Written by Sarah Hanna, Faria Education Group

American life has a strong musical identity. Many kids develop a passion and affinity towards music early in life. That connection shapes their sense of self and understanding of the world.

There’s a disparity between how much music is in our lives, and how much it is in our schools.”   

-Warren Zanes, Executive Director of the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation


Zanes shared his musical insights during the latest NCSS conference. He noted that students typically experience music in the music department, which is a “very narrow lens.” Zanes explains: “We wouldn’t only teach literature in the hopes that kids become writers…We shouldn’t teach music with the sole hope of children becoming musicians.”

Music Literacy in the Social Studies Classroom:

The social studies classroom provides an ideal bridge to music literacy. Because music is so closely intertwined with American history, students can learn in a context that matters to them. Topics like youth culture and empowerment, race, classism, politics, and other movements, are often intertwined with music.

It is also a great opportunity to see how music promotes or speaks out against what’s happening in society, as well as how music drives certain cultural movements and shifts. Helping students see how threads of music and our nation’s history are woven can be a perspective-shifting experience.

For example, many students know of the popularity of The Beatles. But they likely don’t know the significance of The Beatles’ rise to fame based on the culture in the 1960’s. In 1964, for example, youth cultural empowerment was on the rise, and The Beatles, recognizing their political heft, declared that they would not play to a segregated audience in the south. According to Zanes, that pronouncement contributed, in part, to the de-segregation of other major theaters in the south.


Calling attention to these and other historical moments immersed in music, and the musical moments embedded in history, is the philosophy and intention behind the PBS Series, Sound Breaking. Sound Breaking: Stories from the cutting edge of recorded music, is an 8 episode series, created in partnership with the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation in addition to lesson plans for middle and high school classrooms. The series sheds light on the nuanced impact of music as a compass and mirror to US history.

Other programs, such as Jazz in the Schools, Rockin’ the Schools, and KQED Arts Collection, are gaining momentum. They are harnessing the power of music in the classroom and looking for interdisciplinary opportunities to do so.

The goal is that students feel lessons come alive and approach learning with a deepened passion and sense of relevance.

First steps or Next Steps to Music Integration:

  1. Review your Social Studies curriculum, explore what music was culturally significant to that time and place in history.
  2. Integrate resources that will ignite students’ passion and interest.
  3. Formulate compelling questions as you build your C3 Inquiry Arc that draw upon the interconnectedness of music, history, and culture.
  4. Document and share your process and reflections so teachers and students can benefit from your powerful interdisciplinary work!

As Warren Zanes said, “Every place has a musical history. And students begin to relate their story to that story.”  We want to teach, but we also want to reach. Music is a very meaningful, relevant connecting point.

We want to hear from you! How are you incorporating Music Literacy in the Social Studies or other classrooms? Email us [email protected]!

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