National Writing Project

Music and the Personal Narrative: The Dual Track to Meaningful Writing

By: Chris Goering
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4
Date: 2004

Summary: Goering describes his "Soundtrack of Your Life" assignment, in which students reflect on their lives using songs. The project motivates sharing and skill building for expository writing, as well as providing a springboard toward publication.


Adults are often frightened by the popular music of the young. Remember your mom or dad yelling at you to "turn off that *#$@ music"? My own memorable experience in this regard involved a teacher I once had who asked the class to bring in tapes and then, appalled by the content ("Cherry Pie" by Warrant), hurled my cassette against the concrete wall, leaving only scraps of plastic and the perplexed stares of my classmates.

Christenson and Roberts get to the heart of this culture clash when they assert, "For every adult who is convinced pop music is responsible for the moral decay of our youth, there is an adolescent who believes music is the only positive force in contemporary society" (6). Adults may grumble, but adolescents continue to listen to, watch, and make music. Music inspires, motivates, and interests a diverse range of students by connecting to their personal feelings and emotions. Rarely do teenagers go without music. Whether it is in their cars, at home, or on a portable player, music serves as the universal backdrop to almost all adolescent lives. Music summons vivid memories of persons, places, and events, and it documents thoughts, feelings, and emotions associated with a given time or place. Music affords students opportunities to reflect on their lives and consider some of the reasons that they have developed into who they are so far.

How can a writing teacher make use of this music-induced self-reflection? For me, the answer has been the "Soundtrack of Your Life," an assignment that is, without question, the most effective and meaningful writing my students complete each year. The assignment combines my students' obsession with music and my respect for the personal narrative, an invaluable form for getting students into writing. The assignment sets a positive tone at the start of the school term by having students share their lives with each other and with me. Through the vehicle of the personal narrative, I learn about my students' backgrounds as I provide them with comfortable ground for their first writing efforts. Of course, the personal narrative—particularly as it connects to music—also engages students in the emotional response that I will expect from them when they respond to literature later in the year.

To begin the "Soundtrack of Your Life" assignment, I distribute lyrics and play Jon Bon Jovi's "It's My Life." This song's upbeat music grabs students' attention and, more importantly, proclaims a message to which students can relate. Bon Jovi projects a sense of immediacy with "I ain't gonna be a face in the crowd / You're going to hear my voice / When I shout it out loud" (Bon Jovi 2000, 3-5). Students respond that they often feel their voices are unheard, citing examples from school, community, and home. We begin to discuss what their lives mean in relation to this song, and they start to reflect on events that have shaped their lives. Then, students brainstorm a list of these events and select the most important ones, choosing at least eight.

The next step in the process requires students to link these events to the music they listen to. They must connect each event they have chosen to a different song. This is a challenge for some students and easy for others; I encourage students with greater knowledge of music to share ideas with others. The Green Book of Songs by Subject: A Thematic Guide to Popular Music (Green 2002), which categorizes more than twenty thousand songs, is a wonderful tool to help students who are not as musically knowledgeable as others. I also push students to use the Internet to find lyrics or titles to songs that relate to their events and to share their findings for similar events. Once the students compile their lists and choose their songs, they put them in a specific order, much as music producers do when producing a compact disc.

Music affords students opportunities to reflect on their lives and consider some of the reasons that they have developed into who they are so far. How can a writing teacher make use of this music-induced self-reflection?

At this point I formally introduce the "Soundtrack of Your Life," a written exploration of self, and I explain the sections of the assignment. In the first paragraph each student must introduce him or herself in a brief autobiography. Next the students explain their soundtrack to the "listeners": What is this soundtrack and why are they doing it? What are their goals for the project? What use will they make of it? In the next stage, the students introduce each event and relate a song to that event. Each event and song combination results in one paragraph of the soundtrack. Students may organize their material in a number of ways (see examples that follow), and I encourage them to find an organizing principle with which they feel comfortable. In conclusion, the students must thank the listeners (this reminds the writers that someone is paying attention) and sum up what the project has meant to them.

During the composition process I offer examples from former students, other teachers, and, of course, myself. I update and change my soundtrack each year, and by allowing students a personal look into their teacher's life, I not only demonstrate openness but also establish trust and rapport.

Students approach this assignment with varying degrees of seriousness. Some reflect on deaths that have been close to them, others on a first kiss. Some are led to consider life's darkest moments. One student shared the story of how, when she was a fourth-grader, her parents told her she was adopted by her father and that her birth father was never going to be a part of her life and did not even know of her existence.

This made my whole life seem like a lie. . . . This is where my song comes in, "Blurry," by Puddle of Mud. It says, "Everybody's changing and everything is so messed up." I felt so much of my life was messed up and wanted them to take back everything. I had no clue what to say; I just sat there sobbing and there was nothing anyone could do.

Of course, some writers are reluctant to share very personal stories such as this one, but all students have shared at least one life event of a serious nature. This has had the effect of creating a more cohesive classroom, a climate of "we are in this together."

What follows is a portion of a soundtrack by high school junior Sarah, which she completed after returning from an intensive drug rehabilitation program. It provides an example of the writer's emotional connections to events and music as she deals with adolescence, drug abuse, recovery, and self-awareness. The soundtrack itself is composed as a letter and the first paragraph, as required, is an introduction of the writer to the audience.

Dear Listener,

The soundtrack before you represents as a whole a few exceptionally memorable events from my life. Although it should be fairly self-explanatory, there are a few things you should know that you would not find out from the songs. . . . Due to the influences of my mom, Aunt Cindy, and Uncle Tim, I have grown into a very loving, free-spirited young woman who is incredibly open-minded, honest, and loyal. Most of my days have been spent in my hometown of Kearney, Nebraska, but my summers, since about the age of eleven, have been spent in California with my aunt and uncle. There, I was given the freedom and trust to spread my wings and grow, and also the opportunity to learn from the many mistakes I ended up making.

The next section previews Sarah's soundtrack and is designed to introduce the listeners to what they are about to hear. Many of Sarah's comments allude to problems that she has faced already that are detailed later along with songs in the soundtrack.

This soundtrack is being carefully constructed to reflect the flavor and ambience of my life. I am attempting to capture "me" in this soundtrack and explain a little about myself in the process. Completing this project is forcing me to take a much deeper look into who I am and who I wish to become. I want to be a responsible, productive member of society. Now I have the opportunity to not only be that upstanding citizen but also to turn my life around, attend college, obtain a career that I enjoy, and one day find a man that loves me enough to spend the rest of his life with me and raise a family. This project is helping me realize that not only am I still quite young but I also have to take this "life" thing as it's thrown at me and just live for today. It has taken nearly seventeen years to mold me into the person that I am today, and I cannot force myself into who I wish to be overnight.

Sarah's introduction of herself and preview of the soundtrack have effectively built some suspense about what her life has meant and might become. At this point in the assignment, students begin to describe a minimum of eight significant points in their lives and connect those events with music lyrics. Sarah begins her soundtrack on a serious note discussing her aunt's death.

Almost everyone on this earth has at one point in their life encountered a person who greatly affected them as a person and helped mold their character. For me, that lady was my Aunt Cindy. . . . she was one of the most incredible people I have ever known, and she tried her best every day of her life to act as God would have her behave and treat people justly. When God called her home January 8, 2000, I was devastated to say the least. She was my mentor, best friend, and confidant all wrapped up in one beautiful package. . . . In honor of this great woman, I chose "Holes in the Floor of Heaven," by Steve Wariner, as the first song of my soundtrack. Through these past couple years, I have come to realize that even though Cindy is not physically here with me, she keeps a watchful eye over me always. Losing any loved one is an extremely difficult experience, but listening to this song and absorbing the lyrics, ". . . there's holes in the floor of heaven / And she's watching over you and me . . . ," brings comfort at a time when there is no other relief from the pain of adolescence.

On a lighter side, Sarah chooses to recall the exuberance of youth while she was working at a summer camp. Students have complete autonomy to choose events and songs, although I have warned them that I would have to report anything considered destructive or illegal. They need this total control of the topic because it is their own lives that they are detailing. With restrictions on songs, artists, or events, their best writing could be effectively squelched.

When, in 2001, I became aware of a summer camp that was hiring staff, I jumped at the chance and was hired immediately. Every weekend, the staff would call and request "Fishin' in the Dark," by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, in honor of the dedication and hard work that we put in and for the fun we had in the process, which I am including as my third song. To this day, I cannot hear that song without feeling the thick, humid heat that envelops every inch of your body and remembering those summer nights where our only care in the world was who could make it to the lake before anyone else . . .

Instead of focusing on the lyrics and their connection to her life, in this case, Sarah chooses "Fishin' in the Dark" because it was a song that played often at a memorable time in her life. Sarah's next life experience and soundtrack selection deal with her parents' divorce. Instead of a sentimental account of yet another family torn apart, she looks for the positives, particularly her feeling toward her stepfather.

I have the utmost respect for Michael, who, being only thirty-five when he married my mom, had never been married before or had any children and suddenly had four of us. Dedicated to the incredible man who, along with my wonderful mother, has done everything in his power to make our lives the best that he possibly could is my fourth song, "He Didn't Have to Be," by Brad Paisley. This ballad strikes a chord in my heart when it says, "All of a sudden, oh it seemed so strange to me / How we went from something's missing to a family / Looking back all I can say about all the things he did for me / Is I hope I'm at least half the dad that he didn't have to be." When I have children of my own, if I can manage to give my children even half of the love, attention, and nurturing that Mom and Michael have shown us, I will be an awesome parent.

Sarah's writing, like the language of most students' soundtracks, is informal and conversational, a style that helps students past the gallons of red ink that have established barriers for them as writers. I encourage them to think of the assignment as a "get to know you better" activity. By focusing in this way, most are able to write as they never have before in school.

In this next song, Sarah continues her life journey to California.

Suddenly, I had the power to do what I had been dreaming about for so long, yet I was unsure if I wanted to leave my life here in Kearney and start completely over again in another state. Of course I did though. I left my family, friends, and even a guy that I cared very deeply about to fulfill my selfish desire to be "California Dreaming." I moved in with Uncle Tim and his son Jeremy in January of 2002 and was given all of the freedoms and opportunities to prove myself that I had always desired. At this point I had been drinking and using drugs for about three years, and with all of this new freedom, I let loose and dove headfirst into full-blown drug addiction.

Sarah here focuses less on the words to the song "California Dreaming" than on its title, which represents her feelings on arriving in California. She then begins to reflect on the drug addiction that nearly takes her life.

Just slightly over three months after I entered the world of California, I came to the conclusion that I could not handle that lifestyle any longer and I needed to return home. There came a point in my drug usage that one night, after being up for several days, I inhaled enough amphetamines to place myself in a near-coma state, in which I passed out for several hours and woke up still spun out of my head and craving more drugs. I just happened to "slip up" and Uncle saw me really "up" and then he saw me coming down hard and fast. Therefore, for this soundtrack's sixth song, I would like to include "What Do You Say," by Reba McEntire. After I had sobered up a little, Uncle sat me down to talk about what I was doing to myself, but I had nothing to say; there was nothing to say. I really love the chorus of this song because it explains exactly how I felt that day, "What do you say in a moment like this / When you can't find the words oh to tell it like it is / Just bite your tongue and let your heart lead the way / Let's get out of here, oh what do you say." I just could not live my life that way anymore; I had to get out before I couldn't.

Sarah's soundtrack continues with her seventh entry, detailing the feelings of letting down her family and her recovery from the drug addiction in a treatment center.

I stepped off a red-eye flight that took me from the West Coast all of the way to the East Coast and back to the Midwest. Unhappy and tired, I was not paying attention as we drove "home" from the airport, until I suddenly realized that I did not recognize any of our surroundings. Very quickly, I found out that my drug use was not as big of a secret as I had originally thought. As of that afternoon, I found myself checking into a thirty-day drug rehabilitation center after an intervention by Mom, Michael, Uncle Tim, Dad, his girlfriend Becky, and the wonderful staff at Green Meadows. I was incredibly scared that day, but my family was by my side one hundred percent of the way. My seventh song, then, is George Strait's "Love Without End, Amen," because my family has shown me in the past few months just exactly what unconditional love is all about. I could not stand the fact that Mom knew about my drug use; I was convinced that she would never be able to love me after she realized who I had become through my addictions. Mom, Dad, and Michael have all shown me that "daddys don't just love their children every now and then / It's a love without end, amen." Without their unconditional love and support, I honestly doubt I would be alive.

Sarah then takes a moment to reflect on the soundtrack experience. I ask students to create some closure in this section of the soundtrack, considering, as well, what they have gained from the experience.

Creating this soundtrack of my life has been completely unbelievable for me. I had absolutely no idea that one project could force me to concentrate so intently on who I am. It has been an incredibly eye-opening experience. I do hope that through these songs and what they represent, I have adequately provided clearer insight as to who I am at heart. Finally, I wish to extend my deepest appreciation to the listener for taking their time to enter my world for a short while and I hope the trip has been enjoyable and enlightening.

Sarah has indeed expressed a frightening and realistic account of a life that, tragically, resembles the lives of far too many adolescents in our society. She has written of some of her darkest secrets while subsequently providing hope for herself, her family, and her audience. Other students may not have material as dramatic to write about, yet they too can find depth and meaning even in the lighter events of life. One example comes from a junior, Lacy, who focuses on a song that is, in fact, part of the event she recounts. She details how this song makes her feel and how it helps her connect with her friends (she calls them "my girls") in fun times.

Moving to the fun side of my soundtrack it's "Jimi Thing," by Dave Matthews. I have already emphasized my deep passion for Dave Matthews's music. In the summer of 2003, I went to another one of Dave's concerts. I was with all my girls and other friends when Dave broke into "Jimi Thing." We all just started to sing; it was so much fun. The song tells how to have fun, and at that moment nothing else really matters, just kick back and let loose. Every time this song is played, my girls and I just laugh and think of the memories of the concert and the fools we made of ourselves. It is a time I will never forget and know they never will either because we play the song every time we go out. When "Jimi Thing" begins playing, I think of how much we have all gone through together. Fights to deaths to prom to just partying. I have no idea where I would be without my girls. They have helped me laugh, cry, and just have a good time with life. I know they will always be here for me and they know I will always be there for them.

Though some students are very comfortable using the lyrics from the songs to support their meanings, other students write quite effectively without the lyrical support for their ideas. The next two selections, from Carl, make the title of the song the key to the meaning. Carl's audience is expected to be able to understand his implied connections through his story.

Later on in life, when I was about three or so, I learned to ride a tricycle, as most do. Somehow, though, I wound up in the Great Kearney Bike Race on my trusty red tricycle. At three, I don't think that I was quite sure what I was doing, but I did have fun. My picture ended up on the cover of a Kearney Lifestyles Chamber of Commerce publication because they liked the expression on my face and I guess thought that might attract people to this city. I chose "Going the Distance," by Cake, for this event because I have always loved racing and the look in my face in the picture is one of wonder, anticipation, excitement, and a "let me at 'em" mentality, which also describes the song well too.

Carl's second entry is much more serious:

In 1996, I was eleven years old and in sixth grade. My Dad had been in Boy Scouts as a kid and got me started in it also. Our troop was planting a tree in front of my elementary school for a Boy Scout project. My Dad and I were the only people who showed up to plant the thing, but we decided to do it anyway. It went pretty smoothly, but toward the end my Dad started to feel a little sick, so he got back in the car while I finished packing down the dirt and cleaning up. When we got home, I immediately ran off to soccer practice and when I returned home practically the whole neighborhood was in my living room for no apparent reason. I finally got an answer that my parents had gone to the hospital because my Dad was really sick. I still did not understand why that meant everyone could just hang out at my house, but I just naively went upstairs and messed around on the computer. I was still in my room when my Mom got home and came in. She was crying, which made me a little suspicious, and she called my brother and me over. She told us that our Dad had suffered a heart attack. We asked if he was okay and she told us he had died. I refused to believe it at first but after a while it sort of settled in, and I started to get worried. I didn't know what it would be like without a dad and didn't want to know. "Daddy's Hands," by Holly Dunn, probably sums up what I remember about him. He was a very sensitive guy who worked and loved his fun but when it came time for business, he got it done and done right. As a testament to the way he lived his life, that tree still stands in front of my old elementary school, and although I am long gone from there, I drive by often and remember what my Dad's hands helped create.

I would describe Carl as a reluctant writer and reader. Yet his account of his father's death is nothing less than heart-shattering. Although adolescent boys, stereotypically, don't speak or write of their emotional life in the way that Carl has done here, this type of writing has encouraged many of my male students to share openly, reaching new heights in their writing, a transformation that has led them to a more positive attitude toward English.

Later...[students] will be called on to...provide evidence for arguments, and supply expository composition. The soundtrack assignment introduces them to the fundamentals of these skills.

Following the writing portion of the assignment, students share a portion of their soundtracks with the class. I first ask them to create visual supplements. Students have created concert posters and flyers, television advertisements, record covers, and T-shirts. These visual representations provide yearlong classroom decoration and keepsakes for students and parents. Next, I allow time in class for students to circulate and talk to others about their visual aides and written soundtracks. Then, all students select a portion of their soundtrack to read aloud to the class. Coming at the beginning of the semester, this reading provides an introduction to author's chair, an institution in my classroom, while allowing students enough choice to feel comfortable talking about their lives in front of their peers.

This formal sharing is also the first opportunity to publish a portion of the students' soundtracks. By beginning the year with a focus on publication, all writing that follows is more authentic and of better quality. If students only turn in their assignments to their teachers, they are not likely to challenge themselves toward improvement. But when peers inside and outside of the school building have a chance to read what they have written, each student is much more interested in improving his or her writing. My students create a "Soundtrack of Your Life" book as an initial publishing effort. Contribution to the book is not mandatory but only those students who contribute receive a copy. Next, I encourage students to search for other publication venues, including online journals, writing contests, and student writing websites. Since the soundtrack is admittedly formulaic in nature, students often have to tweak the structure of their writing to fit the variety of student writing publications, and this experience too, while frustrating, advances them as writers.

As students are so intently involved in communicating during this project, they are necessarily mastering skills linked to the state standards. Later in the semester, they will be called on to quote from a novel in order to support an opinion, provide evidence for arguments, and supply details to advance the generalizations they make in expository composition. The soundtrack assignment introduces them to the fundamentals of all these skills. But the principal point of the soundtrack project is larger than mastering a specific skill. Rather, I am interested in providing students with a beginning point for the rest of their lives by allowing them to look at what they have lived through already, ciphering out, reflecting on, and evaluating what has been good and bad.

When students create the soundtracks of their lives, they have the opportunity to look at who they are as people and, perhaps, make changes for the better. For Carl, writing eloquently of his father's death after failing two straight years of English, or Sarah, writing honestly about her battle with drug addiction, or Lacy, just having fun, the soundtrack assignment resulted in much more than just a mark in the grade book.

Sarah created her "Soundtrack of Your Life" because it was required in order to pass junior English, but she now says that the opportunity to deal with her problems in writing was the soundtrack that saved her life. Very few of my students, of course, have lives that need saving, but all of them have lives worth examining, and that's what "Soundtrack of Your Life" gives them the opportunity to do.

For Further Reading

Adams, N. 2000. "Other People's Music Provides Soundtrack to Life." Commentary on All Things Considered. National Public Radio. October 17.

Bon Jovi, J. 2000. "It's My Life." Crush. Island Records.

Christenson, P. G., and D. F. Roberts. 1998. It's Not Only Rock and Roll: Popular Music in the Lives of Adolescents. New York: Hampton Press.

Copeland, M., and M. Grout. 2001. At the Crossroads: Learning to Reflect and Reflecting to Learn. Ottawa, KS: The Writing Conference.

Dethier, B. 2003. From Dylan to Donne: Bridging English and Music. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.

Green, J. 2002. Green Book of Songs by Subject: The Thematic Guide to Popular Music. 5th ed. Nashville, TN: Professional Desk References.

Heidersbach, A. 2001. "Creativity and the Classics." Professional presentation at the Kansas Association of Teachers of English Annual Conference. October.

Paris, S. G., and L. R. Ayres. 1994. Becoming Reflective Students and Teachers with Portfolios and Authentic Assessment. New York: American Psychological Association.

Tiedt, I., et al. 1989. Teaching Thinking in K-12 Classroom. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

About the Author Chris Goering teaches ninth and eleventh grade English at Washburn Rural High School in Topeka, Kansas. He is a teacher-consultant with the Flint Hills Writing Project, Kansas.

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