Looking for a way to make your roleplays more engaging and also help students explore communication tools more effectively? Try music.
We all know the power of music to set a mood. Television shows and movies exploit this all the time. You probably know the famous theme from the film Jaws: Duh-duh…duh-duh…duh-duh,duh-duh,duh-duh-duh! It builds suspense even when nothing particularly frightening is happening on screen. The music alone tells you something bad is about to happen and evokes a mood that makes the appearance of a deadly shark even more terrifying!
Soundtrack to Life
Or think of a man and woman drinking tea or coffee at a café. The man fumbles around awkwardly, makes some dumb jokes about his clumsiness, and ends up making a huge mess. She stares at him inscrutably. But the swelling piano and violin music sets a romantic mood. You are sure her look is affectionate! Her next words will be consoling or maybe an unexpected compliment.
Now imagine the soundtrack was Yakety Sax, made famous by Benny Hill. Suddenly this is a slapstick comedy scene. The man drops his wallet, picks it up only to trip over his own feet! Her stare shows how pathetic he is. She will probably sigh next. Or whack him over the head and storm out.
Maybe the music is ominous: slow long cello notes. Perhaps the woman is a serial killer and she’s decided this loser is too sad to live. She will invite him to come home with her. He will be surprised, but accept before she changes her mind!
So music has a lot of power. It can set a mood. It can evoke a context (in a movie, this would be the genre but in real-life the genre might better be seen as the context ). It can also indicate the characters’ intentions. And all these elements have an effect on the language we use. Our body language, tone, choice of topic, and even the words and grammar we choose to express ourselves with, are determined in part by our intentions, mood, and the context. A family attending a birthday party today will speak and act very differently during a family emergency.
You can exploit this in the classroom through a very simple activity:
Activity: Set your roleplay to music
Find a short, simple roleplay. Your textbook probably has a few. Look for the sample dialogues about buying a ticket, checking into a hotel, or buying something at a store. Alternatively, it could be a common place situation, like two people arguing over who does a chore or friends making plans.
You can also do this with a short scene from a play or movie. This works well if the situation is realistic and the language is natural. Don’t break out the Pinter or Shakespeare here.
Here’s a short conversation that is pretty neutral in emotional content. I deliberately wrote it to use a lot of colloquial conversational language. I also wanted it to feel realistic in structure. That gives students more language to play with.
A: Hey! How are you doing?
B: Good. How are you?
A: Not bad. Uhm, you remember my friend, Jack? You met him at my birthday party? In the summer?
B: Yeah. Jack. I remember. Good guy.
A: Right. Anyway, he’s going to be visiting this weekend. I want to show him a good time. If you’re around, maybe the three of us can hang out. Go out or something.
B: I don’t know. This weekend I’ve got to work. A big project. They might keep us late.
A: Come on, man! You can get away for a few hours on a weekend, right?
B: Well, let me see how it goes.
A: You do that. Can’t let your job own you!
You also need to select some moody music before starting. Movie soundtracks and classical music are great sources of emotional music. I’ve also included some sites to find free music below.
Choose a variety of songs with different moods cued up. It’s good to have one that is at least somewhat appropriate to the scene. In general, I recommend romantic music, suspenseful/scary music, uplifting/inspirational music, sad music, and relaxed music.
Once you’ve picked a script and music, put your students in pairs.
Have them take a few minutes to read and analyze the script. They should decide how to play the roles by looking at the situation, the context, the relationship, the motivation of each character, and the language. At this point, encourage them to make realistic choices. They’ll have a chance to get creative later. However, stress that there is no one right answer. Different people may analyze the conversation differently.
Here’s my analysis of the conversation above, with some thoughts on where students might vary.
It’s pretty clear from the language and content that these two people are friends. It’s a casual conversation, probably not at work. Maybe, it’s over the phone. Both are clearly adults as B has a busy job.
Looking at motivations, A wants to show his friend a good time and he obviously thinks B is a fun person to be around. Unless A has another reason to invite B. Maybe he doesn’t want to be around Jack alone.
A seems friendly and maybe even a party guy. But A does get a little pushy at the end, and students may think about how annoyed or cajoling he sounds. B is friendly, too but I can see him hedging at the end. Students can decide how sincere he is about his reasons and how that might be reflected in his voice.
Once students have made their own judgments, have a few pairs act out the scene as they see it. Again, at this point, the scene should be pretty neutral and realistic-sounding. No serial killers. Yet.
Now add music
Now that a few students have acted out the roleplay and given some ideas of the variations, tell students you are going to add music. They have to act out the roleplay in a way that fits the music. They can use their body language as well as their voices (tone, rhythm, volume, pauses, intonation).
They can also change the lines, add new lines, and improvise around in order to capture the mood; remember that our word choices are strongly determined by mood and context!
Choose the first pair to act. Pick some music you selected before and play your “soundtrack”. Have the students act out the scene with the music. As they perform, have the rest of the class note what changes they made to their bodies, voices, and words to suit the music. (And note that students might get pretty silly here; it’s ok to let them ham it up)!
Switch pairs and soundtracks and again take note of how the music leads students to change the script. Do this as many times as you like, but after 4-5 performances, the novelty usually wears off. You can discuss the way students change the performances in-between turns or save it for the end.
End class with a quick mood improv game. Play a soundtrack and have students alone or in groups improvise a new short scene.
As an extension for homework or the next class, they can rewrite the script you were working with to fit one of the soundtracks.
Sites to Stream Music free
These are two of my favorite indie musicians creating royalty-free music. That means you can use it in the classroom or in presentations. Do consider supporting them if you like their music.
- https://www.bensound.com/royalty-free-music/cinematic/ A lot of cinematic tracks to choose from. Note the titles and descriptions to get a sense of mood.
- https://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/music.html Kevin MacLeod’s site is actually searchable by mood.
- https://freeplaymusic.com/ Another playlist searchable by mood, or scene type!
I hope you enjoy this activity as much as my students do. Feel free to leave a comment if you do this in class, and let us know how it went!