Rhetorical Analysis of Pop Music Day 1: Tools for Analysis

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SWBAT analyze a song writer's use of language devices and music devices for developing their central ideas, purpose, and tone for a specific audience.

Big Idea

Pop music writers use a variety of rhetorical tools in creating catchy songs.


This week is the week before a nearly two week holiday break, so to continue learning while acknowledging that students are not in maximum learning mode, I will spend the week teaching them some strategies for rhetorically analyzing popular music.   This is a nice continuation of James McBride’s piece, since he too explored how deeply music on a macro-scale influences people.   Now we will work at a micro-analysis level, trying to understand why music influences us and why it evokes such strong connections and responses—such strong pathos.  We will start this work by evaluating what tools a musician has to write a song, considering the language analysis of verbs, subjects, and prepositional phrases students learned while writing their memoirs, as well as the musical tools that work with the language.  With these tools, we will than apply them and look for patterns in a song, establishing the SOAPStone of the piece based on the data.

This lesson allows for students to learn how to apply rhetorical analysis strategies to multi-media art forms, not only learning how central ideas are built and what evidence looks like in these forms, but also to apply these academic concepts to their own world.

Rhetorical Tools for Songs Brainstorm

10 minutes

To begin this analysis, I want to review some of the language tools a writer has at their disposal for writing lyrics, then expand to brainstorming some of the musical tools.  I will make two columns on the Smartboard and do a classic brainstorm, writing things down as students say them, with the main point being that someone writing music, which is multi-media by nature, has a lot of tools to work with.  When I do brainstorms, I will write a number of the statements on the board initially and use them as teaching moments by asking students to give examples, define terms, etc.  After a few minutes of this, I will then add some of my own, and continue the brainstorm verbally as the board gets full, ending by making the point (in this case) that songs have all the tools of language plus all the musical tools, making for a complex analysis.  

Attached here is part of the brainstorm I did with the students:  music devices brainstorm.pdf

Model Song Analysis of Alanis Morrisette

30 minutes

After brainstorming, I will hand out the lyrics (song lyrics Morrisette and Wilcox.docx) to a 1990’s pop music hit “You Oughtta Know” by Alanis Morrisette.  I chose this song for a number of reasons.  First, it is not one they would likely choose for their own analysis, since it is old (by their standards!).  Second, there are some obvious language patterns and uses in it, such as how she uses pronouns, strong words carrying lots of emotion (appraisal), and the music very clearly adds to the emotional impact of the narrative.  I want the students to consider the relationship developed between the narrator and the listener, too, based on the language use; in this song we are kind of like bystanders of an argument we aren’t supposed to hear, which I think is a striking one, and clear for students to understand how to look at this aspect and how it appeals to the audience.   Also, there is a bit of lewdness in this song--I want to model how to analyze that, too; since they will do their own analysis of a song later in the week, I want them to analyze honestly and thoroughly what they listen to, not what they think will be appropriate for school (this class is mature and don’t need a speech; in some classes where I’ve done this activity, I tell the students that profanity has its purpose, just like other words, and I expect them to maturely analyze the purpose—and if they don’t feel they can do that appropriately, they should see me; I’ve never had problems after this, though during their own analysis I sometimes will have to “approve” of the song, to filter out any that could be to offensive to be of value to the learning process.  That being said, you will know the culture of your own school and students best, as well as the rules regarding this kind of material when selecting a song).

I will then ask students to get a partner.  One student will listen specifically to the words of the song, while the other will listen carefully to the music (I like this type of activity for studying multi-media, because it helps students recognize how the individual parts are working).  Then, I will play the song, and the students will listen and jot down observations based on what their task is.  From here, they will share their observations with their partner before we have a full group discussion. 

The first part of the discussion will be general observations of language use and music—what patterns they hear, what the topic is, genre, tone, etc., and how they established that. 

I will then put the lyrics on the Smartboard with verbs, subjects/objects, and prepositional phrases identified already.  I will ask them what they notice, and then discuss more specifically how the words, along with the music, is building subject, purpose, persona, tone, etc.  Because of time, and because their analysis will likely not be quite as deep as where I want them to be, I will do this for only five minutes or so before doing my own thorough analysis (You Oughta Know lyric analysis.docx), explained in this video:Music Model Analysis-1.m4v.  I will also explain to students that my analysis, while thorough, isn't necessarily the only way to consider the lines; the important thing is that they are looking for patterns in the language and analyzing meaning through those patterns.

One other question I will ask at the end, which in the past has helped bring these complex analysis concepts together, is the simple question of how old they think the primary audience is--the people who would most likely be drawn to this song, and why they think that (an alternative, or follow-up, is what kind of person)--students are very often on the same page with their answer, and if not it presents some great debate.  Pop music is so tied in to identity that exploring the "why" for this question really brings together all the analysis tools they've been using.

Joint Song Analysis of folk singer David Wilcox

30 minutes

After seeing this model, we will then turn our attention to a second song by 1990s folk singer David Wilcox.  This song is also a break-up song, but with a very different set of SOAPStone characteristics.  By working with another song with the same subject, it allows students to see how powerful the language and musical tools are.  For this one, the students will follow the same format as before as we listen, though this time the pairs will do an analysis similar to the one I modeled before we discuss as a class.  This joint construction will act as a second model before going into their song analysis projects tomorrow.   Here is a video that explains some of the expected findings in this song: Music Joint Construction Model-1.m4v

Next Steps:  Students will bring in song lyrics/songs (on their devices) tomorrow and complete an analysis to present to the class.