Song Use: Day Three

As teachers, we love trivia nights, teen Jeopardy, and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader, because, let’s be honest, we are smarter than fifth graders.  We build up these insignificant factoids about authors and texts in the hope that one day we will find ourselves plagued with an obscure question that no one really cares about, yet we feel compelled to give an answer because we are English teachers and these are literature questions.  In an effort to help, I’m going to provide a little known fact that might prove worthy the next time you watch a little Trebek.  Where did the band Aerosmith get their name?  In their autobiography a band member described how he was drawn to a title that incorporated the idea of an “aero” but, upon thinking of the name Aerosmith, had to convince his fellow band members it had nothing to do with the Upton Sinclair novel they had read (and apparently hated) in high school called Arrowsmith.  I’ll take “awesome” for $300, Alex.

While this fun fact might not get you far in the worlds of Jeff Foxworthy, it does speak to the relationship (even if strained) between literature and music.  It also speaks to the type of sensationalism that occurs when music is associated with literature.  As teachers, we want to bring some sort of personal connection to a piece of archaic prose and music is an easy and contemporary outlet for that.  While there are many resources out there to find songs that relate to literature (like the exhaustive wikilist that alphabetizes songs and their literary counterparts), the best songs aren’t ones that summarize the literature, but instead make brief references to the characters or the work itself.  At the bottom of this post is a list of songs that are unique and particular or speak to a piece of literature more abstractly. 

Like all good teacher “tricks,” the importance isn’t in what you use, it is how you use it.  One common manner in which teachers incorporate songs is to ask students to listen to the song, study the lyrics, and consider how they match the text.  While this isn’t bad, it is often easy for students to make superficial comparisons of a song after reading an entire work and doesn’t fully challenge our students to utilize the higher-level skills addressed by Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Yet, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t potential in the lesson itself.  Here are a few suggestions you might consider using the next time you incorporate a song into your classroom.

  • Make the students select a passage that most clearly connects to the song.  They then have to defend their selection to their peers.  At the end of the class the students vote which passage best connects and why.  This requires a closer study of the song and the text because it doesn’t allow them to connect to broad messages or plot details.  They have to justify very finite and minute details from both pieces to successfully persuade their peers.
  • Provide the students a song and ask them to evaluate the extent to which it reflects the work.  Again, instead of just asking students to draw parallels between the two, they are told there are similarities but that they need to go beyond simple identification; they must evaluate. 
  • Use the song as an anticipation guide.  Open the reading of the text with a close study of a song that references the work.  Ask students to make predictions about the plot line, the characters, and major themes or arguments. 
  • If the novel has been made into a movie, pull several songs from the soundtrack and ask students to guess in which scene the song is incorporated.  The Romeo and Juliet soundtrack is an excellent example.  All of the songs on the soundtrack are examples of pop culture, not direct connections to the text.  Try asking the students to determine which of the more angst-filled song matches the scene in which Mercutio dies.  In an album full of teen angst it is tough determining which song best matches which scene filled with teen angst.    
  • Have the students annotate the song lyric for both content and style.  This could be very challenging for students because it is often difficult to for them to definitively define the style of a given work.  Pairing the defining of an author with a few stanzas from a song asks them to really scrutinize the power of both works. 
  • If the students are providing their own song suggestions, have them work in groups to draw up contrasts.  Sometimes the hardest challenge is recognizing the similarities in content but the differences in regards to style, theme, and development.

While it might be easier to have students work in small groups to draw about connections between the song and the work, there are so many more challenging things that could be done as an extension of this.  Push your students to think beyond recall through the study of a song. 


Some examples of music/text connections:

Song Artist Text Author
“The Cave” Mumford & Sons The Odyssey Homer
“Tears and Rain” James Blunt The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde
“Roll Away Your Stones” Mumford & Sons Macbeth William Shakespeare
“To The End” My Chemical Romance ”Rose for Emily” William Faulkner short story
“Love Song” Taylor Swift Romeo and Juliet William Shakespeare

 Photo by Vasta

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