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12 tips and tricks for using music in the social studies classroom

I am not musically inclined. I like music. I listen to music. Love the Spotify. But I don’t play an instrument and karaoke only in large groups. Maybe I just never had the right training but it’s hard to imagine any music teacher being very successful in coaxing out my inner Bob Dylan.

Which is why it’s not easy for me to think about using music as an important piece of social studies instruction. You might be the same way – integrating music and song lyrics into your classroom just isn’t the first or second thing that comes to mind when you’re designing lessons and units.

But it should be.

I was reminded last night how powerful music can be and how we can use it to help kids connect with our content during the weekly #sschat. Focused on the intersection of music and social studies, the chat provided a wide variety of useful ideas and resources.

Led by Chris Hitchcock and the folks at Get Sounds Around, a bunch of us sat around and shared tips and tools. You can get the full transcript over at sschat but here’s a few of the tidbits I gathered:

  • Pre or post learning writing prompt: What would be the music themes for different historical figures? As in, what would Abe Lincoln play at his political rallies? This could be current songs or songs of the period. Explain your thinking.
  • A variant would be walkup music. Most MLB baseball players have specific music playing as they walk to the plate. NBA players have specific music during introductions. What would Harriet Tubman’s walkup music be?
  • Create both mini and full-blown DBQs that incorporate music and lyrics as one or all of the primary sources.
  • Songs and their lyrics are great primary sources, helping our kids to make sense of time, place, events, and culture. Use the National Archives and Library of Congress primary source analysis worksheets to help students make sense of lyrics and context.
  • Songs have been used for protest and social justice forever. Vietnam, civil rights, American Revolution, South African apartheid, women’s rights. If there’s been a protest, there have been songs that have gone along with it. The New York Times Learning Network has a great lesson that models what this might look like in your classroom.
  • The flip side of protest songs might be to have students look at how governments use music to rally support or as propaganda. Perhaps compare and contrast the music of the Allies and Axis governments during World War Two. Look at songs sung in the US during World War One.
  • One #sschat post discussed how US Civil War music was very upbeat, cheerful, and optimistic in 1861 but changed the mood and lyrics changed over time by 1865. Ask kids to look at context and events that may have had an impact on the music of the time.
  • We can ask our students to look at how popular music develops and changes over time. What’s the history of music? How have different groups and their music influenced what we listen to?
  • There are lots of songs that we sing but never finish. This Land of Your Land and Star Spangled Banner are examples of songs with verses that we don’t sing. Why were those verses included by the author? Why don’t we sing them very often?
  • Musicals are great storytelling devices that provide additional context and richness to historical content. Many teachers have been using Hamilton as part of their lessons. The National Council for the Social Studies Social Education journal has a great Hamilton article and this presentation from a recent NCSS conference is also useful.
  • The NCSS has many other articles and lessons on the use of music. Listening for History: Using Jazz Music as a Primary Source and Integrating Art and Music into Social Studies Instruction are two examples. Another helpful article is “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier:” Ideas and Strategies for Using Music from the National Jukebox to Teach Difficult Topics in History.
  • The American Historical Association published a longer read way back in 1996 titled Different Drummers: Using Music to Teach History that highlights why and how music should be part of what you do.
  • And don’t forget the power of YouTube. So many of the songs – both new, old, mashed up – are available online. This is a no-brainer.









Need some song titles tied to specific topics and periods? Check out these two crowdsourced Google Docs:



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