It is two minutes into a morning ENG 1102 class and not one student is late. Rasheed Jones has already distributed the lyrics and is cueing up JayZ’s “99 Problems” on my old school silver, portable boom box. Before he pushes play he glances over to the side of the room at me, and then surveys the class. He says “I’d like you to underline the sections where you see examples of objectification in this song. Not just of blacks, but of women, and even artists in general. Particularly, circle any dialog that might be offensive.” Rasheed presses the button and hiphop fills the room. Every student leans into the lyrics, pen in hand, minds whirring, rapt.During the previous class we had discussed objectification in Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal.” Now we are collectively crossing over a generational bridge from the big band era to rap, and at the core of this spiritual journey, this epiphany of understanding, is literary theme and curriculum content. I think, “This is something good.” The song ends and the discussion begins. Rasheed demonstrates his internalization of a concept by using it in the context of his world and the class moves with him. We all move forward into the new day’s curriculum with energy and focus.

The use of music started for me the night before a class that was about to discuss W. F.Bolton’s poem “Might We Too?” with its subtitle of “after listening to John Coltrane.” I thought, rightly so it turned out, that students would not be aware of Coltrane’s music, so I brought in my boom box and Coltrane’s greatest hits on cd and put on “A Love Supreme” softly in the background while we read the poem aloud. The poem contains a powerful theme presented in the question “Is it talent or persistence?” The context of musical talent provided a strong starting point for a general discussion and writing assignment on hidden talent and unexpended effort, two core elements of a college student’s life. I noticed that even though Coltrane’s jazz saxophone was an alien genre for most of the class, the simple presence of music seemed to have an energizing effect on the discussion. Thus, I thought I would explore the possibilities more and see what came of it.I tried a song with a theme of personal motivation at the opening of class while handing out papers. As the song ended I asked if anyone would hazard a guess as to why I had played it. One student replied that it was to entertain the class. Another pointed out I might be crazy. Yet a third said, “You’re trying to tell us to do better, like the song says.” We settled on that explanation and moved on. An example of this type of song would be Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” with its theme of having to change oneself before anything else can change. I use a song like this for many different occasions. In one class I found the song effective when passing back graded quizzes on which the class had not done so well. In another, it was effective when I anticipated that the students would not come prepared. (This use of music is particularly applicable across the curriculum as almost all professors give tests and quizzes and want to motivate the class to do better next time.) The students understood. They even appreciated the sly approach. The song delivered the scolding with a dose of musical sugar, making it far more effective than the “qualities of a master student” lecture students have heard and turned deaf ears to most of their academic lives. I have had some fun along the same lines playing Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” while handing out the revision criteria for an essay. Students catch on to the hard labor theme with grim chuckles and we understand one another implicitly.

Music can also help liberate students from their thought fetters during freewriting and brainstorming exercises. I have found some soft classical music, classical guitar or piano, or jazz enhances the atmospherics of nonstop writing. For fun, and the students understand the psychology of this one, I have put on a few fast-picking bluegrass pieces to underscore the message when I tell the class that they are not thinking fast enough to free their minds of the plodding thought process that restricts creative and inclusive thinking. Banjo and guitar breakdowns can power up rapid, creative thinking and writing. I had to learn to be careful, however, not to employ music with lyrics during freewriting exercises, as the lyrics tend to get in the way of the words and thoughts the students are trying to generate spontaneously. Theme is often the most problematic concept for students to understand both in what they read and in what they write. Students can recite that theme is the main idea, central concept or even the lesson or moral of the piece while time and again writing introductions with an unfocused thesis, or without a thesis entirely. Songs can quickly and conveniently introduce theme in Comp 101 or 102. While listening to a central idea repeated in the chorus of a song, students can begin identifying a theme before the rote definitions dull their interest in the subject. The act of identifying a popular song’s theme and then having to explain how that idea develops within the lyrics will help students grasp the concept more quickly. Active, critical listening is the key. I ask the class to jot down a theme or themes during the song and a few phrases that support their points. Then I will ask one student to identify and expand on his or her concept. Most of the rest of the class engages because of the popularity and currency of the song, waiting eagerly to add their opinions or correct a wayward classmate. Social culture becomes the driving force behind learning. The teacher often simply observes or even referees the more lively discussions. (I believe this discussion of theme would work equally well in any Sociology, Psychology or Education major classroom.) Additionally, almost all songs with repeated choruses develop the theme musically, either with additional instrumentation or choral voices. Some choruses actually do develop the repeated lyrics with subtle word choice changes or new phrases. My pointing out how the theme in a song does not simply repeat but grows with each repetition can help students see the logic, and therefore the necessity, of focusing on and developing theme within their own writing.

I find the memoir one of the most successful essays for freshman 101 Composition. The memoir allows students to write about a favorite topic, themselves, while keeping them from doing any dreaded, serious research. Yet choosing a memory about which to write, and organizing the telling of that memory in a logical and vivid fashion, remain significant challenges. Some songs encapsulate the concepts of thesis, development, scene, metaphor or simile and concrete detail in memoir-like genre. The thesis, or lesson if you will, of the memoir in a song most often (and conveniently) appears in the chorus and repeats several times throughout the song. When I ask the class for the thesis of the song, they will invariably repeat one of the phrases within the chorus. If I put the lyrics up on a screen while the song plays students are able to jot down the general plot. When I ask them also to note a specific use of concrete detail and simile to enhance a scene in the song they can do that as well, often revealing elements I had not previously noticed myself. The right song and a few instructions open the gateway to the essential points of memoir. Through music, the class is actively engaged in the lecture and activity that follows. Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” as performed by Janis Joplin makes for a strong example of a memoir song and seems to cross a lot of demographic lines. It is a familiar song still in rotation on classic rock stations that many college students, traditional and nontraditional, spend time listening to during any given week. The music has a country rock flavor popular with a large number of listeners today. Janis Joplin’s hedonistic life and tragic early death can be explained briefly to the class and connected to any of a sad number of young stars today who have met untimely deaths, such as Mary Hansen, Tupac Shakur, Aliyah, and even Bob Marley. The song begins in scene, by the roadside before a rain storm, with a strong simile. “feeling nearly as faded as my jeans.” The scene continues with strong concrete details within the cab of a diesel truck.

dirty, red bandana
windshield wipers slapping time

From that point the song spins out into summary of events while the couple travels across America and finally falls apart. Thus the song’s organization emphasizes one of my criteria, which is to develop one vivid scene and allow it to represent almost the entirety of the memoir with summary filling in any narrative gaps. The chorus serves as a strong tool in this song as well because, while students easily identify a theme like “love is all that matters” or some equivalent, the lyrics of the chorus imply the theme rather than simply shout it (as in, for example, the Beatles “All you need is love”). In this way the chorus helps students see that their thesis or theme need not be some simplistic cliché but rather a sophisticated rendering that reflects the complications of their lives and memories. By the end of a discussion of this song, the class is generally energized and interested in the memoir genre and eager to examine the criteria of the particular assignment. “Me and Bobby McGee” proves a solid example of the possibilities a song can offer, but it is certainly not the only song of use. For instance, I have had positive results also with “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran and “One Mic” by Nas in various classes. In any case, I like to think the fact that the average grade for memoirs remains one of the highest of any of the essay assignments in 1101 can in part be credited to the concept being introduced through music.

When I turn the choice of music over to the students, I have found that a heightened interest, energy and sense of empowerment come over them. I save this for Comp 1102 classes for two reasons. First, the 1102 students, having passed a semester or two of classes, tend to be just a little more serious about their responsibilities as college students. Second, Comp 1102 focuses more on literary devices such as symbol, plot, character, and yes, theme. I assign a date to every student spread throughout the semester. On that date, the class will begin with the student’s choice of music (and accompanying lyrics, though some have taken the challenge of discussing instrumentals as well). As with Rasheed Jones’ presentation, the student must identify two literary devices within the piece before proceeding. The class takes notes on those devices while the song is played. Then the student leads a discussion of those two terms and how they are developed within the song. The energized class will jump on a student’s misstep, such as mixing up plot and theme, revealing how thoroughly engaged in the activity they are. These 102 classes tend to have fewer tardy students and fewer absences. Somehow, the music presentations (which receive a minor quiz grade) drive the semester along. Even students who eventually drop out of sight seem to stay at least until they have had their shot at presenting their music. Tangentially, the extra practice at public speaking benefits students apparently without the usual concomitant stress of oral presentation. The whole activity can be completed within the first ten minutes of class, and can be segued into the content of that day’s curriculum. Overall, these 102 classes start with a burst of energy that helps move the rest of the class activities forward. Rap, gospel or rock leading into a discussion of Oedipus Rex or A Doll House can really help span the centuries and perk up the classics. Most importantly, there seems to be a genuine increase in the entire class’ content understanding as a result of the presentations and audience participation. Students take their choice of song very seriously, and with a little prompting and guidance provide significant insights, and sometimes surprising new revelations, on the world of literature and music.

I believe that students’ insights into the lyrics, personalities, technology and marketing of modern music make it a strong tool for classes across the disciplines. Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldiers,” Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” and Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke” are among a wealth of titles that lend themselves to serious discussions in sociology. The Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin Tricks on Me” is just one example of a potential lead in to a Psychology topic. Any top hit can lend itself to an investigation of marketing, business contracts or profit distribution for business and economics classes. Consider that all music has a rhythm and all lyrics have meter and it is not a stretch to see how music can lead into basic mathematics concepts such as ratio, fractions, sets and subsets. The very physical activity that goes on during a song’s playing can lead to content discussion of light, lasers, sound waves and magnetism in physics, or the function of the ears and nerves in a biology class. The right song for the proper content just might help orient a class in a new and interesting way to an old and otherwise dry curriculum. When I have presented these concepts in conferences, the specter of slang, obscene or sexually explicit lyrics has arisen. The question generally asked is how one handles those lyrics if they are part of a student’s presentation. I have not had a big problem with any lyrics as yet. I do warn the class of the possibility of this type of occurrence and permit any student to leave the room for the duration of a presentation if they feel so inclined. Additionally, everything being a potential teachable moment, I find that challenging the student whose presentation contains such language to explain the language, and then translate the lyrics for a college level audience, focuses the class on word choice and audience consideration in a new and interesting way. This tends to reduce the shock value that might have been the impetus for the choice of song (students being natural rebels), and places the responsibility for examining the author’s word choice in relation to audience squarely on the presenter’s shoulders. In the end, the first presentation of such material is usually the last for that semester.

While working my way through college years ago as an automobile mechanic, I befriended the most efficient and knowledgeable mechanic in the service department, Jake Wilson. One day, while The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” blared from the overworked shop radio, I was nosing through Jake’s tripledecker tool box. I took out a curious little tool I had never seen before and asked its purpose. My friend smiled and placed the tool back in the box (mechanics being very possessive of their equipment). “I don’t use it all the time,” he told me. “But when I do, there’s nothing better for the job.” “How did you learn when to use it?” I asked. “Like anything else,” he told me with a laugh, “I busted a few knuckles trying it out.” Music can be a tool in the classroom, like chalk, like overhead projectors, like power point presentations. No tool serves all purposes. We sometimes have to be willing to bust a few knuckles to find the right tool for a job. Once we feel confident in its usefulness, however, that tool deserves its place in our tool box.