It’s not often that Simon and Garfunkel and Pink Floyd songs are connected to literature such as Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
The unusual technique is the brainstorm of Christian Goering, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and former high school English teacher. He sought to further his literacy research by having pre-service Master of Arts in Teaching students perform a directed reading of Of Mice and Men.
His goal was to help secondary-level students become more interested in literature by using popular music as a motivational and instructional tool in the classroom. He termed this reading strategy “musical intertextuality,” the act of purposefully connecting reading material to one’s musical knowledge.
In Goering’s research, students chose songs that corresponded with Of Mice and Men. Artists ranging from The Police and Rick James to Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine were chosen.
The lyrics of some songs easily parallel scenes from Of Mice and Men, such as “Don’t Go Into That Barn” by Tom Waits, seemingly the advice that should be given to the character of Lennie when he accidentally kills Curley’s wife in the story.
Other connections were more abstract in nature such as Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” a song written about someone who is attempting to escape a desperate situation, echoing the situation of many of the characters in the book – the best friends, the farmer’s wife and the farmhands.
“Music is one way to get around the block students set. Educators can challenge students to think about literature by accessing something with which the students are more familiar and comfortable–their popular music,” Goering said.
“Songs have tones and moods and can add depth and meaning through appropriate selections.”
Goering has also used John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in his research and has contributed a chapter on musical intertextuality in the recently published The Essential Criticism of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, edited by Michael J. Meyer.
In his research for the chapter, Goering asked students to read Of Mice and Men and record all of the text-to-song connections they made. The result was nearly 100 song connections with various genres of music that related to each student’s preference and background of music.
Goering’s goal is for musical intertextuality to provide new readers of any age the potential to engage their own musical knowledge and apply it to reading.
Because the meaning of texts relies on the individual reading it, the meaning cannot be exactly the same for every individual and shouldn’t be, according to Goering.
“When we have students read a text and then tell them what it means, we are doing them a disservice and limiting their opportunities to think critically and engage in reading for school or pleasure,” he said.
Musical intertextuality provides readers of any age the potential to engage something with which they are more familiar, their own musical knowledge, and apply it to reading, demonstrating the variety of ways a student or scholar can look at any text through music.
The musical intertextuality strategies can be used by teachers utilizing students to make critical perspectives and to look at reading in new and unique ways. Thematic connections are the most common, Goering said.
There are six distinct connection types that Goering identified between songs and literature:
- A song is inspired by literature directly;
- A song connects to a text thematically;
- A song’s setting connects to the setting of a literary work;
- Characters in a song mirror the characteristics in a classic work;
- The tone of a song is similar to the tone of a piece of literature, and;
- A song’s plot structure or narrative follows that of a literary work.
“Songs can connect on multiple levels. Those valued connections reinforce a central skill in becoming expert readers,” Goering wrote on his Web site, LitTunes, dedicated to improving literacy through the use of popular music.
“Music opens doors of opportunity,” Goering said.
“English as a whole is changing. LitTunes is a great connection for teachers who are learning different approaches to instructing and either want to try using music for the first time or, with experience, want to find a unique way of teaching an old concept. When we enhance content with the arts, we have a direct pathway to the brain and emotions, thus stimulating learning.”
LitTunes includes lesson plans “making connections between classic lit and pop tunes,” including the book The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and the song “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen or the epic The Odyssey by Homer and the song “Home at Last” by Steely Dan.
Ultimately, Goering said, he’s interested in bringing students into literature and helping teachers learn how to attract their students’ attention while benefiting those students less likely to succeed with literacy.
“Using music to teach literature isn’t necessarily something new nor should it be considered the only answer,” Goering said.
“It is one strategy teachers can use to reach students less than enthralled with the latest reading assignments, and in the best situations, this bridge to literacy will lead students toward reading classic texts and for pleasure. Gearing toward intertextual connections, in this case, musical intertextuality, the reading experience is more lively, engaging and authentic.”