Students should be given a week to do the following assignment (though it can be revised as needed to fit your time constraints):
Pick as many “beautiful” songs as you are old. So, for example, if you are 16 you will pick 16 of the songs you feel are the most “beautiful”. Please make a list of them and then write a paragraph for each song detailing why you think they are the most beautiful songs ever created. After you have done this please pick one song that you believe is “the opposite of beautiful,” that you might term “ugly”. Please also write a paragraph for this song detailing why you think it is ugly.
Emphasize that the songs have to be the most beautiful songs of all time. Students are asked to bring, on the due date along with their completed assignment, their songs with them via i-pod, phone, cd, or other device and told that they will have a chance to play some of them. Make sure to have the ability to play different mediums on the due date.
When students come together on the due date, divide them into groups of four or five. Ask students to share, in their small groups, what songs they chose that were beautiful and why. You can walk around and listen to the groups’ conversations.
After about fifteen to twenty minutes (based on how you feel the group discussions are going), ask the students to share with their groups the “ugly” song they chose and explain why. Give this part of the activity somewhere between five to ten minutes, and again listen to each group’s discussions.
Bring the class back together in one large group and ask the students whether, when they shared their beautiful songs, they found they chose some of the same ones. What were they? Why did they think they were beautiful? Did anyone else in the class pick those songs? If it turns out that there are a few songs about which the class shares the belief that they are beautiful, ask if students would like to play those songs. When a song is played, listen to the whole piece, unless it is particularly long (in which case you can ask the student to choose a segment to play). When the song is over, ask the student who played it why he or she thought it was beautiful if they haven’t done so already. Ask the rest of the class if they thought the song was beautiful and why. Generally, a few students will volunteer ideas about the song and address why they think it is beautiful.
As students address the whole class, listen to find places to ask follow-up questions about beauty. If you keep your ears open the questions will come easily, and the context will call forth particular queries, but here are a few possible questions:
- What exactly is beauty?
- Is there something in music that needs to happen in order for you to find a song “beautiful”? What? Why?
- Is there a quality to this piece of music you find beautiful and which you recognize as happening in other places as well? So, for example, you say that this song makes you cry. Does every time you cry mean that you are experiencing beauty? Why or why not? (There are many different variations to this question.)
- How did you recognize the beauty of this song? Was it a feeling? A sensation? A thought? What was the process you went through to get to the belief that this song is “beautiful”?
- Why do you think other people might not see this song as beautiful?
- Is the song beautiful in itself, or does it depend wholly on the listener? If no one ever heard Beethoven’s 5th symphony, for example, might it still be beautiful?
- What is the difference between subjectivity and objectivity? Can there be an objective beauty or is beauty always in the eye of the beholder?
After the groups have reported to the class, ask the whole class for volunteers to play a song they consider beautiful. Before they play it, ask them why they think it is beautiful. Continue this process and discussion until there is about twenty minutes left of class time. Then turn to the “ugly” songs and again ask the whole class if anyone wants to play their “ugly song.” Repeat the format used for the beautiful songs by asking the students why they think various songs are ugly before they play them, and then open it up for discussion after it is played. Generally the class will explore the relationship between beauty and ugliness, and examine such topics as the connection between sadness and beauty, violence and ugliness, the song’s music and its lyrics, etc.
At the end of the class, thank the students for sharing what they believe is beautiful. This can be a very personal exercise for students. When they describe why they find certain music beautiful and talk about the songs they love, they are sharing parts of themselves. The activity is often very moving and meaningful to the students, and elicits complex discussions about what makes something beautiful, the relationship between beauty and ugliness, and the objective or subjective nature of beauty.
This lesson plan, created by Terrance McKittrick, is part of a series of lesson plans in Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools, by Jana Mohr Lone and Michael D. Burroughs (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).