How to Include Cultural Awareness in the Music Classroom

Guest Article by Dr. Deborah Brener

Cultural awareness has always been a part of music education. Given the events of this past year in the United States, more piano teachers are looking at ways to include “diversity” in their teaching.  And, the word “diversity” includes culture by its definition alone.  This translates into lessons, workshops, and recitals that share cultural exchange and multicultural music.

A shift in our industry

My local Music Teachers Association recently changed its theme festival in order to highlight classical composers from non-Western countries. That was a first!  It was not an easy task.  But, the group of composers who were featured included many from Africa, South America and China.

A piano workshop with cultural awareness can concentrate on many things.  For example, how pentatonic scales are found in most of the folk tunes from around the world.  Students are typically familiar with “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, “Twinkle Twinkle” and “Ring Around the Rosy.”  Teaching students how to create a pentatonic scale on black keys leads to playing these tunes.

This type of workshop can be a starter for:

  • Rote playing
  • Teaching half and whole steps
  • Major and minor seconds
  • Five-finger patterns
  • Transposition
  • Improvisation

Many of the non-western folk tunes also are based upon pentatonic scales and websites like can help newcomers discover them.

Including cultural awareness during lessons

In Keys To Imaginations Publication: Are We There Yet, A Musical Journey Around The World, one will find multicultural music for teachers to use in the classroom.  There are six countries featured, including Africa, Australia, South Korea, Thailand, the USA, and Canada.  A passport for students is a separate feature that helps students understand the unit material, showcase main songs and develop cultural awareness through related activities.

Hands-on learning

In“Kye Kye, Kule” a popular children’s action song from Ghana, teachers will find all the material they need.  This includes the music, words, and movements, along with descriptions and examples of polyrhythm as well as call and response.  Students compose eight measures of their own 4/4 rhythm. Then practice clapping the rhythm and teach to the others in their class.

In the section on South Korea, student learn about a side-blown flute called a “daegum,”.  Then, they learn how to make a flute using a wrapping paper tube and a pencil.  In the Australian passport, students work on a word scramble.  After they compose a rhythmic pattern in ¾ time to play along with Botany Bay (the featured piece in the unit).  In the Thailand section, students learn about the National ceremony commemorating the water goddess, Loy Krathong.  Students experience making a paper Krathong similar to those from the festivals (which carry candles and float into the air).  Teachers will quickly find the supply list for these classroom-tested crafts listed in each unit.

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