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Using Music and Sound in History Lessons

Dean Smart

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The Past Speaks: Using Music and Sound in History Lessons

The National Curriculum specifies that we use a variety of sources to stimulate those we teach- but how many of us really use audio materials effectively?

At the School’s History Project Conference in Leeds in early July 2004 I ran a workshop on using music, sound and oral history to support teaching and learning- sometimes with images and other activities, sometimes on their own.

We used materials from a range of periods and sources to think about how we can engage young people's interest and capture the sense that is sometimes neglected in our use of sources.

I think there are five areas where we can use aural materials:

1. Setting The Scene: Working With Sounds and Engaging The Senses

2. The Past Speaks: Oral History as a Source

3. Recording Pupils in Role

4. Linking Music and Images

5. Music As a Stimulus for Enquiry

Setting The Scene: Working With Sounds and Engaging The Senses

Period music and sound effects can be very powerful ways of introducing pupils to a past culture or period. In the workshop we listened to some West African drumming and talked about pace and mood, thought about ritual and ceremonial tradition. Try listening to recordings of Native North American chanting and think about its meaning and significance.

Could this music help you get young people to reflect on how people from one culture might misunderstand each other in an early encounter if they did not understand the purpose of cultural activities that were unfamiliar to them?.

Music as a stimulus- Music can be used to calm or ‘fire-up’ young people. Think about how primary schools use music so effectively to set the mood in assemblies. Think about what you might have read about using music for accelerated learning, (Instrumental Baroque music or Mozart is good; evenly paced, no words- played without being too loud or intrusive)- and yet how rarely do we let our pupils hear what the music of a culture or period might have been like? Of course this does raise the issue about how far particular types of music were for elites- but there is music available from the working classes- and this offers a great chance to showh that people in the past were just like us in many ways.

Period Music- delving into culture, the aesthetic and creative.

There is ancient and regional or world music available in the Naxos (low price) brand range, and World Music (look in your local HMV or Virgin Megastore,) as well as courtly music from the medieval period and renaissance (look in your nearest Past Times or National Trust store or in the shop of many historic properties and museums.) An excellent source of British folk songs is: Folk in Education http://folkineducation.co.uk or call 01432-820507, and especially recommended is The Iron Muse CD.

Lots of schools use more recent music to support wok on the Great War or the Second World War, for example using music while you work during enquiry work. Looking at the mood of the times can also be aided by listening to the different waves of music which were popular post war, for example the calypso craze of the 1950s and early 1960s- have a look at London is the Place for Me (from Honest Jon’s Records: Ref HJRCD2,) which contains 20 tracks of 1950s calypso and social commentary.

The Past Speaks: Oral History as a Source

Spoken history is often underused in schools and colleges. The Library of Congress, the British Library and many other libraries, museums and archives offer remarkable eyewitness accounts and memories of significant events from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sometimes contrasting accounts of the same event can be obtained, which offers the chance to think about memory and interpretation, viewpoint and reliability.

Sound archive recordings like those at the Imperial War Museum have much to offer, and the IWM shop or buy-by-post service can offer recording about the Battle of Britain, the Nazi era in Germany, the First and Second World Wars and D-Day.

The BBC archive is currently digitising recordings to have available on their web service, and their Eyewitness series currently being released will provide collections of materials related to specific decades of the twentieth century.

Other places offer collections of reconstructed accounts of the past, and accounts which were recorded in written form, but which have been read out by actors and recorded. Again Naxos offer a useful two CD recording here which is worth considering.

Recording Pupils in Role

Using sound can be a powerful incentive for young people. Making ‘radio broadcasts’ or news accounts of past events might help young people think about what eyewitnesses might have seen or said. Questions of accuracy will arise and young people will be encouraged to research and develop their work to make it more authentic. Alternatively for those who might not want to engage with this sort of recreation or empathy it is possible to make a ‘radio’ recording which celebrates the anniversary of an event or personality.

CDs of sound effects are a useful tool for this sort of work- and your colleagues who teach drama may be able to lend you some examples or they can be picked up inexpensively at larger record shops.

Linking Music and Images

Several schools make very powerful use of images and music to create linked presentations to stimulate their pupils. Powerpoint presentations can be timed so that appropriate images coincide with specific lyrics, and which reinforce learning. For example I use a recording of Donovan singing ‘Universal Soldier’ alongside images of war from the twentieth century, which makes a powerful message about the futility of war.

In some schools pupils are given a variety of images, or find their own, in order to create a presentation which must be supported by music. Elsewhere the teacher makes the presentation and uses it as part of their teaching.

Music As a Stimulus for Enquiry

Along the same theme of using images and sound together Billy Joel’s, ‘We didn’t start the Fire;’ is used at Lllantarnam School in Cwmbran, as a stimulus for finding out about the later twentieth century with fourteen year old pupils. The lyrics of Joel’s song are a list of post second world war events, objects and personalities in chronological order, and provide a useful spring board for inspiring pupils to find out more.

Elsewhere, other music, either with or without stimulus images or documents, is used as the focus for research. The web, if carefully used, offers a lot of potential to stimulate and support such research. For example Pearson Education (USA) has a website which lists American civil war and ‘wild west’ era music at:


Less seriously, but equally valid might be excerpts from the ‘Horrible Histories’ CDs- for example the Tudor medicine section from ‘The Horrible Tudors’ or Monty Python’s ‘Oliver Cromwell’ sketch- a fun and different way to start or end a topic and a very unusual starter or initial stimulus material activity!

Getting to grips with the available music is often aided by talking to colleagues- what do they know of/have a recording of, that might be of use to you? Lyricists like Billy Bragg might be suggested- for example his recordings of ‘Between the Wars’: unemployment and rearmament in the 1930s; ‘My Youngest Son Came Home Today’: the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and the Republic; and ‘The Diggers’: the Civil Wars of 1642-1649. Other recordings like Sting’s ‘Russians’ could be used to discuss the period of detente and disarmament. Once you start to enquire you may well be surprised as to how much is available!

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