Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Music

By Betty Smith

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This novel is so musical that it could easily come along with a soundtrack—just check out the long list of tunes in the "Shout Out" section for a possible playlist.

Music means different things to different characters, and in this way it helps us understand each character a little better.


Because he is so connected to his music, we might see him as the character who is most idealistic and the least realistic.

He loves old, romantic folk songs that tell of things the way they “should” be. He tries to earn a living through his love of music, though it provides no stability for his family. Plus, he isn’t even allowed to sing the songs he most loves at work, instead making money by singing what other people want to hear.

Papa gets frustrated when life isn’t like his songs. When his trip to the ocean doesn’t go as planned, he feels betrayed by the songs: “He had sung many a song about ships and going down to the sea in them with a heave ho and heave to. He wondered why it hadn’t turned out the way it said in songs” (29.49). Papa’s songs of the sea didn’t include lines about wearing hats to prevent burns or the possibility of seasickness, so he doesn’t think of those things either, though they end up being pretty key to having a nice day on the water. So what do you think is being said here about too much idealism? Maybe it can be dangerous? Disappointing? What do you think?

In the end, Papa’s excessive drinking robs him of his singing voice. Devastated by the loss of his ability to make music, he dies very soon after. While we can certainly blame his alcoholism for deteriorating his health, if we think of Papa's love of music as representing his idealism, perhaps he also dies because he loses hope when he loses his voice.


The older Neeley gets, the more he becomes Papa 2.0; one of the ways we know this is through his connection to music. There is one major difference, though: Papa sang for other people’s entertainment, and Neeley only plays the piano for his own enjoyment or artistic expression.

Mama believes that Neeley is an artist whereas Papa was an entertainer. Why would it make such a big difference that Neeley only plays for his own enjoyment? Why does Mama think that his future is brighter than Papa’s because of this?


Let’s face it. Mama’s character is not warm and snuggly. She is usually all business, and Shmoop doesn’t blame her, really—someone has to make sure they don’t all starve to death. Because Papa is very idealistic, it forces Mama to be very realistic.

But music helps soften Mama’s character a bit.

She goes above and beyond just meeting her children’s needs to get piano lessons by trading her cleaning services for them. But hold on; before you go thinking that Mama is getting all soft on us, remember that this move is still part of her overall game plan to turn Neeley into the man that his father couldn’t be. While she wants her son to be a musician, she wants this to be a very different experience for him than it has been for his father.


Francie is very sensitive and observant of her surroundings, so it isn't much of a surprise that Francie is sensitive to music too. She is even moved to tears at times when Papa sings beautiful songs, overcome by her love for him and his music.

She is also intuitive enough to realize that Papa’s life will soon be over when she hears him sing the final verse of "Molly Malone." After this, she “went to bed and buried her face in the pillow. She did not know why, but she wept” (34.82). In this moment, we see through music just how intuitive our girl Francie is.

Francie is curious and interested in the world around her, and this includes music too. She loves listening to street musicians, and often follows them around from one neighborhood to the next. She even imagines that she will be part of a band when she grows up.

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