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The Orchestra Sings

Melodies Can Be Connected to Words

Aim: How are composers inspired to create melodies from words?
Summary: Students will explore the melodic settings of two poems by Langston Hughes.
Standards: National 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10; NYC 1, 2, 3
Vocabulary: harmony, melodic contour, melody, rhythm, unison

To Make Words Sing

To make words sing
Is a wonderful thing—
Because in a song
Words last so long.

The City

In the morning the city
Spreads its wings
Making a song
In stone that sings.

In the evening the city
Goes to bed
Hanging lights
About its head.

Making Words Sing

  • As a class, read the Langston Hughes poem To Make Words Sing.
    • What is the mood of this poem?
    • How would you expect these words to be sung in a song?
    • Would the tempo be fast or slow?
    • Would the melody be stepwise or have large leaps?
    • Which words might be sung on longer notes than others?
    • Which words or phrases might be softer or louder than others?
    • Where might there be pauses?
    • Which words would be emphasized, and how?
  • Listen together to the track “To Make Words Sing” (complete) by Thomas Cabaniss.
  • Explore the melody that he created for this poem.
    • Describe the mood, melodic contour, tempo, and dynamics that you hear.
    • Where does he add pauses or rests?
    • Which words were sung on longer notes?
    • How do his choices compare to the choices you predicted?
  • Next, read the Langston Hughes poem The City.
  • Discuss the meaning of the poem.
    • Try to envision a city in the morning and at night.
    • What do you see? What images does this poem bring to mind?
  • Create the rhythm for your melody. In small groups or as a class, try out different ways of reciting the lines, experimenting with tempo, articulation, note length, and dynamics, and adding pauses in different places.
    • What did you discover?
    • Which words felt more important or received more emphasis?
  • Record or notate rhythms for each line to create rhythmic patterns.
  • Create a melodic contour for your rhythmic patterns. Under each pattern, draw the contour that you feel reflects the rise and fall of the words as you speak them.
    • Which words might sound better on higher pitches? Which words might sound better on lower pitches?
  • Create a melody for your rhythmic patterns. Next, experiment with assigning pitches to your rhythmic patterns that match the contour shape that you drew. You may use your voice, recorder, or any pitched instruments available in your classroom. You may wish to limit the number of pitches to choose from (i.e., the notes that you can play on a recorder, a particular scale, or a particular set of bars on Orff instruments).
    • Try it several times, using different pitches.
    • When does it sound “right?”
  • Record or notate your melody and sing or play it as a class or in groups.
    • Does your melody capture your initial thoughts about the poem? What works or doesn’t work?

Related Concert Repertoire

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was an American poet, writer, and social activist. He was born in Joplin, Missouri, and raised in several towns in the Midwest, as he moved with his family. He traveled extensively as a young adult and settled in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City during ...

Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was an American poet, writer, and social activist. He was born in Joplin, Missouri, and raised in several towns in the Midwest, as he moved with his family. He traveled extensively as a young adult and settled in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City during the 1920s. There, he became an influential voice of the Harlem Renaissance, an African American cultural movement that focused on literature, poetry, art, music, and politics. He is well-known for his many books, plays, short stories, and poems, including “To Make Words Sing.”

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