Musical Theory

Not so long ago, I was looking for an interesting way to teach sociological theories to students. While I looked over all the ideas, suggestions, and guides I could find, I kept wanting to try something new that I could make my own and transplant from course to course since I rarely teach the required theory course at my university. During this time, a couple friends I admire were having (still are) tremendous success engaging the sociology of Hip Hop to cover a wide variety of subjects with their students, and I kept thinking back to a professor who often started courses by playing music to (as she said, and seemed to work) get the students engaged. At the same time, I remembered another professor who used heavy metal music (with lyrics that are often hard to understand if one is new to the genre) to teach listening skills and poetic techniques (i.e., some heavy metal lyrics are incredibly intricate poems so students had to learn to hear them and then take them apart analytically).

From the combination of these observations, I began to wonder about ways I could use music to introduce students to sociological theories. At the time, I was about to teach the required theory course at my university for the first time, and I already had theory sections built into my other courses. Rather than change everything at once, I decided to do a little pedagogical experiment in the required theory course wherein each sociological theory we covered would be accompanied by a Broadway musical that demonstrated elements of the theory. Students would be required to read the theories, discuss them in class, and then apply them to excerpts from the musicals, and I would see how this integration of musical offerings and theory worked in practice. By the end of the course, via informal and formal student impressions and evaluations, I realized that this tactic worked rather well, gave students a concrete object they could attach the complexity of theories to in a practical manner, and facilitated some rather enjoyable classroom discussions.

For readers interested in replicating or considering the approach, the process unfolded in four steps with each new theory introduced. First, I would have students read the text itself, and in class we would discuss both the theory, the background of the theorist, and ways people have used this theory since. Then, we would spend the next class collaboratively coming up with ways we could use this theory in our own lives, which we would supplement with excerpts from musicals (and an overview of the entire musical). When we covered Symbolic Interactionism and Dramaturgy, for example, students read Mead and Goffman and then we linked their ideas to Billy Elliott’s socialization (via props, rituals, back and front stage performances, emotion management, and interpretive processes) as a male ballet dancer in a lower-working class, masculine-focused familial and economic context (I initially chose this because I had a professor who used the movie version of Billy Elliott for this purpose in a Symbolic Interaction course). In this way, each theory covered was linked to a musical story students could use to analyze and (as one put it) “play with” sociological concepts and arguments.

For the purposes of the course and theory offerings in other courses to date, I have used many offerings from musicals for theory application. As such, I offer a selected few of them for anyone interested in considering, thinking about, or discussing this practice:

  • Structural Functionalism = The Lion King and especially the “Circle of Life” idea of balance and function promoted throughout the story.
  • Conflict Theory = Sweeney Todd and especially the “Little Priest” critique of Capitalism.
  • Weber’s Protestant Ethic = The Book of Mormon and especially the “I believe” solo by Elder Price.
  • Feminist Theory and Intersectionality = Wicked and especially the “Defying Gravity” conversation between women seeking different paths to freedom and authenticity.
  • Queer Theory = Rent and especially the “La Vie Boheme” series of songs focusing on diversity of identity types and categories.
  • Post-Structuralism = Kinky Boots and especially the “Everybody say yeah” celebration.
  • Black Feminist Thought = The Color Purple and especially the “Hell No” performance.

While I have used many other musicals and musical numbers for similar purposes since, these have been the ones that have worked best to date. Further, I have also begun to incorporate other forms of music in similar ways. This leads me to wonder what are other ways we can use music to teach our students about sociology and about Symbolic Interactionism specifically? If my case to date (as well as others I mentioned above and some pieces on using music in the classroom I’ve read) is accurate, music may provide a powerful tool for helping students connect to theoretical ideas and empirical findings in a wide variety of ways. What are other ways to incorporate musical offerings, Symbolic Interactionist concepts, and sociological instruction?

J. Sumerau

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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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6 Responses to Musical Theory

  1. Lain says:

    Great post! I have to say, as one who has experienced this method of teaching as both a student and an instructor, I think it is a great way to get students to start applying theory! It was one of the more accessible ways I’ve seen theory presented to undergraduate students, and it could definitely be useful with other genres of music and in other classes, too. One activity that I would like to do someday is have students take apart lyrics to a popular song and then compare their analyses with each other (with each student analyzing a different song or, for bigger classes, they could be in groups and each group analyzes a different song). Following their comparisons, I think it would be useful to have a discussion about some of the common elements and themes that emerge in their respective analyses in order to get them thinking sociologically about what exactly “makes” a popular song. How might the similarities and/or differences between these lyrics and the artists singing them tell us something about inequalities?

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      Thanks for sharing Lain! I agree it would be fascinating to see the ways people create meanings from lyrics and form different types of lyrical forms. I know I often feel like certain lyrics “speak” to me and generally when I reflect on such feelings it leads me to experiences or characteristics of my life to date. The question about what makes a popular song “popular” might also reveal some fascinating aspects of society at given time periods and in given contexts or locations.

  2. Xan Nowakowski says:

    There’s a growing body of work by artists who have chronic/persistent health conditions that can help to teach interactionist and related concepts about illness management. Works for physical conditions and mental ones alike, as well as conditions that involve elements of both “domains” (e.g., eating disorders, substance use). Off the top of my head, here are some good tracks, many of which I use in my Medical Sociology course for undergraduate students here at FSU. Many of these are written/performed by artists who themselves have chronic conditions, and/or have loved ones who experience these health states.

    Also, J, sorry for cribbing you on Counting Crows here. You really were the one who introduced me to the mental health inspirations for their music. I’m not listing Perfect Blue Buildings because that’s “your” song…

    The Sisters of Mercy – “When You Don’t See Me” (dissociative identity, role conflict, role captivity, coping behavior)
    Eels – “Dead of Winter” (cancer, medical care, caregiver stress, managing expectations)
    Soul Asylum – “Black Gold” (physical disability, assistive technology, challenging expectations, adaptation and coping)
    Megadeth – “Use the Man” (injection drug use, addiction, locus of control, stigma, social support)
    Andrew McMahon – “Bloodshot” (cancer treatment, role conflict, role strain)
    Counting Crows – “I Wish I Was a Girl” (bipolar disorder, gender norms, stigma, legitimacy, disclosure)
    Massive Attack – “Protection” (polytrauma, family trauma, role conflict, social support, closure)
    Barenaked Ladies – “War on Drugs” (substance use, suicide, caregiver stress, stigma, managing expectations)
    Lauryn Hill – “I Get Out” (polytrauma, abuse, recovery, identity work, empowerment, survivorship)
    TLC – “Waterfalls” (HIV/AIDS, sexual behavior, silence and disclosure, prevention, stigma, discourses on responsibility)
    Sentenced – “The River” (alcoholism, depression, self-medication, expectations)
    Aerosmith – “Janie’s Got a Gun” (domestic violence, incest, sexual abuse, stigma, role captivity, role strain, inchoate feelings, reaching crisis)
    Josh Sundquist – “Amputee Rap” (limb difference, social construction of disability, assistive technology, definition of the situation, identity work, humor, breaching exercises)
    My Chemical Romance – “Cancer” (cancer, social support, end of life, managing expectations)
    The Glad Version – “Beautiful Skeleton” (eating disorders, alcoholism, social support)
    Manic Street Preachers – “4st 7lb” (anorexia and identity work)
    Alice Cooper – “How You Gonna See Me Now” (mental illness, alcoholism, social support, expectations, stigma, recovery)
    The Tears – “Asylum” (mental illness, institutionalization, social support, isolation)
    Sonic Youth – “Purr” (hypomania, social responses to cognitive difference, identity work, definitions of illness)
    Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick” (physical illness, challenging stigma, boundary work, legitimacy)
    Radiohead – “Climbing Up the Walls” (generalized anxiety, defining reality, boundary work)
    Poe – “Haunted” (polytrauma, PTSD, coping, recovery, empowerment)
    Green Day – “Pulling Teeth” (intimate partner violence, battered spouse syndrome, role captivity, isolation, redefinition of the situation to justify/survive abuse)
    Pretenders – “977” (intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, dissociation, role captivity, definition of the situation)
    The Rolling Stones – “Sister Morphine” (chronic pain, hospital care, isolation)
    10cc – “The Hospital Song” (hospital care, isolation, social support, coping)
    The Verve – “Drugs Don’t Work” (pharmacotherapy, medicalization, managing expectations, illness roles, stigma)
    The Replacements – “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” (tonsillitis, medicalization, surgery, managing expectations, patient experiences)
    Free Faces – “Doctor Says” (diagnosis, medical authority, role conflict, managing expectations)

    I could keep going with this, but I’ve got a conference call in a couple of minutes. Great post, J!

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      Thanks for commenting Xan, and for the wonderful list of examples for courses!


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