What's going on? Listening to music, composing videos

If compositionists are increasingly going to develop assignments that ask students to compose with sound, we need to understand what students hear in music (and other sounds), and how they might work with those songs and sounds. Just as we all struggle to encourage and help students to read carefully, new media composition instructors might have to understand what it means to listen carefully or listen creatively. We also want to know what we should teach about listening. We offered our students the very general advice that a song could either shape the music video or the song could function as support to a textual-visual presentation, but going into the assignment, we had no better sense of how students listen to songs and use music.

We found that our general suggestions were somewhat useful, but our surveys and interviews revealed a wide range of strategies for listening actively and working with lyrics, stories, beats, themes, and moods. Of the 70 students who participated in the study, we found that 11 students produced videos that literally or very closely illustrated the lyrics of a song or songs, 21 produced videos that we identified as a loose, associative application of a song, and 38 used songs to set the mood or provide a background enhancement for their video. See Table 1 for elaborations on these categories and follow the directions below for downloading and viewing the files. See the Video Gallery for all 12 videos discussed in this essay.

Directions for downloading and viewing:

1. Click the project title name (the active links below).
2. Download the .pps file to your computer.
3. Open the file directly (double click), or open PowerPoint then the file.
4. Choose "View Show" from the PowerPoint menu; some files may be slow to load.
5. You may view the show to the end, or activate the "end show" option to stop the video at any point.

TABLE 1: Three general uses of songs and music.

Use of Music and Explanation Number of Uses Examples
Close, literal illustrations of songs. Lyrics and images are closely co-ordinated. The images typically reinforce the lyrics, but some videos add humor or have personal significance. 11

Chris Ellefson, A Musical Presentation

Amanda Houkum, You're My Little Girl

Associative applications of music. Images and text are related to the song's lyrics, but the video maker had his or her own story or point to make beyond simply illustrating the song. 21

Brooke Jameson, Fire

Stephanie Midgarden, Eating Disorders

Background enhancements. The music, often instrumental, supports the video's mood or tone, but does not shape or direct the video. 38

Kellie Aldrich, The Human Spirit

Destinee Zamzow, Costa Rica

In trying to write about these videos and how the students used sound, we also realized that some videos used such a mix of strategies that the video should probably be labeled "mixed methods."  We didn't account for this category as we classified the 70 videos, but we have included one clear example of a mixed method approach in our gallery, Nathan Kroh's "American Idiot."  Some of the other videos could be described as mixed methods as well, but for the purposes of this study, all videos, including Kroh's, have been categorized as literal illustration, associative application, or background enhancement.

Although we are focusing on the question of "what do students hear in a song, and how do they apply what they hear?" we should also emphasize again that the models we showed our students in the fall of 2005 were models that we labeled by genre (traditional music video, trip video, conceptual video), rather than by use of music.  These examples implicitly gave the 2005 students different models for how to use music, but we had not yet formulated the terms of literal illustration, associative application, background enhancement, or mixed methods. It is only based on our study of 70 videos, and our interviews with 10 of those students, that we have been able to formulate some clear ideas on what students hear in a song, and how they apply that knowledge.