Teaching Sociology with Music…Some Examples

A few months back, I spoke on a conference panel about using music in the classroom.  Both before and after that talk, I chatted with a handful of people interested in examples I used in classes to cover various concepts.  I shared some examples with them, and then I found myself having similar conversations in the months since online, at other meetings, and in other ways.  As a result, I thought it might be useful to share some of the examples I use in classes a bit more broadly (i.e., here) in case they are useful for other teachers.

I would like to note that I’m not claiming any particular pedagogical expertise related to the examples I share below as I’m certain there are many other examples and ways people utilize music in classrooms.  In fact, I’ve been the student beneficiary of other examples and used many more examples than I will list here over the years.  Put simply, I’m not suggesting these examples are necessarily better or worse than others, and I welcome others to share their own examples via comments below, social media forums where we all often share teaching tips, and even in guest posts on this blog if anyone would like to do so (simply send me an email if you’re interested in doing a guest post on this or any music related topic).  All I’m doing here, put simply, is sharing some of the current examples I use that tend to work rather well for students in my classes just in case they are helpful to anyone else covering similar topics.

I would also like to note that the list below is by no means exhaustive even in my own toolkit of examples I use in classes regularly or from time to time.  I simply chose some of the concepts and topics I often illustrate with music (and other examples from the arts, sciences, and public media offerings) for the purpose of sharing.  I am more than willing to share others with anyone who wants to get in touch with me to ask about suggestions related to this or that topic, concept, theory, or other aspects of course content.  Like many other teachers I know, I pick up examples from a wide variety of sources (i.e., other scholars, students themselves, teaching support sites, etc.), and I personally appreciate how willingly many of us share techniques and examples that work in our classes and like any chance I can contribute the same.  In fact, if I continue to get questions about this practice, I will likely post other sets of examples in the future.

With the above noted, here are a few examples that work well in my classes when I seek to use music to illustrate a specific concept, theory, point, or other social pattern (see also this previous post on using musicals to teach sociological theories).  Usually, I do this by sharing the example after having covered readings and / or other outlines of concepts, and then students have to write about the musical example from the perspective of whatever reading or concept or theory we are covering and then we debate these things in class.

  • In medical sociology, my students and I cover a wide variety of medical experiences in order to create personal resonance with the broader patterns we are discussing and reading about throughout the class. In some cases, I accomplish this with narratives, memoirs, personal videos, and autoethnographies covering health experiences and interactions with medical authorities.  In other cases or alongside these examples, I also use songs that tell stories about medical experiences and have students write about the songs in relation to the scholarly readings and other examples.  Here are some that have worked really well:
    • Jason Isbell – Elephant (about loving someone with a chronic condition)
    • The Ramones – I wanna be well (about addiction)
    • Andrew McMahon – Bloodshot (as Jack’s Mannequin) (about living with chronic illness, we also look into his experiences with medicine and survival)
    • Death Cab for Cutie – what sarah said (about dying and grief and hospitals)
    • TLC – waterfalls (about drug abuse, HIV/ AIDS)


  • When covering suicide in courses on counseling, sociological theory related to Durkheim’s book, or in other courses related to other materials, I often have students listen to and view videos for songs about suicide from different decades and seek to situate these artifacts into the arguments or studies we are reading (for example, which forms of suicide outlined by Durkheim fit this or that song). Here are some songs that have worked well for this:
    • Billie Holiday – gloomy Sunday
    • Billy Joel – you’re only human
    • Pearl Jam – Jeremy (also useful for talking about gun violence and school shootings)
    • Brandi Carlile – that year


  • When discussing police brutality, racism over time, racialized violence, racial justice movements, and other aspects related to violence and inequalities, I often use songs about violence and inequalities over time to demonstrate just how consistent this issue has been – even in popular culture captured by the arts – over the past few decades. To this end, I generally have students look at / listen to songs from different decades going back at least to the 1970’s that all have very similar storylines concerning violence and inequalities (especially related to police and race).  Here are some examples I have used to demonstrate this similarity over time (note that I intentionally use songs that got some mainstream exposure, which I can then have students look at and discuss and I intentionally use songs from different genres so students see the same argument coming from different groups or social locations in society):
    • 1970’s – Gil Scott Heron – no knock, Junior Murvin – Police and Thieves
    • 1980’s – the Clash – Know your rights and the Violators – Summer of 81
    • 1990’s – 2pac – Trapped, Sinead O’Connor – Black boys on mopeds, Pearl Jam – WMA, Rage against the machine – Killing in the name, KRS One – Sound of da Police, Ice Cube – Who got the camera, and Bruce Springsteen – American Skin (41 shots)
    • 2000’s – Dead Prez – Cop Shot, G Unit – Straight outta Southside, Talib Kweli – the Proud, and Chamillionaire – Ridin’
    • 2010’s – Killer Mike – Don’t die, Lauryn Hill – Black Rage, Beyonce – Formation, Usher – Chains, Run the Jewels – Early


  • Throughout my gender class and classes about the social construction and experience of gender in society, I often have students listen to songs that tackle questions about gender we are covering in our readings and compare the songs to the scholarly literature. I have used too many songs to count for this over the years, but here are some I’ve been using of late (I also use this to lead into discussions of gender and music related to who does and who does not get mainstream attention among artists as well as what topics do and do not often get much mainstream attention in music):
    • Neko Case – man
    • Mindy McCreedy – Guys do it all the time
    • Ani Defranco – not a pretty girl
    • Alice Cooper – only women bleed
    • Arie – video
    • Soko – who wears the pants
    • Antony and the Johnsons – for today I am a boy
    • Dolly Parton – just because I am a woman
    • Nina Simone – four women
    • Beyonce – Flawless
    • Jenny Lewis – Just one of the guys
    • Neko Case – Margaret versus Pauline




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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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4 Responses to Teaching Sociology with Music…Some Examples

  1. Jerome Krase says:

    good logic also for visual and other senses. thanks. i’m teaching a seminar on the sixties in nyc and will use music to set tones for the periods iconic events…

  2. Pingback: Soundtracking Existence | Symbolic Interaction Music Blog

  3. Joseph says:

    So many great examples in this post. I love that you’ve included Rage Against the Machine. Zack de la Rocha is one of the most proficient songwriters I know when it comes to tackling social inequalities. Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian from System of a Down are also great at this type of song writing.

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