Writing to Music

This is an exercise designed to help students practice a writing element that is very difficult to teach: tone.  Such an abstract skill might sound a little fancy for younger students, but even if they’re not quite ready to incorporate tone into their work they’ll still have fun doing the activity!

The first thing you need to do is pick out three to five different pieces of music, using the following rules:

  1. Do not use music with words!  It’s really hard to concentrate on writing while a disembodied voice is harmonizing about lost love and broken pick-up trucks.  It’s like trying to memorize a phone number while someone is shouting random numbers in your ear.  Thus…no words.
  2. Try to keep the music clips to three minutes max, so that the entire writing portion of the exercise takes no longer than 15 minutes.
  3. Choose pieces of music that are tonally dissimilar.  Movie soundtracks work great (though don’t pick something your students know, like Star Wars or Harry Potter).   You might start with a scary piece, and follow it with action music, and then romantic music…you get it.  Classical music works as well.   The important thing is the contrast from one piece to the other—you’ll see why when I explain the second part of the activity.  Also, kids think it’s hilarious when the music takes a sharp turn from something like The Cider House Rules to the The Omen, or Sense and Sensibility to God of War.

Come into class with your music mix all lined up, then have students take out their writing journals and tell them their goal: to match the TONE of their writing to the TONE of the music.  Depending on the age/ability of your class, this can be done through the start of an actual narrative or through a simple list of poetic images.  For example, during a more relaxing piece of music a student might write: “rain pattering against a window, my dog curling up at my feet, etc.”

Do not tell students the title of each piece of music beforehand, as that will influence their writing.  Instead, number each music clip, and make sure that each student labels his/her writing with the number that corresponds to the song.  After the writing session has been completed, students should each share one of their five entries, and the other students should try and guess the musical piece that inspired it.  That’s the fun part!

This is definitely a repeatable activity; all you have to do is change the music, and once students “get it” they will become more sharply focused on matching their writing tone to the musical tone.  When I was teaching sixth grade, some students even made their own “mixes” for the class to use during the activity, which was really cool.  You can also use this as a center—just add headphones!