Volume III - 1995-1996

Writing in Music
By Sharon Myers

        Dr. Sharon Myers is an assistant professor in the Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literature at Texas Tech University where she directs the ESL Academic Program and international teaching assistant English proficiency training.

        Writing is an act of imagination. It is a concentrated inner dialogue calling on memory, logic, and creative visualization. It was never meant to be a social activity. It certainly wasn't meant to be pursued in tightly structured time sequences, elbow-to-elbow in crowded rooms, on stiff wood and metal chairs with small writing surfaces.

        I have been teaching academic ESL composition for seven years now and have had great success using music in my conference-centered courses. Initially, I brought music into the classroom with a vague notion of "relaxing" the students. It does, too. It seems to disarm students of some defenses (Krashen's affective barriers?) and in all but the most intransigent cases, diminishes crankiness. Lozanov may or may not be correct in his conviction that music fixes information in a more receptive brain, but there is no doubt that it has the power to put people in a better mood. A class in a good mood is much easier to work with than a class indifferent or numb from lectures, sleep deprivation, culture shock, and endless wrestling matches with a new language.

A Place to Go To

        After a few semesters, however, I began to realize that the greatest value of the music to enhance writing in the class was not in its affective power, but in its isolating power. That is, music is a place to go. It gives students a dimension in which to escape the crowded room and carry on the inner dialogue. In this sense, music makes writing in a classroom more natural than it is otherwise.

Music Discourages Chatter

        There are other effects. Not least is that auditory distractions--clocks, hallway noise, whispering, the drone of air conditioning systems, growling stomachs, generalized classroom shuffling--are blurred over, so that it is easier to concentrate. I have found that the social urge to talk appears to be less compelling among students when music is playing, perhaps because each student is more acutely aware of talk as an interruption in the steady current of the music as opposed to the choppier give and take of typical classroom presentations.

        My standard writing class begins slightly early. I bring in a boom box (quality matters), and begin the music immediately, even before I take off my coat. While I shuffle papers and set up, students are drifting in. In this way, the class assembles inside the music. At least on that one plane, we are all together when the class starts. I lay whatever homework I have to return to them on a desk at the front of the class. They come and identify their papers and take them back to their desks. People are coming and going to the front of the room like this for a little bit, and others are examining their papers, and I am marking roll, and all this is going on in a relaxed way in the music.

        Following roll, I press the pause button on the music. After a while, it comes automatically to do this in some natural break or valley in a melody so that it is not a jarring transition. Then I launch into whatever topic of instruction is on the day's menu, be it syntax or citation conventions or talking up an assignment. There is a conventional question and answer period. I try not to let this go over twenty minutes. At the end of the collective instruction period, I press the pause button again, the music resumes, and the students write. I usually give them time to sort themselves out before the conferencing begins, so this is the ideal time to write the homework assignment on the board.

Music Often Brings Teachers and Students Together

        Then I walk among the students so that each person has an opportunity to ask me for instruction or signal, by ignoring me, to leave him or her alone. For those who want instruction, I will give it softly, sometimes bending over, writing with a pencil directly on the students paper (or simply talking softly to the student) while the student is seated. The music seems to make it relatively easy for the others to tune this out. If my comments are lengthy, I have the student come up to my table at the front and we put our heads together up there.

        If the tape runs out, I turn it over. The music continues. The writing continues. If no one seeks instruction, I seek the ones I know need it, and conference with them directly, at their desks or mine. There is a rhythm to this, as there is to all classes: a kinesthetic sense modulated in whatever rapport one can establish with students, collectively or individually. The music smooths motion as well as emotion. Just before the end of the class hour, I pause the music, draw their attention to the homework assignment and clarify any questions about it. When the questions are answered, I push the pause button to renew the sound, and the class disperses in music.

New-Age Music Works

        Well I am always asked, what music? No one could agree on what music to play, surely. There would always be somebody in the class who would be annoyed. And how could you ask that person to write with his or her senses being grated by some unwelcome music. In fact, I simply announce at the first class (after pausing the tape), that this will be a class in which there will be music. I promise them that the music will not be at a high volume and that they will like it. This is the power of suggestion, straight out of Lozanov again. I assure them that they should let me know if it annoys them, but don't suggest for a minute that I think it might.

        The music that seems to work best is "New Age" music. Much of this music is beautiful, and at the very least it can be tuned into or out of without a great deal of difficulty. Piano solos, some classical guitar music, Celtic harp, or softly played chorals in a language nobody in the class understands (Norwegian; Finnish; Bulgarian) are only a few kinds of music which can be played to good effect. Volume is crucial, but again, a feel for this comes with time. It is important to play something different each time, too. I found the answer to this by using tapes available at the public library while I slowly built up my own "writing class collection" of music.

High Evaluations

        In the years I have been using music in this way, these classes have consistently received high student evaluations. This has been true in culturally heterogeneous classes at the University of Washington, Florida State University, and Texas Tech University. Only two students ever reported that the music annoyed them. Both turned out to be individuals who wanted to control not only the music, but just about every other aspect of the class as well. Most students respond with smiles between long gazes, going in and out of themselves in the process of composing.

References

Krashen, S. D. (1984). Writing: Research,Theory, and Application. Pergamon Institute of English Language Teaching Methodology Series, Oxford.

Lozanov, G. (1978). Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy, Gordon and Breach.

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