The Message of Music

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:

  • Analyze and write about how a song’s lyrics can evoke feelings.
  • Compare two songs and give examples of metaphors in each song.
  • Write about the lyrics of songs, critically examining a song’s messages and expressing a personal viewpoint about a tolerance-related issue that’s important to them.
Essential Questions
  • What roles does music play in our lives?
  • How does music communicate ideas and feelings?


Enduring Understandings

  • Music is an important popular form of entertainment that can also teach information, highlight problems, and even inspire people to change injustices in society.
  • People who write songs can express messages that are important to them through stories, statements, and metaphors in their words and music.

Lyrics of popular songs (and their messages); such as:

  • "Count on Me" (2011) Bruno Mars (Friends can help each other)
  • "Mean" (2010) Taylor Swift (Anti-Bullying message: Stand strong even when people are cruel)
  • "The Climb" (2009) Miley Cyrus (Keep trying, never give up)
  • "Man in the Mirror" (1988) Michael Jackson (Change in the world begins with you)
  • Ebony and Ivory” (1982) Paul McCartney (People can live in harmony)
  • Imagine” (1971) John Lennon (The world can be a better, more peaceful place)


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

stereoptype (ster-ee-uh-type) (noun) an unfair belief or idea that some people have particular characteristics or are the same

tolerance (tol-er-uh-ns) (noun) a fair, open, objective, and permissive attitude toward those 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 is used to refer to compare something with another thing to show or suggest that they are similar without using the words “like” or “as”


Suggested Procedure

1. Introduce the lesson by playing a song from the above list. Ask: “What makes you enjoy a song? A good sound? Interesting words? When you listen to a song, do you really listen to the words? How often do you think about the meaning of a song?

2. Pose the following questions to students, and record their answers on an easel pad or whiteboard:

a. How many of you like listening to music?

b. What are the reasons you listen to music?

c. How does music make you feel?

d. What might you learn from music?

3. Ask students to work in pairs. Offer these instructions: “I’d like each one of you to list at least five of your favorite songs. Then check with your partner to see if you listed similar or different choices. Is it okay to have different musical choices than your friends? How might you describe a favorite song to a friend? Would you be open and willing to listen to a new song if a friend recommended it?”

4. Ask students: What do you think makes a good song — catchy music? interesting words? something else?

5. Present this question: “When you listen to a song, do you really hear its words or are you just hearing the music?” Explain that sometimes the same person who sings a song writes the words (lyrics) and music. Other times, one person composes the music, another writes the words, and a third person may sing the song. Many songwriters want to share a message or point of view with the audience. Ask: “Can you think a song that conveys a songwriter’s message?” Instruct students to refer back to the list they created at the beginning of the lesson for possible examples.

6. Distribute printed lyrics or provide a Web link to the song, “Ebony and Ivory.” Explain that, “Ebony and Ivory” was written in 1982 by Paul McCartney. Tell the class that McCartney not only wrote songs but was also one of the four musicians in the famous band, The Beatles. Discuss how the ebony and ivory in the song’s title refer to keys on a piano —that black keys are often made of ebony and white keys have been made of ivory. Instruct students: “After you listen to the song or read the lyrics, draw a picture or write a few sentences about what you think the message of the song is.”

7. Ask students to share their ideas. Tell the class that the song uses something called a metaphor. Next, read this definition: “A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word of phrase that ordinarily represents one thing is used to represent something else.” Then ask: “Can you identify any metaphors in the song? What do you think ebony could be a metaphor for? Ivory? The piano keyboard?” [Note: While the song is explicitly about keys on the piano, many commentators have noted that it also is clearly about people getting along, integration and racial harmony.]

8. Ask students: What message might Paul McCartney have wanted to communicate in writing the words to the song? Would that same message be important or relevant today? Why or why not?

9. Distribute song lyrics or provide Web links for the other songs, and give out the Song Analysis handout. Invite children to read the lyrics to a couple of songs. After they have done so, tell them that these songs were written many years apart and ask, “What similar messages do these songs share, even though they written at different times? What conclusions can you draw about their message? How does this message apply to your school? Your community?”

10. Break the class down into small groups of four or five. Ask each group to brainstorm about other messages that songwriters could sing about that would be relevant to tolerance in your school or community. Say, “Think about tolerance of other groups including those with disabilities, those of different religions, ethnic backgrounds, or viewpoints, or those who come from different neighborhoods.”

11. Next, invite students: “Imagine you are a songwriter who has been asked to write a song about one of these issues. Pick the issue you’re most interested in. Then write a paragraph about the song and the issue you’ve chosen. Also include: Why the issue is important to you, why it is relevant in your school or community, and what message you would want your song to share.”

12. Finally create a title for your song and a CD cover that illustrates what its message will be.


Do Something

  • Use the music from one of the songs in this lesson (or another song you like) to write lyrics for your “new” song.
  • Interview parents or other community members about the songs that inspire them. Then create a music mix of inspirational songs for your community.


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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