Different Drummers: Using Music to Teach History

Alex Zukas, September 1996

Try to imagine life without music. No rock ‘n' roll, no blues, no country, no classical, no rap, no jazz, no folk. No way! Music does not just entertain or refresh us, it also helps to establish who we are. According to ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, "One cannot really understand a culture without taking into account the almost inevitably great importance of its music." 1

We have only to glance at our students and listen to them to understand that music is important to them. Music, musical styles, and music videos permeate their consciousness; their dress and vocabulary reflect their dedication to the culture of popular music. They are more familiar with music than they are with books. One day it struck me, as I was considering ways to enliven my classes in world history and Western civilization, that I could turn my students' passion for music into an asset. In fact, the time they spend in the classroom is probably the only time in their day when they are not exposed to music. This may be a good thing, but it can also make the classroom seem less exciting than life "on the outside," and it limits the tools teachers have to stimulate classroom participation. When professors teach about Mughal India or Renaissance Italy they often show slides of the Taj Mahal or of Michaelangelo's sculpture to illustrate abstract ideas, but pictures are two-dimensional representations, and sculptures and buildings don't move. When I play an Indian raga or an Italian madrigal, my students begin to think about past cultures in a new way and with unexpected excitement.

I myself do not read music or play any instruments, nor am I "musically inclined." I say this to reassure readers that musical skills are not needed to use music in class. All that is needed are the same reflective and critical skills we employ when we read a book. There is nothing mysterious about using music to teach history, even if the music itself arouses a sense of mystery and curiosity.

As history teachers, we often use documents to introduce our students to the values, practices, ideals, and conflicts that inform and structure a historical culture and the social relations within it. Music is also a primary cultural source that can provide teachers with a novel way to engage students with historical issues, to get them to practice skills of analysis, and to promote cross-cultural understanding. Musical selections should be treated like any other historical document: they should be regarded as creations of a specific time and place that we can use to illustrate points about class, gender, cultural values, politics, and economic life. Of course, we should be careful not to overgeneralize about a culture on the basis of a few musical selections, just as we must use caution when discussing a document.

What makes music a wonderful primary source for students to investigate is its accessibility, especially if the instructor provides historical context and some questions to guide their inquiry. Students can listen to a Confucian court song and get a sense of what it expresses. Such direct access to written cultural artifacts in the classroom is impossible. Students are thrilled by the immediacy of music, even if a song communicates little about a society that has long since disappeared and in which students have no other interest. Music grabs their attention; it is expressive and arouses emotional states of awareness. It has been used by most cultures to accompany and enhance such diverse activities as worship, contemplation, storytelling, mourning, healing, consumption, and social criticism. Societies also use music to endow abstract ideas with sensuality and form, and music can give even metaphysical concepts a physical and immediate presence in the classroom. Because it engages students' minds and emotions, music is a powerful instructional tool that helps students remember information and theories.

Playing music, then, is a way for instructors to spark student interest and to introduce a culture or an era in a new and memorable way. The kinds of music one includes in a history course depend upon the nature and scope of the course and the goals set by the instructor, but teachers can introduce music successfully at any grade level, from primary school through university. What follows is focused on introductory college world history courses that I have taught. The content of these courses allows great scope in exploring a wide variety of musical styles and sounds. The major exceptions to this claim are in the areas of ancient history: we do not know what ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, Mayan, or Olmec music sounded like. Many of their instruments exist and some musical notations survive, but since we do not know how to read the notations, there are no completely accurate reproductions of this early music. We do have some idea, however, of how ancient Chinese and Indian music sounded. The earliest Chinese musical text comes from the 10th century c.e. (Song dynasty), but many scholars believe that oral tradition preserved, with a great degree of accuracy, some of the songs from the sixth century b.c.e. (the later Zhou era of Confucius) until they were written down later. Religious chants for the Rig Veda, which are performed today in India, are probably fairly accurate presentations of music that is over 2,500 years old, because there is and was an emphasis on perfect performance: believers thought the slightest mistake in singing could harm the universe and have serious consequences for life on earth.

Classroom Strategies

Most history instructors can use music for a variety of purposes. It can help refresh material for students before introducing a new unit or on the eve of exams. For example, before completing a segment on slavery in the United States or before an exam containing questions on slave culture and resistance, a teacher could play slave spirituals like "Steal Away to Jesus" or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," ask students to recall specific details about slave life, and explain how the words or melody of the songs reflect aspects of slave culture on 19th-century plantations. The music helps the ideas stick. Music can also reinvigorate lectures, or at least provide interesting breaks. An Indian raga, which was music for the upper class, can illustrate a lecture point on the opulence, sensuality, and religious mysticism of the early Mughal Empire more effectively than a picture of the Taj Mahal can. It can also provide a transition between a point on the growing importance of Sufism and devotional bhakti cults in 16th-century Indian cultural life and on their influence on the imperial Mughal court and its style of rule. For help in understanding Indian classical music, see A. Daniélou's The Ragas of Northern Indian Music (1968), A. Prajnananda's A Historical Study of Indian Music (1965), and Bonnie Wade's Music in India: The Classical Traditions (1979).

Music also works as a starter for small- or large-group discussions. The kinds of questions you ask students to consider as they listen to the music depend on the grade level of the class, your own expectations of their work, and the limitations time always imposes. I tend to ask general questions that can be used over and over again and that allow students latitude as they formulate their responses: What do we know about the society that produced this music? What mental picture does it create? What mood does it set? How does it set it? How does it fit (or not fit) with what we have learned about the culture or era that created it? I keep the questions simple and few so all can be addressed. Complexity can be added through follow-up questions based on the diversity of responses received. Repeating the same questions familiarizes students with the procedure, relaxes them so they can concentrate on the music, and gets them used to thinking about certain key issues when they listen to music in class.

Finally, music can stimulate a writing project. I usually use the same questions I employ for discussion, and this recycling has comparable advantages of familiarity and simplicity. The writing project can take more than one day; it can also be assigned as homework, as an in-class exam, or as the centerpiece of a take-home exam. I sometimes have students write down their responses to the music I play and my questions about it before I start a discussion, because writing helps them focus their thoughts and gives them more time for reflection.

Musical excerpts should be short (three to four minutes) for a couple of reasons: they can be repeated if necessary and brevity leaves time for discussion. Brief excerpts also maintain students' interest and attention better than half-hour segments from concerts, which often inspire students to count holes in ceiling tiles. Short excerpts of many of the musical selections discussed below can be found on a cassette tape entitled "Experiencing World Music" that comes with the Instructor's Manual for Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience (1992).

Music and Cosmic Order

On the first day of my world history course I like to play songs from a recording of Australian aboriginal music. (The songs can be found on sound disks that accompany Elizabeth May, ed., Musics of Many Cultures [1980].) Iplay the music as students enter the class, and I ask them what culture created the music and where it is from. Most have no idea; they think it comes from another world and, in a way, it does. The music is low, guttural, rhythmic, droning, and lacks harmonies. I use it to introduce hunting and gathering societies, societies that left no written record for historians to ponder. It is my way of giving paleolithic peoples some "presence" in the classroom, and the vibrating bass sounds of the didjeridu fill seemingly empty space very well. While we do not know what music in Eurasia sounded like 20,000 years ago, aboriginal music, even after contact with Europeans, provides one way to acquaint students with the musical sound and beliefs of a paleolithic people who may have migrated from south India. Some useful introductions to aboriginal music and culture are Catherine J. Ellis's Aboriginal Music Making (1964), her "Structure and Significance in Aboriginal Song" in the journal Mankind (June 1969), and Theodore G. H. Strehlow's Songs of Central Australia (1971). Aborigines believe that once the world was created, the flows of nature had to be stimulated by human rituals of music, art, and dance. This belief was and is shared by many other peoples: Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, Navahos, and Chinese Confucians, to name a few. Music was and is used by Australian aborigines, Native Americans, and Confucians to restore order and balance in the world and to maintain harmony with nature.

An example of Chinese orchestral music that is based on Confucian ideas is "Receiving the Approaching Spirit" (on the cassette tape provided with World Civilizations). It was adapted by Koreans and performed in ninth-century court rituals. It gives us an idea of how neo-Confucian culture, which emphasized order, virtue, harmony, and tradition, "sounded." The instruments used to create this music were made from the eight elements of the earth: stone, wood, leather, silk, gourd, metal, bamboo, and clay. Confucians believed that by "orchestrating" the sound these instruments made, they could influence the cosmic order and create world harmony. Music thus served political, metaphysical, and moral ends. To Westerners the music sounds disorderly, cacophonous, clangy, and atonal. Discussion of it is always lively because it thwarts students' expectations in a number of ways and gets them to rethink their ideas about cultural perceptions. Playing the song allows me to introduce a discussion of the social and ideological force that music had in Chinese and Sinophilic cultures. For further information on Chinese and East Asian music consult Kuo-huang Han and Lindy Li Mark, "Evolution and Revolution in Chinese Music," Music of Many Cultures, Elizabeth May, ed. (1980); Frederic Lieberman's Chinese Music: An Annotated Bibliography (1970); Laurence Picken's "The Music of Far Eastern Asia: China" in The New Oxford History of Music, vol. 1(1957); Eta Harich-Schneider's A History of Japanese Music(1973); and Shigeo Kishibe's The Traditional Music of Japan(1966).

Music and Politics

Like their neo-Confucian contemporaries, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the European Middle Ages used spiritual music for conscious political ends. Beginning about the seventh century c.e., popes strove to unify Western Christendom by codifying rituals and asserting papal primacy in matters of church doctrine and practices. This centralizing effort, which lasted centuries, was a major feature of papal politics, and popes dispatched musical ambassadors to propagate the sanctioned form of religious service. Regulating music was just one way they tried to unify doctrine and control the practices of local bishops and monasteries. After lecturing on some of these points, instructors could play the "Agnus Dei," one of the "politically correct" songs of the eighth century, to start a class discussion of the emotional impact of music and its uses as propaganda.

Another way to look at the political role of music is to play any of the operas written by Jean-Baptiste Lully when the class reads about the era of Louis XIV. Most texts emphasize that Louis employed culture in a self-conscious way as part of his state-building project. In addition to showing slides of Versailles, one could play part of a Lully opera during a lecture on the Sun King. Lully's themes were classical and based on the tragedies of Racine and Corneille, but they also had nationalistic overtones and embodied the splendor, grandeur, and confidence that Louis wanted to project to his subjects and to the world. The music is centrally controlled and orchestrated in a way that Western ears will find familiar: one can picture a central conductor and all of the instruments functioning in unison to produce melodious sounds. Lully's pieces are powerful and symbolize harmony and national unity. They can be useful in introducing students to another facet of the centralizing tendency of the French state: the standardization of culture in the age of the baroque. There is a rich literature on European music since the Middle Ages. Some books worth perusing are Howard M. Brown's Music in the Renaissance (1976); Richard Pauly's Music in the Classic Period (1988); Donald Jay Grout's A History of Western Music (1980); Rey Longyear's Nineteenth-Century Romanticism in Music (1988); Eric Salzman's Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction (1988); and Simon Frith's Sound Effects. Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock ‘n' Roll (1981).

Music, Cultural Identity, and Critical Thinking

Teachers can also use music to introduce students to larger thought problems. For example, classical Persian music (ca. 1000 c.e.) is characterized by melodic improvisations, expressions of sorrow and desire, and free rhythmic compositions when played solo. It mixed ancient Babylonian and Greek musical practices with seventh-century Arab music. It was the music of the Sufis. They appreciated it for its melancholy sound and the sense of longing it expressed. It was music for mystics and romantics. A piece performed in the classical Persian style, "Shustari," is on the cassette that accompanies World Civilizations. Its lyrics convey profound sorrow and distress: "No one now can sacrifice my soul/ My heart is not captured by any love . . ./ Nothing can make me happy. . ./ No queen sits on the throne of my heart.2 Play it, or some other piece of classical Persian music. Ask students about the mood it sets and the culture that produced it. Ask them what they think inspired such music. You can then introduce them to the following controversy concerning the inspiration for Persian music.

Some ethnomusicologists suggest that the geography of Iran explains the sadness of its classical music: the country, mostly desert and high mountains, presents a harsh, haunting, and forbidding landscape. But for ethnomusicologist Ella Zonis the history of Iran, with its many long foreign occupations since the time of Alexander the Great, provides a more compelling explanation.3 Ask students which explanation, environmental or historical, they find more persuasive and why. Ask skeptical students what evidence they think would be needed to support one side or the other and if that evidence could be found. Students might decide that neither explanation suffices. These discussions could lead into a forum on the building and testing of theories in history and other social sciences.

Folk Music, Popular Culture, and Politics

While most of the music discussed so far has been elite music, playing popular music allows us to look at the lives and beliefs of ordinary people. A distinctive type of popular music that has influenced the music of distant continents is the folk music of Africa. African music is always stimulating to students: it has a strong beat and rhythm and usually makes them want to get up and dance. This is no accident. Much African music was created for public events and celebrations and usually involved the participation of the community. In West Africa, the Ewe people lived since the 17th century in independent communities in what is now Ghana, Togo, and Benin. They never formed a single centralized state but, given their earlier experience with slavery, they made temporary alliances in time of war to preserve their independence. "The Great Oaths War Dance," included on the World Civilizations cassette, reflects part of the Ewe's experience. Originally this music accompanied a war dance and was meant to create euphoria and inspire warriors to heroic deeds. In the 20th century the music and dance have become part of building cultural identity: they celebrate the exploits and achievements of past Ewe warriors. The Ewe excel at complex and intricate drumming; most of the instruments in the song are percussive, and the tune really "rocks." Responding to questions I pose, students usually envision a collective dance of tremendous joy and energy. Since music and dance were integral parts of traditional life in Africa, I always play music in my classroom when I introduce students to African beliefs about the cosmos, nature, and human society. Good places to start learning about African music and its social and historical context are A. M. Jones's Studies in African Music (1959); J. H. Nketia's The Music of Africa (1974); and Klaus Wachsmann, ed., Essays on Music and History in Africa (1971).

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African music has, of course, greatly shaped the music of the Americas. African songs, dances, and sensibilities were preserved by Africans who worked as slaves on plantations in the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean. Out of African rhythms and musical motifs came Negro spirituals, blues, jazz, rock ‘n' roll, reggae, samba, and more. In tracing the influence of African music on the popular cultures of North and South America, teachers could draw attention to important themes in black history in the Americas—racial oppression, the desire for personal and social autonomy, persistence, cultural and intellectual creativity, rebellion, and resistance. Playing blues, jazz, or reggae in class can also lead to discussions of the contributions of Africans to the cultural richness of the Americas with their Native American, European, and African heritages. Books that treat these themes are James Cone's The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (1991); Jim Merod's Jazz as a Cultural Archive, a specially edited issue of the journal Boundary 2 (summer 1995); Arnold Shaw's Black Popular Music in America: From the Spirituals, Minstrels, and Ragtime to Soul, Disco, and Hip-Hop (1986); Frank Tirro's Jazz: A History (1980); John Storm Roberts's Black Music of Two Worlds(1974); and Luiz Heitor Correa de Azevedo's Brief History of Music in Brazil (1948).

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Folk music is also the music of social protest. Lower classes have always produced music that expresses their interests, desires, and view of the world. In the 20th century, a premier writer of protest songs was Woody Guthrie who was a major influence on songwriters such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore" was a song of social protest that dealt with issues of class. Playing it is a poignant way to start students thinking about the Great Depression of the 1930s. The song is a biting critique of America's business culture; it reflects the heightened class consciousness of the 1930s and the anger of working-class people. It also invites comparisons with our own times, with our millions of homeless, record business failures and foreclosures, farm crises, unemployment, and xenophobia. Teachers could ask if any popular singer today fills a role like Woody Guthrie's and if so how. What is similar and different about the 1930s and the 1990s? What was and is the role of media in defining, limiting, and promoting popular tastes and ideas? Such questions get students to reflect upon their own experience historically and to begin applying some of the critical techniques we use in history to understand their own lives and sense of identity. H. Wiley Hitchcock's Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction (1969) and Paul Griffiths's The Thames and Hudson Encyclopaedia of 20th-Century Music (1986) are useful guides to American music and its history.

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Since the mid-1970s, global capitalism has undergone a restructuring that has included, among other things, the concentration of ownership in the transnational music industry and the development and spread of new technologies (audio cassettes, music video, and satellite broadcasts), which have facilitated the worldwide dissemination of music. This economic restructuring and the resulting global reach of Western media corporations helped create the conditions for "world beat" or "world music," a transnational popular music in which Western pop and rock stars appropriate sounds from traditional African songs for their music, jazz musicians incorporate Indian rhythms into their melodies, and Third World musicians add Western rock and pop to their indigenous musical styles. Paul Simon's controversial 1986 Graceland album is a prime example of this synthesis. Of course, the process of musical appropriation has occurred throughout history. Classical Persian music was a synthesis of Greek, Babylonian, and Arabic music, rock n' roll and jazz are modern fusions of African and European musical forms, and South African popular music in the 1980s was greatly influenced by African American music from the 1950s and 1960s. What is new is that these functions are happening at an international rather than a national or a regional level and they are often propelled by the economic rationale of transnational corporations.

World beat offers history instructors a rich gateway to a number of contemporary issues. Teachers could use world-beat music to discuss the nature of postmodernism and cultural diversity as well as the many levels of capitalist globalization and the electronically mediated "information age." They may also want to consider in class whether the world's cultures are becoming increasingly homogenized, what cultural and political resistances there are to globalization, how national and regional identities are affected by international cultural transfers, and how equal or unequal the transfers are. Listening to world beat can stimulate a discussion of the way capitalism treats culture, whether technology is ideologically neutral, how globalization involves a growing transfer of resources from South to North (this transfer also includes cultural resources), and the place of women in world music and global economic restructuring. Good sources to begin with in learning about world beat are Steven Feld's "Notes on World Beat," Public Culture Bulletin (fall 1988); Reebee Garofalo's "The Internationalization of the U.S. Music Industry and Its Impact on Canada," Cultural Studies (October 1991); Andrew Goodwin and Joe Gore's "World Beat and the Cultural Imperialism Debate," Socialist Review (July-September 1990); and Roger Wallis and Krister Malm's Big Sounds from Small Peoples: The Music Industry in Small Countries (1984).

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There are many kinds of music that could have a significant place in history courses. I cannot, of course, highlight them all in this article. Playing Andean music, with its haunting flutes, is an excellent way to present an indigenous culture in South America, the pressures it faces, the resilience it shows, and the beauty of its customs. Similarly, recordings of Navaho music provide an entry into indigenous culture in North America. Instructors can use the melodies and rhythms of classical Arabic music to depict the richness and sophistication of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires. Teachers who are interested in these areas should consult Gertrude P. Kurath's Dance and Song Rituals of the Six Nations Reserve, Ontario (1968) and her Music and Dance of the Tewa Pueblos (1970); David P. McAllester's Peyote Music (1949) and his Indian Music of the Southwest (1961); Gilbert Chase's A Guide to the Music of Latin America (1962); A. L. Lloyd and Isabel Aretz de Ramon y Rivera's Folk Songs of the Americas (1966); Robert Stevenson's Music in Aztec and Inca Territory (1968); Josef Pacholczyk's "The Music of the Arabic Near East" in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980); and Henry George Farmer's "The Music of Islam" in New Oxford History of Music (1957). Music written and performed by female artists can be an important component of any history course. Janet Nichols's Women Music Makers (1992) is an excellent short study on a number of female composers in Europe and the United States since the Renaissance.

Further Help

Using music in the classroom enhances students' understanding of history and makes past cultures come alive—it also makes teaching more enjoyable. The room lights up when music is played. Students are suddenly interested in cultures they were indifferent to or unaware of before. If you can operate a tape deck or a phonograph, all you need is time to review songs, to play them in class, and to discuss the music and relate it to the themes of the course. In addition to the sources I have already mentioned, there are several concise pieces on using music in the classroom that are helpful. One is "The Place of Music in Teaching World History" by Jane Adas in the Instructor's Manual for World Civilizations. At the end of each chapter in the Instructor's Manual there are short commentaries about the songs on the cassette tape that accompanies World Civilizations. The commentaries offer brief suggestions on how to integrate the songs into lectures and recommendations for long-play recordings that could be used. I have used some of these suggestions to great advantage and they, together with some of the background information provided in the commentaries, appear in this essay. Another worthwhile place to look for suggestions is the  final section of the Instructor's Guide for Witt, Brown, Dunbar, Tirro, and Witt's The Humanities, 4th ed.(1993). It even offers help on how and where to find recordings. Its focus is on Western music, but it has good guides to African and African American music as well. Along with some rather technical discussions and brief histories of musical forms, Musics of Many Cultures, cited above, contains three seven-inch sound discs with recordings of African, Asian, Native American, Latin American, and Australian aboriginal music. Bruno Nettl's Excursions in World Music (1992) has excellent essays and comes with a good selection of sound recordings as well. Finally, Simon Frith's World Music, Politics and Social Change (1989) and Reebee Garofalo's Rockin' the Boat: Mass Movements and Mass Music (1992) have helpful articles on changes in recent popular music around the world and on how those changes relate to and inspire social and political movements. There is clearly a great deal of literature about the social, cultural, political, and economic importance of music that could be tapped into as instructors think of ways to make the study of history more engaging for students. So turn it on, crank it up, and let the good times roll! 

—Alex Zukas is chair of the Department of Social, Cultural, and Literary Studies at National University in San Diego. He specializes in modern European social, economic, and political history. He is currently completing articles on the social condition, mentalité, and politics of unemployed workers in the Ruhr region of Germany during the Weimar Republic. An article about teaching the history of modern imperialism will appear in the winter 1997 issue of the Radical History Review. This article was developed by Robert Blackey.


1. Bruno Nettl, "Ethnomusicology: Definitions, Directions, Problems,'' in Musics of Many Cultures, ed. Elizabeth May (1980), 5.

2. Jane Adas and Evan Tonsing, in Instructor's Manual, ed. John Paul Bischoff. Accompanies Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience (1992). See p. 180 of Instructor's Manual.

3. Ella Zonis, Classical Persian Music (1973), 20.