Essential Question

How is music embedded into the cultural fabric of New Orleans, and how might it help reinforce a sense of community in the city?


In the opening of the New Orleans episode of Sonic Highways, the Rock band Foo Fighters are rehearsing with local musicians at the legendary Preservation Hall, a venue that for over 50 years has featured “traditional” New Orleans Jazz. As the performance grows more energetic, the musicians collectively decide to open the doors to the hall, giving passerbys in the bustling French Quarter a chance to see the group rehearse. Then, as if the walls of the building could no longer contain them, the musicians exit the hall and march, still playing, through the street, picking up pedestrians as they stroll. The rehearsal has become a parade, and all are welcome to march.

Rock stars parading down the street with a traditional jazz band and random passersby in tow might seem unusual anywhere else, but in New Orleans, such moments occur regularly. For centuries parades have criss-crossed the city, and, though they’ve developed differently in various neighborhoods, have maintained a place in the lives nearly all New Orleanians.

New Orleans is perhaps best known for its Mardi Gras parades, public celebrations with origins tracing as far back as the ancient Roman Empire. These celebrations began in New Orleans in the early 19th Century, when a variety of community clubs or “krewes,” began parading in the streets with “flambeaux,” or gaslight torches, before the Catholic period of Lent. As time went on, these parades grew to incorporate marching bands, floats, and accompanying street fairs.  

Public celebrations in New Orleans, however, are not just limited to annual Mardi Gras parades–they are a part of everyday life in the city. For instance, New Orleanians have long both mourned and celebrated the lives of their deceased with “Jazz funerals,” parades that amble toward a graveyard to the somber beat of toms toms and dirges, then jubilantly dance back to the city with snares drums and festive brass. Jazz funerals, like the Foo Fighters’ parade and most others in New Orleans, swell with new participants as they move along. Indeed, the music the bands play has become known as “second line,” in honor of the many celebrators that join the “first line” of musicians.  

When New Orleanians go in the street to talk, dance, clap, and sing along with friends, neighbors, and complete strangers, they help create community and reinforce a geographic identity that supersedes race, class, and income brackets. To musicians outside of New Orleans, “second line” is a style to be learned; to those who march within the city, “second line” is a part of life. Within a port city that has been home to diverse cultural, racial, and linguistic traditions since its founding by French explorers in 1718, the parades may have served as both bridges and glue, providing forums for disparate people to connect, and then remain in touch.

In this lesson, students investigate how the geography and history of New Orleans contributed to its unique cultural development. By watching clips from the New Orleans episode of Sonic Highways, students explore how music permeates everyday life in the city, and how it serves as a means of socialization and communalization. Using what they learned about New Orleans musical culture as an inspiration, student groups then brainstorm ways they might use music to enrich their own communities. Students will leave the lesson with a deeper understanding of the communal functions musical performance can serve beyond entertainment.        

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The geography and history of New Orleans
    • The social roles music plays in New Orleans
    • The social functions music performs outside of entertainment
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to develop a greater appreciation for the ways music creates community by examining the unique geography and musical culture of New Orleans.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • Have you ever marched in or been to a parade? Why do you think the parade was held? (Students will likely think of holiday based parades such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, etc. Some may suggest the parade honored the country or veterans, others that it advertised the start of a season.)
    • How did you feel while marching? (Ask students if they felt excited, nervous, happy, etc.)
    • Do you think you could start a parade in town after school today? What obstacles might you face? (Most students will suggest it is not possible to get enough people involved, there is no safe space to do it, or even that it is illegal.)
  2. Play Clip 1, “Sunday Parades.” Ask students:
    • In the clip, musician Dave Grohl describes the kind of city he would like to live in. Does that city exist? If so, where might it be?
    • How might having a “parade every Sunday” be beneficial to a community? How do you think your neighborhood might change if most of the people played music, marched, and danced together on Sundays? (Encourage students to consider how much better they might know their neighbors.)
    • How might a weekly parade change the neighborhood’s relationship to music? (Encourage students to consider how music might transition from entertainment someone consumes to an activity in which all participate.)


  1. Tell students that the city Dave Grohl refers to in the clip is New Orleans, and that as a class they will be investigating how the geography of New Orleans helped develop such a unique musical culture. Show students Image 1, “New Orleans Geography 1” (or use an online map that allows you to zoom in and out). Ask students: 
    • What geographic features do you think might impact and define New Orleans? (Students should recognize that New Orleans sits in the midst of several bodies of water.)
    • What is the large river seen in this map? What might be significant about it? (Note to teacher: it is the Mississippi River.)
    • What is the body of water to the southeast of New Orleans? (Note to teacher: it is the Gulf of Mexico.)
    • How do you think these waterways might have affected New Orleans as it developed? What possibilities do they offer? (Encourage students to think about waterways as trade routes, points of arrival and departure, and how this might affect the city’s population.)
  2. Show your students New Orleans Map 2 and ask: 
    • How might you describe New Orleans’ location relative to the rest of the United States?
    • What is the country in the southwestern corner of this map? (Note to teacher: it is Mexico.)
    • How do you think having a port that provides access to and from Central America and the Caribbean might have affected New Orleans?
    • What sort of goods do you think might have been traded in New Orleans throughout the 18th and 19th centuries? (Encourage students to think about fruits and sugar from the Caribbean. Also, that New Orleans was the most active slave port in the New World.)
  3. Pass out Handout 1 – New Orleans: A Short History of a Diverse City, and have students read the text aloud. Ask students:
    • What about the location of New Orleans do you think made it such a diverse place?
    • How might the mixed culture of music, language, and food serve to benefit New Orleans citizens?
  4. Tell students they will be watching a Sonic Highways clip that features New Orleans musicians discussing the sources of the region’s music, and the role music plays in the city. Have students keep notes about the different musical styles and imported goods they hear mentioned throughout the clip. Play Clip 2, “New Orleans Musical Inspirations.” Ask students:
    • Why might a diverse city such as New Orleans need a way to build a sense of community? How might music help build a community among a variety of different groups? (Encourage students to think about how music might be “a universal language” capable of bringing people together who speak different languages, as well as the “nowness” of dancing, singing, and playing together)
    • What types of imports did you hear about in this clip? Where did they come from?
    • What are some of the styles of music you heard mentioned in this clip? Where do you think they might come from?
    • In what ways do you think a bustling port city might develop differently than an isolated landlocked area? (Encourage students to consider how many more people come and go from a center of trade, and, when on an international port, how different those people might be. Recall Cyril Neville’s suggestion that people from all over traded goods and ideas in New Orleans.)
    • What do you think Cyril Neville might have meant when he suggested that New Orleans isn’t just “the deep south,” but also “the northernmost point in the Caribbean”? How might the city’s connection to the Caribbean have influenced its music?
  5. Tell students that they will be watching two clips that feature ways New Orleans music culture connects people. Pass out Handout 2 – New Orleans Music Making (5 W’s). Ask students to use the handout to take notes as they watch both clips.  
  6. Play Clip 3, “New Orleans Jazz Funeral,” and Clip 4, “New Orleans Jam Session.” Have select students relate their notes taken on the handout to the rest of the class. Ask students:
    • How might the Jazz Funeral in the first clip bring people in the community together?
    • How does the family jam session Grohl visits in the second clip bring people together?
    • What might the social function of the jazz funeral be?
    • What might the social function of the jam be?
    • What other similarities and differences might exist between these two performances?
  7. Split the class into groups. Then, show image 3, “Cultural Steering Committee” and have a student read the activity instructions presented on the image.
  8. Have each group present their proposals to the class. (If desired, have students vote on the best proposal).

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • How did the geography of New Orleans influence its musical culture? How do you think the geography of your area might have influenced your town?
    • In what ways might musical performance serve to strengthen a community? Can you think of any other communities that have strong musical bonds? (Encourage students to consider their own town, as well as the role of music in churches, patriotic activities, and more.)

Extension Activity:

  1. Expand the “Cultural Steering Committee” activity into a multiple-day project by having groups prepare a more formal presentation of their idea, complete with background research, presentation materials, and a rehearsed proposal presentation.  
  2. Given the importance of music in New Orleans, it comes as no surprise that the city has produced many nationally-known artists. Research a musician from New Orleans, and write a short essay on the ways the city’s culture helped inspire their music and develop their national career.   


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

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