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Edifying Tones: Using Music to Teach Asian History and Culture

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For millions of people around the world, regardless of cultural background, social status, profession, gender, or national affiliation, music occupies a special place in life. “Of the many domains of culture, music would perhaps seem to be one of the least necessary,” the eminent ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl asserts, “yet we know of no culture that does not have it.” (note 1) Music influences the ways we entertain ourselves, worship, dress, even the ways we perceive the world around us. We crave it to soothe ourselves or to provoke others. Social groups and subcultures define themselves, their fashions, and their values, in relation to particular genres of music. And yet, in spite of its endless potential as a “hook,” many educators are hesitant to use music in the classroom. Teachers of U.S. history have of course made prolific use of some song genres—notably African American spirituals, hillbilly tunes, or 1960s rock-n-roll—to help establish a historical context that students are likely to appreciate. But I suspect that few social studies or history teachers who cover nonWestern societies have even begun to exploit the pedagogical value of music. With the obvious exception of musicologists, most Asian specialists are functionally illiterate musically, for music has little place in their professional preparation. Asian music must be even more of a mystery to those who lack substantial experience living in Asia or learning Asian languages, but who are nonetheless responsible for teaching Asian content to students. Few professional development workshops allot precious time to music, which many regard as tangential despite its enormous importance in our personal lives.