Sounds of Change

This lesson challenges students to analyze and to reflect on messages presented in songs — and to express their own views about important issues addressed in some songs.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • Describe and write about their emotional response to a song and the meaning, message, or viewpoint of the songwriter.
  • Conduct research about a song and write a brief summary of the intended message of the song.
  • Critically review and report on whether a song’s message is still relevant today.
Essential Questions
  • What might people learn from music, or how might they be influenced or inspired by music?
  • Why might the viewpoint of songwriters be important or relevant to society?
  • Enduring Understandings:
    • Songs can provide entertainment but can also help to bring people’s attention to world problems and to inspire people to find solutions to those problems.
    • Songwriters often use the lyrics of songs to educate, inspire, influence and change society, and provide social commentary.

Lyrics for: 

  • Roar” (2013) Katy Perry  (delivers message of assertiveness—be brave, stand up for yourself)
  • Born This Way” (2011) Lady Gaga (declares all people are equal and all should be accepted)
  • Waiting on the World to Change,” (2006) John Mayer (expresses hope for a better world)
  • Streets of Philadelphia” (1993) Bruce Springsteen  (reflects thoughts of a person with AIDS)
  • “Where is the Love?” (2003) The Black Eyed Peas (tells of ways to end hate and terrorism)
  • We Shall Overcome” by Joan Baez (1962) Joan Baez  (hope for people to work together and solve problems)
  • What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye (1971) Marvin Gaye  (tells how people can stop war and brutality) 
  • Imagine by John Lennon (1971) John Lennon (inspires people to live together in a world of peace) 


relevant [ rel-uh-vuhnt ] (adjective) related or connected to a subject or matter

stereotype [ ster-ee-uh-type ] (noun) an oversimplified and unfair belief or idea that people have particular characteristics or are the same

tolerance [ tol-er-uh-ns ] (noun) a fair, open, objective, and permissive attitude toward people whose opinions, beliefs, practices, racial or ethnic origins, etc., differ from one's own

lyrics [ lir-iks ] (noun) the words of a song

metaphor [ met-uh-for ] (noun) a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they are similar (without using “like” or “as”)


Suggested Procedure

A few days before the lesson, ask students to bring to class the lyrics to a song that inspires them.

Ahead of time, review the songs to ensure that the lyrics are school-appropriate.

1. Direct students, “As a class, discuss the following questions:

  • “Do you enjoy listening to music? If so, what do you enjoy about it?
  • “What types of music do you enjoy, and why?
  • “Do you think that music can put you in a certain mood? Or inspire you to change behavior? Or teach you something?” If appropriate, ask students to share examples.


2. Instruct students: “Tell your classmates about the song lyrics you brought to class and share why the song inspires you. What conclusions might you draw about the types of songs that inspire you and others your age?”


3. Ask students to discuss in small groups and answer the following questions. “If you wanted something to change (at your school, in your community or in society), how might you go about changing it? How could music help in this way? What role do you think music can play in inciting change?”


4. Distribute copies of the editorial, “The Other Education,” by David Brooks. Ask: “What questions does it bring to mind for you? Who agrees/disagrees with Brooks’ opinion?” (Tally responses on an easel pad or whiteboard.)


5. List the following questions on an easel pad. Then lead students in discussing answers:

a. What does Brooks mean by his ‘second education’? Or his ‘emotional curriculum’?

b. Who was the “professor” to which he refers? In what way(s) did Bruce Springsteen teach him? What do you know about Springsteen’s music?

c. Do you think that music can provide an education as important as formal schooling? Do you agree that society pays ‘too much attention to the first education and not enough to the second’?

d. What songs, if any, have inspired or taught you something?

e. If music has such an effect on us personally, what effect can it have on society?

f. How might people your age be inspired or moved by the music they listen to?


6. Provide students with the lyrics to Springsteen’s song “The Streets of Philadelphia,” or play a recording of it. Explain that Springsteen wrote the song for “Philadelphia,” one of the first movies to address AIDS. The film was based on a true story of a lawyer who sued his law firm for firing him because he had AIDS. Read aloud this Springsteen quote from an interview that the musician gave to Rolling Stone magazine: “While rockers don’t have a whole lot of influence, they can create a vision of the world as it should be.”

Use the following questions to help facilitate a class discussion:

  • Do you think musicians can bring about change through their music?
  • Can they help to shape history?
  • Do you think that songwriters or singers should use their platform to create a better world?
  • What other singers, groups or songwriters use their music to teach or create positive change?


7. Distribute copies of the lyrics or provide Web link to the song, “Waiting on the World to Change,” (2006) by John Mayer. Ask students what the song might be about based on the title. Read aloud the lyrics, and discuss the following questions with the class.

  • What do you think the message of the song is? What metaphors does the writer use in the song?
  • Some people think that Mayer is saying it’s OK to wait while others think that he is trying to encourage his generation to act. Which statement do you agree with, and why?
  • What do you think Mayer means when he says, “When they own the information, oh they can bend it all they want”? Who are “they”?
  • In what way(s) does he express hope for the future?
  • Which lines in the song do you most relate to?
  • Do you feel that your generation is misunderstood? Do you think your generation will wait for change or act to make change happen?
  • If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be and why?


8. Explain that many songwriters use music to convey messages or their point of view, or to inspire change. Other times, songwriters might protest something or someone. Often, as David Brooks suggests, people listen to the songs and learn from those messages. Point out that some songwriters include metaphors rather than straightforward messages that might sound preachy. Explain that a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word of phrase that ordinarily represents one thing is used to represent something else. Ask: “What songs do you think convey a particular message, lesson or point of view? What metaphors do the songs contain?”


9. Distribute song lyrics or provide Web links for the other songs and let students work individually or in groups. Ask them to select one of the songs below. Then have them read the lyrics and/or listen to an online version and complete the Song Analysis handout. Ask students to share their answers/interpretations.

  • “Roar” (2013) Katy Perry (Be brave and stand up for yourself)
  • “Born This Way” (2011) Lady Gaga (All people are equal and should be accepted)
  • “Where is the Love?” (2003) The Black Eyed Peas (Love and respect can end hate and terrorism)
  • “What’s Going On?” (1971) Marvin Gaye (Stop brutality and war and build understanding)
  • “Imagine” (1971) John Lennon (The world can be a better, more peaceful place)
  • “We Shall Overcome” (1962) Joan Baez (People working together can solve even the biggest problems)


10. Ask students to work in pairs and select two of the songs to compare. Direct students to use the following questions to guide their comparison:

  • What similarities and differences are there in the songs?
  • What messages does each contain?
  • What conclusions might you make about the power each song in creating change or teaching society about important issues?


Do Something

Research songs that were written during periods of unrest in American history such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, etc. Then create a timeline of influential songs.

Conduct a debate about whether it is the responsibility of songwriters to inspire or motivate those who listen to their music to act, change, or learn.


Alignment to Common Core State Standards/ College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards CCSS R.1, R.4, R.7, R.9, R.10, W.7, W.9, SL.1, SL.2, L.5

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