I cannot remember when I did not try to integrate music in some way into my history, ethics, or political science courses. Music can enliven a course in more ways than one. In addition to providing a change of pace during classes, it can get the attention of students who are drifting, light up a different part of the students’ brains, and help to reinforce important learning outcomes.
While it was quite easy to find the opportunity to play music in a US History or Modern European History course, I had a genuine challenge when I began to teach early Western Civilization, a course that began with homo sapiens and ended with the Black Death of the 14th century. After all, we have only about 40 fragments of music from the entire ancient period. This would be a challenge.
The ray of light came as we were marching through Ancient Greece. (My course text was These Were the Greeks by H.D. Amos & A.G.P. Lang.) We covered “People and the Land,” “Homer,” and “City-States;” “Sparta,” “Wars with Persia,” and “Religion;” “Imperial Athens,” “Constitution and Law,” and “Every Day” society.
The Ah-Ha moment came as I was preparing my lesson plan for the next lesson on “Education.” We compared the educational systems of Athens and Sparta and then addressed the role of the paidagogos, corporal punishment, and rote memory. Greek boys studied not only “academic” subjects but also had required physical training, to develop their own bodies and also to prepare to defend their city-states.
The insight came when we covered the important role music played in the education of Greek boys. The Greeks believed that music was important for the character development of the boy, who was expected to learn to sing and to play the lyre and also perhaps an instrument similar to oboe. They also believed it could balance the body, promoting an inner harmony. The Iliad and the Odyssey were generally recited with such music accompaniment.
I took this material and transformed it into a question: Can music develop character? In the first instance, this demonstrated to the students the higher order principle that education is not simply the acquisition of facts.
I then played Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” I let it play until the words: “I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.” After stopping the music, we explored the song’s meaning.
I then held up a copy of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and discussed my initial experience with it. I related how I thought it was a pleasant little story until I hit the simple but very powerful statement which jumped off the page at me: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
I then with my Power Point showed several famous individuals and their quotes: Maya Angelou-“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” Frederick Douglass-“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” Napoleon Bonaparte-“Death is nothing: but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” Abigail Adams in referring to her husband John- “…he is made of oak instead of willow. He may be torn up by the roots, or break, but he will never bend.”
As the buzzer rang, I challenged the students to find pieces of music that might develop character. Throughout the remainder of the course, we played selections of music—songs as well as instrumental pieces. These I played either at the start of class as a warm-up and attention getter, or latter as a pace-breaker.
When I encounter former students, it is very gratifying to hear them speak so fondly of the music we played in class. Give it a try.