Teaching With Tunes: 21 Ideas for Incorporating Music Throughout the Curriculum

from Educators' eZine

My seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Kiefer once gave an assignment I would never forget. It was actually very simple. He asked us to bring in a song that we thought was also a good poem. We were to play it for the class and then share our interpretations. I chose "Message in a Bottle" by The Police. I stood up at the podium with a "jam box" at my feet and liner notes in my pocket. My knees knocked and my hands quivered. Stage fright aside, I was excited to share my music. I hit "play" and watched with anticipation as my classmates responded. I then blathered on about the "brilliant lyrics" and "mesmerizing (I actually used that word) chorus." It was the first time I can remember being really jazzed about school or learning. It was, as we educators like to say, empowering.

Many years later (I would prefer not to divulge just how many), I find myself playing that same song for my own students. Now, I use it to teach storytelling techniques—Sting's* voice and the trio's instruments capture the mood beautifully, and at the end the narrative takes an unexpected twist that definitely grabs the listener's attention. I also tap Bob Dylan's "Lilly, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," The Iguana's version of "Fortuneteller," and Charlie Daniel's classic, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." And, of course, as Mr. Kiefer had done, I have my students share their own favorites. It's one of my most successful (and popular) units.

Today, the possibilities for using music in the classroom are virtually limitless. New technologies allow us (and our students) to do incredible things. We can easily research, find, and download individual songs. We can meld them into multimedia presentations or splice them into musical medleys. We can record our own renditions, translate lyrics into other languages, produce music videos, visualize sounds graphically, and much, much more. The following are just a few ideas to get the records...sorry, the MP3's...spinning:

1. Collaboration Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkle, Jagger and Richards - unlike the visual arts, music is almost always a collaborative venture. Musicians, lyricists, technicians, promoters, and others work together to assemble a complete composition. Have your 'kid bands' (Remember Menudo?) apply cooperative learning skills to write, produce, and perform their own hits. And, don't forget the visual arts—a good album deserves a well-designed jacket.

2.Cultural Studies As a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, I discovered the incredible sounds of Andean folk music or musica folklorica. It was an eye, or should I say ear-opening experience. In the study of world geography, indigenous music should be required listening. With labels like Putumayo and National Geographic Music, bossa nova, Delta blues, Mongolian throat singing, tango, and the "voices of forgotten worlds" are only a download away.

3.Direct Instruction "Conjunction junction / What's your function?" If it weren't for Schoolhouse Rock, I'm not sure I would have been able to write this. I would have certainly had trouble with "interjections!" and "unpacking my adjectives." Today, there are plenty of bands putting out instructional albums. From banana slugs and state capitals to wetland conservation and the Pythagorean theorem, just about every topic under the sun has been sung.

4.Fieldwork When the ivory-billed woodpecker was allegedly sighted in the Honey Island Swamp, Cornell University sent down a team of ornithologists who specialized in bioacoustics. For them, the best way to find the elusive "God Bird" was to listen closely. Have your young field biologists conduct their own research using cameras, binoculars, note pads, and microphones. Or, record your own sounds from the field and then have your students describe what they hear. They could even create a symphony of found sounds.

5.Foreign Language Ever get a song, an embarrassingly corny song, stuck in your head? These "earworms" bore down deep and are almost impossible to extract. If only we could enlist them to learn a foreign language? Today, we actually can. From "My Way" to "Yesterday," just about every classic or catchy tune has been translated into other languages. Keep in mind, you can also use the closed caption options for music videos as well. Or, as The Beatles might have sung had they recorded "Yesterday" in Spanish: "Ayer. Todos mis problemas parecian tan lejanos...Oh, creo en el Ayer."

6.History & Current Events From "The Battle of New Orleans" and "John Brown's Body," to "Ohio" and "Vietnam," songs have long captured, interpreted, and unfortunately distorted historical events (Did you know that Andrew Jackson used an alligator to fire cannonballs?). Have your students investigate the past and present it through musical artifacts.

7.Humor Who could ever forget Steve Martin's "King Tut" or "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Eat It"? Music and humor go tongue in cheek. Have your aspiring comedians parody their favorite songs or write original, funny and informative compositions. Who knows, they might just get a gig writing for Saturday Night Live or "win a Grammy, singing in (their) jammies"?

8.Listening Skills Reading, writing, speaking, and listening—of these, the latter most certainly gets the least attention. Practice this neglected skill with a little popular music. Ask questions before, during, and after listening to a song or have your students retell it in their own words. For the ultimate challenge, have them try to interpret Dylan live – Mayan glyphs are actually easier to read!

9.Math How do we visualize math? What do patterns sound like? Where does spatial reasoning and harmony intersect? Supposedly, there are any number of mathematical concepts inherent in music—being a humanities kind of guy, I only calculate a few. From proportions and frequency to counting and fractals, break out your slide rule and trombone and then measure out a smokin' hot number...

10.Mood Play "The Mission" soundtrack and try not to shed a tear or two. Or, listen to Ringo Star belt out "Octopus's Garden" without cracking a smile. Supposedly, music has palliative powers. Use it to relieve stress before a big test or to celebrate a new discovery. If you subscribe to the Baby Mozart theory, simply play a little classical in the background and watch as their brain cells expand...

11.Physical Education In the era of high-stakes testing, P.E. and recess (not to mention music and art) are getting pummeled. Meanwhile, childhood obesity is at an all-time high. So what's a teacher to do? Choreograph a few health timeouts. Dust off the old Jazzercise and Jane Fonda LP's or integrate the new "YogaKids" curriculum. Have your students try to keep pace with the Lord of the Dance, or practice their motor skills with their own version of STOMP. Just for the record, in 2004, Ohio State University reported, "A little music with exercise boosts brain power."

12.Poetry Bob Dylan has been described as "TS Eliot with a guitar" and "the voice of a generation." While that might be a stretch, the claims do have merit. Others would argue that songs are nothing more than bad poetry with a backbeat. After providing them with the right criteria, let your students decide. Then, let them write and sing their own verse...

13.Public Speaking More so than spiders, snakes, and even heights, public speaking is our number one fear. It's also one of the most valuable skills in the workplace. While kids are sometimes reluctant to "stand and deliver" a book report or speech, give them "Mr. Microphone" and a melody, and watch as their inhibitions waft away. With The Who and U2 as role models, have your young orators practice their body language, inflection, and voice projection live, on stage and in concert!

14.Reading In Japanese the term karaoke means "empty orchestra", and the now ubiquitous machine was originally designed to provide backing tracks for solo cabaret performers. Today, it's a wildly popular form of adult entertainment. It's also a relatively untapped teaching tool. Play music with running text in PowerPoint or turn on the closed captioning while watching music videos with your kids. Or, break down and buy a karaoke machine for your class...

15.Social Commentary In 1970, Neil Young released "Southern Man," a scathing indictment of the Old South. In response, Lynyrd Skynyrd (named after a high school teacher, by the way) wrote "Sweet Home Alabama," a rollicking anthem in defense of the former confederate state. As long as there have been songs, there have been musical editorials. From "Strange Fruit" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_Fruit) and "Union Made" to "Give Peace a Chance" and "Born in the USA," music has always been an instrument of change. Have your young rebel rousers write and perform their own opinion papers.

16.Soundtrack "The Graduate," "Saturday Night Fever," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and "American Graffiti" – soundtracks often define a film. They can also provide the perfect backdrop for a student play, video, or multimedia presentation. Have your young producers put together their own compilations or playlists and then have them justify their choices.

17.Storytelling Pete Seager, Lyle Lovett, and Bruce Springsteen are all arguably great storytellers. "A boy Named Sue," "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald," and even the infamous "Pina Colada Song" (love it or hate it) are respectable narratives. Find and play ballads that model certain techniques, review them using the district writing rubric, and then have your students compose and perform their own stories.

18.Technology** Today, with Podcasts, Garage Band, Voice Recorder, iTunes, PowerPoint, and others, there's not much you can't do with music. You can now capture, slice and dice, mix, match, and share it in a seemingly infinite number of ways. In order to do so though, your students (and you) need to know the appropriate hardware and software. Dream up a few engaging assignments and learning the tool will "be easy like Sunday morning."

19.Trivia/Fun What's the greatest selling soundtrack of all time? Can you "Name That Tune"? What would U2's "Vertigo" sound like if Elvis Presley sang it? Music, as we all know, is a wonderful diversion. After testing, with extra time after a lesson, or, just for kicks, play a little music and "let the good times roll."

20. Vocabulary Flocabulary is a hip-hop band with classroom aspirations—think a contemporary version of Schoolhouse Rock. They inject SAT words into MTV-worthy songs. Reputedly, kids can actually rap their way into Harvard. Have your kids sift through song lyrics to stock their vocabulary banks. Or, digitally cut words from songs to create musical Cloze activities: "Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and _____? 'Come in,' she said, 'I'll give you shelter from the storm."'

21. Writing Prompt As teachers, we use questions, quotes, and figures as writing prompts all the time. Why not mix it up with a song or two? Have your students dissect "American Pie," retell "Rocky Raccoon," create a timeline for "We Didn't Start the Fire," or defend the vision of "Imagine." It's a great way to start class on a high note!

Note: Before embarking on your magical mystery teaching tour, check out films like Mr. Holland's Opus, Music of the Heart, or even School of Rock for inspiration.

* Before being discovered, Sting (Gordon Sumner) was a high school English teacher.

** According to the computer scientist, Alan Kay, "You can put a piano in every classroom, but that won't give you a developed music culture, because the music culture is embodied in people." As always, it's up to the teacher to make the technology sing.

Email:Folwell Dunbar