Sketchnotes: The Great Gatsby & Rhapsody in Blue

Explore music with sketchnotes

On the last day of class before Christmas break, I decided to do something totally off the “read-and-discuss track” that my class had been on since starting our unit on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

I decided to have students experience composer George Gershwin’s jazz masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue via Betsy Potash’s sketchnotes. (Go to Spark Creativity for free templates and more).

The ground-breaking musical piece is considered to be the inspiration behind the only fictional music mentioned in the entire novel, the imaginary Vladimir Tostov’s “Jazz History of the World.” According to Gatsby’s orchestra leader, the Tostov’s piece “attracted so much attention at Carnegie Hall last May.” He continues, “If you read the papers you know there was a big sensation.”

This is the Leonard Berstein version I played for my class using my Spotify account. I did not have them watch this, but this is the same performance.

This particular description causes many to believe that Rhapsody in Blue was the piece Fitzgerald was really referencing. When Gershwin debuted his jazz masterpiece in 1924 with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, Whiteman wanted the music to legitimize jazz and center the new American artform on the world stage. Both goals were accomplished with the music that has since become Gershwin’s most well-known masterpiece.


And now, we interrupt this post for the Common Core…

Standards alignment: RL.11-12.9

When students analyze a piece of music, I consider that music to be a kind of text, in the cross-curricular sense. Making sketchnotes of an iconic musical piece referenced in a novel accomplishes the following Common Core standard:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.9
“Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.” When making sketchnotes, students are synthesizing ideas from that musical text as it relates to the novel from which the music is derived.


Besides meeting that standard, I wanted my students to experience Rhapsody in Blue because I know they will hear it in commercials, movies, and in other pop culture references from time to time. It’s one of those signature American compositions that students need to add to their “American cultural literacy” accounts.

The Great Gatsby 2013 movie
Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby

And if you show Baz Luhrman’s 2013 The Great Gatsby film in class, you’ll notice that Rhapsody in Blue is the music that accompanies the big reveal of Gatsby to Nick at the glittering party in chapter 3. Rhapsody makes other appearances during the movie, including the ride into town that Gatsby and Nick take to meet Mayer Wolfsheim.

“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

The Great Gatsby, Ch. 4

As Nick ponders these thoughts, the score soars in the background building to a crescendo to reflect the optimism, opportunity, and decadence that the city represented during the Jazz Age.

So here’s what I did:

  • I passed out plain 11″ by 17″ inch paper to each student.
  • I asked students to draw sketchnotes in blue as they listened to the music.
  • I suggested that they listen for a minute or two before starting since that might help images come to mind.
  • After seeing a few blank stares at this apparently crazy idea, I gave them some ideas: draw a cityscape, spirals, zigzags… anything that might evolve as they listened.
  • I required students to include these three things on their page: 1) George Gershwin, 2) Rhapsody in Blue, and 3) 1924
  • I also let them know that the song would last for sixteen minutes. There would be plenty of time to come up with ideas!

This activity was the perfect “last-day-before-Christmas-break” activity. Here are some photos of what my students came up with:

student sketchnotes
student sketchnotes
student sketchnotes

I also made this “quick and dirty” handout that I read aloud from before starting the music. I wanted them to have some context beyond that from the novel.

Making sketchnotes from music may work for any number of novels that have musical allusions. Think of a novel that you pair with its movie version. Are there any songs that have special cultural meaning that your students should experience?

I’m also wondering if there are ways to make this activity more than just a visual exposure to a musical piece. Can I have students do more than just listen and draw? Can I have them use their drawing as a springboard for a written piece about the music that utilizes text excerpts or citations?

Marilyn Yung, owner of ELA Brave and True

There’s always more to think about, right?!

I hope your Christmas break was restful and that you’ll have a manageable January, despite the COVID surge sweeping the country.

Need ideas for a novel you’re teaching? Trying something new in your classroom? I’d love to hear what you’re up to. Feel free to leave a comment below or on my Contact page.


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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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