Listen To This: Infusing Creativity into Music Exploration

Mary Claxton • January 2022Modern Band • January 19, 2022

Listening to music is a huge part of life in the United States. In fact, a 2019 study by Statista shows that 82% of U.S. adults listen to music each week and it is a daily activity for 68%. Clearly, many people use music as a “personal soundtrack.” We can enrich this reality by empowering students with knowledge and imagination that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. With that in mind, how can we, as teachers, embrace more time for music listening in our classes? Additionally, how can we leverage students’ listening habits to help them think in creative new ways? Here are four ideas to get you started with your students!

Draw & Listen
If you’re ever in need of a “quiet focus” activity (aren’t we all), drawing to music is one of my favorites. Students of any age and ability level can enjoy this activity, and it can be approached in many different ways. Students can draw shapes and textures that remind them of the music, or they can choose a more literal scene, person, or object to draw. Every style of music has inspired visual art, from hip-hop (check out Melissa Falconer and Martin Askem) to current indie rock (explore Julia Rothman and Genevieve Gauckler) . You can also check out album and poster art to discuss how it emphasizes the aesthetic of the music.

This process can also be reversed! “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day, “Zebras and Airplanes” by Alicia Keys, and “Electric Lady” by Janelle Monaé are all songs that were inspired by visual art. Team up with your school’s visual arts teacher or a local artist who can help find what art might inspire your students to write something new!

A Playlist for Pikachu
This activity is meant to explore and reinforce the ideas of audience, curation, and themes in music. Students can choose a person or character to create a playlist for. This character is their subject, and they should pick songs that would describe them. The curator may also choose to pick songs that person themselves would like. In the example of Pikachu (who you probably know as the adorable electric mouse from Pokémon), my playlist might include:

“You’re My Best Friend” by Queen, because he loves his best friend, Ash Ketchum

“Electric Feel” by MGMT, because he is an electric Pokémon

“Can’t Be Tamed” by Miley Cyrus, because Ash’s Pikachu refuses to go in a Pokéball

Though this example is silly and light-hearted, students could also choose to make a playlist for a character that means a lot to them, or even a friend or family member who inspires them. Students can also address ideas in a non-literal sense, using the overall tone, thematic material, or timbre of the song to encapsulate the subject.

Alternate Endings
Listening to music can give our students examples of chord progressions, instrumentation, form, and much more. While a direct analysis of any of those elements can be helpful, we can also take a more playful approach. For example, try taking a song that is less familiar to your students (but still in a genre that they have knowledge about). Play half of the song while students can see the chord and lyrics. After hearing it once or twice, discuss what the song is about and decide how the story might end! Students can talk about an ending, write lyrics, create a new section in the form, write chords, and more. After coming up with your own creations, you can compare the results with the “real” ending of the song and see how they measure up.

Another way to approach this activity is to start with a full song that your students know and change the ending. Maybe it ends a little too happily, and you’d prefer to make the “characters” miserable. Perhaps you would like a big plot twist where the love interest turns out to be a Martian all along. It could even be that the current lyrics would work better on top of a quieter instrumentation or different chord qualities. Regardless of the direction your students take this activity, they will be thinking of the music they hear in a whole new way!

Make it a Soundtrack
Much like drawing, we can connect other visual storytelling mediums to music. While listening to a song (with or without words), you can ask questions like: what scene in a movie you have seen would this connect to? From there you could write or even record your own scene to go with the song. Some students may take this in a “music video” direction while others could do a dramatic, comedic, or abstract scene (live or recorded) to pair with the song. To fully realize an activity like this, students will have to listen to the song multiple times from a variety of viewpoints from abstract to concrete.

Sync licensing for film, TV, and video games is a fast-growing part of the music industry. Paying attention to soundtracks and considering how visual and audio art and media support each other can lead to a greater appreciation of this work as well as a viable career option for students who may want to pursue music professionally.

Getting Started
It can seem challenging to find time for music listening, particularly in the performance-driven culture of U.S. music education. However, if we foster active and creative listening skills for students, every part of our music classrooms from appreciation to performance becomes richer and more meaningful. Start small and leverage simple versions of these activities as warm-ups, brain breaks, and cool-down activities. Then, let students’ interest and enthusiasm lead the way to deeper dives and creative projects. For our students who may primarily interact with music by listening in their adult lives, we are giving them the gift of connecting that experience with their own creativity.


Mary Claxton is the associate director of teaching & learning for national music education nonprofit Little Kids Rock.

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