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Lesson Plan Music and U.S. Reform History: Stand Up and Sing

Throughout American history, popular music has reflected the mood and opinions of the times. By exploring sheet music, students analyze issues related to industrialization and reform to answer the essential question, "How does society respond to change?" Students will have the opportunity to create original lyrics and song covers that reflect the Progressive Era.


Students will be able to:

  • Identify historical events referenced in music.
  • Examine pieces of sheet music and identify context, purpose, and perspective with regard to the political, social, and economic conditions existing at that time.
  • Explore ways music is used to shape public opinion.
  • Create lyrics and music covers for an original song illustrating a topic of the Progressive Era.

Time Required

Six classes

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

  1. Display a copy of the First Amendment from the Bill of Rights. Focus on the free speech clause and ask students to brainstorm ways that Americans demonstrate their rights of free speech. Ideas include the following: newspaper editorials, demonstrations, literature, art, boycotts, banners, poetry and music.
  2. Explain that the lesson will focus on how Americans have used music and song lyrics to express opinions and inspire change throughout history.
    Warning: Some material in the Library of Congress online collections contain bias and stereotypes indicative of different historical eras. Discuss with students before proceeding.
  3. Using an example of sheet music drawn from the Song Sheet Gallery, conduct a whole group analysis using a Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before beginning the analysis, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Sheet Music and Song Sheets to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
  4. Referring to their recent study of industrialization and the Progressive Era, students identify specific reform movements from those historical periods.
  5. Form groups of 3-4 students. Assign or have students select a specific area of reform. Working in groups, students identify keywords and related terms associated with their reform movement. This list of terms will be useful when students perform searches of the collections.
  6. Explain to students that they will be searching the Library's online collections for sheet music related to their chosen reform topic. Model searching the collections as needed.
  7. Each group selects one song related to their reform topic and prints a hard copy for analysis.
  8. Each group reviews and analyzes the piece of sheet music, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Sheet Music and Song Sheets to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
  9. As a class, students share results of search and analysis.
  10. Students return to cooperative work groups to compose original song lyrics about this reform topic. Alternately, teacher directs groups to choose another topic to broaden their knowledge of reform.

    Questions to guide the groups' work might include:

    • Identify the reform topic of your song.
    • State your group’s opinion about this reform issue.
    • List at least four facts supporting your group’s opinion.
  11. Students search the Library's collections to locate a visual image related to their original song. This image will be used to create a cover design similar to those featured on nineteenth-and-twentieth century sheet music.
  12. Allow time for students to practice song presentations. Students should share original lyrics, song covers, and discuss the impact of songs on making change and its use as a vehicle of free speech throughout our nation's history.


  • This lesson can be used to analyze song lyrics from other historical periods.
  • Students can perform original reform songs in a concert.
  • Students can compile a song book of original lyrics related to any historical topic or era.

Lesson Evaluation

  • Teacher observation of collaborative work.
  • Teacher observation of effort in locating on-line resources.
  • Evaluation of final project using a rubric.
  • Student self-evaluation of process and project.


Patricia Baron Carlson and Cathy Bonneville Hix