Are you teaching music history?
This article explores what a music history curriculum for primary school may look like today.

teaching music history with a music history curriculum


If you’ve ever wondered if you should be teaching music history in primary or elementary music, then you’ve come to the right place!

Music History. Just the mention of those two words beings up some sort of emotion for just about every person alive today.

For many people I’m sure it’s pure boredom! They might think it’s all about “classical” music that they have no connection with. It might be a sense of pain, remembering dreary and boring lessons about Mozart and Beethoven! We try as teachers to make our lessons NOT boring …. But sometimes the subject matter makes it really difficult

These days, teachers are under a lot of pressure from many different sources. The internet, while it’s a wonderful connection with so much amazing information- also makes it more difficult, as we feel so judged with everything we put together for our students, as google is never far away for our students and  parents and they trust us as their teachers to find the best and most relevant information

So how do we as teachers of primary or elementary music put together a music history program for our students that will be relevant, engaging and full of valuable information?

That is what this article hopes to give you… a starting point for reflection and it outlines what we are doing here at the Fun Music Company in our curriculum program to cover the area of music history.

I hope that whether you choose to use our program or create your very own music history curriculum for primary school, that this information will be valuable and useful for you.

What the various curricula around the world say about teaching music history.

Let’s begin by exploring what the various curricula around the world say about “music history”

To read a curriculum document today, you’d almost think that “music history” wasn’t something that was required at all – as it isn’t said in those terms, but it is most certainly required in some form in nearly every curriculum we have encountered.

For example, anchor standard 11 of the US common core arts curriculum is:

“Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.”

Those two little words in that sentence – “historical context” means so much! It means that if we’re teaching music, we should be including some form of historical context to what we’re doing … even if we don’t teach music history as a separate topic.

And in the latest revision to the Australian curriculum, we also find:

“describing purposes music is created for in different social, cultural or historical contexts”

Again those two little words “historical contexts” … mean effectively we must include some form of “music history” within our program somewhere, or we’re not really covering this part of the curriculum.

The British are somewhat more direct in the way they write it in the national curriculum of England and Wales:

“develop a deepening understanding of the music that they perform and to which they listen, and its history”

So music history has to be there, but how do we cover it in a way that it’s not boring… and that won’t cause or students to associate boredom to it in the future?

That is the key question – and one that we are constantly thinking about here at the Fun Music Company as we put together our programs.

The issues facing teachers in today’s world with music history curriculum.

And also, in today’s world, with today’s values and beliefs we absolutely must be completely fair and equitable in all things, and there is a big issue that comes up when teaching music history to do with two issues that are really important in today’s world: racism and sexism.

It is a sad, unfortunate fact that many of the things we might look at in “music history” might be looked at as “The history of the music of white European men”.  Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Williams are all white males. 10-20 years ago, nobody gave it a second thought. We all just accepted that the composers of the past were mostly men, and we just accepted that this was were the music came from.

So here at the Fun Music Company we are dedicated to changing that.

We acknowledge that we have not been great in this area in the past. We’ve focussed too hard on the traditional “classical” compositions written by white males. However, we’re dedicated to changing that, so in our expanded CONNECT program in the next edition of the Fun Music Company curriculum will contain at least  two lessons per grade level that focus on female composers, plus two lessons per grade that come from non-white composers.

For now, we are doing the best we can in this area – and you are as well.

“Music history” should really be “music listening”

Music is an aural art form. it is not about words on a page – it is about sound in the air. So, no lesson on music history should be done without spending time actually listening to music. Putting a recording on and letting students hear the music that we’re talking about is really critical., Obviously we must be careful not to bore students, and pick examples that are the right length, and have context to make them think about.

Those curriculum statements really free us – because they really are encouraging us to study “music and its historical context” .. rather than “the history of music” – so we should think of that as freeing us to listen to a wide variety of music and consider its historical context while we do that.

How to make teaching music history engaging for children today

Here are three keys to making music history engaging for your students

1. Start with enthusiasm for teaching music history.

Your enthusiasm as the teacher might be the single biggest factor in this. If you go about this by saying in a low tone “lets listen to some music today” and proceed to bluff your way through without having thought about it… The students are not going to get into it. However, if you listen in advance to the music, prepare and have real enthusiasm for the music you’re sharing with them, then you’ll have much greater chance of engaging them in the lesson. Have some stories to share with them – either personal experience with a piece or stories you might learn on the internet about the composer or the performances of the work. There are lots of great stories – like if you’re learning about Beethoven, you can talk about how he wrote most of his music when he was deaf, and how we would conduct and have to have someone behind him really conducting the orchestra. In short, have a good “hook” to the lesson that will get them interested.

2. Allow students to have a voice and an opinion.

Whatever your format for teaching music history and listening is, it should always include a space for students to give their reflections on the pieces, and express what they like or dislike about particular music. Not just “I don’t like it”.. but encouraging them to give a thoughtful reflection on what they like or don’t like. If you do this regularly,  then students will get used to the process, and know what kind of responses you expect.

3. Give variety in repertoire in the music history curriculum.

If you’re always playing the same material and the same style of music.. then children will get bored very easily! So therefore lessons should be mixed between traditional and more modern composers.

That is why the CONNECT lessons in our curriculum program contain such a wide variety of musical styles – not just the traditional “white male” classical composers, but jazz and pop music and music from many different countries and genders.

Next Steps in Teaching Music History

You can make your own program of listening with our elementary music resources. However, who has the time to do that with everything else that a music teacher has to do in a day?

That is why we’ve included a complete listening program built within the Fun Music Company Curriculum entitled CONNECT, where students will listen to a piece of music, explore its historical and cultural context and express their opinions on the music, at an appropriate level for their age.

To learn more about this program I invite you to join our seven lessons in seven days sample series – which includes sample lessons from all areas of the program, including the CONNECT listening component.

teaching music history sample lessons