Classroom Update in "Music and Violence" by Monica Hershberger


My students and I covered a lot of ground during our first week of classes at the Rosedale Freedom Project. Already, students have engaged with the topic of “music and violence” from a variety of angles: music that addresses violence, music that is violence (torture), and music—even beloved staples of the canon of so-called “Western Art Music”—that might depict violence.

We began with Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018). Students scrutinized the lyrics and music video. They paused over the multivalence of Gambino’s assertion that a “celly” is “a tool.” One student pointed out how jail cells disproportionately confine black men; in this case, a “celly” is a racist tool. Another student noted that a “celly” might refer to a cell phone, a tool used to communicate as well as document racist violence. Students agreed with Dr. Guthrie Ramsey, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania, that “This is America” delivers a chilling counter-narrative, one that highlights “the violent contradictions that come with being black in America.” 


We concluded the week with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824). On Thursday, I introduced students to the standard narrative, Beethoven’s Ninth as an “Ode to Joy.” We focused in particular on the fourth movement. The movement begins with a loud crash involving the full orchestra. Then the string basses begin to rage. The rest of the orchestra responds by suggesting music from the first movement. The basses reject this music and return to raging. The orchestra suggests music from the second movement. Again, the basses reject it. The orchestra suggests music from the third movement. The basses reject it. Finally, the orchestra suggests a new melody. The basses accept this melody, the famous “Ode to Joy” tune, and it becomes the basis for the entire final movement. Thus, the movement begins with musical conflict but quickly achieves musical consensus. This is also reflected in the text—by Friedrich Schiller—that Beethoven chose for the singers to sing in the fourth movement. I concluded class with a cliff hanger: How could anyone possibly argue, given both the music and the text, that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is about anything violent, anything other than joy? One student pushed past this cliff hanger immediately. She argued that Beethoven’s string basses had clearly said no three times, yet the rest of the orchestra had ignored these protestations. On Friday, the students read poet Adrienne Rich’s “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood At Last As a Sexual Message.”  

I taught at the Rosedale Freedom Project in the summer of 2016, and I am thrilled to be back. Why? Rosedale students think outside the box. They engage with difficult questions. They consider unorthodox readings of iconic works. They make me reexamine my own beliefs and interpretations. 


 See Mahita Gajanan, “An Expert's Take on the Symbolism in Childish Gambino’s Viral ‘This Is America’ Video,” Time, May 7, 2018. 

Jordan Malone