Embracing Unfamiliar Cultures in the Music Classroom

Phillip Payne, Kansas State University
Phillip Payne, Kansas State University
Ruth Gurgel, Kansas State University
Ruth Gurgel, Kansas State University

Since the Tanglewood Symposium of 1967, the field of music education has worked pointedly to provide students with musical experiences from cultures around the world (Choate, 1968, p. 51). Despite this focus, many teachers still feel unprepared to facilitate musical learning outside of their own experiences (Butler, Lind, & McCoy, 2007). While music teachers acknowledge the importance of introducing music of unfamiliar cultures, they may benefit from guidance as they navigate the lesson design process (Shehan-Campbell, 2016, p. 107).

Robinson (2002) and Abril (2010) give examples of teachers who have dedicated classroom time to introducing music from unfamiliar cultures, but employ what Banks (2004) refers to as the “contributions” or “additive” approach in lessons. In this approach, the music teacher adds in musical content and themes from non-Western European sources, yet continues to approach the music from a Western perspective, unintentionally situating some music as “ours” and some as “theirs.” To broaden students’ musical perspectives, and move beyond the “additive” approach, teachers can adopt a “multicultural reconstructionist perspective” (Sleeter & Grant, 2006) by encouraging their students to analyze music from social, historical, and political perspectives, inviting them to engage in social criticism and to challenge mainstream structures supporting inequity (Gurgel, 2013, p. 53).

As music teachers seek to teach from a multicultural reconstructionist perspective, they may wonder if they will be able to respectfully portray music that is unfamiliar to them. How will they situate the music in an appropriate context, while bringing the instruction to their students in a relevant way? Yet, even as teachers ponder the multiple meanings and connotations of the terms “context,” the complexities involved can hinder them in their curriculum development.

To move forward, music teachers can remember that music is a human endeavor and that they can freely release the role of “sage on the stage.” An exploration of world music in its ever-changing and shifting global contexts will focus instruction on respectfully honoring musical heritage, learning to include students as co-creators of the musical knowledge in the classroom, and designing engaging and challenging learning experiences that can broaden students’ perspectives while simultaneously affirming their identities. To successfully navigate this process the first time, the teacher must have a foundational knowledge in content, experience in context, and an understanding of culturally specific pedagogical techniques. Therefore, it is helpful to use a systematic framework for success while one is designing instruction for the classroom.

The Process: A Framework for Success

Select your Culture. This can be one of the more difficult steps in the process. Many of us had world music experiences in our undergraduate studies, but they were primarily situated in survey courses and almost always focused on covering a vast landscape of non-western music (Roberts, 2010, p. 153). Therefore, the primary objective in the beginning of the instructional design process is to find a musical culture that you and your students will enjoy exploring together. For ideas, you might speak with the students’ social studies teachers to find out what topics they will be studying at the time you want to explore world music. Then work to align your musical experiences with their lessons to provide as many entry points into the culture as possible. This also allows for joint projects and performances resulting in deeper, more meaningful learning for the students.

Develop a set of questions leading to establishing learning objectives. To establish a clear direction for musical experiences and to develop measurable outcomes, you can reflect on an initial set of questions to guide your planning and eventually your students’ learning and musical development. Your questions will be divided into two areas: planning (questions about your facilitation of the learning) and a foundation for assessment (questions about your students’ understanding).

Planning questions to consider:

  • What are your professional goals for designing this specific curriculum?
  • What are your program goals for implementing this program with your students?
    • Why is this learning critical for their music education?
    • How will this learning improve their musicianship?

Use your answers to guide the remainder of your instructional decisions, remembering that this is a mutual learning experience for you and your students. Ensure that all decisions you make are aligned with your professional and classroom objectives. Once you feel comfortable with your objectives, you can begin researching your selected musical culture. The following questions will establish a foundation on which to create an effective cultural exploration:

Initial Assessment Questions to Consider:

  • What do you need to know about the culture in question to effectively facilitate the learning?
  • Given your experiences, how can you respectfully design instruction to experience a new music and culture with your students?
  • How will this instruction align with your current music curriculum?
  • What resources are available for your preparation?
    • Instruments
    • Books
    • Recordings/Liner notes
    • How will the multicultural reconstructionist approach differ from the additive approach in my classroom?
    • Who can you ask for assistance with this?
      • Musicians
      • Culture bearers

After listening to the music from the region/time period you have selected for an extended amount of time, select one or two genres that best align with your curricular goals and teaching style. Next, focus your listening by identifying ways to engage your students in the study of the music. This focus is critical in order to approach the new listening experiences in the instruction through the students’ familiar and established listening perspectives. As you introduce the unfamiliar music by “building bridges or a scaffolding that meets students where they are (intellectually and functionally),” (Ladson-Billings, 1994, p. 96), you can help students engage with the new music on familiar terms.

As students form connections to what they know about musical terminology and practices, you can highlight the distinctions and unique practices in the new music, which opens new perspectives for the students to explore. Revealing these possible connections provides the content for your student learning outcomes. Understanding that you will spend a great deal of time in preparation and listening (up to or beyond 40 hours) for these experiences, it is essential to now pare down the content into manageable chunks; therefore, creating a timetable is critical.

Create a Timetable. Once you have established the student learning outcomes for addressing this material in your classroom from both your and your students’ perspectives, you should now consider the time commitment. How many class periods are you considering for this project? Will this be an ongoing process incorporating multiple cultures throughout the school year? If you are in the elementary classroom, how will you manage the teaching of this and other world music units throughout the year? If you are in the secondary ensemble rehearsal, how will you weave these experiences into the routines of your daily rehearsals to enhance their learning and musical development?

Select/Analyze your repertoire. The next step is to select specific musical works or recordings that will serve as representatives of your chosen culture while providing multiple opportunities for participation through listening, singing, or playing. Resources include Smithsonian Folkways website, which includes recordings and liner notes from original sources. Your public and university libraries often also have extensive listening libraries.

After selecting your repertoire for study, identify logical entry points throughout your curriculum that will scaffold smoothly with your students’ previous knowledge and experiences. Keep in mind that students will often not have a musical vocabulary to articulate what they are hearing within a new culture or musical experience. Identifying these entry points is critical as you build a bridge to new musical experiences. Roberts (2010) provides musical considerations for creating engaging entry points for students. Among these considerations are: repetition, fast/consistent tempi, easily distinguished timbres, thin textures, performability, minimal text, and cultural relevance. This is not an exhaustive list, but is provided as a framework to aid in initial musical selection.

Repetition of musical elements allows for the students to remain engaged during the multiple listenings and creates the necessary “hooks” to establish the need to know more about the music and the culture. These repeated musical elements then become both the entry points into your curriculum and the aspects around which you build your lessons.

Selecting music that employs faster tempi, easily distinguished timbres, and thin textures avoids many of the common pitfalls in introducing music unfamiliar to your students. Including different timbres allows for sustained critical listening and opportunities for multiple performances of the recordings for better internalization by the students. The critical listening experiences can then lead to very insightful discussions with your students. Finally, the thin texture ensures that the students will not be overwhelmed by sound. Thick textures are difficult enough for advanced listeners within their own culture.

The final criteria for repertoire selection include performability, minimal text, and cultural relevance. Performability should be a given, in other words, will your students be able to perform this music given their current instrumentation or voicings? This may take some creativity on your part. Minimal text ensures that the students will not focus more on pronunciation and learning lyrics rather than internalizing the music and the emotional intent thereof. Lastly, consider your intended audience and cultural relevance. What types of music will connect at the deepest level? Addressing both the intended audience and relevance of culture are critical in selecting the most effective pieces. For example, if you are teaching elementary students, find children’s songs or singing games that will translate well to your students’ developmental levels. If you are teaching at the secondary level, find instrumental or choral pieces that are consistent with the ability level of your students and how they relate to your current classroom practices. Addressing all of these criteria in the search process is critical in making these units and subsequent lessons successful.

“I decided I wanted my students to learn to understand drumming traditions originating on the continent of Africa. To choose a region and culture group, I began to listen to music and search for references that would help me. I found a chapter on musical traditions in Africa in the book “Worlds of Music,” by Jeff Todd Titon. This chapter contained information and music from the Ewe people group in Ghana/Togo, and I began listening to one of the traditions of the Ewe: Agbekor. As I listened to this recording, I focused on the following questions:

1)   What sonic features stand out to me about this music?

2)   What sonic features will my students notice first about this music?

These questions gave me a starting point and helped me decide how to focus my lesson design.”

Figure 1: Example of the selection process.

Transcribe your selections. Once your music is selected, one helpful analysis exercise can be to transcribe a portion of your selections. To keep this from being too intimidating, start small. Only select one piece to transcribe that you will integrate into an early lesson. Then begin to extend into multiple pieces to develop a deeper understanding and connection to the music. Transcribing the selections allows you more in-depth knowledge of structure, content, and teachable concepts. Attempting to transcribe non-western music can highlight the complexities of non-western musical syntax, and provide you with insight into teachable concepts.

As I attempted to transcribe the Atsiagbekor, I found that this tradition did not lend itself to my attempts at transcription. The complex, layered, and dense sounds of the musicians on the recording were the result of enculturation, or growing up in this musical tradition. I was fortunate to find a recording of a simplified version created by Ghanaian musician, W. K. Amoaku. This is the recording I decided to use as a base for my students’ performance.

Figure 2: Example of the transcription process.

Design your lessons. While there are many ways to design lessons introducing unfamiliar musical cultures to students, Patricia Shehan-Campbell has developed a 5-part sequence she titles “World Music Pedagogy” (Shehan-Campbell, 2016). Below is a brief description of the sequence and how to apply it to any classroom. In this design sequence, the first three steps focus on learning to listen to the music of study: Attentive Listening, Engaged Listening, and Enactive Listening. In the Attentive Listening phase, the teacher will play a short segment of the music, perhaps 30-45 seconds in length, directing the students to focus on the sonic features of the music: instruments or voices, sound/space, use of tones, and/or genre. During the Engaged Listening phase, the teacher will invite the students to interact musically by participating in musicking. As the students listen again, the teacher may ask the students to attempt to sing a melody fragment, tap a steady beat or rhythmic pattern, or embody some element of the music with movement. Students will then move into the Enactive Listening phase, reproducing some portion of the musical piece of study through aural learning processes (if appropriate for the music), using the recording as a reference.

The fourth step in the process, Creating World Music, invites students to compose and improvise, possibly by extending the piece of music they are studying in small ways. The final step, Integrating World Music, introduces students to the context of the music, including the people, the political and social history, geography, and present-day applications of the music.

“I believed that my students would notice the unique instrumentation as well as the complex polyrhythms of the Atsiagbekor drumming. With this insight, I then asked myself the following questions related to the process of World Music Pedagogy:

1) Attentive Listening: What questions can I ask my students as they listen to the music, helping them to focus in on the sonic features of timeline and polyrhythm?

2) Engaged Listening: How can I invite my students to participate musically and engage with the music?

3) Enactive Listening: How can I invite my students to “enact” the music, or reproduce the vocal or instrumental parts they hear?

4) To design the process for Creating World Music, I asked myself: How can my students create or improvise music related to this piece? I decided that they could do both!

5) As I thought about how I would Integrate World Music, or teach the context and importance of the music, I asked myself: What role does this music play in the Ewe culture today? What is its historical context? Who makes this music (past and present)? What historical events influenced the impact of this music on the people who make/made it? How can share this with my students and encourage them to continue researching with the goal of broadening their perspectives?

As I designed my lesson, I followed the advice of Shehan-Campbell, who suggests that the 5 processes need not be followed in order. For example, I chose to introduce the context of the music early in the process, based on my thought that the students would engage more strongly with the sonic features of the music if they knew the story behind the people who originally made the music.

Finally, to design a performance, I asked myself: How can I include my students as we work to share what they have learned? What particular strengths did I see my students demonstrate throughout this learning process, and how can I encourage them to use these? How can I ask them to go beyond what I have taught them in class and demonstrate autonomous learning?

Figure 3: Example of the lesson design process.

Begin the lesson plan design process by developing a title for your lesson that highlights your plan to engage the students right away. Then include a short description of the lesson(s) to provide a snapshot for an administrator or a brief reminder when you visit the lesson again the following year. Be sure to include all of the background information necessary to begin the planning process, which includes: Country, region, culture group, genre, instruments, language, co-curricular areas, and national standards. Once this information is completed, you can begin to establish prerequisites, intended learning objectives, materials necessary for successful implementation, and potential assessments.

The next step is to break this process down into manageable segments. Each segment can explore a dimension, genre, or style within your musical focus. For each segment, you will then design a specific learning sequence that will help students construct unique understandings of the music they explore. Click here for a World Music Pedagogy template to use when filtering all of the above information into a world music lesson.

Assess yourself and your students. Finally, design your assessments to complete the lesson-planning process. You can develop an assessment of student learning as well as a unit evaluation. In your initial offerings of these lessons, you will find components that are effective and those that must be strengthened. You want to enhance the strengths and eliminate the weaknesses, so creating an assessment of the instruction is invaluable.

To design your assessments, take your established objectives and design a clear set of criteria to measure student outcomes. Then select an assessment tool that will yield the best data to measure student learning and record their progress. These tools can be checklists, rubrics, portfolios, or journals. As you use the results of your assessments to revise and enhance your instructional design, you will keep this process in a spiral motion and increase the quality of experiences for all involved. We have included two sample lesson plans incorporating World Music Pedagogy. The first lesson plan is a study of music from Ghana and Togo, while the second plan studies music of the Appalachian Mountains.


As a profession, we must continue to discover ways to highlight the connections between music and human existence worldwide. Students are curious about music of unfamiliar cultures, but are often unprepared for how to listen, participate, and respond physically to these experiences. As we guide them in these experiences, students will have a broader understanding of music and how it functions not only in their lives but also in the lives of those around the world. Page (2001) describes these integral experiences in music education:

By examining the music of other cultures, students receive refreshing and diverse perspectives on what it means to be human. They see, for example, that in many cultures, there is no separation between music, dance, art, and ritual or that in these cultures, music is an essential part of daily life…there are profound differences in how cultures view music. These views help to shape the identity of each culture. Seeing how other cultures define the human experience helps us to define our own lives. (p. 143)

The music we listen to helps to define who we are as individuals and contributes to the development of our personal identity (Hargreaves, et. al, 2002). As we assist our students in forming new connections to humanly made music across space and time, our students will notice how their musical identities overlap with those around them. Our personal “playlists” are never the same as the person standing next to us; a brilliant feature of musical diversity. As students connect to their peers’ musical identities, they will also draw into view the bigger picture of worldwide “playlists.” In doing so, we can take the journey with our students to see the power and function of music within individuals living around the globe.

Students who sing music of other cultures begin to form anti-elitist frames of minds.

The simple act of listening to other perspectives is important. But to actually celebrate other cultures and their differences through song is to transcend cultural elitism or me/them thinking to reach an anti-racist way of thinking. They begin to see the interdependence of all cultures. (Page, 2001, p. 143)

Lack of experience, lack of content knowledge, and fear of teaching unknown topics are always hindrances when making the decision to include unfamiliar musics in your curriculum. However, with a solid framework resulting from your research and planning in place, you can invest in your students’ music education and provide learning experiences in which both you and they can engage. You will find it just as musically enriching as your students.


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