Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Celebrating the Public Domain and Engaging Creatively with Primary Sources

This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

On January 16 2019, the Library hosted “Public Domain – Celebrating the Lifecycle of Copyright.” The public domain provides so many creative avenues worth celebrating! During the event Douglas Lanier, University of New Hampshire English professor, focused on Shakespeare’s classics to articulate ways that creators can be inspired by works in the public domain. Such creative adaptations necessarily spring from a thorough analysis of the source. By understanding the work’s original context, intent, message, and audience, creators use cultural referents to frame new ideas. Public-domain classics achieve a continually evolving immortality as they are re-imagined by new generations of creative minds. Lanier stated that, through creative adaptation, such sources can be used to create a commentary on the original work, engage contemporary issues, create opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue, and promote cultural change.

Romeo and Juliet. Alfred S. Campbell, 1896

For example, consider Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the primary source, and this stereo photograph as a creative re-telling. The medium has changed from play to photographic print; the content has changed to reflect a different time and place.  In what ways has the photographer honored the original work?  How has he incorporated new perspectives into a creative adaptation of the public-domain classic?

Check out the webcast for insights from Lanier, and read on for examples of practical, creative learning activities.

Changes in Medium

Essays, letters, plays, songs, radio and television broadcasts, social media posts, tee shirts: Creative messages are communicated to the world in diverse ways. After examining a primary source, challenge students to express the message through another format. A certain biography-turned-musical has inspired many people with the possibilities of telling familiar stories through new media.  When students transform a debate into a rap battle or a political cartoon into a meme, they creatively communicate their analysis through relevant, resonant media.

Changes in Content

Students can add information to a primary source in ways that reflect the students’ understanding of the source’s intention, and also highlight new understandings they can bring into its analysis. Lanier enumerates several strategies for changing content while honoring a classic source; here are some ideas for making the strategies come to life in the classroom:

  • Cuts and additions: What can students crop or add to a map to enhance or interpret its message? What details would be emphasized through color, symbols, or text?
  • Re-contextualizations in new times and places: Perform a historic musical work in a modern ensemble – perhaps with a rock band, or a dubstep-inspired sequencer. How must the work be changed in order to allow contemporary instrumentation to express the original musical intent?
  • Prequels and sequels: After examining a letter, compose a letter that may have come before or after it in the correspondence.
  • Different character perspectives on the action: Whose perspective was ignored in a newspaper article? Add a paragraph to give voice to that perspective.
  • Translation: How would a historic document be written in today’s English? How would it be written in text-speak, complete with emojis or GIFs?

Creative adaptation encourages students to engage with a source and then change its medium or content to communicate new insights about the work.  How do you inspire your students to think creatively with primary sources?

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