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.

Another Way to Review Novels: How Iconic!

These gilt edged books can represent the hope of new money for Nick or the grand but false image Gatsby portrays in his library: the educated man.

These gilt edged books can represent the hope of new money for Nick or the grand but false image Gatsby portrays in his library: the educated man.

Because we are nearing the final exams, my students are eager to review the semester of reading. I’ve tried to keep the other readings fresh in their minds by linking the readings together as we read—looking for parallels and significant differences—but the time has come for an overall review. I want them to be able to plan their essays without the time needed to recall the events and character names. So we review:

Objects for the novel

This is a fun and random way to review. Choose objects that are important for the novel and show pictures of the objects to the students using a projector, or

This car is only yellow, not gold. Gatsby can only create an artificial dream. The real one can't be. Also, here's the car that killed Myrtle!

This car is only yellow, not gold. Gatsby can only create an artificial dream. The real one can’t be. Also, here’s the car that killed Myrtle!

print them out. Each student has to identify when the object occurs in the novel and why it is important. For students who remember better with visual cues, this is a great review activity.

There are many web sites for photos, but the one that I recommend is Pixabay because it is free to use and the images are not copyrighted. The users of the site allow their images to be used without protecting them with copyright—an important fact when teaching and modeling ethical use of online sources. Do you have another favorite source?

This activity can easily be extended to help the kids review the story chronology. If you have printed out the images, have the students put them in order of the events of the novel. If they are doing it as a group, it can be interactive and involve movement—make the kids hold the image and line up across the room in the order that the objects would appear in the book. This involves two other ways students can remember content, and it allows for more flexible thinking about what happened in the novel.

The gun that killed Gatsby: George's anger toward Gatsby was also an illusion, but the death was not, either of them.

The gun that killed Gatsby: George’s anger toward Gatsby was also an illusion, but the death was not, either of them.

Here is a list for The Great Gatsby: train ticket, polo pony, wine glass, old phone, green light, gas pump, old spectacles, puppy, bloody nose, gild edged books, molars, rain, very fine shirts, yellow car, gun, old diary, wet paper, yacht, coffin. I’m sure you can think of more!

Daisy cries over these shirts. When she is first reunited with Gatsby, his love and attention are overwhelming, especially compared to the brutality of Tom Buchanan.

Daisy cries over these shirts. When she is first reunited with Gatsby, his love and attention are overwhelming, especially compared to the brutality of Tom Buchanan.


After having your kids do an activity with your choices, have them select images that illustrate another novel. At first, they can explain their choices, or have others try and explain why another student chose an image.

Use Tech

If your school has Google Docs, this would be a great time to have them use Google Presentation. They each get to create a slide and add it to the presentation. Once they get finished explaining their choices, have them try to organize them chronologically. They’ll have to communicate; otherwise, the re-ordering can get a little crazy.

Watch for the next post on more creative ways to review novels.

Makin’ Memes

Technology is certainly changing our world today, and if we allow it, it can change the learning in our classes.

one-way-street-362172_1280One important difference in the media today from yesterday is the participation factor. When I was a child watching TV and movies, I sat passively taking it all in. The active part came in playing with the themed toys that marketers smartly targeted to kids. But the world of the media was mostly a one-way road.

Then came the Internet.

With people now able to upload anything from text, to pictures, to videos, the world of the Internet is now our world, too. In a fascinating TED talk, Why Video’s Go Viral, YouTube trends manager Kevin Allocca notes that one significant difference in the media today is that people can participate in the conversation, partly why, he explains, videos go viral. The media is no longer a one way road.

I wanted to get my kids participating, and in the recent unit on satire, I finally saw a way: Memes. In class we came to understand that satire humorously points out the flaws in society, government, religion, etc. Then we followed this sequence:

1. I wanted to make sure that everyone understood what was meant by memes. I had to avoid an open search for memes because some of the them are not appropriate for high school. I preselected some for them to view and posted links on the class web site: Why Women Live Longer Than Men, If Alcohol Labels Told the Truth, Welcome to Parenthood, and Magazine Pictures Vs Others.  We could have talked a bit on which ones served as satire and which ones just humor, but I needed to keep the pace of the lesson quick.

2. Next I wanted them to see the just how participatory and influential memes could be, and the summer World Cup gave us lots to look at. Because it is a class on media, I wanted them to study the structure of articles as part of the lesson. So we doubled the task, looking at information on the influence of memes and news article structure. This article titled, How the World Cup Became a Cup of Memes,  from the Wall Street Journal served nicely. (If you have Spanish speakers, they could look at the many Spanish memes referenced in the article.)

3. Now for the kids chance. The students could use the meme generators available at and Both have lots of pictures from which to choose. I also provided an image to get them going if needed; they could use Preview on their Macs, which allows the addition of text to any jpeg. This images was taken by the tech department when an unnamed teacher tried to get more toner our of a toner cartridge. He did, but not in the way he expected.

meme copier

4. For the collection of the memes, I created a Google Presentation and gave them editing rights. They easily made their own slide, put on their name, and pasted in the meme. After watching the show, the kids wanted more–especially more on an IB theme (We’re an International Baccalaureate School), but they wanted to share their favorites that they had read online. So we added more slides.

5. Sharing with the community. I wanted other students and teachers to see what the kids created and how valuable it was to show the kid’s creativity and sense of satire. So I made a bulletin board in the hall. I know, its anachronistic, but it would get to my audience. I’m hoping that the other teachers would be impressed, and maybe, inspired to find ways to integrate memes into their lessons. (Imagine memes of historical characters? Literary characters? An atom talking to an enzyme?)

Student Created:

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made! (A summative is a test or assessment of any kind.)

Student made! (A summative is a test or assessment of any kind.)

Student made!

I found this student made meme particularly poignant. This kid is under a lot of pressure.

Teaching Tone

Getting students to be aware of tone in writing can be challenging, but I have found that taking them from the familiar to the unfamiliar is a great way to introduce tone as an element for analysis.

We start with a clear definition of tone and a long list of the words that express tone. The kids can take turns reading a word out loud putting the emotion in their voice that matches the meaning if they’re feeling brave.

Then the media comes in. Every student has a developed taste in music, so getting them to comment on the tone in songs is really fun. The challenge is for them to use language as accurate as they can to describe the complexity of the emotions in the songs. The activity can move from a more familiar sound to something less familiar. Or, the students can be the ones to choose the music, and the rest of the class have to describe the tone. There are so many ways to vary the activity to give the students more engagement in tone analysis.

I like to start with U2 because their sound is so complex and often kids have heard some of their music. The song “No Line on the Horizon,” album title the same, is yearning, dreamy and powerful. Most kids respond well to it. “Get on Your Boots” works well for a more gritty pulsing sound (but watch out for the meaning–depending on your school).

Here is an alternate, the theme song for the movie Borne Legacy called “Extreme Ways.”

I follow the contemporary music with Mozart’s Requiem. The tracks I use are: 1) Rex Tremendae, because the Rex jumps out so powerfully, and as an expression of grief, you can’t get much more dramatic.

2) Lacrimosa Dies Illa, because of the fast shifts in tone from morose to angelic, which opens the conversation to times when authors switch tone in texts.

By this time the students are relaxed and have the sense that they can hear tone and have words to describe it. To drive it home, the kids could choose the songs and lead the lesson.

For less advanced students, the teacher could limit the words used to describe the tone, print them out on cards, and have the kids match the words to the songs as they are played. My low level ESL kids were bobbing their heads and tapping their feet during the lesson–they loved it, because it was so accessible. There are so many ways to use music to understand tone.

The next step is to move the analysis to the written word. For more, see Teaching Tone II.