Across Disciplines with Multicultural Music

Multicultural music readily lends itself to study in other disciplines. Learning about the culture that created the music leads to a better understanding of the music itself. MENC member Patricia Shehan Campbell suggests working with classroom teachers to put together a multicultural unit that will reach across the disciplines.

1. Meet with classroom teachers to explore the possibilities for studying the different elements of a culture:

people religion
history education system
geography health care
government all the arts
societal values

The Internet is full of resources for this.

2. If you can, find a small grant to hire substitute teachers for a day or two so you can work with classroom teachers to craft a curricular project. (Look to the PTA/PTSA or within your school district. For $1,000, 4-5 teachers could brainstorm a brand-new curricular project.)

3. Use a holiday to focus on a cross-curricular project:

  • Chinese New Year (lots of music and dance in those festivities)
  • Cinco de Mayo (plenty of history, values to discuss, and music)
  • St. Patrick’s Day (lots of Irish folk songs)
  • Korea’s Harvest Moon Festival (dancing and farmers’ band music)
  • India’s Festival of Nine Nights (lots of dancing and music)

Campbell says, “These joint efforts get noticed—by the children, the school administration, the parents, and the community.”

Music from other cultures is a great gateway to understanding and acceptance.

  • When she was dividing her teaching time between an all-white school and an all-black school, Campbell used both Anglo-American and African American songs. “Children often leaned in the direction of the music they had heard in their homes and families, and yet the longer we listened, examined instruments and vocal styles, and explored the stories of the musicians from the two musical cultures, the more comfortable and curious the children got with the less familiar music. I realized that it’s just a matter of time before understanding develops and acceptance—and even enthusiasm—happens.”
  • When Campbell travels to different countries, she uses the songs she’s learned from their cultures—Ireland, North India, Vietnam, Eritrea, Japan, Turkey, Venezuela—and sings them to cab drivers, hotel workers, waiters, and schoolteachers. It’s helped her connect with people she meets in new ways. At worst, they found her amusing!

“There are no excuses for not featuring the musical expressions of many cultures,” Campbell says. “All too many times, we think we can’t teach the music if we don’t have the right instruments. But we can and should, singing and playing the music in ways that we can, listening to performers from the culture, and recognizing that there is more than one way to express this music.”

Patricia Shehan Campbell is the Donald E. Petersen professor of music at the University of Washington in Seattle. She has written extensively on using multicultural music in books such as 
Multicultural Perspectives in Music Education, Teaching Music Globally and Tunes and Grooves for Music Education.

Linda Brown, November 12, 2008, © MENC: The National Association for Music Education (