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Lecture Library

Dissonance and Soundtracks: A Lecture Lesson Plan
by Shawn M. Higgins

This lecture encourages sound studies students to examine how dissonance functions when sound is paired with moving image.

This lecture was originally given in an ESL course titled "Popular Music and English Language Learning" at Temple University Japan Campus in Fall 2014. The students in this class were from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, and they were all studying in Tokyo in hopes of entering Temple University Japan's undergraduate program after they gained enough skill to receive a 427 on the TOEFL PBT test. Some of the learning goals of this course were: to explain the historical, cultural, and social context of an individual work in the arts; to use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; and to integrate multimedia and visual displays during conversations to add interest, clarify information, and strengthen claims.

This lecture took my class approximately 4.5 hours to complete with some additional work outside of class. The following is an outline of how students began working through dissonance and soundtracking:

1. Students are asked to discuss what makes the world "wonderful." Answers are written down or projected onto a board at the front of the class. Next, students are asked what makes the world "not wonderful," and they are asked to think of vocabulary that function as synonyms ("awful, terrible, scary, evil, etc). Any provocative or cultural responses might be discussed as a class if desirable.

2. Students then listen to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" (Cabaret, ABC, 1967) and complete a "cloze activity," or a close-listening fill-in-the-blank worksheet focused on specific vocabulary omissions. I recommend omitting nouns and noun clauses ("trees of green," "skies of blue"), and focusing on listening for count/non-count nouns. While "cloze activities" are often used in ESL classrooms, this can still be done with native English-speaking students as a way of making them take in focus words. It also promotes active listening through completing a worksheet with a specific number of omissions.

3. After completing the cloze, students are then asked what world events they know were happening in the mid-to-late 1960s. Students share their knowledge, and the instructor adds details/corrections if known, but the focus should be on the students giving input and creating conversation. Hopefully, the students get around to mentioning the Vietnam War, but if not, the instructor could introduce this world event as a concluding segue.

4. Students then listen to Louis Armstrong's 1970 live version of "What a Wonderful World" which features a spoken introduction. I typed this out as a quotation and had students do a free-writing response to it, but it could also just be discussed as a class.

"Some of you young folk been saying to me: 'Hey Pops, what you mean 'What a Wonderful World'? How about all them wars all over the place? You call them 'wonderful'? And how about hunger and pollution? That ain't so 'wonderful' either.' Well, how about listening to ol' Pops for a minute? Seems to me, it ain't the world that's so bad but what we're doin' to it. And all I'm saying is see what a wonderful world it would be if only we'd give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That's the secret -- yeah. If lots more of us loved each other, we'd solve lots more problems. And then this world would be gasser. That's what ol' Pops keeps saying."

5. Students are then introduced to the concept of dissonance in terms of soundtracking for moving images. This concept is illustrated through a screening of a scene from Barry Levinson's Good Morning Vietnam (1987, starring Robin Williams). In this particular scene, Army radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer plays Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" for the listening troops, and the song becomes the soundtrack for moving images of the war in which the soldiers are engaged. This pairing creates a high level of dissonance and is affectively strong. After the screening, students can discuss as a class or can write down their thoughts through free-writing.

6. As either a capstone to this project or as an extra outside-of-class activity, students are then asked to create their own video clip with a high level of dissonance and to explain their pairing. Students are taught how to and encouraged to use content with free usage licenses if possible and to always give credit for their sources of music and image. Some example projects my students created included soundtracking a promotional video for the university's business school with a "gangster hip-hop" song and pairing a city library's promotional video with punk rock music. Students are discouraged from simply choosing songs that "wouldn't work" with the moving image. Instead, like Good Morning Vietnam, students should try to create meaningful dissonance through the association of sound and moving image to reveal something new or provocative about both the sound and image. Students could present these videos or submit them with a written supplement about the process and desired effect.

"What a Wonderful World" as Vietnam War Soundtrack by Barry Levinson (1987) In this scene from Barry Levinson's "Good Morning Vietnam" (1987, starring Robin Williams), Army radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer plays Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" for the listening troops.