Creative Writing Activities for the Music Classroom

Writing that Works: Creative Writing Activities for the Music Classroom

A year ago I attended a workshop lead by faculty members of Belmont University’s English Writing department about Writing Across the Curriculum.  The fundamental idea behind this movement is that writing activities can be used in any classroom for any subject.  In turn, students not only engage in the discipline they are studying, but they also improve their writing skills and become a part of the “culture of writing” at their university.  Guitar, paper and pencilAs a result of that workshop, I have found a number of writing activities that are very effective in teaching content in Music History and Music Appreciation classes.  Aside from the fact that my students’ exam grades have gone up since I began incorporating these writing activities, my students often comment that they found these activities to be engaging and some of the most memorable activities they completed in the course.  In my classes, I use the writing of narratives, double-journal entry writing, annotations, and creative writing games to help students learn material as well as improve their ability to write about music .  Writing about music is not an easy task as the anonymous but often-used quote says: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  In this blog I will share five ways in which I use short writing assignments in my classroom that have proved to be effective and entertaining.

Stories are the root of our ability to communicate and understand our world.

Staircase in old english manorMy students usually come into the classroom knowing that we will do any number of activities during the class hour that we meet.  Today, they have read a chapter about William Byrd and musical performances at Harleyford Manor in their textbook by Thomas Forrest Kelly.   I ask them to take 15 minutes to write a story where they imagine that they are also guests at Harleyford Manor.  They are to answer questions in their narrative. How did they arrive at the Manor?  With whom did they travel?  What did they see around the country house as they went from room to room? What was the banquet like?  They are sitting next to William Byrd who is talking about his career.  What do they learn?  I ask my students to do this writing activity because stories are the root of our ability to communicate and understand our world.

In his article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Gooblar discusses writing by examining the ideas of psychologists Jerome Bruner and Roger Schank.  Bruner posited that there are two modes of writing: the paradigmatic, and the narrative.  Paradigmatic writing discusses information by categorizing it, arranging it into systems, and conceptualizing it.  Narrative writing, on the other hand, makes sense of the world through stories.  It deals with feelings and illustrates information whereas paradigmatic writing verifies facts and proves them.  Roger Schank also suggested that narrative stories have lasting effects on the human brain, but in for the purpose of learning, asking students to write their own narratives was an even more effective process.  Students like to hear themselves speak and tell their own stories – part of a natural human process of being a part of a community, according to Schank.  A great resource that I use for creating prompts for narrative writing is the book series Reacting to the Past, created by historian Mark Carnes of Barnard College.  Here, Carnes created a curriculum of elaborate activities including games and short writing assignments where students imagine themselves in a past era they are studying. His work has been so successful for students that an entire curriculum and a number of consortiums and conferences have been designed around his model.

Kid typingWriting narratives such as the William Byrd example are a powerful way of allowing the student to take a more active role in learning by placing themselves into the story, or history, they are learning.

Research on stories and brain activity recently conducted at Emory University shows that when students read a story, there are changes that are made in the brain that linger for days or even weeks.  In addition, according to Stephen Chew, when students make the information they are learning more personal by relating the story to themselves, as they do in this writing activity, they are more likely to remember the information.  This is a way to foster deeper learning from the point of view of metacognition. Writing narratives such as the William Byrd example are a powerful way of allowing the student to take a more active role in learning by placing themselves into the story, or history, they are learning.

Girl listening to musicAnother writing activity I ask my students to do when watching a film or listening to a piece of music that is more than five minutes in legnth is a Double-Journal Entry.  A Double-Journal entry asks for both the paradigmatic as well as the narrative in a way that is personal to each student in a way that improves reading and listening comprehension.  Students write in two columns (or use any number of templates available on the web) in this activity.  In the first column, I ask them to write “What is Happening,” meaning, what are they seeing on the screen or hearing as the piece plays.  In the second column, I as the students to write “My Reaction,” where the students tell me how they feel about it, and possibly why they think this might be happening.  I have had good results with this activity in that students had more to say and provided more facts later in the semester when writing essays about the film or piece of music than other students who did not complete the double-journal entry activity.

Another activity I have my students complete is to annotate a piece of writing that they are using to learn our curriculum.  For example, I will hand out photocopies of a page from our textbook that focuses on one concept.  I will ask the students to read over the page and work in Think-Pair-Share Groups to determine what the main concept is that the excerpt from the book is exploring.  I then ask them to underline phrases or key terms they think they will need to know in order to understand the concept being explored.  Next, I ask them to write in the margins their own opinions and comments or questions about the text.  By doing so, they will be able to connect to the material personally, and therefore, more deeply and recall the concept in summary form once they have completed the activity.group project

Some fun activities I ask my students to do that I have borrowed from the K-12 music classroom are “Mad Libs,” and writing a job application for a composer.  There are a number of websites where teachers can find information for both of these activities and templates to use for handouts in their class.  In the past when our class studied the music of Richard Wagner, they often became confused by the number of German words they needed to learn in order to discuss what they are hearing in the music.  Some students, much to my dismay, have written in their exam essays that they “could only remember the word with ‘twerk’ in it (Gesamtkunstwerk).”  Working with musical terminology for a student who is new to music history is difficult enough.  Working with musical terminology in a foreign language is even more daunting to the average student.  This is where my game of Mad Libs comes in.  I create five or six Mad-Lib style pages and have the students work in groups to complete them.  In the course of filling out the Mad-Lib, the students fill in words that include musical terms in English as well as the new words in German.  I write the German words on the board for the students so that they can re-familiarized themselves with the terms as they play the game.  Just as in the original Mad-Libs game, the results are often hilarious.  But, there is a pedagogical aspect of this activity that goes beyond just fun.  This activity creates an environment where students are allowed to “fail” in a low-stakes setting to correctly use the terminology. By participating in this writing game, the students can see their own mistakes where they did not know what the German word really meant.

Haydn portraitAnother fun writing activity I ask my students to do is called “Help Haydn Find a Job” where they are asked to fill out a job application template.  They must pretend to be Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) applying for a job at the Esterhazy household.  This activity helps the students to remember not only who Haydn was, but also what his many job responsibilities were, and what the Esterhazy household was like.   This creative writing activity allows students to momentarily place themselves in the musical world of the eighteenth century.  It is also a favorite among my “doodlers” in the class because I also ask for an (optional) picture of the composer along with the completed application.

Short writing assignments can be a very effective way of introducing students to the concepts in music history and music appreciation classes.  When the students are asked to complete a writing activity in which they can place themselves into the narrative of the past they are more likely to be engaged during class time as well as more likely to remember what they have learned.  Narrative writing, double-journal writing, annotating, and games like “Mad Libs” or “Help Haydn Find a Job” have proven to teach as well as delight my students in deep and memorable ways.

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Virginia Lamothe
This post is by Virginia Christy Lamothe, a musicologist and Lecturer at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches courses in the history of classical and popular music. Her research focuses include teaching practices of higher education, music of the seventeenth century, and Tin Pan Alley and theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

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