The Sounds of Change


Activities will help students:

  • Explain how music evokes feelings and emotion.
  • Understand relationships between music and culture.
  • Analyze song lyrics to critically examine themes and messages.
  • Consider the effectiveness of music to communicate ideas.
  • Use music to express a personal viewpoint or message about a tolerance-related issue that’s important to them.

Essential Questions: 

  • What can we learn from music?
  • What is the role of music in society?
  • Are young people influenced by the music they listen to?
  • What responsibilities do songwriters have to use their platforms for positive change?
  • Why is the viewpoint of songwriters relevant?

Materials Needed: 

Song Lyrics:

Song Lyrics:

In fact, music can create powerful connections between people, help us learn about different cultures, shatter stereotypes, question social injustices and inspire us to create “the world as it should be.” Its purpose extends beyond entertainment to educate, inspire, represent people, influence and change society, and provide social commentary. For young people, in particular, it can prompt investigation and action and help them make sense of the world. This lesson challenges students to analyze and reflect on the messages and lessons of song lyrics and create their own outlets to express a viewpoint or message related to tolerance that is important to them.

Professional Development

  • Song lyrics can be the living textbook for students to learn about moments and events that have shaped American history and culture. This listing shares songs that can be used to connect music to Social Studies for grades K-12: Song for Teaching: Using Music to Promote Learning.
  • Educators know the benefits of integrating music in the classroom, but for many schools shrinking district budgets no longer allow for music classes and other areas of arts education. In this article, Scholastic offers ideas for mixing music with core academic subjects as one way to salvage its strengths and enrich the entire curriculum. Scholastic, Music in the Classroom.


lyric  |ˈlirik|
(adjective) The words that are part of a song.

metaphor  |ˈmetəˌfôr; -fər|
(noun) Comparing two unrelated things without using “like” or “as.”

relevant |ˈreləvənt|
(adjective) Connected to the subject or matter.

Early Grades (3-5)

Language Arts, Social Studies, Music

1. As a class, discuss the following questions:  

a. How many of you like listening to music?

b. What are the reasons you listen?

c. How does music make you feel?

d. Do you think you can learn anything from music? If so, what?

2. On the board, create a list of your favorite songs. Do classmates share similar or different choices? Why might that be? Is it okay to have different musical choices than your friends? Would you be willing to listen to a new song if a friend recommended it?

3. What makes a song “good” in your opinion? A good sound? Interesting words?

4. When you listen to a song, do you really listen to its words or just sing it? Sometimes the same person who sings a song writes the words (lyrics) or develops the music. Other times different people develop the sound, write the words and sing it. Oftentimes the songwriter is trying to share a message or point of view with the audience. Can you think of any songs where the songwriter is trying to share a particular message? Refer back to the list you created at the beginning of the lesson for possible examples.

5. (Distribute the printed lyrics or provide Web link to the song, “Ebony and Ivory.”) Look at the lyrics to the song, “Ebony and Ivory.” It was written in 1982 by Paul McCartney, one of the original Beatles. Read the lyrics or listen to an online recording.

6. After you listen to the song or read the lyrics, draw a picture or write a few sentences about what you think the message of the song is.

7. Share your interpretations with other students. Can you identify any metaphors in the song? (A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word of phrase that ordinarily represents one thing is used to represent something else.) Given that definition, what is the metaphor for ebony? Ivory? The piano keyboard? [Note: According to Wikipedia, “At the simplest level, the song is about the ebony (black) and ivory (white) keys on a piano, but also deals with integration and racial harmony on a deeper level.” McCartney originally conceived the idea for this song after watching English comedian Spike Milligan on a TV show playing a segregated piano, on which the white and black keys were kept apart in order to demonstrate how one couldn't work without the other.]

8. What do you think Paul McCartney hoped would happen when people listened to the song? Do you think the same message would be important or relevant in today’s society? Why or why not?

9. (Distribute song lyrics or provide Web links for several other songs and the Song Analysis handout.) Share answers with the class. What similar message do all of these songs share? Given the fact that the songs were written in different decades, what conclusions can you draw about this message? How does this message apply to your school? Your community?

10. Within your group, brainstorm about other messages/viewpoints that songwriters could sing about that would be relevant to tolerance in your school or community. Think about tolerance of other groups including those with disabilities, those of different religions, ethnic backgrounds, or viewpoints, or those who come from different neighborhoods.

11. Imagine you are a current singer or songwriter who has been asked to write a song about one of these issues to sing at your next concert. Pick the issue you would like to write a song about. Then write a paragraph about the song you will write including the issue you’ve chosen, why it’s important to you, why you think it’s relevant in your school or community, and what message you would want your song to share.

12. Finally create a title for your song and a CD cover that illustrates what its message will be.

Middle and High School (grade 6-12)

Language Arts, Social Studies, Music

(Before beginning the lesson, ask students to select and bring to class the lyrics to a song that inspires them. You will want to ensure that their songs are school-appropriate.)

1. As a class, discuss the following questions:

a. Do you enjoy listening to music? If so, what do you enjoy about it?

b. What types of music do you enjoy, and why?

c. Do you think that music can put you in a certain mood? Or inspire you to change behavior? Or teach you something? If appropriate, share examples.

2. Tell your classmates about the song lyrics you brought to class and share why the song inspires you. Based on the songs shared, can you draw any conclusions about the types of songs that inspire kids your age?

3. In small groups, consider the following questions. If you wanted something to change (at your school, in your community or in society as a whole), how might you go about changing it? How could music help in this way? What role do you think music can play in inciting change?

4. Read the editorial, “The Other Education,” by David Brooks. What questions does it bring to mind for you? Do classmates agree or disagree with Brooks’ opinion

5. Hold a class discussion using the following questions:

a. What does Brooks mean by his “second education”? Or his “emotional curriculum”?

b. Who was the “professor” to which he refers? In what way(s) did Bruce Springsteen teach him? What do you know about Springsteen’s music?

c. Do you agree that music can provide an education as important as formal schooling? Do you agree that society pays “too much attention to the first education and not enough to the second”?

d. What songs, if any, have inspired or taught you something?

e. If music has such an effect on us personally, what effect can it have on society?

f. In a recent Rolling Stone article Bruce Springsteen himself said, “While rockers don’t have a whole lot of influence, they can create a vision of the world as it should be.” How can they create this vision? Do you think musicians can bring about change through their music? Can they help to shape history? Do you think that songwriters or singers should use their platform to create a better world? What other singers, groups or songwriters use their music to teach or create positive change?

g. Do you think that people your age are inspired or moved by the music they listen to?

6. (Distribute the lyrics or provide Web link to the song, “Waiting on the World to Change,” by John Mayer.) Based on the title, what do you think the song, “Waiting on the World to Change,” is about? Read the lyrics. Then discuss these questions with the class or in small groups:

a. What do you think the message of the song is?

b. Some people think that Mayer is saying it’s OK to wait while others think that he is trying to incite his generation to act. Which statement do you agree with, and why?

c. What do you think Mayer means when he says, “When they own the information, oh they can bend it all they want”? Who are “they”?

d. In what way(s) does he express hope for the future?

e. Which lines in the song do you most relate to?

f. Do you feel that your generation is misunderstood? Do you think your generation will wait for change or act to make change happen?

g. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be and why?

7. Many songwriters use music to convey messages or points of view. Sometimes it is to create change. Other times it is to protest something or someone. And often, as David Brooks suggests, we learn from these messages. Can you think of any songs that convey a particular message, lesson or point of view?

8. Individually or in groups, select one of the songs below. Read the lyrics and/or listen to an online version. Then complete the Song Analysis handout.

a. “We Shall Overcome,” by Joan Baez

b. “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” by Bob Dylan

c. “The Rising,” by Bruce Springsteen

d. “Where is the Love?” by The Black Eyed Peas

e. “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye

f. “Imagine,” by John Lennon

9. Share your answers with the rest of the class. What similarities and differences are there between the songs? What conclusions can you draw about the power of music in creating change or teaching society about important issues?

10. Individually or in a small group, review a current newspaper, online news site or news program and select an issue or topic related to tolerance that you would like to change, protest, support, teach about or address.

11. Then use the melody of one of the songs in this lesson (or create your own melody if you like) to write a stanza or entire song about the topic you’ve chosen. Your song should include a lesson or specific viewpoint that inspires others to act, change or learn.

12. Perform your song for others in the class and challenge them to identify your message, viewpoint or lesson.

Additional Resources

Extension Activity: 

Early Grades

  • Use the music from one of the songs in this lesson (or another song you like) to write lyrics for your “new” song.
  • Interview parents or other community members about the songs that inspire them. Then create a music mix of inspirational songs for your community.

Middle and High School

  • Organize and host a “Tolerance Concert” where you perform your songs.
  • Create a music video for your song.
  • Research songs that were written during periods of unrest in American history such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, etc. Then create a timeline of influential songs.
  • Conduct a debate about whether it is the responsibility of songwriters to inspire or motivate those who listen to their music to act, change, or learn.