All the essays in Writing Music model thoughtful and perceptive writing in a range of genres, from blog posts to scholarly articles. Students can read and adapt practical strategies for, say, moving from a general claim to a supporting example or using a paragraph to address an opposing point of view. That modeling process works at a deeper level, too: it means seeing writing not merely as an academic performance, but as a way of pursuing curiosity, answering questions, and correcting misunderstandings.
So how do we get students to identify with the curiosity and engagement of these writers? I have had success using a vintage technique: questioning. Every selection in the book lends itself to this approach (even the ancient excerpt from Aristotle). But let’s focus on a specific example.
I’ve taught Will Wilkinson’s “Country Music, Openness to Experience, and the Psychology of Culture War” (page 105) several times now. In a class comprised of many international students, but only a few dedicated fans of contemporary country, you’d think the topic would be a tough sell. But with a multimedia approach (I show music videos of the songs that Wilkinson discusses), students quickly apprehend the signals, symbols, and themes that he identifies in his argument. The images also get students thinking about the writer’s wider claims: that a musical genre can mirror and express an ideology, and that a type of music can coordinate its fans as a community with shared values.
Several students were able to apply those insights to other genres, ideologies, and communities, which helped them place their own musical preferences in a broader context. For those students, one key to moving from Wilkinson’s text to their own writing was the low-tech process of asking the right questions about their topics. So in a class discussion, we essentially reverse engineered Wilkinson’s essay by identifying root questions that he attempts to answer. I put a few question prompts on the whiteboard; together, we worked through the answers. Here are just a few of them, with the brief explanations that Wilkinson’s essay provides:
What interests me about this topic?
While listening to a country song, the writer wonders whether its sentimentality is connected to the ideology of the genre, the psychology of country’s conservative fans, and the “stakes of the ‘culture wars.’”
What do I know about this topic? What don’t I know, but want to discover?
What the writer knows: Contemporary music focuses on a limited number of subjects and themes; it seems to have a conservative ideology and represent a “side” in the “culture wars.”
What the writer doesn’t know, but tries to discover: He does not know how, specifically, a preference for country music is related to cognition, personality types, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and social psychology.
What are specific examples of this topic?
The song that inspires the writer’s inquiry is “One Boy, One Girl” by Collin Raye:
These examples reinforce Wilkinson’s premise that country music has a worldview.
How is this topic misunderstood? What needs to be clarified?
Different views of country music reflect not differences in superficial “taste,” but more fundamental differences in psychology, ideology, and moral intuitions. Those with “high openness” personalities may find country music boring and nostalgic, but its fans understand that the genre celebrates traditions charged with transcendent meaning: “the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life.”
How has my attitude about this topic changed over time?
The writer comes to understand that country music works, in part, “to reinforce . . . the idea that life's most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.” That is, the writer moves from curiosity and intuition into a more precise, supportable, and debatable understanding of country music.
These questions encourage students to look for gaps, paradoxes, changes in attitudes over time, and other sources of tension and conflict. The question about specific examples also requires them to begin assembling specific evidence to support their claims. So after dismantling an essay from Writing Music by questioning it, ask your students to interrogate their own prospective topics in the same way. If they can come up with preliminary questions and speculative answers (or ideas for pursuing those answers), they have made significant progress in the writing process.