Kids creating songs


My mulling over our song-a-day curriculum has me thinking: what if we had students regularly create their own songs? I'm inspired by this by the band They Might Be Giants, which...

...long maintained a "Dial-A-Song" phone line. Every week from 1983 to 2006, they'd put up a recording of a new song — anyone could call the number and listen to it.

Sometimes the songs were great; sometimes they were awful! The bad emphasized quantity — and out of that came quality.

Could we do the same with our students?

Writing a song can be scary: perfectionism rears its ugly head. Being required to write many songs fixes that. Throw some notes together! Hum a ditty, slap some lyrics on it, and you're done!

We can set the bar very, very, very low: parodies would be just fine. Can't come up with your own melody? Just take the French national anthem and re-write the lyrics to be about your breakfast.

Why am I in love with this idea? (And, to be clear, I am.) A few reasons.

First, this could be educationally wonderful for the other things the kids are learning: instead of just asking kids to create a song about anything, we could ask them to create songs about something they've been learning about.

Within months, the class could produce dozens of songs about the digestive tract, the chemistry of fire, plate tectonics, and the despotic rule of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (or whatever it is that kids will be learning about — which will always be dozens of things).

This positions kids as teachers: they'll need to distill information, and find what's most wonderful in it. Ahhhhhh this would be wonderful.

(This aspect of the idea comes from Kristin, by the way).

Second, this would cultivate creators. This is something I've been kicking around: ours are schools for creators. (Or makers, if that word is more appealing.)

Third, creating songs gives a direct purpose to listening to songs. Especially songs of various genres. We can expect to see little snippets of classical, jazz, and rap show up in student-created songs.

Fourth, creating songs also gives a direct purpose to music theory — learning notation, and tempos, and keys, and things even more complicated.

Finally, creating songs could be really, really enjoyable. About that, 'nuff said.

An issue that this brings up: do we want all our students to learn an instrument? I think the answer is yes, but my battery's about to run out, so I'll post about this idea later.

Conference feedback: A song a day


More commentary on the commentary! (We're getting Talmudic, here...) All quotes were given at the IERG conference a week and a half ago. To refresh you memory, you might re-read the original post on a song-a-day — or either of our two posts on dancing!

A song a day

Music is so fundamental to our experience, so I love this idea!

Yeah! Since presenting on this idea, I've been noting how much use I make of music to keep myself engaged, upbeat, serious (or frivolous)...

Music is medication. Perhaps that's why we've developed it, as a species. It's unfortunate most schools make so little of it.

Slowing down a bit. Maybe a song a day is too much too fast.

Maybe! Lee, thoughts?

I like the simplicity of saying that some things are daily, and other things weekly — even if we don't always meet that goal.

Choreography to song

Love it! The more we could integrate it with the dancing curriculum, the better (I assume).

Though I'll admit that I have no idea how to do that. I have some leads on dance instructors in Seattle — Lee, do you have any connections to dance instructors on Hilton Head?

Watch Ben Zander TED talk (very IE).

Zander's talk is "The Transformative Power of Classical Music", and it's quite worth watching!

Near the beginning, Zander says, "In the classical music world... there are some people who think that classical music is dying. And there are some of us who think you ain't seen nothing yet."

I have to admit — this is going to be something that makes me sound very snobbish — I keep returning to the question of whether our schools can have some primacy on classical music.

Classical feels so different to me — relaxing, restorative. I recall once refilling at a gas station that was playing classical — it was an ecstatic experience; purifying, almost. No other form of music (and I enjoy many different genres) makes me feel that way. And I think I'm not alone.

And this ability of classic to calm seems to be helpful, in a school.

So I'll ask (though I feel nervous about sounding like a snob) — any thoughts on whether classical music could have an outsized role in schools?

Listening. Listen to sounds of nature. Listen to the voices of many people. In particular, listen to the voices of trained classical singers!

I'm moving toward (I've mentioned this on this blog, I think) an observation-first model of creativity. If you want to cultivate creativity, cultivate observation. I've grounded our realistic drawing curriculum in this, but that's just visual observation. We should develop a parallel track for auditory observation, through music and otherwise. I've got to think about that.

Individual experience then public, instead of the reverse?

Interesting. This doesn't seem compelling to me right now, but I'll think about this.

Part of my "meh"-ness, I think, stems from the fact that I imagine public listening to be, in large part, private.

I'm thinking that each new song should ideally be played three times. Familiarity brings affection (something advertisers have long known). Each time, though, the classroom should be otherwise absolutely silent, so everyone (even the most ADHD of us) can feel safe in focusing entirely on the music.

With the song the only thing that anyone can hear, listening corporately seems a lot like listening privately.

(Lee, some notes: if we want to make auditory experience so crucial to our schools, we'll need to invest in sound-dampening technologies. If we can ever design our own buildings, that'll mean soundproofing, and classrooms that aren't just separated by folding walls. In the short-term, however, that might mean white-noise generators, of either the electronic or waterfall-y varieties.)

Did this with The Outsiders. The students chose characters and developed albums with song lyrics and visuals. Works very well.

Oh, jeez — there are probably loads of great ways to go deeper into the literature or history curriculum through music! How'd I not think of this? Thanks, anonymous commenter! I'll be on the lookout for more of these.

Oh, by the way!

I've been pondering how we should choose songs. Again, we want to bring in songs that (1) are super-diverse and super-high-quality, and (2) songs that are personally meaningful to teachers. Obviously, there'll be a good amount of overlap between those two categories — but!

I think I have an idea. It turns out there a lot of lists attempting to pick the best music of every genre. The most helpful (for our purposes) list that I've found may be 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, by NPR music reviewer Tom Moon. I haven't yet read it (I'm caravaning around the Midwest at present), but it looks pretty danged good: the cover indicates it includes jazz, reggae, oldies, opera, folk, soul, and more. (A perusal of the table of contents points to traditional Mongolian singing, rap, funkadelic, rock, and, well, take a look! Here's a very positive review on NPR.)

So here's my thinking: we alternate days. One day, a song chosen from the book; the next day, a song chosen by each teacher. Some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggests that between kindergarten and twelfth grade, students will be in our school for about 2,000 days.

Again, there are 1,000 songs (well, "musical pieces") in Tom Moon's book. That means it's about to as close to even as we could ask for.

Alternating like this would also allow for school unity (important, as building a culture requires shared music, art, stories, and other experiences) but also class unity (important, for the same reasons).

Lee, your thoughts?

I've been working on another idea that stems from this, but I'll post it separately. (It's that cool!)

A song a day


A problem:

There's so much humanity squeezed into every song — ideas, stories, and feelings! Music activates some of our deepest cognitive plumbing. It draws us into the inner experiences of other human beings, some very unlike us.

Music contains multitudes. And what do schools use? Textbooks!

Even worse: Music divides people. What music we each listen to becomes a tribal shibboleth: high school classes split into rock, hip-hop, and country. We use music to divide others into "like us" or "not like us". Our culture makes us musically insular.

Our basic plan:

Each day, our classes will listen to a new song — and we'll use it to do wonderful things.

Songs will reflect much global diversity — we'll have a cappella and acid rock, alternative country and bluegrass, blues and boogie, bossa nova and breakbeat, calypso and classical and country music. And that's just up to the letter 'c'!

Over the course of 12 years, at the rate of 1 new song per day, students will become acquainted with something like 2,000 new songs — some they'd have run across anyway, but many they wouldn't have.

After students listen to the song together (perhaps twice — once without lyrics, once with), the song will be added to a "music station" in the classroom: a set of headphones and a iPod. There, in independent work time, students can re-listen to the songs they'd like and carry out a series of works.

Students can choose to listen attentively, paying close attention to a single facet: the rhythm, the instrumentation, or the melody. Can they tap out the beat? Can they name all the instruments used? Can they hum the melody, or re-create it on a synthesizer?

Or they can put everything they hear together and focus just on the feeling that the song evokes. Could they express that feeling in non-representational drawing? Could they try to explain how the song makes them feel that way? (This would be an excellent entrée to music theory.)

Another series of options would allow students to focus on the lyrics. What do the lyrics say? What do they mean (can the student summarize them)? Can the student pull a Weird Al, and write a hilarious parody of them? Can the student use the melody to write a song that helps other students memorize some aspect of the curriculum — the names of all the nations or the parts of a cell?

Or students could go beyond the song, research the story behind it (how was it conceived? how did people take to it?), the story of the people who created it, and the story of the genre as a whole. They could also critique it. Is it a great song? Why, or why not?

Our goals:

Part of our goals is to forge a common culture in our schools. We want to make it easier for kids to connect with each other across the usual lines that divide people (socio-economic class, ethnicity, religion, age, etc.). We also want to make it easier for students and faculty to connect together, and cultivating a common culture. We want to help students connect with adults outside the school — their parents' and grandparents' generations in particular. Finally, we want to help kids connect with people across the world.

Shared musical experiences can play a part in accomplishing all of this — a small part, to be sure, but a meaningful one all the same.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Kids liking, loving, and occasionally hating music — all together, or all by themselves.

Some specific questions:

  • How should we pick the songs? I see three major options:
    • Option A: Each teacher decides. If we go this route, each day's song could become a means for the teacher to share her/himself with the students. Love is a virus, and spreads through people.
    • Option B: The whole staff decides at the beginning of the year. If we go this route, each day's song could help knit together students across age ranges.
    • Option C: It's centrally decided for the whole school. If we go this route, we relieve teachers of the responsibility to pick out songs. If we consult with some musical experts, we could also ensure a greater diversity of world music.
  • A song every day, or every other day?
  • How many times a day should we play the primary song? One seems too few.
  • Are there legal issues here we should be aware of?
  • It'd be cool to offer access to these songs to parents, so they can use the songs to bridge the generational divide as well.