Music as a Platform for Integrated Learning

Integrated, interdisciplinary instruction is a teaching strategy that builds on the synergistic potential of combining knowledge of different disciplines as a catalyst for teaching across curriculums, yielding a clearer, broader, more thorough understanding of a discipline or disciplines. Through integrated study of various disciplines, students learn to apply information learned in one area to challenges in another area. Education leaders recognize that the ability to think broadly across disciplines is becoming an increasingly critical component of a quality 21st century education and are adjusting curriculums to reflect that reality.
Given these realities, rather than continuing to scale back or eliminate music educational  opportunities and offerings, educational and community leaders should seriously reconsider the role that music can play in meeting this critical educational need. Simply put, due to the fact that music is the universal language, it may well be the most powerful and effective educational tool to meet the challenge of providing students with quality integrated, interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

For example, according to a 2009 study by Chorus America, 81 percent of teachers believe choruses can help students make better connections between disciplines, as learning a new piece of music often involves an amalgamation of language, art, history, geography, math and more. (Chorus America, 2009, p. 15, 28)

Music can also deepen understanding of various subject matters. The study of the civil rights movement in the United States can be vividly enhanced by incorporating the songs used by demonstrators. Teaching students and having them actually perform a civil rights song such as “This Little Light of Mine” or “We Shall Overcome,” deepens students’ understanding of this era in American history. It brings the subject matter to life in a very vivid and participatory way.  

Another example is using songs and melodies to help teach reading. And yet another example is incorporating the music of a foreign culture into the study of that culture as a way to enhance understanding. Additionally, certain types of music instruction develop special reasoning and temporal reasoning skills, which are fundamental to understanding and using mathematical ideas and concepts. Finally, incorporating music into the broader curriculum through an integrated instructional approach can help create a school environment that is conducive to teacher and student success by fostering teacher innovation and a more positive and enjoyable professional culture.  

As explained on the website of the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga’s Southeast Center for Education in the Arts, “Integrated arts lessons can be extremely rich and deeply layered learning experiences for students who experience them. Many teachers, parents, students and administrators believe that integrating the arts makes classrooms better learning environments. The arts provide a window to understanding the connections among all subject areas.” 

Or, as Charles Fowler explains in his 1996 book Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential and Shortsighted Disregard of the Arts in American Schooling. “When used well, the arts are the cement that joins all the disparate curricular areas together. The arts are valued for their interdisciplinary potential, and the result is a more cohesive curriculum in which students explore relationships among disciplines. Truth and understanding are recognized as a composite of perspectives, not just one partial and tentative view.” (p. 55)

As our schools face higher standards and expectations regarding the effectiveness with which they prepare children to succeed in the increasingly interrelated and complex global, knowledge-based economy and world community, the ability to think across disciplines, to incorporate sights, sounds, culture and information from various sources and disciplines into a cogent, broad-based body of knowledge is vitally important.   When it comes to integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum instruction, music’s potential to contribute in meaningful ways to the educational and academic mission of our schools is enormous and will continue to grow.  That being the case, educational and community leaders would be well served to consider music’s potential in this regard before scaling back music programs.