Teaching Social Studies in Music Class

Music is a social art form, so it is naturally interwoven with social studies. The four areas of social studies citizenship — government, economics, geography, and history — can enhance music classes through the development of young musicians’ citizenship skills, using musical currency to manage behavior, connecting music and place, and exploring how music describes and influences history.

Citizenship of Musicians

The most basic and fundamental civics skills are taught in kindergarten through demonstrating an understanding of civic values. These happen to be the most basic and fundamental skills and values of musicians, too.

Individual Dignity: Teach your students to respect musicians through performance etiquette. Courteous audience members give their attention to performers and clap at the end of each piece. Gracious performers smile at their audience and bow at the end of a concert. When students experience giving and receiving that respect, they learn to value the dignity of themselves and others as performers.

Self-Control: Although expressive and creative, music requires concentration, turn-taking, and patience. Musicians must exercise self-control regularly, both in their individual practice, and while performing with an ensemble.

Responsibility: Musicians have responsibilities to their ensemble, their audience, and the composers of their music. Performances are successful when everyone “plays their part,” working toward the musical goals of the group.

Common Good: Unless performing as an unaccompanied soloist, musicians work for the common good of their ensemble. This could include practicing individual parts outside of group rehearsal, arriving to rehearsals on time, knowing when to bring a part out and when to blend, or simply following directions during class. The common good is achieved when musicians have common goals and work cooperatively to achieve them.

Musical Microeconomics

My music classes' collections of points.
My music classes’ collections of points.

Many music teachers use principles of economics daily through behavior management point systems. To teach music concepts while using economics to manage behavior, devise a musical currency. In my classroom, we use rhythmic values. Quarter notes, awarded for positive behavior, can be collected and exchanged for other rhythmic denominations. A certain number of whole notes can be traded in for rewards. I choose to use only group awards in order to teach the value of working for the common good.

Music Geography

Classroom map showing the places connected to the music my students are working on.
Classroom map showing the places connected to the music my students are working on.

Music and place are linked through cultural traditions of particular regions. Through geography, students can see how place affects music and music affects place.

• Develop students’ geospatial skills while teaching the context of music by referring to maps in music class. Even my kindergartners love looking at maps and use them to make personal connections with their music. “Our song comes from Kansas? My aunt lives in Kansas!”

• Compare and contrast songs with lyrics about particular places. What do the words and the musical elements of the songs tell about the places?

• Teach about instruments that are unique to certain places, and find similarities between instruments from different parts of the world.

• Research types of music that are produced and consumed in different regions.

• Examine how music moves with people, how it is influenced by cultures that it comes in contact with, and how it reflects the diversity of a population.

Discovering History Through Musical Artifacts

Music is an artifact of culture that can tell us about the people who created it and the times they lived in. Guiding students to explore the historical purpose and background of the music they sing and play makes for more meaningful learning and performing.

• Examine the purpose and effects of music that has impacted history. Many songs and pieces have played an active role in spreading ideas about social justice, politics, religion, and so much more. How does this music relate to various events of its time?

• After listening to a piece of music, invite students to make inferences about the lives and era of the people who created it. Encourage looking for musical clues, such as instrumentation, tonality, style, form, etc. before analyzing lyrics.

• Compare and contrast topically-related music from various time periods. For example, wartime music of different eras can show changes in public opinion of war, societal expectations, and coping strategies, but it also demonstrates the continued importance of music during times of stress and controversy.

• Explore how instruments and their uses have developed over time.

• Show the composition dates of the pieces your students are learning on a timeline. Include other historical events, especially those related to the pieces on the timeline, to give the music historical context and show its role in describing or shaping history.

Connecting music curriculum to social studies reveals music’s purpose and influence in the world, increases opportunities for our students to build personal connections with the content we teach, and informs the expressive and creative choices that our students make in music.

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