Sometimes I can sneak up on my students like a metaphorical ninja and before they know it, I have dropped some literary terms into their brains. A throwing star of knowledge right in the face. Music is something that allows that to happen. They do not realize they are learning something as boring as literary elements until it is too late. It is a great way to introduce these things in songs before we apply them to poems, short stories, and novels. Last week in class, we discussed the concepts of Mood and Tone. I wanted to highlight what they are, how to pick them out, and how the two terms are different from one another.
I gave my students a list of mood words, broken into two columns. One side had positive words, the other side had negative words. I played the song “Kids” by MGMT. I asked them to ignore the lyrics. I wanted them to simply listen to the music and select three or four mood words from the list that captured the overall feeling of the song. The majority of students chose positive mood words. I asked them to write down the evidence for the mood words they selected. We discussed the elements of the music that gave it a positive mood: the beat, the synthesizer, the kids screaming in the background.
After this first step, we looked at the lyrics of the song. We discussed the subject, which in this case was childhood. On the back of the list of mood words was a list of tone words. I asked the students to decide how the speaker was talking about childhood. What was his tone? Most of my students thought he was dramatic, nostalgic, sad, and some even said they thought he just didn’t like being an adult.
Darkness in the Valley
Next, we listened to “I Miss You” by blink-182, which is a much darker song. But instead of just basing our mood words on the music, we looked at the lyrics as we listened. I asked them not to really read it yet, though, but instead pay attention to just the individual words they saw. Words like nightmare, morgue, darkness, victim, and spiders give it an overall negative, haunting, creepy mood that the music enhances.
Next we read the lyrics and talked about the difference in mood and tone. After agreeing on the subject, the students quickly settled on heartbroken as the perfect tone word for the song.
In the Blackest of Rooms
Like the previous song, we read the lyrics and listened to the music of this one at the same time. In “I Will Follow You into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie, the speaker is talking about a depressing subject. He is thinking about and preparing for the eventual death of his lover. The overall emotion is dark, and the students gave great examples of individual words in the song that created that mood.
But when we discussed the tone, we noticed that it was not negative. The speaker did not seem to be depressed or scared by death. It was actually pretty sweet. The contrast in the mood and tone really stood out to my students.
Buried in the Daisies
For the last song, I started by giving them only the lyrics to “The Gardener” by The Tallest Man on Earth. This song is not as straight-forward to interpret as the first two, so I asked them to read it quietly for a few minutes before getting into groups of two or three to discuss the meaning. I walked around listening to my students talk about how creepy the song was. The speaker in the song kept murdering people and burying them in his garden. When we came back together as a group, we discussed the situation in the song.
The speaker’s words created a violent, cold, jealous mood. As my students pointed out, the guy had issues. But his tone did not match the mood. His tone was calm, romantic, and sweet, which contributed to the overall creepiness of the song.
I asked them to guess what the music would sound like based on the mood and tone. When we listened to it, the students noted that the music was upbeat and happy, matching the tone but not the mood. It led to a good discussion about the effect this has on the song.
Listen Along on Spotify
Spotify has become my favorite music player in the classroom, as it lets me put together playlists for all my writing prompts. If you’d like to incorporate these, or other songs, into your lesson plans, you can follow my Mood/Tone Songs for ELA playlist on Spotify. You will need a Spotify account, but do not worry: they are free.
Nathan Garvin teaches 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts and Reading at Walnut Grove Middle School in Midlothian, Texas. For more great ELA lesson plan ideas, check out his EdmodoCon 2014 presentation “Leveling Up Student Writing With Badges” and follow Nathan on Twitter.