 2007. However, some of my personal favorites are…
|Song Title||Original Artist/Artist Who Covered|
|“It’s My Party”||Lesley Gore/Amy Winehouse|
|“Tainted Love”||Gloria Jones/Soft Cell|
|“Hazy Shade of Winter”||Simon and Garfunkel/The Bangles|
|“Heart Shaped Box”||Nirvana/Evanescence|
|“Since U Been Gone”||Kelly Clarkson/Ted Leo|
|“Iron Man”||Black Sabbath/The Cardigans|
|“Jolene”||Dolly Parton/The White Stripes|
Then, to move them into deep analysis of the tone, provide them musical terms and definitions. Consider providing tempo, beat, staccato, cadence, allegro, dissonance, tremolo, dynamics, glissando, harmony, intonation, drone, intermezzo, instrumentation (specifically the difference in instruments used), mezzo, minuet, modulation, rhythm, forte, timbre, and trill. These are terms that are easy to actually hear in a piece and translate well to literature. Provide them with two copies of the lyrics and ask them to explore which musical terms are found within both songs. Play the songs on loop several times so the students are able to get a full grasp on the way in which it is constructed musically. This should prepare them to have a brief discussion of how the songs differ in tone.
While this is a fine lesson in and of itself, the real challenge comes when asking students to analyze the musicality of a piece of writing. Transition to literary analysis by looking at the specific music terms and discussing how they translate to prose (for example, staccato might be seen in prose through words with only 1-2 syllables or short, choppy sentences). Then, instead of asking them to analyze one piece, ask them to study revisions of the same work, thus comparing and contrasting two versions of the same text (much like their study of covers). For example, below is a copy of an original and a later draft Ernest Hemingway wrote about war.
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot so that only the shouted words came through and read them on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations now for a long time and I had seen nothing sacred and the things that were called glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them and read them now for a long time and I had seen nothing sacred and the only things glorious were the cavalry riding with lances and the clean oiled mechanisms. Things glorious had no glory and the sacrifices seemed like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of places were all you could say and mean anything and they meant everything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were a little obscene beside the concrete names of places, the numbers or roads, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
The minute changes end up having a grave impact on the tone of the piece itself because it alters the audience and purpose. There are also revisions of “The Gettysburg Address” and Walt Whitman’s poetry. Their study of music should set them up to engage in a close, detailed study of the writing and give them more tools to utilize when reading a text.