The sweet spot between literature and music has always fascinated me, as both are among the primary forces that shape my life and how I see my place in the world. In teaching, I’ve tried to weave them together whenever I can, using music to introduce elements of tone and theme when discussing novels, and sometimes sharing songs with my students that I think connect to our texts. So far, I’ve seen three major ways to connect music and literature, all of which could have great implications in the classroom.
Type One: Literary Mixtapes
The major source for Literary Mixtapes I’ve found is at Flavorwire, a real treasure trove for book and music lovers. They’ve done mixtapes for characters from Holly Golightly to Harriet the Spy and tons in between, and the newer ones connect to Spotify playlists, which is even better for me.
My friend Dana Huff also made mixtapes on Spotify for Holden, Gatsby, Harry Potter, Lady Macbeth. This could be a great assignment for teaching characterization, especially for these kinds of complex characters, really encouraging students to delve deep into that character’s identity and the forces that have shaped it.
Type Two: Music Mentioned Explicitly in Book
This is a fun project for books that are built around certain musical forms or that mention music explicitly in the book. I’ve subscribed to a playlist on Spotify that compiles all the opera mentioned in Bel Canto , for example. This is great especially if you are unfamiliar with the style of music or with certain songs, and can really enrich your reading experience. As far as the classroom goes, I would see this more as an extra credit project, as it doesn’t really address literary elements, but it could prove that a student did a close enough reading of the book to catch every song reference. One recent popular YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, would lend itself really well to an assignment like this.
As a book-and-music nerd, there are a few playlists I’d like to tackle myself. The first would be a pair inspired by a great book I read recently, This Is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl (review coming soon). One playlist would be of the songs that are mentioned as inspiring Dave Grohl as a musician, which run the gamut from the Beatles to Metallica to Fugazi, and others might be songs by Dave himself in his assorted bands: Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age, etc. The other would be a playlist of all the songs mentioned in High Fidelity, which would be a massive undertaking, but such fun!
Type Three: Music That Accompanies the Book
This is the category I’ve had the most luck with as far as classroom assignments. In a senior elective I taught last year, I gave them the option of making a soundtrack for King Lear and got a few really outstanding examples, where the students clearly put a lot of thought and care into matching up the songs with different characters, tones, themes and plot points. Inspired by that success, this year I gave my freshmen the option of making a soundtrack for The Catcher in the Rye, and the examples I’ve gotten so far show a real understanding of the novel. Coincidentally, as I was working on this post, Dana did a blog post about theme songs for books, which would be a great shorter assignment as well.
I find this to be a wonderful assignment because while it usually produces high levels of student engagement, it also encourages them to make connections between the novel and their own lives, which is one of the key reasons I think it’s important to teach literature at all. Music is a big deal for many teenagers, and so this meets them on their own turf, but as a music fan myself, it gives me a chance to connect with them and the choices they make.
In the future, I’d like to try some lessons built around music and song analysis, connected to literature. The Experience Music Project in Seattle has some great resources on its website for lesson plans, oral histories, and multimedia timelines, and I’ve thought a lot about their free distance learning courses for teachers. Also, it’s just an amazing place to visit, if you’ve never been. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland also has some great resources on its website, including lessons and units and information about a summer teacher institute, which has just earned a spot on my professional development dream list!
- Mixtapes go social with the brilliant app ‘Everyone’s Mixtape’ (thenextweb.com)
- Spotiseek generates mixtapes for Spotify to help you fill out your playlists (thenextweb.com)