Teaching Language Arts Through Music: Historic Sheet Music and Song Sheets

New Year’s Eve is a time of celebration, often including music. One festive tradition is the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight, although many of us either hum along or make up our own words since we don’t know the lyrics. It’s one of more than 300 Scottish songs that the poet Robert Burns is credited with preserving, a blend of Scots and English, old and new.

In the spirit of “Auld Lang Syne,” I searched two of the Library’s online collections, Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, and, America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets, for examples of old American songs relating to the New Year. After winter break, try welcoming 2012 and introducing (or reminding!) students of key language arts concepts using one or more of my New Year’s themed song selections. Or, search the Library’s online collections for your own favorites relating to other themes of interest.

Select questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Sheet Music and Song Sheets to facilitate class discussions, and encourage students to document their analysis process using the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Afterwards, try one or more of the language-arts activities described below:

  • Scan the lyrics of a song entitled, “The old year. 1877. The new year. 1878.” You’ll notice the use of metaphors such as, “Just like a bride, all dressed in white,” to represent 1878, the new year. What modern metaphors might students use for 2012?


  • Read all three verses of “The Old year dies to-night.” What allegory does the lyricist use throughout the song? Have students brainstorm new song lyrics featuring the opposite allegory–the birth of a new year.


  • After analyzing the cover illustration, title, lyrics and music of “Good bye old year,” ask students to compare and contrast the song’s overall tone to that of “Where do the old years go.” Challenge students to write a creative short story about this time period of American Industrialization using one or both of these songs to set the scene.

How might you use historic song sheets or sheet music with a focus on language arts?

One Comment

  1. Joyce
    December 27, 2011 at 9:13 am

    I home school my children borrowing from several top private schools’ course studies to design my own curriculum. My children play flute and clarinet. I intend to connect our Music Theory /Appreciation class to our Literature and World History classes by having my children listen to and study the lyrics of selected artists corresponding to the literature read and/or the history period being studied. I will also require my children to create their own short musical pieces along the same lyrical and musical styles of selected composers such as Joplin, Bach, Sousa, Arlen, Jobim, etc.

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