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Using Music to Teach History Content & Vocabulary

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Because of its versatility and power, music is a great resource for classroom use. This lesson provides teachers with ideas and examples of how to use music to teach history content and vocabulary to a wide range of students.

Music in the Classroom

First of all, no musical expertise or specific technical knowledge is required to use the suggestions in this lesson. Even students (or teachers) with no musical inclination can make effective use of music in the classroom. Music is one of the rare gems of humanity that has existed for thousands of years in nearly every culture. Because of this, music has the ability to inform, move, and enlighten, and if used properly, can fit into any well-rounded lesson plan.

Music as Historical Artifact

The musical styles of specific periods go hand-in-hand with the literature, art, politics, architecture, and overall culture of a time, which makes music particularly helpful as part of a history lesson. Audio and visual recordings haven't been around for much of human history, therefore music, in addition to other historical artifacts, can provide insight into a time period that may otherwise be lost.

There are several ways to use the historical significance of music in your classroom. To begin, research aspects of music from the specific time and place being studied in your lesson.

  • Popular musical styles of the time
  • Names of well-known composers/ musicians
  • Names of well-known musical works
  • Types of instruments used
  • Political, religious and social context of the composing and performing of music

Play a musical piece at the beginning of a lesson and ask your students to think of any words that they associate with the sounds they are hearing. Write a list on the board and then discuss where, when, who, and what words the music evoked.

Next, find examples of historical musical works in contemporary media. This can be accomplished with a basic Internet search. For example, a search for Beethoven symphonies is movies returns a long list of results.

  • This may include film or television show soundtracks, modern songs, musicals, or other art forms.

Finally, encourage students to share their own ideas of how music relates to the historical content being taught.

  • Play a piece of music and ask students what year and country it reminds them of.
  • Seek out any musicians in the class who may be able to play or sing a piece of music related to the lesson.

Music as Emotion

History relies on dates, records, and facts. It is important, however, to not overlook the emotions and general sentiments of the historical individuals and groups who are part of those dates, records, and facts. The music of a time period can offer unmatched insight into the mood of the people, or at the very least, the mood of the person composing the music. There are several styles of music that you can use to teach about specific historical events.

  • Military music
  • Religious music
  • Government sponsored music
  • Music created for the arts (plays, shows)

After you play a piece of music, ask your students what emotions the music evoked, possible reasons why, and if your students believe that the people who heard the music as contemporary art had the same reaction.

Furthermore, when you are teaching contemporary history, don't be afraid to showcase contemporary music. You can even invite students to bring in their own music and share how the music reminds them of historical events or figures.

Each type of music, when used appropriately, can provide your students with insight into what people in the past heard and how it made them feel. When music is used to provide emotional insight into a historical period, it can lessen the divide between the modern world and the past.

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