Songs and the Environment

Version 3With the political winds that have already begun to shift in the United States, one of the changes that we see is a greater concern for the environment, and the political will to do something about it. Concern for the environment is not new; it has a long history. But often, it has been at the fringes of the national will. Like racial discrimination, much progress has been made over the way things used to be, when the norm was toxic rivers and streams and blackened skies around factories emiting billows of pollution into the air, and much is left to be done.

Songs about the deteriorating or vanishing natural landscape tended to focus on pollution and urban sprawl, with songs like Tom Paxton’s “Whose Garden Was This,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Michael Jackson contributed several songs to the movement, most famously “Earth Song” which took a more global approach to reversing the betrayal by those who could have been protecting Earth instead of damaging it. These three songs are among the best that singer-songwriters have produced. All share a message of sadness or worse if the attacks on Earth continue unchecked. They can be the basis for a lesson or unit on concern for our planet, and the themes that are brought together annually as Earth Day celebrations. Such a class or unit might include

  • Listening to the songs as a class or individually in listening stations in a classroom, or on a computer or mobile device at home, and then having students journal their observations about each song. Students might be given a set of questions to guide their observations, including,
    • How would you describe the style of the vocals? Are they polished? Raw? How does the style of the vocals add or detract from the message of the song?
  • How are instruments used in the song? What do the instruments add to the effectiveness of the song? In what ways do they contribute to expressing the emotions of what is being sung about?
  • Is the song a clear statement about environmental issues? Why or why not?
  • If you were to choose one of these songs as the theme for a campaign to fight climate change, which one would you pick? Why?

I’ve included links to sheet music for two of these songs to help you teach them to your class, if you choose to do so. I usually prefer to keep a copy of the music in my plan book, whether or not I need it to teach because it helps me remember from year to year which songs I used. Though I write new lessons for most classes every year, I do retain the “best of” from year to year. “Taxi” and “Garden” are particularly well suited to student singing and, if you teach guitar, to learning as a repertoire song for in-class preparation for presentation and then performance for the class or beyond. Both songs can be simplified without losing their effectiveness, and done with a simple strum, or light picking pattern.

If you are teaching upper elementary or older, you may want to use these or other songs that you select as models for your students to use as guides in writing their own song on an environmental issue. “Big Yellow Taxi” is a good example of effective use of melodic repetition, and “Whose Garden Was This” illustrates sequence (though not exact) and melodic arc nicely. For lyrics, I have students write their own whenever possible. I like to do this sort of thing at a time in the year when the language arts teachers are teaching poetry and having the students write their own poems. It’s fun to guide students to set their poems to music. With a little coordination, the students can write a poem on the topic in language arts, and then set it to music in music class.

Many of the songs written in the 1960s and 1970s around environmental issues contrasted the way things are from a future point in time, ravaged and ugly, to the way things were, lovely and beautiful, before the environment had been fouled. Students can learn editing and sampling techniques by collecting environmental songs, such as traffic, and construction sounds, and editing them into these songs, either as introductions or as background to the vocals. Imagine hearing Tom Paxton sing “Whose Garden Was This?” with industrial sounds nearby, or Joni Mitchell singing “Bright Yellow Taxi” with noisy traffic heard in the background.

Another thing I like to do is give audiences at my concerts a glimpse into what we do in music class besides learn songs. While I haven’t done info-concerts, I have chosen a song or two that was either written by students or that captured the essence of a unit of study. For a unit on music with an environmental issue, “World On Our Shoulders” is a good choice. It can be done very effectively in unison, or in parts with older students, as it is in this video. Combine classes or choirs for a big impact.

As you may have noticed, I try to get as much “mileage” out of songs as I can. Teaching students to perform songs is excellent; that’s where our roots as performers of music are. But there is so much more to teach from songs than just how to sing or play them. Going deeper with songs students are learning to perform builds more understanding, meaning, and enjoyment. It also helps keeps classes well focused by not changing songs every time a new subject comes up. The continutiy of learning as much as possible from one song grounds the lessons and gives a measure of security and confidence.







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