Lesson Plans

  • Sam Phillips: Producing the Sounds of a Changing South | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips

    Use this lesson plan, based on the PBS series Soundbreaking, to explore the role of the producer in the recording studio and how a producer not only guides the recording process, but can also affect the wider cultural context. This lesson investigates what a producer does, why an artist might benefit from a producer’s services, and how producer Sam Phillips’ approach created an opening for African-American music to “crossover” into mainstream American popular music.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • Turning Songs into Records: The Many Roles of Producers in Popular Music | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Martin Engineers Control Room

    Students learn about the role of a producer, using Phil Spector and George Martin, both of whom created defining sounds of the 1960s, as examples, in this lesson plan, based on the PBS series Soundbreaking. This lesson also explores the collaboration of the producer and singer-songwriters, specifically Joni Mitchell’s decision to “self-produce” in the early 1970s.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • The Beatles: Multitracking and the 1960s Counterculture | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Martin Engineers Control Room

    Multitrack recording machines transformed records from simply documenting a live performance to capturing creative new sounds, which a live performance could not produce. With multitracking, producers and musicians could add or remove elements from the recording. In this lesson, students learn about multitracking and how this new technology affected The Beatles, both in their records and their live performances.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • Moving Faster Than the Imagination: The Evolution of Sound Recording | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Roger Waters in the Recording Studio

    Explore recording mediums used throughout the early 20th century with this lesson. Students will learn how sound waves travel, how the human brain converts those waves to recognizable sound, and how inventors captured them on wax, magnetic tape, and finally as digital information. This lesson also investigates the creative impulses and scientific developments that turned multi-track recording from a dream to a reality.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • Microphones and Modern Life: A Listening Revolution | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Bing Crosby Publicity Photo

    This lesson explores the invention of the microphone and its aftermath, from different perspectives. Students will learn about inventors Thomas Edison, David Edward Hughes, their methods, and how sound waves are converted into analog and electrical signals. This lesson follows the improvement of the earliest microphone technologies, analyzing the methods to capture sounds and how vocalists employed the new capabilities of these microphones to sing to large audiences with an intimacy that was previously inconceivable. Students will also learn about the ways in which a heightened sense of personal connection with vocalists enabled the rise of a new kind of pop star.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • At the Heart of the Production: Recording the Voice | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Bob Dylan

    Students can learn about the different ways in which music technology can enhance a singer’s performance. This lesson also explores the listener’s interest in hearing the authenticity of a vocal performance. Either way, the heart of most popular music is the same, important center: the human voice.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • The Music of Machines: The Synthesizer, Sound Waves, and Finding the Future | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Malcolm Cecil

    Students can learn about early synthesizers, how electricity was used to modify the sound created by acoustic instruments, and the soundwave—the component on which all of sound syntheses is formed.  Students will study what a sound wave is, how it travels and how our bodies convert it into intelligible sound. Using the Soundbreaking Sound Wave TechTool, students learn to recognize four basic waveform shapes by sound and sight. This lesson also explores the role the synthesizer played in relation to people’s perceptions of technology and culture in the 1970s, 80s and beyond.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • Going Electric: How Electricity Helped Bring The Guitar to the Forefront of Popular Music | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Charlie Christian Playing Guitar with the Harlan Leonard Band, Lincoln Hall, Kansas City Missouri 1940

    Students investigate how the guitar became a key factor to the emergence of a sound that came to define Rock and Roll and, to a large extent, mid-20th century American popular culture. This lesson features content from the PBS Soundbreaking episode, “Going Electric,” which includes the guitar playing of luminaries Charlie Christian, Pete Townsend, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix. It also examines the spirit of curiosity, adaptation and invention that characterized the early 1950s and in the 1960s.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • The Beat as an Object of Celebration and Concern in Segregation-Era America | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Little Richard singing into microphone playing piano

    The beat is the unmistakable rhythm in music. Student investigate some of the ways listeners feel and relate to rhythms, the language used to describe the beat, and the manners in which rhythms connect to the past and seem to anticipate the future. The beat was a concern in 1950s America and again a concern for some, when Gangsta Rap began to dominate the Billboard charts. This lesson gets to the heart of the conflicts that arise as particular rhythms get made, released, listened to, and loved.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • Beyoncé, Santana, and Rhythm as a Representation of People and Place | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Jitterbugging in juke joint outside Clarksdale Miss Nov 1939

    Student can explore the beat of popular music and what it means to call music Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean, or more broadly, African-American. Students will use Soundbreaking clips of Santana and Beyoncé and the Soundbreaking Rhythmic Layers TechTools to locate in American popular music influences stemming from the African-American church, Latin America and West Africa. Students will also explore the ways the beat of this music has, to some, been perceived as “dangerous” while, for others, it may have challenged racism and segregation, bringing people from varied ethnic groups and lifestyles together in ways that words and laws could not.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • Sampling: The Foundation of Hip Hop | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Hank Shocklee Studio

    Students learn about the creative concepts and technological practices on which Hip Hop music was constructed, investigating what it means to “sample" from another style, and who has used sampling and how. Students will follow patterns of Caribbean immigration and the musical practices that came to New York City as a result. This lesson also  explores how sampling might demonstrate a powerful creative expression of influence or even a social or political statement and encourages students to think about the conceptual hurdle Hip Hop asks listeners to make -- presenting new music made from old sounds.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • The Fine Line Between Creation and Theft: An Exploration of "Originality" in Digitally Manipulated Music | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    The back panel of an E-Mu SP-1200 digital sampler.

    Discuss what makes a work of art original, and how the use of sampling technology in Hip Hop challenges the perceptions of originality with this lesson. Here students will use examples from visual art and rap music to enter into a structured academic controversy that explores the concept of originality.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • From “Illustrated Songs” to the Music Video: A History of Sound and Image | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking


    Uncover how the relationship between sound and image has shifted throughout the history of recorded music using this lesson. Students will learn about talkies (the first moving picture with sound), musical shorts, television, and how the rise of MTV brought that relationship to a culmination.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • Dressing the Part: MTV and the Disruption of Gender | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

    Learn about how MTV created a visual space for artists to challenge gender norms, using this lesson. Students will study advertising to detect the things–clothes, haircuts, postures, body types–perceived as masculine and feminine. Students will then view images of Rock artists from the 1970s to identify the ways in which they do or do not mix gender symbols. By viewing and discussing clips from Soundbreaking Episode Seven, students then learn about the ways in which bands from divergent genres, such as Mötley Crüe and The Eurythmics, used the visual nature of MTV to present unexpected takes on masculinity and femininity. Students will also address the power of the music video in current culture by discussing the portrayals of femininity in a clip of Beyoncé Knowle’s visual album of 2013.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • The Short and Long of It: How 45 RPM Singles and 33 ⅓ RPM Albums Helped Shape Radio and American Culture | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

    Philips 45 Player advertisement

    Learn about how changes in the technology of record manufacturing affected popular music, radio, and the people who consumed both with this lesson. Here students will discuss how recorded music has changed and improved over time beginning with Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877. Students will learn how a record works, why a needle on a disc can record and play back music, and will investigate how these technological changes had far reaching effects. This lesson follows the 45 rpm and LP record through the airwaves of both AM and FM radio, investigating how each medium can provide a framework for historical analysis.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • Consumer as Creator: How Cassette Tapes Established New Possibilities for Listener Interaction | Lesson Plan | Soundbreaking

     Grateful Dead Tape Collection

    Explore how the cassette tape was the first technology to allow the listener to record, compile and disseminate music, thereby changing the audience’s experience and relationship with music and artists. In this lesson, students will also consider how the cassette allowed individuals to express themselves through the selection, sequencing and re-packaging of commercially released music. Students will look at the Sony Walkman, the first portable cassette players and a precursor to the iPod, MP3 player, and other modern personal digital listening devices. This lesson explores the eroding boundaries between “consumer” and “producer,” and “fan” and “participant” where even the casual music fan can participate in the creative process.

    Grades: 9-13+