Projects that Pop! Leveraging Student Creativity

Mary Claxton, Scott Burnstein, Spencer Hale, Tony Sauza • Modern BandNovember 2022 • November 13, 2022

Since the inception of the music classroom over 100 years ago, the primary goal of most ensembles has been the performance. However, in an ever-changing technology driven musical landscape, performance is only one way to showcase an artist’s creativity, skill, and expertise. A new generation of students have grown up with platforms for musical delivery such as Youtube and Tik-tok. To meet our students where they are, and to help prepare them for sharing their work with a wider audience, here are some classroom projects that incorporate skills outside of music practice and performance.

Creating Mash-ups
One great way to highlight not only their playing skills but to demonstrate theory as well as genre knowledge is to create mash-ups of different songs. Many of us have seen some of the more famous mash-ups such as “Four Chord Song” by Axis of Awesome, which has become so popular the I-V-vi-IV chord progression it uses is often referred to as the “Axis of Awesome Progression.”  Creating a mash-up of a chord progression can be as simple as finding multiple songs that use the same chord progressions (multiple Wikipedia pages exist with lists of songs by progression), choosing a tempo that works with these songs, and then finding ways to weave them together or even combine them at the same time. Students can challenge themselves by finding more obscure progressions, changing the chords of some using modal mixture, or even using the melody and lyrics from one song over the background style of another. 

Fun with Film & Music
Over the past few years, there have been multiple fun online trends testifying to the power of music in movies and more. On YouTube, there is an entire channel aptly named “Without Music” that comedically trades the musical track of contemporary music videos for awkward silence and sound effects. Other examples, like “Elf Recut as a Thriller” show the strength of music even more powerfully as it trades the comedic soundtrack for one that uses music to heighten tension. 

This can be a fun way to explore how musical textures, harmonies, and genres shape our perception of the things we watch on our screens. For a shorter exploration, find some public domain footage (Prelinger Archives is a great source for cartoons, news stories, commercials, documentaries, old movies, and more) and see how pre-made music affects its mood. As an extension, students can write their own music using Soundtrap or other recording software!

Not only is writing parodies a great source of laughter, it’s a way to help students deconstruct and dive deeper into the songwriting process. Writing parodies requires you to think about the lyrics of the song deeper than most people do on a casual listen. What’s the rhyme scheme? How many measures does each phrase have? What is the theme or story of the lyrics? 

When students write new lyrics for a song, they’ll have to practice making their new words fit into the existing structure of the original song, which brings up a challenge. What if there are too many or too few words? How do I make these words fit the phrase without sounding awkward?

Parodies work as great starting points to teach songwriting because they provide students with a framework to build from. Rather than starting from scratch, students have a structure to go from. As they swap out lyrics, they can think about song sections and apply common songwriting techniques to their parodies. Is this the chorus? How do I summarize the lyrical themes with my new words? Is this the verse? What story am I trying to tell in my song? 

While parody assumes humor, students can also focus on these skills in the context of any song rewrite. Students can also write sincere versions of songs!

A great way to learn more about your students and for them to learn more about each other is having them create their own playlists and mixtapes. You can use platforms such as SoundCloud, YouTube, or a host of other streaming services. SoundCloud and YouTube are great options because they are both free, however, you want to make sure to talk to your school’s IT department in case they need to adjust firewall permissions. Some prompts for initiating these projects can include:  

  • You are asked to DJ for your school’s upcoming dance. Choose 10 to 12 songs that you would play and create a playlist. 
  •  You are asked to DJ for a family party. Choose 10 to 12 songs that you know most of your family would enjoy.  
  • Select three songs that symbolize who you are. 
  • Create a mixtape of your favorite artists from the 1990s 

What Skills are You Looking for Your Students to Build?
What do all these projects have in common? They build upon different facets of music education that students use in their daily lives and outside the typical performance model.  Students can work on musicianship, theory, composition, and listening skills through music and media they already know and love. All these projects focus on the creative side of music, an area often ignored in performance-based classes. There are a ton of important musical skills used in ensembles, such as teamwork, balance, and instrumental skills, but they too often leave out any room for student choice or autonomy. Finding projects such as these prepare students for other futures in the musical landscape of today and can help make them well-rounded, independent, critical thinkers, able to demonstrate all the great musical skills they have been building in their music classes. 

Scott, Mary, Spencer, and Tony make up the teaching and learning department for the non-profit Music Will, who believe in transforming lives by transforming music education. All four are former public school music teachers.

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