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Teach Visualization Using Music

Posted on April 13, 2015

Teach Visualization Using Music

It isn't hard to believe that you can use music to work on students' visualization skills. However, the mystery might lie in knowing which songs to choose. What music works best?

Choose songs students are not familiar with. You want songs students have NOT seen the music video for and/or have minimal background knowledge about. This could include less popular songs, oldies, or consider choosing songs without lyrics--either instrumental or classical music.

Humanities teacher Dan Myers at Zionsville Middle School (Zionsville, IN) executes this strategy with his fifth graders a few times throughout the school year. Here are the steps he follows:

  • Turn out the lights. Encourage students to put their heads down and close their eyes, focusing on the music and what they envision in their minds.
  • Play the song through for the first time, asking students to imagine a movie in their minds to accompany the music.
  • Turn the lights on. Play the song again. While listening to the music a second time, have students sketch their frame-by-frame visualizations with crayons, colored pencils, or markers. The students become the music video directors for the song.

Visualization is different than simply one's imagination in that it is rooted in a text. In other words, students have to cite evidence for what they visualized while listening to the music. Ask students to explain, why they drew what they did for different parts of the music. They might reference specific instruments, pacing, volume, dynamics, etc. that led to their visual inferences.

Here are some examples created by Dan's fifth graders based on Orff's "O Fortuna":

  • Heaven, by Emily--My drawing is what I thought the song was about. I imagined that the song was about a person's travel to Heaven. I thought this because the song, "O Fortuna," was dramatic, sorrowful, and exciting, similar to what I think a trip to Heaven would be like. These were the step-by-step visuals I imagined.
  • Revolutionary War, by Annadel--[NOTE: Annadel related the song to an earlier class conversation about the Revolutionary War.] My drawing is a battle, with brave soldiers on both sides. One of the brown-coated soldiers is shot and passes. They surrender and the red-coated soldiers now have control of the hill where they pass through.
  • Chains, by Catherine--[NOTE: Catherine based her visualizations on Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Chains.] My picture is of the Ku-Klux Klan who burned blacks, and in the music I heard a wish for freedom and a crying out of all the pain they had endured. I also showed a pair of chained hands being hit by a rope. That was the slaves' pain they had to endure. In the music, I heard, not a cry for vengeance, but a plea for mercy. I heard how wrong it was that people were treated as though they had committed some horrible crime that they needed to be punished just by being born.

Based on student favorites, Mr. Myers recommends the following classical songs for targeting visualization.