How do you connect music to literature?In order for me to introduce any lesson in literature I must show my students a sample of the art and music of the period, as well as pictures of the...

How do you connect music to literature?

In order for me to introduce any lesson in literature I must show my students a sample of the art and music of the period, as well as pictures of the clothing of the times. Now, they connect the 1700s with the "George Washington" look. They also connect that 18th century period to Mozart, Marie Antoinette, and the Georgian England period. All that was made possible because of the music!

Can you share how you connect music to literature?

Asked on by M.P. Ossa

26 Answers

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engtchr5 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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There seem to be lots of good thoughts here on connecting setting with music, and using it to enhance poetry. I, too, have used music to introduce students to an era or a place out of time, particularly when teaching novels.

More recently, though, I used music to enhance a lesson about the Shakespearen Sonnet. In teaching iambic pentameter, I found it difficult to get students to "hear" the rise and fall of iambs. A simple metronome and a child's xylophone became the cure -- By setting the metronome and allowing it to tick-TICK its steady beat, students were able to audibly sense the low-high syllabication within a line of Shakespeare's sonnets. Similarly, using my son's toy xylophone, I was able to use low and high tones to simulate the down-up patterning within the poem's lines. By the time students read the sonnet, they were already identifying its meter and relating it to the other musical influences we had used beforehand.

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

Oh, I just LOVE teaching a poetry unit with a focus on figurative language for any high school age level (but it's usually most appropriate with 9th graders).  The reason why is because I have each student bring his/her favorite song (or two) on CD with a copy of the lyrics for extra credit.  I assess the song/poetry for appropriate figurative language.  Then I choose one aspect of figurative language a day, teach the appropriate famous poems, but also have the students study their own songs as well, ... even including them on the test (as long as they appropriately teach metaphor, simile, etc.).  It's a wonderful way to allow students to realize that even the music they currently listen to can be considered good poetry as well.

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jennadc | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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There are two ways to link literature and music. The first is thematically. I try to find lyrics that contribute to the story we are reading. A nice extra is that Romeo and Juliet have been referenced in several modern songs. The second way, is to use music of the era. I find that bringing in music of the twenties enhances the understanding of the Great Gatsby for example, especially when discussing the party scenes. I also try to bring in jazz and blues for the unit on Harlem Renaissance. Regional music is also helpful.

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trophyhunter1 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Music can always be linked to a particular era in time and can evoke a feeling about that time. Therefore, any book can be made more alive with a soundtrack from the time and place the story occurred in. Any literature written about the 1960's could have Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones or the Beatles' music associated with it, to create a mood for that special period of time. No matter what time period a novel is set in, the music of that time would add a layer of richness to the experience.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I like finding allusions to literary works in modern songs (many for Romeo and Juliet, Taylor Swift's use of the scarlet letter, etc.). I love pulling out some of the great ballads when studying the ballad form of poetry, and I have students identify and share examples of poetic devices in song lyrics of their choosing (and my approval).

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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When teaching A Separate Peace, I would use audio excerpts from old radio shows with their music and commercials, along with pop music from the war years to ground students in the era. The lyrics of many of the popular songs from World War II express the pain of separation and the longing to have loved ones home again.

In beginning poetry units, since even the word "poetry" turns off so many students, I would do several lessons over song lyrics (far less threatening) to introduce some basic poetry techniques. "Eleanor Rigby," for example, was always a good lyric to study for its poetic elements. Listening to the song and then studying its lyrics was always successful. With YouTube access, now it is possible to find any number of videos with the Beatles performing "Eleanor Rigby," which creates even more student interest. There are some great songs out there with very poetic and suitable lyrics to incorporate into the study of poetry.

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kiwi | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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I look at music to represent an era to help to contextualise a novel (The Catcher in the Rye at present), but also look at lyrics from contemporary music which might be the 'soundtrack' of the character (eg Green Day's Basketcase for Holden Caulfield). 

We have also looked at soundtrack choices for 'the film of the book' texts as a commentary from the director on the original text.


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sboeman | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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I've found that students enjoy making "soundtracks" to the stories we read; for example, students can choose, say, ten scenes from Romeo & Juliet and create a list of songs that they know to "fit" the mood or event of the story.  They love it and, as long as it's appropriate of course, I play a few of their selections in class.  A great, fun, and creative lesson for virtually any reading!

I also teach a lesson on symbolism and pull various songs that illustrate "hidden" meanings, such as "A Horse with No Name" by America or "November Rain" by Guns N' Roses.  I play the songs, then they are to think of what the "true" meaning of the song might be.

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lmetcalf | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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I have used music of the 60's/70's to introduce Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.  Students know the music, but not the context and they seem to appreciate seeing the connection.  Especially powerful is a song like "Let It Be" by the Beatles.  They can all sing along, and now they know more about why it is an anthem of many situations.

I have also had students create soundtracks for various pieces of literature where they must justify the choice of music for various scenes in the work.  It is very interesting to see how they get the two to mesh sometimes!

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susan3smith | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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Like No. 6, I have used music quite often to teach poetry--or have my students do so.  Since my own music tends to be a bit dated, I enjoy students' presentations made on the movie-maker computer software in which they incorporate music and images with the words of a poem.  I find that I can easily assess a students' understanding and appreciation of the poem through this media.  In fact, students who may not write well can truly shine in a project such as this. 

But, it is also fun to use theme songs from "Jeopardy" or other game shows, when students are asked for short written responses to quizzes.  

Today, in introducing a novel by Arundhati Roy to my seniors, I used songs by Elvis and snippets from  the soundtrack to the Sound of Music; both are alluded to quite frequently in the novel.  My students may groan, but they still seem to enjoy these historical pieces!   And, what better way to introduce The Great Gatsby than to play songs from the Jazz Age and have the class do the Charleston! 

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howesk | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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I agree with post 5- I often use music of the era to introduce literature. Especially when I'm teaching a unit on Civil War literature- I love to use the different styles of music from the time to show the drasically different cultures/experiences happening during the era.

Music can also help to provide thematic supplements or projects for a literature unit- I've assigned a project for a class to create a soundtrack for a work of literature, play snippets of the songs chosen and explain why they relate to the work.

With poetry, music can be especially helpful to teach literary terms. I use Britney Spears' "Like a Circus" to teach simile, and Katy Perry's "Hot n' Cold" to teach metaphor.

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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I have often introduced literature with appropriate music of the era: Wagner for a World War II history lesson, madrigals for Shakespeare, Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones for '70s pop culture classes. I have often played classical music as background for in-class writing assignments, hoping that the soothing sounds will influence their creative thought. 

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think as well a number of texts actually mention the kind of music that people listened to. Consider Bud, not Buddy, and the opportunities that it brings to play jazz in your classroom! Likewise a number of Jane Austen adaptations, especially those by the BBC in Britain, are very effective precisely because they have researched the kind of piano music that would be played and other music that would be danced to. In a sense, I relate playing music of the period to my class to imagery: trying to involve as many senses as possible to help students understand the context can only be a good thing.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Every story or novel has a setting, and providing students with a glimpse of what kinds of music people listened to in those days--be it Tchaikovsky, the Beatles or Louis Armstrong--is a great educational anchor, a bookmark or a mental scaffold for them to connect with the stories.  It's as important as teaching them the historical context of the literature, in fact it is teaching them some historical context, just within a musical framework.

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thewanderlust878 | Student, College Freshman | (Level 3) Salutatorian

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What a fantastic way to hep students learn about literature! I believe that the examples that you mentioned are great and obviously helped your students a lot. 

I enjoy connecting music, literature, as well as art together. I think it is a fascinating way to learn the "behind the scenes" aspects of history, like the things you don't read in textbooks. Often times I listen to music of the time period while reading a novel that was published at about the same time. Alternatively, some modern music includes aspects of history that also helps me connect to the time period. 

Hope this helps!

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