How to Use Music to Learn Family History

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My mother has always stayed in the movie theater until the very end of the credits. So I now do the same. To us, it’s just wrong to get up from the movie right away. You just don’t DO it! It’s just so natural to me that now I sit there incredulously as people scoot past me as I’m trying to digest the story I just watched and take in the music that helped tell that story.


The Stories in Movie Soundtracks

My mother instilled in my siblings and I a love for movie soundtracks. My first favorite soundtrack was The Last of the Mohicans, long before I was old enough to see it, but I knew listening to the song Fort Battle that it was telling some incredible story. My sister and I actually wore out cassette tapes of Disney soundtracks listening to them so much. And then when I became a big Star Wars fan, I would lay on the floor listening to the soundtrack on cassette tape and just take in the music, picturing the movie as I did. My husband now marvels that I can point out exactly what’s going on in a movie during a certain part of nearly every song I listen to. The song is tied to the story!

It’s truly amazing how much music is tied to storytelling. Movie soundtracks are my favorite kind of music because of how they’re connected to stories. There’s no other kind of music that can get me quite as excited as a movie soundtrack. The music mirrors the scenes, the emotions, what’s going on or what’s about to happen in the story. In a suspenseful movie, you can always tell what’s about to happen next if you just pay attention to the music. It helps tell the story – in actuality, it’s practically the narrator.

The Soundtracks of our Lives

African American man, seated, holding violin. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

African American man, seated, holding violin. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

If you think about it, our lives have soundtracks, too. Certain songs just “take us back” to times and places long gone. Music can bring us excitement, nostalgia, even sometimes pain. My mother and her siblings get so excited when music from the 1970s starts playing – my mom always says “I used to skate to this song!” And how many couples have “their song”? My parents have certain songs that are special to them that they listened to while dating. Most couples have their own song, usually the song they danced their first dance to at their wedding. My dad and I have a song – we danced our Father-Daughter dance at my wedding to Stevie Wonder’s song “Isn’t She Lovely” because that’s what my parents listened to a lot when I was a baby.

If we were into certain music during specific times of our lives, that music will instantly take us back to that time. That’s our soundtrack. It narrated that time of our life, and it’s stuck in our memories along with what was going on at the time. This is why music is a wonderful way to help our elders recall memories. Of course, we have to be sensitive, but it is something children can ask about.

Music Memory

Music is universal, it’s carried us through generations and across cultures. That’s how it connects us, and another reason why it would be such a great thing for kids to ask their elders about to learn about their lives and their family history. Here are some questions that could be asked:

-         What was your favorite music when you were a child? A teen?

-         What was your parents’ favorite music?

-         Did you have certain favorite songs you sang at church?

-         What was playing on the radio at such and such a time in your life?

-         What songs were played at your wedding?

-         Are there certain songs that remind you of different times in your life?

-         What is your favorite song and why?

-         Who is your favorite musician and why?

Bearded man playing violin and girl turning pages of music. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

Bearded man playing violin and girl turning pages of music. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

As these questions are answered, we can gain a clearer, more profound picture of someone’s life. Children can see the similarities and differences between music they like and music their grandparents like. They may find they share a favorite song. They may find they like a song their grandparent listened to while growing up. (Something else – YouTube will be your best friend here. Nearly any song you can think of will be on there. If your child doesn’t know a song your elder mentions, pull it up on YouTube and play it for them. Just listening to the song may bring out more memories and stories your elder had forgotten that were associated with this song.)

Stories and memories are the flesh to the bones that is genealogy. And music is an amazing way to bring those stories and memories out and give them life. It’s something your child can also take with them. If an older loved one dies, their favorite songs live on, and your child can hold to those. And then as they grow older, those songs become your child’s memory of that person, and the stories live on.

For more ways for your family history to live on through your kids, subscribe for our free e-book Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide

Don't miss this post on creative writing inspired by family history either!