Photo Credit: Pete Zivkov
December 20, 2017

Literary Beats: Tapping into the Shared DNA of Music and Literature

A new summer course will teach students about music's literary merit and, per Lady Gaga, its “power to unite us.”
by Jenny Barker

“With the great musician Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the question ‘What is Literature?’ has gotten even more complicated,” reads the course description for a new hybrid Summer Session course that will launch in 2018 at Phillips Academy. Edward Raines, an English teacher at Westridge School, and Leo Kitajima, director of orchestra, jazz, and chamber music at Menlo School, will co-teach the five-week program that includes a three-week online experience and a two-week experience on the Andover campus, where students apply and enhance their online learning with classroom discussions, field trips to the Boston music scene, and collaborative projects. The online portion of the course will take place from July 3 to 22, 2018; the on-campus portion will run from July 23 to August 5, 2018, at Phillips Academy. Applications are open now and accepted on a rolling basis, though space is limited.

What type of student will love this course?

We welcome all high-school students who love music and wish to improve their reading, writing, and listening skills. Because the course is designed to meet the personal interests and needs of our students, we foresee a wide range of ages--from rising ninth graders who wish to get a quick start to their high-school careers to college-bound seniors who wish to enhance their intellectual development in an interdisciplinary study.

What was your inspiration?

Strangely enough, the inspiration came up during a faculty meeting as we outlined our music/literature course on a napkin. It was rather funny as we passed the napkin back and forth, but we never know when the creative muse will descend upon us. From there we taught an online AP English Literature course subtitled “The Music of Literature,” and the focus was more on the role of music in various literary texts. In this hybrid summer course, called “Literary Beats: Tapping into the Shared DNA of Music and Literature,” we want the focus more on music and its potential literary merit. Investigating the long-standing relationship between music and literature is perhaps now even more compelling with the musician Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.

Some wonderful writers like Ralph Ellison and Anthony Burgess were accomplished musicians, and their literary works such as Invisible Man and A Clockwork Orange were significantly influenced by elements of musical composition. Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, discussed the importance of writing songs early in his career in an interview with The Guardian, saying, “One of the key things I learnt writing lyrics–and this had an enormous influence on my fiction–was that with an intimate, confiding, first-person song, the meaning must not be self-sufficient on the page. It has to be oblique, sometimes you have to read between the lines.” Given Ishiguro's comments and our own experiences, we know students can benefit by writing their own songs.

How have you seen students interact with this type of content?

In our online AP class, we wanted our students to get a taste of musical composition while reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a novel influenced by jazz music. More specifically, we wanted students to create their own "work song," an important influence in jazz. We had one student who was a rather accomplished singer/songwriter, so we knew she would have no problem with the assignment. The other students had no musical training, but we were astonished by the quality of their compositions. They thought deeply about how they worked, what they needed to do for success, and why their songs can inspire them.

Why a hybrid format?

Like many educators, we are excited about the various benefits of the hybrid approach to learning. The three-week online component provides students both the opportunity to initiate relationships comfortably with classmates and the flexibility to work on their own time and at their own pace; during the final two weeks, the face-to-face component should re-energize collaboration and allow us to think on our feet with each other and to celebrate our work together. Of course, the hybrid format also works from a pragmatic perspective--it may be quite challenging for both teachers and students to set aside five weeks away from home during the summer. Simply put, we think the hybrid format is the perfect fit for us.

What do you hope students will take away?

Students rarely get a chance to study their own musical tastes or to understand how developing their listening skills can improve their interpretive skills. They also rarely have the opportunity to discuss the concept of literary merit and to question what "literature" is. We hope such forays will improve the writing, reading, listening, and critical-thinking skills of our students.

Anything else to add?

In the words of Lady Gaga, "Music is one of the most powerful things the world has to offer. No matter what race or religion or nationality or sexual orientation or gender that you are, it has the power to unite us." We think Lady Gaga just might be worth listening to!

Photo Credit: Pete Zivkov

Video Credit: John Wan

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