Using Cornell Notes to Guide Students Watching “Music” Episode of Explained

Will Douglas

  • Disciplinary Literacy Skill: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.” (RI.9-10.2)
  • Critical Literacy Skill(s): Integrating multiple viewpoints
  • Instructional Resources Needed:

Step by Step Instructions

  1. I will have students watch the “Music” episode of Vox’s Explained. This is because the central idea of the episode lines up with the topic nearly perfectly, and it integrates another viewpoint (music) into the topic of the day (and unit of “what makes us human” as a whole). And the reason for the topic is because philosophical questions are asked, and potentially answered, to help guide students in answering complex questions, which they will likely face no matter what path they take post-primary and post-secondary education.
  2. While they watch the episode, I will have them fill out the Cornell notes, with the first column of the Cornell notes (the one with the header of “elements of music”) pre-filled out with rhythm, pitch, harmony, melody, and timbre. The first column is pre-filled out because students might try and incorporate other terms that are not the elements of music we want to focus on. Furthermore, humans are the only species on Earth that can exhibit all five of these elements. Below is an example the headers and one element of music, also available in a link to the Google Doc for the Cornell Notes Handout above, and here ( The purpose of using Cornell notes relates to the standard of interpreting the central idea of a text and analyzing its development, as the episode highlights its central idea on how humans are unique because of the elements, and it develops this idea by comparing and contrasting humans to animals. And, the Cornell notes structure, as stated and shown, follows the structure of the episode.

Element of Music


Which Animals Can or Can’t Use This Element of Music (According to the Episode)




  1. I will have provided students with a place to list which animals can or cannot use that element of music, see above. (Hint: humans should be in all five of the “can” lists).
  2. The class/activity will conclude with a whole class discussion, on how music makes us human. This will use the Cornell notes, as well as guiding questions.

Possible guiding questions*

  • Why does the episode make the distinction between humans and animals in the elements?
  • Why are humans the only beings that are known to exhibit all five of the elements (in your opinion/best guess)?
  • If another being, either from Earth or not, is known to have the same capacity for all five elements, what then? In other words, does that make them “human”?

*There are no right or wrong answers for these.

Video Demonstration

About the author

I have moved all over the United States, but call Slater, Iowa, my home. I have previously gone to Luther College, earning a Bachelor’s of Arts in Political Science and International Studies. Afterwards, I went to Vermont Law School for a year and a half before realizing becoming an attorney was not for me. So, I decided that becoming an English/Literature teacher at the secondary level (middle or high school) was my calling.