Student Voice

Using "Music Writing" to Trigger Creativity, Awareness, Motivation, and Poetry

The Contemplation Music Writing Project develops communication skills, creative self-expression, character education, and values clarification in young people through reflection, writing, discussion, and self-assessments.
A young boy in jean shorts, a white t-shirt, and a green sweater vest is sitting outside in front of his school playing an electric guitar.
Photo credit: USAG- Humphreys via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In our test-obsessed and bullying culture, it is imperative that children learn to know themselves better. We can help them develop an inner compass to discover their own creativity, self-motivation, and emotional intelligence needed for learning and living.

When I was a teacher in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York in the '70s, I found a way to use music as tool for self-discovery and self-expression. I used to play a lot of music in my classroom. It started as a way to help calm students when they returned to class after lunch. I played Billy Joel songs -- not the favorites of Latino and African-American kids. It relaxed me, and eventually the class.

Music to soothe the soul was great, but eventually school administrators started wondering what the aim of the lesson was. So I asked the children to put their heads down on the desks, close their eyes and write about whatever they experienced inside themselves while the music played. After the tune stopped, I asked them to take a few seconds of "think time" before writing about their experiences. Many things can spin around the mind and imagination in an instant. I wanted them to pause, recall, and reflect on these creative, surreal, absurd, wild, and sometimes sane inner worlds.

The Contemplation Music Writing Project, as I came to call it, uses an innovative form of writing called Music Writing to develop intra- and interpersonal communication skills (EI), creative self-expression (journal/therapeutic and poetry writing), thinking, character education, identity, and values clarification in young people through music, contemplation, writing, discussion, and self-assessments.

The project is easy to implement from grades 2-12 in public, charter, private, parochial, and alternative schools, as well as in correctional facilities, and before- and after-school programs. Here are a couple of Contemplation Music Writing Project exercises that eventually led to poetry writing. Please share any ideas or similar projects that you've done in the comments section of this post.

Sample Exercises

1. Counting Technique

Start by introducing inner experience:

Close your eyes and silently count backward from 50 to 1. Take your time, and don't rush. When you finish, open your eyes and write whatever happened inside yourself while counting. There are no right or wrong answers in the assignment.

My instructions about what to write were vague because I wanted students to discover and describe experience without my help. If they asked about the length of the writing, I said, "Just write whatever you can remember." The average length varied from one to a few paragraphs.

Note: Before trying the technique in class, I practiced it myself to appreciate what the students were experiencing, describing, and writing.

In a typical lesson, kids counted backward and wrote about their inner experiences, and I discussed them with the class the next day. Here are some fourth-grade students' first responses:

When I was counting backwards, I saw little numbers passing by and saying hello. My feet fell asleep. I started to move like jellybeans. Every time I would count, the numbers would just disappear. I also saw stars that made me dizzy. At first I felt scared, but now I don't.
When I was counting, I thought about my watch. It is my good luck charm. And I felt sad and I don't know why. But when I counted numbers 33 and 32, it made me think of my parents because that is their age. And when I was up to 20 I felt very happy, but I don't know why. When I hit number 1, I felt like crying because I missed my best friend.

Be prepared for (and open to) anything when introducing inner experience through counting. You will find a plethora of responses, including memories/flashbacks, present-moment events, fantasies, dreams, daydreams, feelings, thoughts, mind-pictures/images, physical/bodily reactions and stream of consciousness or "movie experiences." Read the responses out loud (anonymously) and open up discussions by asking basic questions:

  • Describe the student's counting experience.
  • What feelings and thoughts did the writer experience? Why?
  • What mind-pictures did you visualize after listening to the response?
  • What does the experience make you think about? Why?
  • Did the writing trigger anything that happened inside you while counting?

2. Music Technique

Children listened to music (top ten, rock'n'roll, rap, soul, blues, jazz, classical, and flute) for ten minutes and, again, wrote about whatever they experienced inside. A discussion followed either the same day or next day. Student contemplations were read orally and anonymously, and probed for the triggered images, feelings, thoughts, meanings, and experiences. These first contemplations are from the same fourth grade students:

At first I saw little notes floating by because it was coming from a man who was whistling and saying, "Don't worry, be happy." The notes just went POP and they were gone. I saw balloons saying, "Don't worry, be happy." A man came with a pin and popped the balloons, and all the letters fell on top of me. The next thing I know, I'm on a cloud and little clouds are singing oh, oh, oh, oh. I started dancing with them. After that I was back in the classroom!
I listened to the words and it took away my problems. I live with my mother in my grandmother's apartment, so I was worrying about not getting our own apartment. But when I heard the song, my mind had cleared. I thought about my brother getting married, and her family being my family and how much fun it is playing with her nephews.

Discussion Questions

These basic questions will work for most contemplations:

  • Describe this writer's contemplation experience.
  • Describe the mind-pictures you visualized as the contemplation was read orally.
  • Name the feelings you got from the mind-pictures in the contemplation.
  • What thoughts and ideas came to mind after you heard the contemplation?
  • What is the writer trying to communicate (main idea or message)?
  • Name this type of contemplation experience (e.g., memory, fantasy, dream).

Music Writing Leads to Poetry Writing

Through the counting and music techniques, kids dug up real or created imaginary experiences. Along the way, they discovered the fundamental prerequisite skills for learning (and learning how to learn): recall, visualization, reflection, concentration, contemplation, critical and creative thinking, creativity, feeling, and experiencing.

These academic and EI/SEL lessons prepared children for poetry. First, we analyzed poems via a Poetry Reading Sheet, which included separate boxes for mind-pictures visualized, feelings and thoughts triggered by the imagery, main idea/message, favorite words/phrases/lines, and student-created titles. To introduce poetry reading, we read Chinese, Japanese, Native American, Latino, African American, and children's/adult poetry, followed by my discussion questions. Free-verse poetry created a poetic awareness that set the stage for poetry writing.

Using my Trigger Method of Creativity, I presented magazine and newspaper pictures, photos, artwork (posters/museum slides), and original slides as visual prompts for the class to observe, describe, brainstorm potential poetry titles, and lastly, to write poetry.

Slide Show Lesson Triggers Poetry Writing

"The Big Cloud Show" presentation inspired students to express what they saw, imagined, and experienced while focusing on the slide images. Following our talk, students brainstormed titles and wrote poems.

Potential titles included "Deep Cloud," "Sound," "Sky Night," "Black Cloud," "Those Stupid Clouds," "Sky Panther," "Human Cloud," "Beyond the Clouds," "Snowy Clouds," "A Dream of Clouds," "a door in the clouds," and "Cloud Faces."

Student Cloud Poetry

Deep Cloud
Deep cloud, how deep
do you go? Show me.
I would, but it's all
inside me. I can't. . .
But I can tell you that
clouds are very deep inside.

Sound
The sound of the wind
blowing past the pond
makes little waves appear.
I put a paper in the pond.
I hear the sound of birds flying.
I face the blue sky.
I dream of a cloud, a big blue
cloud, and these are the sounds
I hear. . .

Sky Panther
sky panther gracefully
glancing off the moon
protecting the gentle
clouds drifting into
peaceful sleep

Journey to an Inner World

The Contemplation Music Writing Project helped preteens and teens to deal with their own lives (in and out of school), as well as with other people's lives. Music became a vehicle to soothe them into peaceful journeys of self-discovery, self-motivation, and the art of poetry writing.

Indeed, it is just as important for adolescents to learn about their inner world and how it influences daily life, as it is to learn about the world in social studies.

The Contemplation Music Writing Project can work as a one- or multi-year project starting in second grade and going through high school. These projects can increase students' focus, boost awareness, grow study habits, jumpstart inner-motivation, instill enthusiasm, improve productive flow, stimulate artistic expression, inspire imagination, elevate mood/tone, expand the work ethic, develop higher-level thinking, and energize, revitalize, and create a safe, caring learning environment.

This healing, relaxing, empowering form of writing, triggered by music of all kinds, lets kids get into self, others, and the outside world via peace, compassion, empathy, friendship, and poetry. These are keys to inspiring emotional intelligence, and to developing character and values that will serve them well into adulthood.