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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Singing for Political Change: Celebrating Music In Our Schools Month with Library of Congress Primary Sources

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Throughout the month of March, Teaching with the Library of Congress celebrates Music In Our Schools Month by recognizing America’s Changemakers in Song. This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

From presidential campaigns to women’s suffrage, citizens have been serenaded to the ballot-box throughout American history. By observing the musical elements of political songs, students can become more aware of music’s influence in political discourse and more fully equipped to participate in such discourse. Examine, for example, two very different pro-prohibition songs: “Who’ll Buy” and “Temperance Call Reform.” By considering the lyrics, rhythm, pitch, and texture, students can explore and compare the viewpoints expressed in each piece, recognizing the ways musical elements work together with the lyrics to express a viewpoint.

Who’ll buy, 1869

Temperance call reform, 1884


Students may detect satire or humor in the lyrics of “Who’ll Buy.” Students may also notice sensationalized language; mentions of crime, poverty, immorality, and even economic protectionism incite fear in the listener.

The comparatively subdued “Temperance Call Reform” offers a reasoned argument for voting according to one’s convictions. Nevertheless, students may notice appeals to emotion through the references to destruction-bound children, morality, and religion.

What might the differences between the songs’ rhetorical and emotional approaches indicate about their creators, performers, or intended audience?

RhythmThe durations of sounds

“Temperance Call Reform” contains a mixture of quarter notes and longer note values. Ask students to read a stanza of lyrics aloud, naturally. Then, ask them to prolong the syllables of the white-centered half or dotted-half notes. How do the longer rhythmic values affect the expression of the text?  Conversely, except for the titular “who’ll buy,” every syllable is a flagged, quick eighth note. How do the lyrics strike students when spoken in this quick, steady fashion?

Pitch: The frequency of sound

Students may notice the melody moves downward in a linear fashion on the second line of “Who’ll Buy.” Historically, descending melodic lines have been used to imply falling tears, sighs, and other emotional expressions through a technique called “text painting.” The key of “Who’ll Buy” is F major, but the key shifts abruptly in the penultimate measure, to the relative D minor. How does the descending lines and key shift from major to minor augment the emotional impact of the lyrics?

Students may notice many sharps, flats, and naturals in the “Temperance Call Reform” score. Typically, these symbols cause dissonance, a sense of musical agitation, because they introduce pitches that don’t belong in the key. How does the accidentals’ dissonance emphasize certain syllables and ideas?

Texture: The interaction between layers of sound

Both of the pieces are written for four-part chorus, but the four voices interact differently. In “Temperance Call Reform,” the voices move in rhythmic unity, a texture commonly associated with hymns. In “Who’ll Buy,” solos and echoes create a conversational texture. What might texture indicate about the intended audience or performance style?

Contemporary Connections

Today’s hit charts are rife with songs that express political or social messages. How are lyrics used to advocate an opinion? How do texture, rhythms, and pitches – and other elements such as instrumentation or style – help the message resonate with the target audience?


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