How Does Music Make a Character?

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Area: Art
Grade Level: High School & Beyond, Middle School
Topics: art, character, Music
Estimated Time Necessary: 45 Minutes

Lesson Plan

To reflect on how music can create ideas about character
Using Holst's "Mars: The Bringer of War," students will reflect on how music without words can evoke thoughts about character.

Have you ever dedicated the time to sit through a piece of music and simply listen to it? No distractions, no multitasking, just you and the music. Whether we’re aware of it or not, music is constantly around us, but quite often we don’t take the time to sit and listen. All music tells a story, but songs without words leave us to our own devices: our imagination. Let’s explore a piece of music that sets the tone of a story, but we have to fill in the words.

The piece “Mars: The Bringer of War” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets (~ 8 minutes long) is a great piece to focus on character creation. Avoid telling students the name of the piece so that they aren’t influenced by the title, but if they need a jumping off point, you may tell them it’s from a musical collection called The Planets.

Play the piece for the students, and encourage them to take the time to just listen to the music. On a piece of paper, they may write down any and all thoughts they have while listening. They can draw whatever comes to mind as well. Ask them to try to focus on what the main character of the story would look like. At the end of the piece, bring everyone together and brainstorm the story that this piece tells using people’s interpretations of the music.

After you are content with the participation and story students have imagined, reveal the name of the piece, gauge their reactions, and proceed with some discussion questions.

If students are interested in some context behind this piece, feel free to share some of the information below:

Written between 1914-1916 by British composer Gustav Holst ‘The Planets’ represents all the known planets of the Solar System and their corresponding astrological character. Each of the planets has a different style of orchestration and that’s why it stays interesting all the time for the ear. His inspiration came from the personalities of the planets, and he gave each of them little epithets like “Mars: The Bringer of War,” where we begin our planetary trek, or “Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity.”

Angry and ominous, Holst’s first movement represents the Roman god of war, Mars. The craggy rhythms and pulsing drum beats give the music a military feel. Mars has been used as the inspiration for the “Imperial March” from Star Wars, and film composer Hans Zimmer was even sued by the Holst Foundation for writing Gladiator’s film score an awful lot like Mars.

For an example of how this discussion can go, listen to the podcast linked in “Additional Resources.”


Discussion Questions

  • What elements of the song caught your attention? Why do you think these elements stood out?
  • Did any part of this sound familiar to you? Something you might’ve heard before?
  • Did listening to it make you picture anything? What and why? How did this picture form?
  • This movement is supposed to represent Mars, the Roman God of War. Does this piece do him justice? Why or why not?
  • What were your initial thoughts after the piece ended? What emotions did this piece invoke?
  • In Roman mythology, the Romans saw their god Jupiter as king of all the gods while Mars was considered his second. Why put Mars, the second most important deity, first?
  • From this piece, what can you tell me about Mars? Either the planet or the deity? Is there any comparison between Mars the planet and Mars the god?
  • How would you write music that is supposed to represent the stars and celestial phenomenon? How would you write a song about earth? What emotions would encapsulate our planet?
  • As the listener, do we get to decide what the piece is about if it evokes something different? Or is it up to the composer what the piece should represent?
This lesson plan was contributed by: Erick Christian , Hamilton College.