The Story Behind the Song

This set of generic questions is useful for an in-depth exploration of any song. Adapt by selecting questions from each group for discussion or writing, but please start with questions from the first group “Describe.”

What do I hear? What facts do I know?


What strikes you most about this song?

What musical phrase is especially memorable? What makes it so memorable: melody, rhythm, lyrics? A combination? Where does the phrase occur? How often does it or a similar phrase recur?

Write down “images” that the music “paints.” What vivid metaphors, similes, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs are in the lyrics?

What voice(s) do you hear?

What instruments do you hear? Where are they used alone and where are they used for accompaniment?

Mark any changes in tempo, dynamics (loudness or softness), style or timbre (tone of voice) on the sheet music or lyrics. Mark any changes in the pattern of the melody.

Gathering facts:

Who wrote the song? Where and how was the song composed?

Who were the song’s “consumers”: performers, listeners, singers, accompanists?

Taking each category of questions in order ensures that students have really listened closely to the song before moving on to the higher-order questions that involve analysis, interpretation, and speculation/ evaluation.

How was the song performed? How is it listened to? How was it accompanied?

How was it distributed?

When was the song popular? On what occasions was it sung?

What cultural, occupational, or gender group does the song repre-sent? Is the composer a member of that group?

How did they do it?

Whose voice are the lyrics written in? First, second or third person? Singular or plural? Dialect?

Is the singer playing a role or singing as themselves? How does that effect the meaning of the song?

What is the purpose of the song: to entertain, convince or persuade, express an emotion, encourage, tell a story, commemorate?

How do the rhythm and melody “match” the lyrics? Where do they change throughout the song? How is the song’s message reflected in changes in tempo and loudness? What do the song’s tempo, dynamics, or style suggest about its purpose?

How does the music reinforce or help to tell the message of the song?

What does it mean? What can I assume or infer?

What message or mood does the tune convey? If you couldn’t understand the words, what would you assume from the music about the style and purpose of the song?

What opinion, if any, is the songwriter expressing through the song? What do the lyrics reveal about any “hidden message” or point of view of the writers and performers?

What occupations or pastimes does the song refer to? What is the com-poser/singer’s attitude about this activity?

What is the singer trying to make the listener do, think, or feel?• What emotions does the song express?

What questions does this song raise in your mind? Where could you look for answers to those questions?

Why? How important is it?

Who do you imagine singing this song? When and where do you picture this song being performed?

What might you be feeling or thinking if you sang or heard this song in some of these situations?

How might the song’s message or meaning change with different people or in different environments?

In your own words, what is the message of the song? Would you con-sider this song “propaganda”? Why or why not?

What physical movement can you picture going along with this song (marching, dancing, working, playing a game, etc.)?

How popular was the song? Why was the song popular? What needs did it fill in its audience?

How long did it remain popular? Why? How did its function evolve as time went on? How/why is the song still known today?

In a good song, music and lyrics are inseparable partners. Using that guideline, how good a song is this? Give some examples to prove your point.

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