Harness Music to Enhance Writing

Use the magic of music to engage the senses and bring new life to your writing curriculum.

By Eliana Osborn

musical notes

Teaching the basics of composition is one thing, but the step where learners understand voice and sentence variety can be a little harder. These more abstract concepts are particularly difficult to explain to ELD students with limited vocabularies. I’ve found that integrating music into my writing instruction can be effective on a variety of levels. Even better, some drums will certainly enliven the drowsy kids in the back of the room. 

Creative Writing

Quiet music in the background can be relaxing to everyone in your class. For creative tasks, you don’t have to stick to instrumentals because a little distraction and outside inspiration can be beneficial. You are the teacher, so don’t be afraid to choose music that you like — and be willing to talk about why you like it. Whether you favor female vocalists, Sixties folk music, heavy metal ballads, or classic rap, chances are that it will be music your students don’t hear every day. 

Some suggestions:

  • For prewriting, I like Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon" or Eric Clapton’s "Unplugged."
  • For story writing, I prefer something with a strong bass beat, like Johnny Cash’s greatest hits collection.

Narrative Writing

Narration asks pupils to look at their own lives and be reflective. Some of us are immediately drawn to such writing, while others struggle. Take this opportunity to use music to tell stories:

  • Is there a song that your family would sing?
  • How about a song that always takes you back to when you were sixteen?
  • The song you played at your wedding?
  • A song that reminds you of sunny days in the car?

Just like smells, songs are powerful for evoking memories. So play a song, and tell a story. 

Some suggestions:

  • Have students ask their parents about a song they loved in their youth, and write about why.
  • Play a story song, such as “Stan” by Eminem (edited version) or “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan.

Compare and Contrast Writing

This is such a foundational skill that is worked on over and over again. Covers of songs are a great way to get learners to focus on specifics instead of general or vague words for purposes of comparing. Covers, where multiple musicians perform the same song, allow artists to put their own spin on a piece. Because the content, words in this case, remains the same, the other elements can be more easily analyzed.

You may have to teach a little vocabulary for use in talking about music, such as tempo. Additionally, you may have to listen several times to discern what instruments are being utilized. Spending a little time integrating music into your creative writing instruction will enable you to refer to it all year, helping activate that knowledge center quickly without rehashing the whole lesson.

Some suggestions:

  • Michael Jackson and Alien Ant Farm each do a great version of “Smooth Criminal”
  • Indigo Girls and Dire Straits both sing “Romeo and Juliet”

More Resources:

Choosing Music to Match a Text

Analyze the tone or events of a chapter, then find a piece of music that corresponds. A way to focus on important passages of a book and force learners to spend a little extra time understanding what is happening.

Music as Motivation

Look at the power of music to get people to do things. Using examples from the civil rights movement, see the role that music played in getting citizens to push for change. 

Being Beethoven

Listen, read, and write like one of the great musical masters. By engaging in Beethoven’s music and discovering an unlikely story about one of his pieces, learners prepare themselves to create on their own.