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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: world music- finding "authentic" music for the classroom

Music from around the world is an integral part of my teaching, but I don't own a single book that is a "collection of songs from around the world" or something similar. I also don't have much of a classroom budget, so I get most of my music for free- both for general music and for my choirs. When I share my ideas with fellow music teachers, I have found that many don't feel confident in their ability to find "authentic" pieces on their own- they would much rather use something from a trusted source, such as a textbook series or music education magazine. The problem is that even in those sources, there is a lot of misinformation, and many of the songs are presented with lesson suggestions that take the song completely out of its cultural context and throw it into an activity that is supposed to make the music "more accessible" for the teacher and the students.

I have found that students are perfectly capable of relating to an authentic presentation of a song from a foreign culture when they are given the right tools. 

I have also found that the best way to make music from a foreign culture accessible or relate-able is to use children's songs from that culture instead of the folk songs we find in so many textbooks.

So the trick is this: how can a music teacher with little background in these cultures (which is every single one of us, since none of us can have an in-depth understanding of every culture in the world) and little time to research and find appropriate resources, acquire the resources to give students that authentic presentation of a song from another culture? And how can we know, when we find a song or lesson idea, if it is "authentic" or not? 

Today I want to look at two aspects of this process: where to go to find free access to music from around the world, and how to determine if a source is "authentic" or not.

Wow. I absolutely love this website. This website is full of children's songs from around the world. The author is very good at linking to sources from the original culture, and usually has the song available in music notation, in the original language, in an English translation, and with pronunciation guides. Background information is usually given as well.

This is a great blog for music teachers in general, but it is a great source for finding new songs for the classroom just because of sheer numbers. The author is constantly adding new songs to the site, all notated and many with lesson ideas for the music classroom as well.

3. Google
OK, so this is an obvious one, but if you're not having much luck finding what you need, sometimes the best thing to do is to cast a wider net. How about the whole internet? :) See, for example, what comes up when I do a Google search for children's songs from Mongolia.

-Checking for Authenticity-
OK, so you've found a song somewhere from some culture in which you are not an expert. Maybe it's a folk song from your Kodaly song list, an activity in the latest issue of Music Express, or a children's song from one of the websites listed above. Now how do you know if it is an accurate transcription and/or translation of the song, and if it is being presented in an authentic context?

1. Google the lyrics*
If you have a transliteration of the lyrics in the original language, or a digital source for the lyrics in the original language, copy as much as you can into a search engine like Google and see what comes up. Sometimes I have done this with a song from a major publishing source and found that it was attributed to the wrong country! You should be able to find someone, somewhere, who has an original source to the song. If the only results you find are from non-native sources, or if you find different results giving differing information (like attributing it to different countries), you will quickly know that you need to do a little more digging to find your answers. If you find that all the top search results agree on the basic information, and you see native sources that confirm that information, you can confidently move on to the next step. 
(*If it is an instrumental piece, you will have to Google just the title and any other identifying information you have, but it may take a bit more digging.)

2. Try to find a video
There is absolutely no better way to find out how a song is actually used in a foreign culture than to watch people from that culture performing the song in a native setting. If you have already done a search for the song and found some reliable sources, there is a good chance you have already found a video recording of the song. If not, click on the "videos" tab in your Google search (right under the search box) or head straight to YouTube. 

The best sources are ones created by natives, for natives. Although it is intimidating to see a page with absolutely no English in it, if the performers and the audience are from that culture than you have a pretty good guarantee that the presentation has not been modified for Western audiences. Don't assume that, just because the performers are native to the culture, the song is being presented in an authentic context. Often musical groups will travel as "musical ambassadors" to Western countries and present their music, but will modify their presentation to make it more "accessible" for their audience. 

You don't need to be able to understand a single thing you are copying and pasting into your search box, or read the video description, to get a lot of information from watching the video itself! Here's an example of a video that has absolutely no English on the page, but still gives me a good idea of how the song could be used in the classroom. (If you want more information about this Chinese counting song, here is the Mama Lisa page with more information, and here is a recording with the lyrics and an adult singing on pitch :) )

The internet has given us the wonderful opportunity to connect with people from around the world. We no longer need to rely on ethnomusicologists to spend years researching, translating, and notating the songs for us- we can get straight to the source ourselves! 

If you are interested in the topic of teaching world music, you can read more of my general musings on the topic in my guest post on The Yellow Brick Road's blog here:

I have also slowly been adding world music resources to my TeachersPayTeachers store. If you're interested, I have this lesson set to use as an overview of music from around the world, and these lesson sets of children's songs from Japan. And if you aren't already, you can follow my store to get updates when I post a new resource!

I hope these resources and ideas will encourage you to find some new and authentic ways to introduce the students in your music classes to cultures around the world. And please, please, share your own resources and ideas in the comments below- I can't wait to hear from you!

*Update: I'm linking up with a bunch of bloggers to share ideas for teaching music from around the world. Click on the picture below to go check out all of the posts and get tons of lesson ideas!


  1. Thanks for sharing. I was always most intimidated by the languages, because I didn't want to mispronounce anything. Eventually, I figured that my best would have to be enough. After all, unless I was born speaking the language, I was never going to be exactly right :)

    1. Good point! I try to let the students listen to a recording if I can. I also tell them up front that I don't speak the language so we are learning together :)

  2. This is right up my alley and I love the points and sites you included! I use Beth's music notes all the time and I found a source from Mama Lisa's site who emailed me a piece from Indonesia that I used in my book, Hands to Hands, Hand Clapping Songs and Games from Around the World. Although the book isn't free, it is an excellent way to introduce students to game songs and clapping songs (and it's just fun!!!) from around the world! The book is available here I am not putting this here for self-promotion, but because it is a solid resource of accessible, authentic songs and games students LOVE!!

    1. Thanks for sharing! I love the little glimpses I have seen from the book on your blog :) What a great idea to contact sources through Mama Lisa- she has gotten information from so many different places and she seems to be really good about updating things, so that would be a great place to find good sources.

  3. Thanks for this insightful article. I feel lucky to have been able to live and travel to different places in the world and so I'm more comfortable doing these kinds of things, but it's great that you have offered some wonderful resources that will help teachers get started. There are also so great music products that have authentic dancing and music that can be purchased from stores like Alfreds too!

    1. Yes definitely! I have some great print resources that I have collected over the years, and those are great to have. With budgets being what they are, I wanted to focus on free online sources in this post, and I would also say that even with print sources it is important to check to make sure their information is accurate, as sometimes it isn't.