Music is a common part of our lives and of our society. We hear music everywhere, from full albums on our CD players and the latest hit singles on the radio to music in commercials, restaurants, elevators, etc. Today we even have streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify, and on YouTube, where you can watch the latest music videos, as well as some old hits.
The basic unit of music in our society is the song. Songs can range from long instrumental ballads and symphonies to short upbeat modern pieces with lyrics. Believe it or not, songs are considered media messages, and so the same media literacy rules apply to songs as to other forms of media. We can look at a song - well, listen to a song - and break it down into its components to analyze it.
Below are some things to consider to help us better understand the messages in songs.
Note: You can learn a lot more about this topic by buying our book, Practical Media Literacy: An essential guide to the critical thinking skills for our digital world. You would be supporting our work so that we can bring you more great resources.
1. What does the instrumentation tell us about the song? Is the instrumentation dense, with heavy guitars/drums/bass, forcing us to focus more on it than on the vocals? Or is the instrumentation sparse, perhaps only an acoustic guitar, forcing us to focus on the vocals? Is the tempo fast or slow? Is the instrumentation loud or soft? What emotion does the instrumentation make us feel? Calm? Anxious? Happy? Sad? Instrumentation affects us in a subconscious way.
2. What do the vocals and lyrics tell us about the song? Does the tone of the words fit with the way the singer sings them? Does the tone of the vocals agree with or contradict the instrumentation (do the instruments make you feel happy while the lyrics are sad, for example)? What is the message of the lyrics? Is the song political? How can you tell? Is the song romantic? How can you tell?
3. Who is the target market for the song? What values do the lyrics contain? Does the artist's image (how they portray themselves) affect how you feel about the song? Would you feel the same way about the song if it was sung by someone of a different age, race, or gender? How might someone of a different demographic (someone of a different gender, someone older or younger than you, someone who made more or less money than you, someone with different political values, someone of a different race) hear the song differently?
When analyzing a song, keep in mind that the vocals/lyrics and music are one unit. It's impossible to properly analyze a song by simply reading the lyrics. This is because sometimes the lyrics go against the music. So for example, the music can be upbeat and the lyrics could be sad or angry.
Here are some songs that might be worth analyzing.
1965's "Eve Of Destruction" by Barry McGuire - This song was written during the Vietnam war and is a great way to get an idea of what kids were listening to back then and the types of messages they were exposed to. This is a great example of how the music sounds like 60s pop but the vocals are angry, and the lyrics are pessimistic, and the tone is overall somber.
1991's "Black or White" by Michael Jackson - This was a popular song of its era, and the single sold millions of copies. The music video adds another layer to analyze since we are no able to compare the music, the lyrics, and the visuals.
1990's "Vogue" by Madonna - This is another great song to analyze, as it was popular, and it can have many interpreted meanings. Take a listen and watch the video. What's the song about?