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Using Music in the History Classroom

Updated on July 18, 2016
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gmarquardt has an M.A. in history and German from SWTSU and has over 25 years teaching experience at public high schools.

Playing various types of music in the social studies classroom is a very effective tool to teach a variety of topics and ideas. Any classes can play a song or two, but by following a few rules, every teacher can instill learning skills in their students that will last a lifetime. Analyzing and evaluating the text, predicting the political and philosophical background of the band and the lyrics as well as interpreting the historical and cultural meanings behind the music benefits the student. These higher level thinking skills then transcend their further education, which in turn, helps us all by creating smarter, better skilled thinkers in our country.

Infuse new energy into your classroom

One of the Seven Intelligences

Promotes Culture

Promotes Tolerance

Promotes Independent Learning

Adaptable to any Topic

It’s Fun!!!

As every single student learns in their own way, and as all teachers must differentiate instruction, songs become very beneficial for many different methods to assist different learning styles. Songs reach many students who are musically inclined or gifted, they inspire students with their lyrical prose and research has shown that music helps students learn math skills. Another great benefit to playing music in your class is that it simply helps break up the daily grind! However, as a teacher, we know that students have to create, write, analyze, evaluate, and simply put, do something with this music. So here are five suggestions on how to use music in the social studies classroom.

Do you already regularly play music in your classroom?

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Bob Dylan, Hurricane

01.

Use music to help students understand certain historical viewpoints or biases. So many songs and singers have historical underpinnings in their music and lyrics. The easiest examples are from Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Even the most rudimentary search of their music has specific historical titles, including "The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti," and "Birmingham Sunday," from Baez and "Hurricane" from Dylan. The lyrics that accompany these songs are decidedly one sided, and give a unique perspective on historical events. At the very least, simply listening to these songs while studying the time period helps student remember the historical events. Protest music is especially ripe in meaning and interpretation.

1920s: Louis Armstrong, Potato Head Blues

02.

Use music to study the Zeitgeist of time periods. In addition to simply using music to help you create a multi-disciplinary and multi-media approach to your teaching, the overall feeling of the time period is important. Imagine studying the 1920s without using any jazz. One might discuss flappers, the car, prohibition and movies, but without jazz, you miss the entire feel for the time. Without jazz, students might miss the Harlem Renaissance and all of the political connotations connected to it and the effects it had on the future of the Civil Rights movement. The speed and playfulness of the music directly correspond to the stereotypical ideas we have of the roaring twenties. Without music, without jazz, it’s just a decade. With music, with jazz, we have a deeper, more complete understanding of the time period.

03.

In all songs, meaning can be intoned from music. The mood, the tone and the tempo help students understand the meaning of specific vocabulary words, or the entire meaning of the song. A slow song might equate to sadness, or a fast rock and roll song might be a protest. Allow your students to use their own knowledge of music to help them guess what the meaning might be. Although this works especially well in foreign language and English classes where individual vocabulary or specific grammatical structure is being emphasized, it can also be used to help student interpret attitudes toward certain historical ideas. For example, a very patriotic song might be more of a march, lively and faster than usual but with a distinct upbeat feeling, like "Stars and Stripes Forever," by Sousa.

However, when you want to make sure that they are using their higher level thinking skills, ask them to listen to Bruce Springsteen's, "Born in the USA." Have them write down or discuss their feelings after listening only to the first minute of the song, and have them judge the meaning or attitude of the song. Then hand out the lyrics and go over them and see if their feelings toward the song changes after they discover its intent. These types of songs foment excellent discussions.

Eagles, The Last Resort

04.

Use music to complete lessons and to help evaluate students' understanding of historical events. For example, after teaching a few weeks on western expansionism, I play the song The Last Resort, by The Eagles while the students fill out a paper answering certain questions about the meaning of certain phrases in the lyrics. Every song I play has a copy of the lyrics for the students to analyze. After listening to the song, students discuss its meaning and importance. If the song had been played at the beginning of the lesson, it would have been very difficult for students to understand the complex metaphors and meaning, but after a couple days of instruction, they completely understand most of it. And not only that, they might teach you a thing or two as well. (Full disclosure: A student taught me about Lahaina and the sign "Jesus is coming." I personally thought that it was just a generic metaphor, but there is an actual sign put up by missionaries in Lahaina, Hawaii). Throughout the song there are many references which lead to a deeper understanding of history which, in turn, leads to a desire to learn. Students will "get" Manifest Destiny, white man’s burden, the Homestead Act, etc., because this song puts it into modern meaning. There is plenty here that leads to discussion and a desire for further learning.

Counting Crows, Big Yellow Taxi

05.

Time to evaluate. A worksheet accompanies each song. I usually have about five generic questions, and then add another five on each individual song’s personal meaning and historical value, corresponding to the lesson I am trying to teach. Important historical concepts would be either highlighted or receive specific questions. The following would be used perhaps while teaching about environmentalism in either a geography or history class.

Counting Crows, Big Yellow Taxi.

1. What historical concepts do you recognize? Write them down.

2. How does the music sound? Write down the genre of the music as well as any other feelings you have toward the music.

3. Did you like or dislike the song? Why?

4. What feelings does the song give you? Do those feelings interfere or assist in your understanding of the song?

5. Are there any interpretations you feel are under or over represented?

6. What did the artist mean when he sang, "paved paradise?"

7. What did the artist mean when he sang, "I don't care about spots on my apples?"

8. What is the message the artist is trying to convey here?

9. Do you agree or disagree with the message, and why or why not?

10. What is morally positive or negative in this song?

11. What are your overall thoughts concerning the song?

Tips for using music in the classroom:

Always:

Give the time period of the song; (during the industrial revolution, modern, post Berlin Wall, 1960s, etc.). Anything that gives insight and focuses on the topic that is being studied is important.

Give the history of the artist. (race, age, sex, political stance, etc.).

Be sure to discuss the style of music; (rap, reggae, pop, hip-hop, rock, death metal).

Emphasize what you need and ignore what you must!

Have and open mind toward all genres of music. If you do, your students will.

Remember: the more you do this, the larger the probability is that students will bring you their music and show you how what you are teaching is in some of their music! You can't beat that kind of teachable moment!

Genesis: Driving The Last Spike

How it all started

In 1992, my girlfriend (and future wife) took me to a Genesis concert in Hannover, Germany. We both enjoyed their music and while I was on vacation, she thought it would be a good idea to go to a concert. The stage was in the middle of the Hannover soccer stadium, and there were three very large screens mounted on top of the stage. Each screen, I came to find out, was movable along a track and merged together to create one large movie screen.

When Genesis started the concert, pictures were shown on the screen. I thought it was a nice touch, and continued enjoying the music. But then Phil Collins talked about their next song, "Driving the Last Spike," and explained the historical significance behind it. As they started the song, they showed historical pictures of miners and railway workers. I will never forget the message they were implying, the true historical context behind the song, nor the impact that song had on me. And because of that song, I play similar music in my classroom and many students have had similar experiences because of it, but none of them married that girlfriend, that was all me!

Are you more willing to use music in your classroom now?

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    • profile image

      Casey Stevenson 20 months ago

      This is great! Glad I found this, music is an amazing tool.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      What an innovative teacher you are! I bet your students love you and learn a lot as well.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      A wonderful hub I thoroughly enjoyed it and thanks for sharing. now looking forward to many more.

      Eddy.

    • profile image

      donarm 3 years ago

      It's a unique way of guiding students toward viewing their own opinions in a more critical way by engaging them on a level that they easily comprehend. Fascinating!