Using Sheet Music to Bring History to Life

This post was written by Lee Ann Potter, the director of the office of Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives at the Library of Congress.

Recently, I had the pleasure of presenting the K-12 Teacher Workshop at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA).  The in-person, fully-masked event, was titled “LOC 101: Finding—and Engaging Students with—Primary Sources from the Library of Congress.”

Inspired by the fact that the meeting was in New Orleans, Louisiana, on January 8 (the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans), for our first activity, I selected “Battle of the memorable 8th of January 1815 composed for the piano forte,” a piece of sheet music included in the Early American Sheet Music Collection. The composer, Philippe Laroque, did not include lyrics, but rather annotations, in both English and French, that described what happened during the decisive battle that took place 207 years ago.

Cover of sheet music on the Battle of New Orleans mentioned in the post.

Battle of the memorable 8th of January 1815 composed for the piano forte. Philippe Laroque, 1815

Detail of the Battle of New Orleans sheet music, with notations

Detail of the Battle of New Orleans sheet music, with notations

I provided participants with the cover, two pages of the music, the annotations embedded in the 16-page song, and a primary source analysis tool; then, I invited them to observe, reflect, and question.

In the discussion that followed, those able to read music described the notes and their relationship to the annotations, as well as the pace of the song.  Then, I shared that there are now free apps available that can read and perform sheet music.  They translate a photograph of a piece of sheet music into sound.  I demonstrated one and explained that many such apps can play the sound as though performed with different instruments.  So, we listened to this song through an app, as played on both a harpsichord and a piano.

Motivated by the 1815 sheet music, our conversation turned to strategies for using such sources as teaching tools.  We discussed students’ affinity for music, as well as movie soundtracks.  We speculated about what other events in history might sound like if students were to put them to music as Laroque did with the Battle of New Orleans.

Sheet music with image of Brooklyn Bridge on the cover

Brooklyn Bridge Grand March. E. Mack, 1883

I shared that there are more than 120,000 pieces of notated music currently available on the Library’s website—reflecting a dizzying array of historical events, places, people, ideas, and more.  One participant was especially delighted to see the nine songs published in the 1880s about the Brooklyn Bridge!

I knew there would be a participant interested in Brooklyn because I had asked the registrants to provide me with simply a date and a place that held special meaning for them.  Their responses motivated my pre-conference research, determining what items and collections we would engage with during the workshop.

This approach allowed me both to demonstrate that there are materials in the Library’s collections related to everything and to highlight sources in a variety of media from a number of specific collections including: Chronicling America, Thomas Jefferson’s Weather Journals, the diary George Washington kept during the Constitutional Convention, Sanborn Maps, Associated Press News Dispatches, 1915-1930, Dun & Bradstreet Reference Book Collection, Federal Theatre Project, and more!

If you have used sheet music to teach specific content or skills, or have been inspired by sheet music to engage your students in a particular activity—Or, if you have ever simply searched the Library’s collections for items related to a date or a place that is meaningful to you, tell us about it!

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