Embracing Human Difference in Music Education

Embracing Human Difference in Music Education: Suggestions for Honoring Diversity in Music Classrooms

By NAfME Members Mara E. Culp and Karen Salvador

Children occupy intersectional identities, comprised of (dis)ability, ethnicity, race, gender, home language, religion, sexual orientation, and social class, among others. Therefore, music educators have a responsibility to create environments that value and challenge all students by providing relevant, inclusive, and responsive experiences for diverse learners. Here, we provide suggestions for honoring the diversity represented in today’s schools. We hope to empower stakeholders, such as music teachers, students, parents, and administrators, to examine current practices and begin or expand conversations about inclusive and responsive practices.

Avoid Assumptions and Overcome Biases

It is natural to have biases and make related assumptions about the world. Biases and their related assumptions are a result of cognitive efficiency. For example, upon entering a room and with a pile of shoes near the door, you may assume you should also remove your shoes. Unfortunately, we also have biases and can form assumptions about human difference. Becoming conscious of biases allows us to acknowledge the child’s reality and work to create a supportive learning environment.


To recognize and overcome biases and related assumptions:

  • Reflect on times people made assumptions about you based on their perceptions of your identities. Drawing on this experience could be a helpful way to empathize with others and seek to understand rather than act on assumptions.
  • Learn about your biases by taking Implicit Association Tests. Recognizing your implicit associations can be one step toward overcoming biases.
  • Consider your responses to children with identities that are different from your own. For example, when working with children with disabilities, a teacher’s fear, discomfort, and/or pity can result in ignoring or sidelining the student.

Know Students as Individuals

Getting to know students as individuals can also help avoid assumptions and overcome biases. Our brains naturally group “like” items to make cognition more efficient, especially when we lack substantial knowledge or experience in a given area. Building personal relationships, particularly with students whose backgrounds differ from yours, can help remove previously held assumptions by providing more in-depth knowledge and context about the student. Such information will also lessen the likelihood you would apply the same assumptions to the next individual with similar characteristics.

To get to know students and families:

  • Allow students to self-identify in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, etc. Do not assume you know such information on the basis of appearance and talk with the student about needs and preferences.
  • Some students may feel comfortable speaking about their experiences and individual identities, while others may be more reserved. Students may be more or less reserved during activities such as teaching classmates lyrics in Spanish, providing sign language interpretation, and/or talking about home culture or home music.
  • Make positive phone calls home. Phone calls home are often associated with a negative interaction, however calling home to report a success to a family can also provide an opportunity to build relationships and learn more about the child.
  • Go to events in the school’s neighborhood and community. Attending local events will provide opportunities to meet and interact with families outside of the school environment and provide additional insight into familial dynamics and how the child fits into the family structure (e.g., birth order, child’s role in caring for younger siblings).
  • Use student-preferred music. To understand musical preferences, use an assignment such as a “playlist of my life,” make time for open discussion in class, and listen attentively.

Foster Participation that Reflects your School Community

Strive to represent school and community demographics in the music program.

  • Explore gender equity in ensembles. Perceptions about gender may affect instrument choice, beliefs about creativity, ensemble leadership, and rates of participation in various ensembles. Increased awareness of these perceptions and how they create barriers to participation could help you increase participation in equitable ways.
  • Examine whether the proportion of students with individualized education programs (IEPs) reflects the proportion of students with IEPs in your school. Try working with special educators, parents, and students to help children with a variety of needs succeed in music classes.
  • Offer entry points to music education for all students at all levels. For example, provide avenues for high school students to participate in instrumental music as beginners.
  • Consider how scheduling (e.g., before or after school, during the same period as a required math class), audition processes (e.g., sight reading, repertoire), required materials (e.g., uniforms, instruments), music electives (e.g., marching band, mariachi, steel drum, guitar class, song-writing), and/or repertoire (e.g., religious content, language, genre) may hinder participation for various groups of students (e.g., low socioeconomic status, English language learners). Surveying the students in your school to determine the kinds of music classes they would be interested in and talking with guidance counselors regarding scheduling could assist in making music classes more accessible and meaningful for a broader array of learners.

Ensure Repertoire and Materials to Reflect Your Learners

Repertoire and materials in music education can represent and reproduce dominant culture. Students from marginalized cultures should be able to see themselves reflected in the music curriculum and content.

To diversify repertoire and materials:

  • Select music from cultures represented in and beyond your school community. If your school appears to be relatively monocultural, consider the multicultural state, country, and world you are preparing students to navigate, and choose accordingly.
  • Ensure materials use gender inclusive language (e.g., they vs. he/she).
  • Choose music written by composers who represent a variety of genders, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, social classes, etc.
  • Display images in your classroom that reflect your community and the diversity of musical communities from around the world.
  • Collaborate with local musicians in ways that blur the lines between school and community. Invite guests to perform, talk, and/or create with students, and/or partner with local artists for concerts.

Structure Classroom Practices and Policies to Create Inclusive Learning Environments

Classroom practices and policies may inadvertently privilege students from certain backgrounds, while unintentionally alienating others.


To create a more inclusive environment:

  • Establish classroom discipline policies that do not disproportionately affect certain groups. Soliciting input from students will give them agency and ownership in discipline policies and procedures.
  • Protect your students from harassment and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, home language, (dis)ability, gender, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation. Talk with your students regularly about supporting and accepting one another. Adopt effective classroom management practices to ensure bullying, harassment, and discrimination are not tolerated in the music classroom, and enforce your school’s anti-bullying policies.
  • Understand how the cost of materials (e.g., instruments, uniforms) may affect students who come from low-income families. Consider organizing an instrument drive or uniform “garage sales” where families can donate or sell items at reduced costs.

Adopt gender neutral ensemble names, uniforms, and/or uniform policies. If your uniforms imply a gender, allow students to select the uniform they would like to wear.

Honor the Needs of Individuals

Goals, particularly in ensembles, can revolve around whole-group activities and achievements, such as performing a concert or scoring a top rating at festival/contest.

To honor the needs of individuals:

  • Focus on fostering individual musical growth, rather than reproducing a particular piece of repertoire to meet a certain set of standards.
  • Provide opportunities for students to create with one another and share their individual musicianship.
  • Provide multiple access points to music education for students of varying levels in all grades.
Photo by Matt Janson Photography

Concluding Thoughts

Becoming a more inclusive educator by recognizing, honoring, and valuing student identities will likely require change, and change can be uncomfortable. We will need to overcome concerns about saying or doing the wrong thing, and approach this change with humility, open minds, open hearts, and open ears. Every person can learn and grow in and through music, and, therefore, has the right to see their ideas, values, and identities reflected in music education.

For Further Reading

Abril, C. R. (2003). No hablo inglés: Breaking the language barrier in music instruction. Music Educators Journal, 89(5), 38-43.         

Bates, V. C. (2011). Sustainable school music for poor, white, rural students. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, 10(2), 100-127.

Bergonzi, L. (2009). Sexual orientation and music education: Continuing a tradition. Music Educators Journal, 96(2), 21-25. doi:10.1177/0027432109350929

Bradley, D. (2007). The sounds of silence: Talking race in music education. Action, Criticism, and Theory in Music Education, 6(4), 132-162.

Culp, M. E. (2016). Improving students’ self-esteem in general music. General Music Today, 29(3), 19-24. doi:10.1177/1048371315619962

Elpus, K., & Carter, B. A. (2016). Bullying victimization among music ensemble and theatre students in the United States. Journal of Research in Music Education, 64, 322–343. doi:10.1177/0022429416658642

Fiorentino, M. C. (2016). Welcoming every student: Making our music ensembles and classrooms safe spaces for all [Handout]. Personal communication on March 20, 2016.

Fitzpatrick, K. R. (2012). Cultural diversity and the formation of identity: Our role as music teachers. Music Educators Journal, 98(4), 53-59. doi:10.1177/0027432112442903

Gaztambide-Fernandez, R. A. (2011). Musicking in the city: Reconceptualizing urban music education cultural practice. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, 10(1), 15-46.

Haywood, J. (2006). You can’t be in my choir if you can’t stand up: One journey toward inclusion. Music Education Research, 8(3), 407-416. doi:10.1080/14613800600957511

Koza, J. (2008). Listening for whiteness: Hearing racial politics in undergraduate school music. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 16(2), 145-155.

Kruse, A. J. (2016). They wasn’t makin’ my kinda music’: A hip-hop musician’s perspective on school, schooling, and school music. Music Education Research, 18(3), 240-253.

McPherson, G. E. (1997). Giftedness and talent in music. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 31(4), 65-77.

Morris, M. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of Black girls in schools. New York, NY: The New Press.

Palkki, J. (2015). Gender trouble: Males, adolescence, and masculinity in the choral context. Choral Journal, 56(4), 24-35.

Salvador, K. (2015). Music instruction for elementary students with moderate to severe cognitive impairments: A case study. Research Studies in Music Education, 37(2), 161-174.

Shaw, J. (2012). The skin that we sing: Culturally responsive choral music education. Music Educators Journal, 98(4), 75-81.


Karen Salvador and Mara Culp will be presenting at the NAfME Music Research and Teacher Education National Conference in Atlanta, GA. Register today for the 2018 conference in Atlanta, GA, March 22-24. 

About the authors:


NAfME member Mara E. Culp is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Eastman School of Music. She has taught general, choral, and instrumental music. Her research and academic interests include improving speech using music, music education for exceptional learners, interdisciplinary collaboration, and elementary general music education. She has presented her work at state, national, and international conferences; and presented as an invited speaker in Communication Sciences and Disorders departments. Her work has been published in The Orff Echo, Choral Journal, Journal of Research in Music Education, and General Music Today; and featured in NAfME’s Music in a Minuet

Visit Mara Culp’s website, and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Learn more about Mara Culp here. Also visit Eastman School of Music’s Music Teaching and Learning department.

NAfME member Karen Salvador is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Michigan-Flint, where she coordinates the Music Teacher’s Certificate Program. Previously, she taught early childhood music, elementary general music, choir, and drama. Dr. Salvador’s research pertains to equity and inclusion in music education, examining the intersections of instructional practices, music teacher education, and educational policy. She has presented this research and workshops based on her research at state, national and international conferences, and it is published in journals including Journal of Research in Music Education, Arts Education Policy Review, Journal of Music Teacher Education, Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, and Music Educators Journal. She is a past facilitator for the Society for Music Teacher Education’s Area for Strategic Planning and Action on Cultural Diversity and Social Justice, and is current President of the Michigan Music Education Association.

You can reach Karen Salvador at ksalvado@umflint.edu, and visit her website here.

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