Most of us listen to music every day, whether we’re using streaming music online or still spinning records at home. Music gives us a soundtrack to our lives, helps us process emotions, and can even help us focus or sleep, but how much are we paying attention to what music is saying behind the lyrics?
This past week, students at the Manchester Community Musical School were asked that same question. As part of their Virtual Summer Music Festival, 11 students attended our online “Behind the Lyrics” workshop on Tuesday, July 28th. Though they came from varying backgrounds and with various music tastes, ranging from Rachmaninov to Muse, they all had a strong connection with music. To begin, we analyzed two songs with similar themes to get them thinking about the ways in which music can influence our emotions and decisions.
The first song we analyzed was “Level of Concern” by Twenty One Pilots. This song was written during the COVID-19 pandemic and discusses some of the stressors associated with quarantine, feeling alone, and feeling stuck with those in your household. Most students thought that listening to music about the situation they are currently experiencing was helpful, as they could compare their own experiences with someone else’s and found solace in the fact that they are not alone. One student made the point that sometimes it’s more stressful to listen to something that’s directly related to the stress in your life because it reminds you of the struggles you are facing.
We then discussed symbolism and figurative language in the song “Freedom” by Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar. Beyonce uses metaphors of storms and rain to depict power and deep feelings of both strength, fear, and sorrow. Students were quick to point out the driving beat behind the song as pairing up with the words, indicating that Beyonce is advocating for action and resilience from people in tough times. They also noted that Lamar’s bridge is very different from Beyonce’s, citing specific examples of the struggles of being black in America. We discussed how these contrasting verses help to bring the message across and strengthen the idea of overcoming adversity in the song.
Students were able to compare and contrast the two pieces on how the musicality and lyrics combined to state a message of overcoming adversity. They agreed that they found Beyonce’s song more powerful than Twenty One Pilots, as it’s music matched the message and the lyrics, though very symbolic, were clear in their theme. Students noted that “Level of Concern” has a more happy background track, making it seem dissociated with the descriptions of living through quarantine. Students also thought about the way that musical artists use their creations to process emotions, and speculated that Twenty One Pilots may have wanted to process what is happening through music and lyrics. The more we understand who created something, what they are trying to say, and who they are saying it to, we better understand how that impacts our emotions, our decision making, and how we see the world.
The final element of the workshop challenged students to write their own lyrics to twinkle twinkle, little star. This part of the workshop asked students to apply what they learned about figurative language and expressing their emotions to create lyrics that conveyed a specific idea. Kaelly, shown below, chose to use this opportunity to express her uncertainty about the upcoming school year and the state of the world. She used the imagery of the world itself “healing” to refer to the pandemic, and used concrete examples of school and stress to ground her statement in the current moment.
“Wishing and hoping for a reveal,
waiting for the world to heal.
Will we return, will we stay here,
Is the opening of school coming near?
Wishing and hoping for a reveal
waiting for the world to heal”
Having a creative outlet gives students a healthy way to express their emotions as well as a clearer picture of how the media they consume is created. Other students wrote about keeping hope, current political events, and day-to-day life.
So next time you start to hum along to a song on the radio, ask yourself, what is this song really saying?
This program is a part of the Youth Enrichment Parnetership and was made possible by the Granite United Way and the Bean Foundation.