Images of America -

Analyzing Music Videos: For Teachers...

Integrated U. S. History and American Literature Class
Deborah Aufdenspring and Sandra Mings-Lamar

New Technology High School, Napa, CA

(Quick Links to related pages)

(Topics on this page: Obtaining Videos; Appropriate Videos; Lyrics; Copyrights;
Celebrity Worship; Digital Delivery of Curricula)

Obtaining Music Videos

There are three ways to obtain music videos for use in your class.

1. The first is to videotape music videos from cable TV. Pick a type of music to tape. You can find rock, rap and r&b on VH1 and MTV, country on TNN or the other country music channel, and possibly Spanish language or Christian on the channels (if you have them) that carry that type of programming. Make sure you get a cross section of music by taping through various programs on one channel or by taping multiple channels.

If any of the channels are showing compilation programs (i.e., "The Top 100 Videos of All Time" or "Best Country Videos of the '80's"), which they often do on the weekends, try hard to tape them. MTV and VH1 have play lists posted at their web sites, but unfortunately they don't always keep them currrent.

Set a VCR tape to record at extended play (6 or 8 hours). Taping overnight or during the day while you're at work is useful. When you have a tape or two, sit down and fast forward through the videos. Most music videos are simply extended photo shoots of the artist(s). What you are looking for is images that you can use. The images will catch your eye, even at fast forward speed. You don't need to hear the music at first. Look for music videos that have multiple useful images (historical or cultural content) or that describe a social or political problem. The extended play mode of taping will degrade the quality of your video, but save you a lot of time in previewing the videos as you can tape 6 or 8 hours at a time.

Stop the tape when you have a candidate video for your music video project. Examine it at standard VCR speed for content. If it meets your criteria, examine it for appropriateness for the classroom. (See appropriate video section below.)
When you have a useful music video, follow your school or district's guidelines for showing taped programming in the class room. (See copyright section below.)

2. A second way to obtain music videos for your class is to buy them. If you know what music videos you want to use in class, check a record store (when are they going to stop calling them record stores?) for their music video section. You'll be surprised how few music videos actually make it into a store, but quite a few of the content-rich ones actually do. The videography at this site notes which ones we know of that are available commercially.

Purchased music videos have two advantages over taped ones. The first is that they are of better quality than home-taped videos. The second is that commercial music videos aren't subject to the same types of restrictions that your school or district may have on using VCR taped videos.

3. A third way to obtain music videos is from your students. When your lesson plan is announced, you might be surprised at which music videos your students will want to analyze. If you opt to let them analyze a video not on your pre-screened list, make sure that all the above qualifications about appropriateness, legality, etc., are met.

Important! Make Sure Videos Are Appropriate!

It is important, to your job if nothing else, that videos you use in a music video project are appropriate to your classroom. Videos should be examined for both appropriate images and appropriate lyrics (see below). A large number of music videos will not pass this test.

Videos should meet community standards, which of course will vary from school to school. I could not show a number of content-rich rap videos, because of language problems. On the other hand, I did show a couple of music videos at New Tech High in Napa that I might not have shown in my former rural school.

Videos should meet school adminstration standards, too. Keep your adminstrators informed of your lesson plan and give them a copy of the videography, or even show them the videos.

For religious or moral reasons, some students or parents may wish to opt out of this kind of lesson plan. Plan for an alternative assignment.

Make sure you are on firm legal grounds (or, at least as firm as the legal grounds get when showing copyright material in the classroom) in your use of the copyrighted music videos. Take a look at the copyright section below, and make sure to follow your school's or district's policies.

Finding the Lyrics

Lyrics in music videos can be hard to decipher. You will need to get a copy of them. There are two quick and costless ways to do this.

First, turn on the "close caption" button on your TV. Some, but definitely not a majority, music videos have the lyrics on the screen in close caption mode.

If that doesn't work, run a search on the web. Almost all song lyrics show up on the web. Search for the full title of the song (quotation marks and preceded by a plus sign) and for the word "+lyrics".


This music video curriculum makes heavy use of copyrighted materials. The use of copyrighted materials in the classroom can be a minefield for teachers. What I have to say about copyright law and educational fair use of copyrighted materials is my opinion only. I am not an attorney. Teachers considering using this lesson plan might want to consult their school and district policies about the use of copyrighted material in the classroom.

Recording and showing videotaped broadcasts in a classroom is generally governed by a set of guidelines put forth by a chairman of a Congressional Committee in 1979, 18 years ago. This set of guidelines does not have the force of law and has never been adjudicated. Nonetheless, it is assumed that teachers operating under these guidelines are within the meaning of "educatonal fair use." Nolo Press, the self-help legal people, have a web page about "Videotaping in the Classroom". The text of the 1979 guidelines is also available on the web.

Videotaping music videos off cable TV is a preferred way of obtaining music videos for classroom use, since not all music videos are released for sale in stores. What is shown on TV is more current. However, purchasing music videos avoids the somewhat restrictive 1979 guidelines. See our videography for a partial list of music videos that can be purchased.

A second set of guidelines, covering fair use for educational multimedia, was developed in 1996. I'm not sure that they have been presented to Congress (or any other official body) yet, but like the 1979 videotape guidelines, these guidelines do not have the force of law and have not been adjudicated. Since a lot of what I have done with this lesson plan has been multimedia work, I've tended to go with my interpretation of these multimedia guidelines where applicable.

The two sets of guidelines differ somewhat in their treatment of audiovisual (i.e., movie-like) materials. Once again, classroom teachers are caught in the middle. However, you should realize that "In the past 200 years, only a handful of copyright infringement suits have been brought against educators..." (from the Nolo Press page cited above).

In general, it's best to:
1. Use common sense. Try to follow the law.
2. Check with your administrators and/or district for relevant policies.
3. Remember that two important components of educational fair use of copyrighted material are how much you use and what effect that use has on the market value of the copyrighted material.
4. Write the copyright holder and ask for permission to use the copyrighted material in class. (Of all the requests for permission I've written concerning the music videos I've used in class over the years, the only reply (positive) I've gotten was from Billy Joel's management.)

If you need further information, and your district doesn't have it, try running a web search for "educational fair use".

A web page that covers copyright law in its entirety, including fair use provisions, is at the Stanford Universiurty site.

Celebrity Worship

When doing this lesson plan, or something like it, a teacher needs to preface the lesson with a clear message that the returned assignment needs to have content: meaningful images; research; and analysis.

We live in a time when famous people are assumed to have importance and meaning, when they are often little more than empty cultural icons. This is an age in the U.S. when we're in the throes of celebrity worship. Teenagers are particularly susceptible to this. They need to understand that information about the artist(s) tends to be irrelevant to the assignment. Personal information about the singer or drummer is not what the assignment calls for, nor is the kind of irrelevancy pointed out on the Pop Up Video page.

Delivering the Curricula Digitally

I'm real lucky in teaching at New Technology High in that all my students have computers in class. I know that that is rare, but I hope it becomes more common. If you and your students have access to computers for this lesson plan, you might try to do the plan digitally.

A computer on every desk enables me to deliver a lot of my curricula digitally. The music video unit is made for this paperless delivery. This is our first lesson plan in the U.S. History segment of our class, and not only introduces students to analysis (of music videos), but also to web-based research.

Using an html editor (PageMill in my case), I assemble web pages about the assignment. It doesn't take long with an html editor and it enables me to deliver assignments that can include sound, still pictures, video and hyperlinks.

With these "multimedia handouts", I can:
1. Give students examples of what I want them to analyze in the videos (see Vince Gill page).
2. Annotate stills taken from the videos (see Tips page).
3. Introduce them to the web (see Billy Joel page).
4. Direct their research, where appropriate, on the web through hyperlinks (see Billy Joel page).
5. Use hyperlinks to answer some questions I think some of the students might have.

I can also use video-enabled web pages to allow students to compare and contrast video clips. (This is possible because of a high speed server at the school functioning almost like an Intranet. I didn't include the video clips on the "Compare and Contrast" page at this site because of download time.)

HTML handouts (screenouts?) can also be posted on the web, allowing for off-school-site viewing by students who have computers at home, and, more importantly, their parents.

Multimedia handouts are also possible using word processing programs (like Microsoft Word or ClarisWorks) that accept multimedia insertions. Multimedia handouts are likely to be common in the classroom of the future. (They take time, it is true, but I'm not sure they take any more time than I used to spend typing up a ditto master and then trying to run it off.) If you haven't had a chance to do this kind of handout, I hope you get a chance.

Quick Links

Introduction - Analyzing Music Videos
Music Video Assignment
Analysis Tips
Comparing and Contrasting Music Videos
Grading Rubric

Stills of Sample Videos, with Sample Analysis Questions:
Billy Joel.....Erykah Badu.....Pop up Videos.....Tracy Lawrence

Rage Against the Machine.....Vince Gill.....Van Halen.....Aqua.....12 other videos

For Teachers...

For examples of recent student projects on analyzing music videos:
Student Work

E-mail me.

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