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Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Designing a Unit on a Culture's Music

Every spring I look forward to the unit I include in every elementary grade level I teach, doing a deep dive into one culture's music. I've shared lesson plans for many of the units I've taught over the years from cultures all over the world, and over time I've developed a formula for what elements I include in each of these units. Here is that formula, which you can apply to any culture you may want to study in your general music classroom, to help students get as much breadth and depth as possible in the limited class time that we're given.

1. Travel videos

Whether it's an official video from the tourism bureau of that country, a vlog from a tourist, or anything in between, I find it really helps students get a glimpse of what the area is like when I can show them footage from different parts of that region. Nowadays I can find high definition, high quality footage pretty easily on youtube that is current, and I always try to find a mix of videos that show industry and agriculture, urban and rural, traditional and modern, and representative glimpses of all the different types of terrain they have. I like to throw in 1-2 minute clips into the lessons each day so students can picture what it looks like in the modern day.

2. Language introduction

This is something I started doing in more recent years and I don't know why I didn't do it sooner! When I am first introducing the culture to the students, if it is not primarily an English-speaking culture, I teach them a few basic words and phrases in the primary language(s). If I know it well enough I will teach them myself, otherwise there are, again, so many great youtube videos where you can listen to native speakers teaching you basic greetings and phrases in quick, engaging formats, including videos specifically for kids/ youth. I've found starting with some basic language introduction again makes them feel more immersed in the culture in general and also makes them more comfortable with the language when we start learning songs in that language.

3. Traditional instruments

I find instruments are such a great entry point for learning about a culture's music, and obviously the more distinct instruments will be the traditional ones from that culture (rather than the ones often being spread around the world in modern music). I use these resources to introduce what the instruments look and sound like, explore how they're used in context, how they work, and compare and contrast them with other instruments students already know.

4. Current music

Another great entry point for learning about a culture's music is the music that is popular today. I like to sprinkle in some different examples of music videos of songs that are popular now from a broad range of genres throughout the unit, and I always try to find some examples of fusion music, where traditional musical elements are incorporated into modern music, whether that's a traditional instrument, vocal style, or other musical element. It really helps students start to see how different cultures preserve and respect their traditions in different ways.

5. Children's song(s)

I always try to find a song or two that children in that culture around the age of the students I'm teaching would learn in school and/or play on the playground themselves. I especially look for songs that have games with them, whether it's a passing game, a circle game, or some type of movement to go with the song.

6. Traditional dance and/or instrumental piece

In most cultures around the world, dance is an integral part of their musical traditions. In many cultures, there are specific instrumental ensembles that are archetypal features of that culture's music. I often include dance in the younger grades and instrumental ensembles in the older grades, but sometimes I'll switch that up- it mostly depends on what the primary features are of that culture's musical traditions, and what is going to be accessible for the students. 

If you want to learn more about how I find resources for each of these categories, and how I check to make sure they are "authentic" to that culture, here is a previous blog post I wrote on that. If you want to see all of the units I've shared (11 so far!), this blog post has links to all of them. 

Of course this list is certainly not exhaustive! I'd love to hear your questions, and what other elements you include in your units, in the comments.

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