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Music as a Mechanism to Engage Students

Mick Charney Associate Professor, Architecture - Kansas State University

David Whitt Professor, Communication - Nebraska Wesleyan University

Music. We listen to it as we work, play, exercise, and dine. Our own preferences say something about who we are, when we came of age, and many times can surprise those who don’t know us well. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is quoted as saying, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” So, why not use music as a teaching tool – even if we aren’t music teachers? We have each found different ways to use music to engage students, manage our classrooms, and to share something of ourselves with our students. We describe three ways we use music. While we use these strategies specifically to complement our own disciplinary content, we challenge you to think about how music has either been inspired by your discipline or how you find music to inspire your work.

Easing the Chaos – Musical Preludes

It’s the start of a new semester. You’re teaching a large lecture class (mine is 200 design students in a three-course sequence of introductory architectural history classes). How do you get your students to settle down…quickly…at the start of class so that learning can begin? Rather than taking the tiresome, time consuming strategy of trying to out-shout the roar of the crowd (“Settle down everyone. Shhh! SETTLE DOWN!”), musical cues can soothe the transition from chaos to calm. Fortunately, most large lecture halls are well wired these days. With integrated speaker systems, iPods, MP3 downloads, and the Cloud, it’s an easy matter to pump music into the classroom in those few minutes just before the official start of class. When the music stops (admittedly accompanied by a slight dimming of room lights to better see projected images), students instinctively know to stop their conversations. Within seconds I’m able to start speaking with my “inside voice” thus projecting a less frenzied, antagonist image. And, at least for the next several minutes, students are engaged.

Each lecture starts with an entirely different song so as to sustain student curiosity over the long term. Tunes are themed to the mood or content of that day’s class. For instance, a lecture on Buddhist chaitya prayer halls begins with the deep-throated intonations of chanting monks while Gregorian chants are played as we embark upon a discussion of medieval architecture. In a more light-hearted vein, students rock along to “Walking on the Sun” by Smash Mouth as the overture to our discussion of the mythic labyrinth from which the architect Daedalus and his impulsive son Icarus were able to escape only by flying out on those storied wings of feathers and all-too-meltable wax. And I’ve observed that, in the moments before confronting the prospect of taking their first major exam, my students’ anxieties are abated just a bit, as evidenced by their knowing smiles, when they recognize the familiar melody of the theme song from Jeopardy.

Many students eventually come to understand the larger pedagogical intent of those musical bridges. “We’ve learned,” one student once observed, “that just as music is not ordinary noise but a special type of noise, so too architecture is not ordinary building but a special type of building.” Occasionally, some students will ask me for the name of the tune or its artist.

Once, two particularly persistent students asked me for that information regularly. They were up to something. On the last day of class, they presented me with a one-of-a-kind, eight-disk boxed set of every song I had ever played over three semesters. They had downloaded and digitally arranged the song lists, crafted the box and its eight plastic case paper inserts themselves, and then generously gifted it to me with the wish that I would never have to shuffle through dozens of my cassettes again. Tellingly they titled their boxed set “Dum Volvo, Video Disco,” a Latin expression literally meaning “While I turn, I see and learn,” perhaps referencing the rotating music CDs. But their comprehension went deeper. “Dum” also translates “as long as” and “volvo” infers “to roll onward,” “to be involved,” or “to meditate.” Therefore, those two students were telegraphing their understanding of a learning truism: “as long as we are involved, we comprehend and learn.”

Musical Interludes

I created a number of “musical slide shows” over the years in which I combine images of architecture synced to music. I’ve used them as introductory preludes to new styles/concepts or as summaries of styles/concepts or to give particular emphasis to certain historical events or to demonstrate parallels between the various art forms within a style or simply to summarize (in a nostalgic way) the entirety of a full semester of study.

For instance, when we talk about Gothic gargoyles and grotesques (meant originally not as representations of evil but as talismans intended to scare away evil from churches), I sync images of the ugly sculptured beasts to the song – you guessed it – “Ghostbusters.” Or, there’s the musical slide show I developed showing the construction and opening of the London Crystal Palace in 1851 set to the music that was actually performed at its opening – Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from his Messiah Oratorio. Or, authentic Renaissance lute and recorder music set to images of Renaissance art; or typically plastic and convoluted Baroque organ music – Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – set to images of the spatially complex and warped forms of Baroque churches.

The inclusion of music helps to stimulate multiple senses and can serve as triggers for students to recall the important points related to the content, as well as providing a deeper understanding of the historical context. In addition, thinking about and discovering those linkages keeps me engaged as I refresh course content (see Doyle & Zakrajesek, 2013, Chapter 4. Using All Your Senses to Learn).

The Power of the Words

In my first-year public speaking course we discuss the importance of language in telling a story, being concise, or attempting to persuade an audience. As one exercise, I ask students to analyze music lyrics from various songs to appreciate how language was used by an artist to create imagery and convey emotion in the brief structure of verse, chorus, and middle eight. Additionally, because words have different denotative and connotative meanings, the song lyrics can be interpreted in different ways, thereby impacting individual meaning. Because most students enjoy music (and don’t expect to experience it in a public “speaking” class), the opportunity to engage in a music related activity piques their interest.

I would also argue the analysis of song lyrics is perhaps more entertaining than analyzing language use in a speech by MLK, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton. The evaluation of these speakers and their powerful words certainly has value, but in a public speaking class where students are limited by time constraints (3-4, 5-7, 6-8 minute speeches) the ability to use language clearly and concisely is essential to their success (i.e., their grade). Similarly, songwriters have time constraints (average 3-5 minutes for a song), which means they too must take care to find words that most accurately convey their thoughts and emotions in a short amount of time. Examining how these musicians, poets really, use language to their advantage hopefully inspires students to think about language use in their own speeches and, perhaps more importantly, how words can inform, persuade and inspire.

The songs I selected for this exercise are typically not familiar to students, although many have heard of the artist associated with a specific song. I begin by handing out the lyrics to students (we do not actually listen to the song), ask them to read each, and mark or underline words or phrases that evoked vivid imagery or stood out for a particular reason. Then, as a class, we discuss each song, which lyrics were particularly striking, and their interpretation.

The first song examined is “Moon Over Bourbon Street” (1985) by Sting. As an example, the final verse goes:

She walks everyday through the streets of New Orleans She’s innocent and young from a family of means I have stood many times outside her window at night To struggle with my instinct in the pale moonlight How could I be this way when I pray to god above I must love what I destroy and destroy the thing I love Oh you’ll never see my shade or hear the sound of my feet While there’s a moon over Bourbon Street

Students typically comment that the dark and detailed imagery creates an ominous atmosphere, which generates a wide range of interpretations about this song. Is the narrator a stalker? Criminal? Religious figure? When I tell them that the song is based on the vampire Lestat from the Anne Rice novel “Interview with the Vampire” they see the song in a different light, many times re-reading the lyrics and now visualizing a vampire walking through the dark and moonlit streets of New Orleans.

The second song, “Dear God” by XTC (1986), creates some interesting discussion as it questions the existence of God. As an example of the lyrics:

Dear God, hope you got the letter, and I pray you can make it better down here. I don’t mean a big reduction in the price of beer but all the people that you made in your image, See them starving on their feet ’cause they don’t get enough to eat from God, I can’t believe in you

I chose this song to demonstrate how words can quickly influence our emotions, especially ones that relate to deep-seated beliefs and values. I take special care not to advocate any personal position about Christianity, emphasizing instead how the song’s controversial lyrics manage to touch a nerve, particularly in those students of faith.

Of course there are countless other songs from artists in pop, country, rap and rock that could be used for this type of activity. Indeed, I have also used songs from artists such as Indigo Girls, U2, Radiohead, and even the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords.

Words are powerful and musicians are inspired by any number of experiences and knowledge. As you listen to your favorite music, how might it apply to your discipline and how might it be used in ways to engage and perhaps surprise your students?


Doyle, T. & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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