Via The New York Times: Nine Teaching Ideas for Using Music to Inspire Student Writing
Some of the greatest written works of our time have been inspired by music. Walt Whitman conceived of and wrote “Leaves of Grass” while listening to opera. Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Ntozake Shange and Ralph Ellison were all moved by spirituals, jazz and blues. And Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap musical “Hamilton” was born of his love of hip-hop. These writers understood what many educational researchers know — that music opens up pathways to creative thinking, sharpens our ability to listen and helps us weave together disparate ideas.
In this teaching resource, we suggest nine exercises to use music to inspire student writing — from creating annotated playlists and critical reviews to music-inspired poetry and personal narratives. Each idea pulls from Times reporting, Opinion pieces and multimedia on music to give students a place to start. The activities are categorized according to three genres: creative and narrative writing; informative and explanatory writing; and persuasive and argumentative writing.
How do you use music in your classroom? Let us know in the comments.
Creative and Narrative Writing
Exercise #1: Write a story or poem inspired by music.
One way you might let your students be inspired by music is to have them describe in words what they hear, a method Jean-Michel Basquiat employed in his poetry and paintings.
In “Bowie, Bach and Bebop: How Music Powered Basquiat,” Ekow Eshun writes:
In 1979, at 19, the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat moved into an abandoned apartment on East 12th Street in Manhattan with his girlfriend at the time, Alexis Adler. The home, a sixth-floor walk-up, was run-down and sparsely furnished. Basquiat, broke and unable to afford canvases, painted with abandon on the walls and floor, even on Ms. Adler’s clothes.
The one item that remained undisturbed was Ms. Adler’s stereo, which had pride of place on a shelf scavenged from the street.
“The main thing for us was having big speakers and a blasting stereo. That was the only furniture I purchased myself,” said Ms. Adler, who still lives in the apartment. When Basquiat was around, she recalled, “music was playing all the time.”
On Thursday, the exhibition “Basquiat: Boom for Real” opened at the Barbican Center in London. The show focuses on the artist’s relationship to music, text, film and television. But it is jazz — the musical style that made up the bulk of Basquiat’s huge record collection — that looms largest as a source of personal inspiration to him and as a subject matter.
Invite your students to read the article and then listen to the Times-curated Spotify playlist “The eclectic taste of Jean-Michel Basquiat” as they view his art and read his poetry. Discuss what they notice about the musical influence in Basquiat’s work. How do the content, colors, textures and shapes in his paintings resemble the sounds they hear? How are these reflected in the words, phrases, mood and rhythm of his poems?
Next, have students listen to a song or playlist (perhaps one they created, one you created or one of these Times-curated ones) and, like Basquiat, let them write what they hear:
• describe the images that come to mind;
• name the feelings and thoughts triggered by the imagery and sounds in the music;
• mimic the pacing and rhythm through word choice, sentence structure and line breaks;
• borrow the words, phrases or lines that resonate most;
• or build on a theme or message.
Here’s an example of what one composer wrote as he listened to his own classical piece, “Become Desert”:
From the stillness around you a high glassy sound descends, like first light. Each new sound seems to breathe — emerging from and receding back into the stillness — and the glint of bells, like desert plants, here and there.
Almost imperceptibly the music swells and continues falling in pitch.
From somewhere above — like a gleam of metal, like sunlight emerging from behind a ridgeline — comes the sound of flutes.
You are in a strange landscape. You don’t know how to read the weather or the light. You are unsure how long you will be here, or how challenging the journey may be.
To take this exercise a step further, students might use what they wrote while listening to music to develop a short story or poem. They might share their writing and song choices with the class so their classmates can analyze how music inspired their writing.
Exercise #2: Pen your own song or rap.
Invite students to write their own music about topics, events or themes you are studying in class. How can they summarize in song the role of the mitochondria, the main themes of “Romeo and Juliet” or the events that led to the Civil War?
Here’s an example from Julien Turner, 20, who produced this music video called “XY Cell Life” for a college biology class:
For inspiration, students might check out the Times “Diary of a Song” video series to see how songwriters and musicians like Zedd, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber make hits. What stands out to them about these songs? What are the artists’ processes for making music? How do they write lyrics and sounds that resonate with an audience? How do they communicate content and emotion?
You might have students simply write lyrics — like these students who wrote “Hamilton” hip-hop verses and these young people who summed up the year’s news in our annual “Year in Rap” challenge.
Or, invite them to make their own music videos or recorded songs. In this case, you might refer to use our lesson plan “Project Audio: Teaching Students How to Produce Their Own Podcasts,” which has a helpful section on audio editing and advice for gathering non copyrighted sound effects and music.
Exercise #3: Share what music means to you.
We have published over 1,000 writing prompts for students, including many, like the questions above, dedicated to personal and narrative writing about music. You might have your students choose a question that speaks to them and read the related Times article. Then invite them to share their thoughts, stories, opinions and experiences in writing.
You can search “music” to find our newest music-related writing prompts here, which are open for comment indefinitely.
Informative and Explanatory Writing
Exercise #4: Connect songs to current events.
Music has always been a reflection of and window into society, culture and history — and the current era is no different. Hip-hop, folk, classical and even opera music draw on current events and politics for source material.
What connections can your students make between the music they listen to and current events? How does learning more about the context in which a song was written help them better understand it?
You might start by having students read and analyze how journalists make connections between music and current events every day. Take Childish Gamino’s latest video, “This Is America,” for instance. In a roundup of the best writing about this music video, Judy Berman writes:
But Glover’s graceful moves aren’t exactly the point. There’s plenty of messaging about race, violence and the entertainment industry in the song and video — which helps explain why fans and critics have devoted so much time to dissecting its references and debating its meaning.
And Doreen St. Félix from The New Yorker relates the video to the present day:
The video has already been rapturously described as a powerful rally cry against gun violence, a powerful portrait of black-American existentialism, a powerful indictment of a culture that circulates videos of black children dying as easily as it does videos of black children dancing in parking lots.
You might have students read the roundup or one of the articles it excerpts, or let them choose another topic or genre that interests them, such as:
Beethoven’s 200-Year-Old ‘Fidelio’ Enters Today’s Prisons
Mouse on Mars at M.I.T.: A Symposium Becomes a Dance Party
Eminem Lashes Out at Trump in Freestyle Rap Video
New ‘Hamilton Mixtape’ Video Takes Aim at Immigration
Celebrating Women’s Rights, ‘That Most American of Operas’
Watch 5 Moments When Classical Music Met Politics
Can North Korea Handle a K-Pop Invasion?
Review: Beyoncé Is Bigger Than Coachella
For whichever article they choose, students should consider: What current events does the music they read about reference? How do these allusions contribute to the artist’s message? What other themes in the music can they relate to what is happening in the world?
Then, challenge students to pair a song of their choosing with one or more Times articles and write an essay that explains the relationship between the song and the current or historical events.
Students might start by annotating song lyrics themselves or referring to Genius to find explicit connections and discover underlying themes that in some way relate to society, culture, history and politics. Students may also choose to research the artist to find out more about his or her background, beliefs and politics.
For help in writing the essay, what we call a text-to-text pairing, we also have a whole lesson plan that guides classes through the process of generating and writing about relevant connections between their studies and the world today, as well as dozens of example essays written by teenagers.
Exercise #5: Create an annotated playlist of songs related to a topic.
Every Friday, The Times publishes “The Playlist,” a weekly tour of notable new music and videos. Times pop music critics choose about a dozen of the week’s most popular or intriguing songs and music videos and write a short commentary for each. They even create a Spotify playlist of the songs each week.
You can use “The Playlist” as a model for students to compile their own annotated playlists — playlists with explanatory text or commentary for each song — related to a topic you are studying in class. It might be straightforward, such as songs that reference historical or current events, use a particular literary device or exhibit a specific musical technique. Or, the playlist could be more symbolic, like pieces that tell a story when played together, demonstrate a theme from a novel or capture the essence of a time period or setting. (You might use one of these as an example of a theme-oriented playlist.) Playlists could even be autobiographical, with students selecting songs that express aspects of their own identities.
Students can read through several of the past columns and listen to the playlists to determine what makes for compelling commentary. For example, on Billie Eilish’s and Khalid’s “Lovely,” Jon Pareles writes:
“Lovely” is the song of someone inextricably attached or trapped: “I hope someday I’ll make it out of here,” Billie Eilish sings with Khalid — not in dialogue or counterpoint, but in unison, as if they’re each others’ partner and burden. “Wanna feel alive outside/I can fight my fear.” The backdrop is piano and strings lingering on two chords; the melancholy never lifts, and at the end Khalid and Ms. Eilish share a chilling greeting: “Hello-welcome home.” J.P.
And on First Aid Kit’s “Fireworks,” Mr. Pareles writes:
First Aid Kit, a duo of sisters from Sweden who usually favor a folky, countryish approach — they’ve got a song named “Emmylou,” after Ms. Harris — turn to a gauzy retro sound in “Fireworks,” a song always about ending up lonely: “Why do I do this to myself every time/I know the way it ends even before it’s begun.” With a 1950s slow-dance beat and echoey guitars, it’s already nostalgic for the next failed romance. J.P.
Ask students: What do they notice about h ow the commentary is written? What does the writer include and why? How is it organized? What makes it interesting (or not)?
After students have curated their own playlists, they are ready to write song annotations. Some ingredients they should include in their writing are: a claim explaining how the song relates to the topic or theme; evidence from the song (e.g., lyrics, instruments, rhythm or melodies) illustrating their claim; and analysis that explains the significance of these aspects of the song.
Students can share their final playlists on Spotify so that everyone in the class can listen to and comment on them.
Exercise #6: Profile an artist in an imagined interview.
The Times Music section regularly profiles artists from different genres, time periods and corners of the globe. Students can use these articles and interviews as mentor texts before doing research and writing their own mini-biographies of a music figure they admire.
In an “imagined interview,” students, working individually or in pairs, play the part of both interviewer and interviewee. They do background research on an artist they select, come up with a list of questions and answers for the interview, and then write a profile on their subject.
To start, have students read one of these interviews with musicians:
Khalid, the Teenager With 5 Grammy Nominations: ‘They Got It Right This Year’
Jay-Z and Dean Baquet, in Conversation
John Mayer Has More to Say: The Outtakes
Bruce Springsteen on Broadway: The Boss on His ‘First Real Job’
Adele on ‘25’: Song by Song
In Hip-Hop, Inspiration Arrived by Way of Kirk Franklin
Gwen Stefani on Spirituality, Insecurity, Pharrell and ‘Truth’
Ask students: What types of questions did the interviewer ask? What subjects did the two discuss? What questions were missing from the interview that you wish were asked?
If you plan on having students write narratives based on their imagined interviews, they should also read at least one example of how Times writers write narratives based on interviews. Here are a few:
The 5 ‘Handsome Girls’ Trying to Be China’s Biggest Boy Band
‘I Could Barely Sing a High C’: Pretty Yende Finally Conquers Lucia
For Milford Graves, Jazz Innovation Is Only Part of the Alchemy
Dua Lipa Was Raised on Pop Bangers. Now She Writes Them.
Valee, Kanye West’s New Signee, Is a Rapper Who Just Might Build You a Koi Pond
Rafiq Bhatia Is Writing His Own Musical Language
Ashley McBryde Takes Nashville, No Gimmicks Required
While reading, they should consider the following: What information did the reporter include and why do you think they made these choices? How did they effectively weave in biographical details to tell a story about the artist and the music?
Next, assign students to choose their own musical artist to interview and profile. The following steps can guide students through the process:
1. Do Your Research: To learn more about the artist you selected to interview, do an in-depth study of several song lyrics or an album, read published interviews with the artist, watch a video or listen to radio interviews to see how the artist speaks.
2. Prepare Your Questions: Consider this artist’s particular music and biography. What more do you want to know about the artist and his or her music? What in the songs or videos you studied struck you that you would like to ask about? For more inspiration, our lesson plan “Beyond Question: Learning the Art of the Interview” provides additional advice on how to conduct good interviews.
3. Conduct Your Imagined Interview: Based on your research of artists — their background, their music and the way they speak — imagine how they might respond to your questions. Be creative, but try to stay true to who the artist is. Alternatively, you could role-play the interview in partners, where one person is the interviewer and the other is the artist. It might be helpful to record the interview and take notes.
4. Write Your Article: You may choose to write your interview in a question and answer format, or create a narrative.
5. Share the Final Product: Share your imagined interviews with your classmates and reflect on the activity. Was your writing convincing to readers? What did you learn about writing artist profiles?
Persuasive and Argumentative Writing
Exercise #7: Review an artist, album or song.
Which artists, albums and songs can your students not stop talking about — either because they love them or hate them? Channel that energy into an argumentative essay using our culture review-writing lesson plan. In this lesson, students read Times reviews and heed advice from Times critics to write their own. They practice developing a clear claim, citing evidence and writing with a strong voice.
You might allow students to choose one of their favorite (or least favorite) artists or songs to practice writing passionately and knowledgeably about a subject. Or, challenge them to explore a genre of music they might not normally listen to and see what they can learn.
Consider having your students submit their finished pieces to our annual student review contest. They can read winning reviews from past years here.
Exercise #8: Weigh in on the latest criticisms, trends and news in music.
Music today incites opinions not just about the artists and albums themselves, but also about universal themes, like the music industry, social media, morality, the human condition, culture, the past and the future. “Popcast” is The Times’s podcast dedicated to discussing these very criticisms, trends and news in music.
You can invite students to weigh in on the music-related topics they care about most in a group writing activity that mimics the conversational style of this podcast. Here, they learn how to make a claim, develop it with evidence, write counterclaims and respond directly to one another in an informal and fun way.
First, you might start by having students listen to one full episode or excerpts from “Popcast” to analyze how the discussion unfolds. What background information is provided? How do the critics talk to and respond to one another? How do they open and close each episode?
Or, you might have students examine what a conversation like this looks like in writing. “Kendrick Lamar Shakes Up the Pulitzer Game: Let’s Discuss” by Times music editors provides a good example. The conversation begins:
JON PARELES To me, this prize is as overdue as it was unexpected. When I look at the Pulitzers across the board, what I overwhelmingly see rewarded are journalistic virtues: fact-gathering, vivid detail, storytelling, topicality, verbal dexterity and, often, real-world impact after publication. It’s an award for hard-won persuasiveness. Well hello, hip-hop.
ZACHARY WOOLFE … But there is also wariness, which I join, about an opening of the prize — not to hip-hop, per se, but to music that has achieved blockbuster commercial success. This is now officially one fewer guaranteed platform — which, yes, should be open to many genres — for noncommercial work, which scrapes by on grants, fellowships, commissions and, yes, awards.
PARELES That response is similar to many publishing-world reactions when Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize in Literature — that a promotional opportunity was being lost for something worthy but more obscure, preferably between hard covers. A literary figure who had changed the way an entire generation looked at words and ideas was supposed to forgo the award because, well, he’d reached too many people? Do we really want to put a sales ceiling on what should get an award? The New York Times and The New Yorker already have a lot of subscribers … uh-oh.
Then, in small groups, have students come up with their own music topics worthy of debate. For inspiration, they might browse some of the past “Popcast” episodes.
You might then have them brainstorm some initial ideas and conduct research in the Times Music section to deepen and broaden their knowledge about the subject.
Next, invite them into a written conversation about their chosen topic. One student initiates the conversation and then each person in the group takes a turn responding to what each other writes — acknowledging their classmates’ remarks, voicing their own opinions, making connections and citing evidence to support or disagree with others.
Exercise #9: Write an editorial on a music-related topic.
Many musicians and music aficionados also contribute Opinion pieces to The Times, where they write passionately and persuasively about music’s influence in their lives, culture and society.
What music-related topics do your students care about? Do they believe music should be a required subject in school? What do they think today’s artists say about the world they live in? Can and should musicians’ work be separated from their personal lives?
Have your students write an editorial on a music-related topic that matters to them. We’ve written several lesson plans on teaching argumentative writing, including “For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials,” “I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments” and “10 Ways to Teach Argument-Writing With The New York Times.”
You can pair any one of these lessons with music editorials as mentor texts, like the ones below:
A Note to the Classically Insecure
The Real Song of the Summer
Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation
The Heartbreak of Kanye West
Is Music the Key to Success?
Graceland, at Last
The Songs That Bind
Students can also search for their own examples in the Music or Opinion sections. Or, refer to the many music-themed argumentative writing prompts we have published.
They might consider entering their finished editorials into our annual student editorial contest. And they can read essays from past winners here.