Learning From Lyrics

What lessons about history can be learned from music and other arts?


Key Staff

Social Studies teacher with opportunities to collaborate with visual and performing arts teachers

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


Students research contemporary songs (alternative, country, metal, pop, rap, and rock music) to study current social issues. They deliver oral presentations using factual data, graphics, and other media to interpret the song lyrics.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Analyze the song to determine the artist's point-of-view regarding the subject addressed in the song.
  • Create visual representation of the songs and the relevant cultural and historical information about each.
  • Design and create an original visual aid that illustrates a central theme of the song.
  • Identify the social studies issue/event/person that is addressed in the song.
  • Identify three Social Studies Concepts that apply to the issue/event/idea expressed in the song.
  • Interpret song lyrics based on contextual clues and research information.
  • Present their opinions and research information orally.
  • Synthesize their learning through a presentation that incorporates music, visual arts, and oral speech.

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Brainstorming
  • Discussion
  • Self-Directed Learning
  • Research

Assessment Type

Determined by Teacher


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • Speakers
  • Internet Access
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

The teacher will act as a facilitator, since this unit is based on independent research. The teacher will provide song list, recordings, current magazines and books, and a list of approved websites for computer research. The teacher will provide a classroom display of projects created by former students or by an instructor.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • The concept of social criticism or social commentary.
  • The arts as a means of expression.

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab
  • Media Center or Library


  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


  • Photocopy necessary papers
  • Test internet connection
  • Compile samples of music and art to share with students

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Have students list ways people express themselves through the arts. Answers should include the following:

  • Performing Arts (theater, dance, music)
  • Visual arts (Painting, sculpture, drawing)
  • Media (film, documentary, political cartoons)
  • Literary Arts

2. Share with students examples of each. See the Suggested Works worksheet under 'Resources in Reach' for ideas.

3. Distribute the Making a Statement worksheet located under 'Resources in Reach'. Have students work in pairs or small groups to brainstorm examples to complete the chart.

4. Reconvene the class and share students’ ideas.

Build Knowledge

1. Explain to students that they will be doing an independent study in which they will focus on interpreting lyrics from popular songs.

2. Ask students to choose three contemporary songs which may be from the same or varying genres. They should use the Research Planning worksheet located under 'Resources in Reach' to brainstorm their ideas. Students will likely choose songs from one of these genres:

  • Top 40 Pop
  • Top 40 Rock
  • Hip Hop
  • R & B
  • Soft Rock
  • Hard Rock/Metal
  • Alternative

The vast majority of students will opt to choose current songs, ones that will undoubtedly fit into one of the aforementioned genres. However, an alternative should be suggested, one which offers students the opportunity to stretch themselves and their knowledge, or to explore an area of music in which they have always had an interest.

3. Suggest that for those who may wish to do so, there are other categories from which to choose, such as:

  • Folk
  • Blues
  • Jazz
  • Country
  • Opera
  • Musicals
  • Celtic/British Isles
  • Oldies
  • Other Foreign
  • Ethnomusicological
  • Work songs
  • Other

Students who choose from the first category will most likely end up exploring current issues. Other students may choose to select songs from the second category, discovering issues contained in the lyrics of these songs that may deal with other issues, issues separated from our current context by time, culture, or distance. This offers students the opportunity to do research into a wide array of different topic areas. This research would undoubtedly lead to interesting discoveries, both for the researcher and for the rest of the class to whom the results are presented.

4. Present students with the following examples to help them generate ideas for their research. You may choose to provide students with a printed version of this information. You may find this information in the worksheet named Research Ideas for Students under 'Resources in Reach'.

  • Folk: The first time Bob Dylan played an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, it caused quite a stir. Folk purists in the audience were infuriated at him, berating him with cries of “sellout!" and the like. Dylan was moving into a new genre of music, and his choice to do so had profound effects on the course of the 1960s and the lives of a generation. Choose three of his most politically charged songs and discuss.
  • Blues: The lyrics of blues songs are a map of the emotions and social issues affecting the lives of African-Americans for the last century. There are different types of blues - explore these genres on the Blues Road Trip. Choose three examples, compare and contrast the lyrical choices, and explain them with reference to their respective social contexts.
  • Jazz: Billie Holiday sang a lot of songs about love and heartache. Choose several of her songs for analysis. How are her songs different than love songs of today? How are they the same?
  • Country: This genre of music is known for its common themes (love and loss, country life, pickup trucks, etc.). Choose songs representative of this. Are these themes significantly different from the themes present in forms of contemporary music more common in urban areas, or are the differences only superficial, with underlying meanings being the same?
  • Opera/Musicals: Music is a mirror of life and culture. Songs can provide a window into the soul of the artist, tackle important issues, or tell a story. Music serves a variety of functions and purposes in society, with opera and musicals usually falling into the story-telling role. What different types of moods are evoked by these types of musical stories? Choose three fairly disparate examples, such as a comedic song, a hopeful song, and a tragic song.
  • Celtic/British Isles: This region of the world has a powerful, diverse, and rich musical tradition. Of the many forms in this genre, the ballad is one of the most salient sub-genres. Find several choices, become familiar with the standard format of the ballad, and then find modern equivalents for comparison.
  • Oldies: Parents, grandparents and great-grandparents enjoyed popular music in their day. Choose several examples of music that was popular at some point in history prior to 1950. How are the selections representative of the time period in which they were popular?

Students may also choose to examine music from another country, (perhaps their country of origin, if they are recent immigrants). Perhaps they will choose music from a country in which they have an abiding interest, using the exploration of the music as a vehicle for discovering more about that country.

Students may also have an interest in more obscure ethnomusiclogical selections. Research into the songs of a culture quite different from ours, perhaps a primitive culture, could provide for interesting discovery.

Students may wish to explore work songs, such as sea shanties, or they may wish to learn more about songs from the beginnings of the labor movement, either here in the States, or in Europe during the Industrial Revolution.

5. Direct students to the computer lab or library to begin their independent research. Have students use the Suggested Research Guide located under 'Resources in Reach'.


1. Give students the opportunity to conduct research during class. Allow them to engage in some or all of the following research activities:

  • Students may listen to the songs at classroom or computer lab workstations, or they may bring them in from their home collections.
  • Students should identify key words and ideas from the lyrics.
  • Students should identify the composer, performance genre, instrumentation, and musical elements (tempo, form, dynamics, rhythm, expressive qualities, and mood) of the songs.
  • Students should identify the main theme of each song’s lyrics, placing it in appropriate historical context.
  • Students should identify social issues presented in the songs.
  • Students may read books, articles, and online research information to form their own opinions of the social issues addressed in the music.
  • Using computer capabilities and/or charts, students will create visuals, graphics, or multimedia presentations to explain their opinions, the musical form, the composer, the performer, and related historical/cultural material for each of the three songs.

2. Once students have completed their research, have them create visual representations of the songs and the relevant cultural and historical information about each of the songs they have researched. Students will also design and create an original visual aid that illustrates a central theme of the song.

3.Tell students that they should be prepared to give an oral presentation about one of the songs they have chosen.


1. Have students share their results by giving classroom presentations that synthesize music and the visual arts.

2. Lead a class discussion in which students debate which songs they believe made the most effective statements and why.

3. Ask students to write a brief reflection in response to the following question: Which medium do you think most effectively conveys and communicates a message of social criticism and why?

Recommended Resources

This lesson could easily be adapted by substituting film, visual arts, or other performing arts for music.

Key Vocabulary

  • Social criticism
  • Lyrics


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

Johnathan Chase
Original Writer

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