The Voices of the Past

The NEXUS chapters below explore the history of music and music in history from Ancient Greece to modern times. Each volume includes exercises and activities in which students learn to recognize and appreciate the musical styles of a period and to compose period music.

If we ignore these musical voices in history classes, students miss out on a large part of what the past has to say to us. NEXUS teaches students to recognize the distinctive musical voice of each era that our books cover and provides lessons and exercises in which students compose music in period styles. Why?

1) If a student can write a few bars in the style of the Ancient Greeks or the Renaissance or Jazz Age, she or he becomes a much better listener and appreciator of that music and more attuned to the voices of each era.

2) By composing period music students learn to recognize theme and variation patterns. NEXUS teaches and exercises pattern recognition as a vital cross-curriculum thinking skill – migration patterns in history, patterns of behavior in the sciences, repeated visual motifs in art, themes in literature.

In NEXUS, this skill, which is tested on IQ tests, is exercised in all subject areas making the student much more adept in applying it. Until now, students who learn pattern recognition typically do so by intuition – or osmosis.

Early Music Appreciation, Lessons and Activities

Ancient Greek Music and Greek Drama

“There are countless references to music in ancient Greek literature, and we know that large portions of the plays were sung. But what was the music like?”

Students examine the role of music and rhythm in Greek drama and dance; they are also introduced to ancient instruments and their uses. In the chapter lesson students transcribe ancient Greek music into modern musical notation. In the activity section they learn to construct a pan pipe in the style of the ancient Greeks, giving students the opportunity to experience and appreciate ancient music directly. [See “The Art of the Muses,” Antigone and the Greek World, NEXUS]


“Fortunately, a number of examples of ancient Greek music have survived, mostly inscribed in stone or written on papyrus. In all, there are about 50 whole and fragmentary pieces of composition, preserving music written between about 500 BC and circa 300 BC. These include paeans (hymns), invocations, and dramatic pieces (including two fragments from a play by Euripides), as well as instrumental melodies and exercises.” [For more see “The Art of the Muses,” Antigone and the Greek World, NEXUS]

Medieval Music Appreciation

Gregorian Chant Master Class
“Chant is supposed to look, sound and feel like the smoke from a burned-out candle.” In this chapter we examine the development, modal structure and role of Gregorian Chant in the Middle Ages. (For more see “Gregorian Chant,” The Lion in Winter and the Middle Ages, NEXUS)
Guido of Arezzo and Notes on Notation
Students learn to value the musical innovations of 11th-century Guido of Arezzo, such as his invention of the musical staff, the first version of the doh-re-mi scale, and the Guidonian Hand on which he linked notes to locations on the fingers and thumb so choir directors could indicate the pitches that choirs should sing. Students also learn to notate music using neumatic notation to help them identify changes in pitch. [See Macbeth and the Dark Ages, NEXUS]
Motets – Noteworthy Songs that Reflect and Comment on History
In this chapter we examine the structure of the medieval motet, specifically motets written to honor Saint Thomas Becket, and the symbolism and allusions in the lyrics of the songs. “Like so much medieval music, [these works] use symbols (in this case biblical characters and locations) to represent contemporary people.” (For more see “Music for Thomas Becket,” The Lion in Winter and the Middle Ages, NEXUS)

Renaissance Music Appreciation – Composers of Note

Orlando di Lasso and Counterpoint – Measure for Measure
From the Orlando di Lasso chapter, students learn monophony, homophony, polyphony, intervals, and counterpoint. This chapter includes a lesson in which students learn to recognize and appreciate imitative counterpoint and to compose imitative counterpoint using “pleasing intervals” or consonance. “Counterpoint means one melody countering another in a kind of musical duel. The melodies maintain their independence (can be identified by the ear as separate voices) and harmonize with each other at the same time.” [For more see “Sounds and Rounds of the Renaissance,” Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance, NEXUS].
Monteverdi – More Renaissance Music of Note
Child Stars of Song and Stage – Music History in Literature
Students explore the role boys choirs played in English dramas during the Renaissance. We also examine one of Thomas Ravencroft’s songs (Ravenscroft was a graduate of the boy’s choir, Children of Paul’s), Hold Thy Peace, which may have been sung in Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night by Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the clown Feste. [For more see “Child Stars of Stage and Song,” Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance, NEXUS]

Appreciating Jazz and Other 20th-Century Music

Jazz and Blues Appreciation

Jelly Roll Morton and New Orleans Polyphony
Music History: A brief biography of Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand LeMenthe), the first great jazz composer, is followed by an exploration of his musical style. “One of the ironies in Jelly Roll’s music is the democratic blend of roles and the opportunity for individual achievement within a group structure – this coming from a man who was extremely class conscious and arrogant.” In the “Jelly ‘n Jazz” chapter students also learn to compose improvised counterpoint – New Orleans Polyphony – in the style of Morton. (see “Jelly ‘n Jazz,” The Harlem Renaissance).
Blues and Black History
In “Roots of the Blues” students discover the historical roots of the blues – the West African scale and slave ring shouts and work songs, Negro Spirituals and English ballads and so-called “church chords.” In “Dat Feel Good Ache – Da Blues,” students investigate the migration of the blues from the Mississippi Delta to New York, Saint Louis and Chicago during the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance. They also learn about so-called “race records” and the limited recording opportunities and influence of African-American bluesmen and blues women like Mamie Smith, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. [See The Harlem Renaissance, NEXUS]
Swing Appreciation
The jazz composer and trombonist for the new Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey orchestras examines the development, culture and musical structure of Swing Music. “Barnstorming big bands provided cheap entertainment in ballrooms across the country, and electrification and radio brought the music into households everywhere. Teen swing fans – and there were millions – called themselves “hep cats” and “swingeroos.” The most devoted of them followed the new music and the careers of their musical heroes – Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and above all, Benny Goodman, the ‘king of swing’ – in the jazz-zine Down Beat. But where did swing come from?” [For more see “The Depression’s Upbeat – Swing,” The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream, NEXUS]

Recognizing the Federal Music Project of the WPA

What Was the Federal Music Project?
“Unlike the Federal Writers Project and the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Music Project (FMP) was able to avoid attacks of radicalism because it focused on cultivated or classical music, which made it non-threatening. Nikolai Sokoloff (former conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra) was selected to lead the FMP, and he believed the job of the Project was not only to employ unemployed musicians, but to educate the American people on the benefits of classical music – to teach them music appreciation. While idealistic, it ignored the fact that the majority of out-of-work musicians – in the early 30s this number ran as high as 60 percent – played popular music, Swing, Jazz and folk. Nonetheless, Sokoloff’s FMP attempted to lift America’s spirits through music, while educating the people about the benefits of ‘proper’ music.” (For more see “The Federal Arts Projects,” in the SUPPLEMENTS menu under The Grapes of Wrath.)
American Composers Get Their Due
“The FMP reached out to all Americans. While never employing more than 16,000 musicians, from 1935-1939, the FMP gave 224,698 performances before nearly 150 million people at very affordable prices – usually 10 cents to 25 cents a ticket. A large number of the pieces they performed were written by American composers who had previously been ignored. Nearly sixty percent of these American compositions were written by living American composers who heard their music performed for the first time. Until the advent of the FMP, almost no American orchestra would perform the work of American composers. They focused on dead European masters: Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, etc.” Thanks to Sokoloff’s efforts millions of Americans finally began to know and appreciate the classical music of their countryman.” (For more see “The Federal Arts Projects,” in the SUPPLEMENTS menu under The Grapes of Wrath.)
FMP Launches New Orchestras and Provides Opportunities for Female Musicians
“The FMP also effected social change. It assisted many communities, like Akron, Ohio, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Jackson, Mississippi, and other cities in establishing orchestras that still perform today. Female musicians, who until then experienced tremendous difficulty overcoming sexual stereotypes, found the FMP welcoming, an organization where they sat in equal station with their male counterparts.” (For more see “The Federal Arts Projects,” in the SUPPLEMENTS menu under The Grapes of Wrath.)

Troubadours of Rock, Poetry in Song Lyrics, and Rock Music Appreciation

We examine the trajectory of 20th-century troubadours from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Sheryl Crow, Sting, and Tori Amos and help students interpret and better appreciate some of their potent and poetic lyrics.

“In the United States, today’s troubadours can trace their lineage back to Woody Guthrie [see ‘When the Land Blew Away,” The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream, NEXUS], probably America’s best known and most influential guitar bard of this century. Guthrie, who wrote This Land is Your Land and other strong, simple ballads, inspired such artists as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and his own son Arlo Guthrie, all of whom figured in the folk-music movement of the 1950s and 60s.”

“In their turn, Dylan and his contemporaries have influenced five decades of popular music. Though the overwhelming majority of contemporary artists still sing of love and loss, political and moral issues now make up a significant portion of the subject matter in popular songs. So does slice-of-life storytelling, a genre that romanticizes not the medieval ideals of purity, godliness, chaste love and knightly derring-do, but the kind of gritty reality found on the city streets and in the relationships of ordinary people.”[for more see “Troubadours of Rock,” The Lion in Winter and the Middle Ages, NEXUS]

Sheryl Crow – Leaving Las Vegas
Sting and Fields of Gold
Tori Amos’s God

Figures of Speech in Rap and Rock

Students learn to recognize and explicate figures of speech in rock and rap lyrics.

Coolio – Revolution and Exercise Yo’ Game from Gansta’s Paradise
We help students identify, interpret and value the irony in Coolio’s raps.
Alanis Morissette – You Learn and Ironic
Morissette’s lyrics demonstrate to students the relevancy of irony to their own experiences. [See The Harlem Renaissance, NEXUS]


Students learn to write period music from the Renaissance to the Jazz Age.

– Writing Renaissance rounds

Students deconstruct Renaissance canons and compose simple rounds and canons using theme and variation.

Orlando di Lasso

– Writing Renaissance rounds

Jazz composer Paul Ferguson (contributing writer to Jazz Player magazine) instructs students to write improvised counterpoint: “When you improvise the bass voice, play only the roots, thirds and fifths of chords and the seventh of the dominant seventh chord. Occasional passing tones are also permissible….The trombone should be improvised in the same manner as the bass….Clarinet variations must also use the notes in the chords, but over a range of three octaves. Clarinet players usually employ many passing tones in improv….Improvising the trumpet part means playing variations of the melody. The listener should be able to recognize the melody in these variations….” [For more see “Jelly ‘n Jazz,” The Harlem Renaissance, NEXUS]

Writing the blues and Langston Hughes’s blues poetry

Rise, Shine for Thy Light Has Come, Aaron Douglas

Modeling their projects on a Langston Hughes-Aaron Douglas collaboration, students learn to write and illustrate a blues poem using an AAB format and contrast and irony. They also learn to compose a blues progression and melody employing theme and variation [For more see “How to Write a Blues Poem” and “Structure of the Blues,” in the SUPPLEMENTS menu under The Harlem Renaissance.]

Recognizing and Replicating Swing Music Composition

Paul Ferguson teaches students the ABCs of writing Swing Music: “Swing has a more laid back phrasing than any music heard before. It tended to have a swinging triplet-based feel (three beats instead of two for every count). The articulation was more legato (smooth and flowing), with notes more often connected (slurred) to each other than separate. One of the best ways to hear this is to compare the two recordings of…” [For more see “The Depression’s Upbeat – Swing,” The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream, NEXUS]. "The big bands of Swing followed predictable formulas in creating repertoire (song lists): the music had to be danceable, singable and memorable….Most of the tunes follow an AABA, 32 measure pattern. This was the formula for most popular songs. Each section in swing is…”

Music Appreciation in Literature

In the music sections of three of the NEXUS volumes, we closely examine theme and variation in period music, including imitative counterpoint in “Sounds and Rounds of the Renaissance” (Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance), New Orleans polyphony (jazz counterpoint and improvisation) in “Jelly ‘n Jazz” (The Harlem Renaissance), and AABA patterns in Swing music in “The Depression’s Upbeat” (The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream). In all these volumes, students learn to listen for repeated and varied musical patterns, and they learn enough music theory to write their own musical compositions in these styles. In The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream supplement, “Repetition in Music and Literature,” students compare the use of repetition in two pieces of extremely well known classical music - Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah - to the musical use of repetition and variation in the global chapters of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the biblical book Ecclesiastes.