Using Music to Review Novels

Music Matching

Most kids have a real passion for the music that they like, and most kids spend hours listening to music—especially with all the portable music devices we have now. This in-class activity allows the kids to tap into their music knowledge and taste to add to their understanding of the novel in its moods and themes.

This task is for the students to match music to the novel in three ways: matching the mood, matching the theme, and realizing a character’s need or predicament.

Mood Matching

They choose a song or musical piece that matches the mood or tone of a scene. This is a great way for students to show that they get a scene, they understand what the author was going for in the language of the book, but they can explain it with another song. ELL kids have a real chance to shine here; where words fail them, they can use music instead.

A Mood Matching Example

A screengrab of the movie

A screengrab of the movie

A great mood-matching example from The Great Gatsby is the theme song from Intersteller. My student Heather chose this one to put at the end of the novel when Nick is finished with New York. As the song played she explained that Nick is on a train heading back West. He is in the train thinking about everything that happened, and we see him looking out the window. The city is reflected on the windowpane. As the song progresses, we see the city slowly turn to woods and forest. The mood is perfect and the move back West is also symbolic of his move back toward people who are “morally upright.”

Theme Matching

They choose a song with lyrics that match the theme of the novel. The mood of the song doesn’t need to match, but the lyrics do. It can apply to the overall theme, or just to a particular moment.

A Theme Matching ExampleImagine Dragons

My student Hanna, selected a theme song for the man Gatsby. He dreamed so high and so far that reality couldn’t possibly fulfill that dream. Hanna chose “Smoke and Mirrors” by Imagine Dragons. The lyrics fit so well:

“I want to believe…All I believe

Is it a dream that comes crashing down on me?

All that I hope

Is it just smoke and mirrors?”

We placed the song as background music for the vigil Gatsby had outside of Daisy’s house after the big blow up at the hotel when the true Gatsby is revealed. He has not let go of the dream, but we as readers know that it is over. The song is the prefect sentiment for that moment.

  1. The Dedication

Dedicate a song to a character. If a character is in need of something, or a character needs to learn something, a song can have the right message. This activity is like those days when people could call into the radio and dedicate a song to a person who might be out there listening. In this case, the student can show that they understand a character’s needs or faults by picking a song that suits the character.

A Dedication Example

The singer Elizabeth Mitchell (photo from her website)

The singer Elizabeth Mitchell (photo from her website)

My own choice for a dedication is for the main character of the novel The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. The character Lily is in such a tough spot in her life that she really draws out my sympathy. I just feel so bad that her mother is dead, and she has no good memory of her. I want to give her a happy memory of her mother loving her and caring for her. So this is that memory: the song “Who’s my Pretty Baby” by Elizabeth Mitchell (her site). I imagine for Lily this song playing while a Summer day is shining. Her mother is hanging sheets on the drying line. Lily, a child of 2, runs through the sheets as her mother chases her, catches her and laughs love into her life.

Next Step

Then students share their choices. My school is a 1:1 school where every student comes with a MacBook, so the searching time and sharing time is very smooth. I have pretty hefty speakers on my desk that they can plug into for us all to enjoy the sound. The kids have a sharing time at their pods, and they can talk over the choices then. This stage is important for the introverts and second language students to work out how they will explain their choice. Headphones are important at this stage.

Next, if time allows, I have every student share, or I have one or two share from each pod. They come up one at a time, plug into the speakers, and play their selection as they explain how it fits.

Most of the time, the fit is pretty accurate. The kids get to show off their understanding and share some music that they like. I love to see their enthusiasm in the activity, and I even get exposed to great music I end up adding to my own playlist.

Adapt the technology

If your kids don’t have their own computers, consider using phones, iPods, or having the search happen before class. If they send the teacher a link to a YouTube video, you can still play the songs.

Modify the approach

I prefer having the kids to name the moment in the novel before they start the music and explain it as the song plays. Usually they get to play a couple of minutes. Another approach is to have the kids play the music and have the class try to guess the scene or theme. Additionally, the class can even join in the description of how the music fits in mood or theme. This happens in some of my classes and the energy and interest is really exciting.