Beyond the Notes: Unleashing the Cultural and Educational Power of Music

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When Ken Burns completed his film about jazz, he said, “I have made a film about jazz that tries to look through jazz to see what it tells us about who we are as a people.” And in his film Country Music, he quotes Merle Haggard saying that country music is “about those things we believe in, but can’t see.…” In these observations, Ken Burns and Merle Haggard capture music’s special impact and role as it touches and enriches all of our lives.

Music speaks to our universal human experience while also reflecting the music makers’ experiences, cultures, traditions, and histories.

Beyond the Notes: Unleashing the Cultural and Educational Power of Music

Despite this, music education often gets sidelined. It is seen as less important, or even expendable, in tough times. But it shouldn’t be. Music speaks to universal experiences and should be fundamental to educating children. It’s not just about the sounds; it’s about understanding the context—how music reflects, is influenced by, and shapes the world at large. 

Beyond the Notes: Unleashing the Cultural and Educational Power of Music

The National Standards for Music Education recognize this. They outline what students should learn about music, including its structure, elements, and context. For example, in grades 3-5, students should understand how music connects to social, cultural, and historical contexts. Imagine if general education embraced this broader view. It would become a core part of teaching social sciences and humanities to young students. It wouldn’t just teach music; it would provide insights into sociocultural understanding, enriching students’ knowledge of history and their own humanity. In this paradigm, learning is a deeper and more meaningful experience.

The story of Music Workshop illustrates this. Founded in 2013, the organization began offering free online music lesson plans for K-8 educators, covering various genres and instruments and their cultural contexts. Along with the rapid adoption of Music Workshop programs by teachers across the globe, it also became evident that music teachers were interested in expanding their commitment to broadening music education’s reach to include a more culturally and globally diverse array of musical genres and experiences along with the contexts from which that music has come. 

Beyond the Notes: Unleashing the Cultural and Educational Power of Music

Music Workshop’s mission led the organization to embrace this expanded direction for the program. It began this journey by identifying and acknowledging the broad and significant gaps in cultures and music genres that were ordinarily not being taught in K-8 music education, often due to a lack of diverse music education resources. Working with a culturally and ethnically diverse group of ethnomusicologists, Music Workshop began to expand its initial programs to include K-8 music programming that focused on diverse musical cultures, including Native American Traditional Music, Latin American and Caribbean music, and traditional and popular music from the continent of Africa. Additionally, the team is now creating courses on music from the continent of Asia.

Beyond the Notes: Unleashing the Cultural and Educational Power of Music

Naturally, this work needed to be authentic and aligned with national educational standards. By involving experts from these cultures, Music Workshop ensured authenticity and accuracy in teaching these musical traditions and took steps to create a music education paradigm that addressed music and music education as an expression of its forms and elements but also to be understood and expressed in its social, cultural, historic, and diverse geographic contexts.

The result is inspired teachers and engaged students. Through courses like Native American Traditional Music, Music Workshop has opened doors to new worlds, fostering musical skills, cultural understanding, and empathy. Picture a classroom alive with the rhythms of powwow drums or the melodies of Andean flutes. Students aren’t just learning notes; they’re connecting with centuries-old traditions and gaining insights into the struggles and triumphs of diverse peoples. 

And it doesn’t stop there. Music becomes a bridge, linking past to present, connecting distant cultures in a shared human experience. Suddenly, history isn’t confined to textbooks. It is alive in the songs and stories of Indigenous communities, Afro-Latin rhythms, and Griot tales from Africa.

Teachers witness this transformation firsthand. They see their students’ eyes light up as they uncover hidden treasures of world music. They witness the power of music to transcend language and cultural barriers, fostering a sense of belonging in a global community. And they see the affirming connections students make when they see themselves represented positively in their educational design.

Beyond the Notes: Unleashing the Cultural and Educational Power of Music

In this expansive paradigm, music education isn’t just about hitting the right notes—it’s about fostering curiosity, empathy, and cultural literacy. It’s about equipping students with the tools they need to navigate an increasingly interconnected world where understanding and respecting diversity is essential. So, the next time you hear the strains of a melody or the beat of a drum, remember—it’s not just music; it’s a gateway to understanding ourselves and each other.

And perhaps, in embracing this broader vision of music education, we’ll find our harmonious future built on the timeless rhythms of human experience.


About the Authors:

Dr. Marvin Kaiser
Dr. Marvin Kaiser. From Beyond the Notes: Unleashing the Cultural and Educational Power of Music  Marvin A. Kaiser is Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon where he served for 17 years. He followed this work by      serving as the CEO of Mary’s Woods at Marylhurst, a Life Plan Community located in Lake Oswego, Oregon, for five and one-half years, retiring from that position in 2016. He          served as an Encore Fellow for Music Workshop through June of 2019 and continues to support Music Workshop as our program and board advisor.

Dr. Kaiser has served as staff fellow and consultant to the United Nations Office at Vienna, Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs, as a staff fellow and consultant to the United States Agency for International Development and to the House Select Committee on Aging, United States House of Representatives.


Amy Hall
Amy Hall. From Beyond the Notes: Unleashing the Cultural and Educational Power of MusicAmy Hall’s journey with Music Workshop began as a labor of love, volunteering her time and expertise from its inception. Her dedication and commitment were quickly recognized, leading to her appointment as the Program Facilitator in 2016 and then a full-time role as the Program Manager in 2020. Today, she serves as the Director of Communications & Outreach, leveraging her experience and passion to amplify the organization’s mission and impact.

With a diverse professional background including marketing, accounting, and entrepreneurial ventures, Amy brings versatility and adaptability to her roles with experience in many settings from small start-ups to large international corporations.

A native of Portland, Oregon, Amy has lived and learned in various parts of the United States, including Seattle, New York, and South Carolina. Amy’s academic pursuits include an undergraduate degree in History from the University of Puget Sound and an Associate’s degree in Photography from the Art Institute of Seattle, honing her creative vision and technical skills.

Beyond her professional endeavors, Amy is deeply committed to the joy of life and giving back to her community. She dedicates her time and talent to multiple charitable organizations, is an avid hiker, and finds inspiration from her role as a parent to two remarkable young adults, who continually fuel her passion for life and drive her to new heights.

Amy Richter
Amy Richter. From Beyond the Notes: Unleashing the Cultural and Educational Power of MusicAmy Richter, a native of Portland, Oregon, boasts a diverse background that blends her passions for music, marketing, and community service. Graduating from Whittier College with a degree in both Music and Psychology, Amy’s journey in music began at the age of six, shaping her into a seasoned musician and educator. In 2012, she founded Music Workshop, a nonprofit organization that creates high-quality, culturally responsive music programming for teachers to use in their classrooms and professional development to further their own learning.

With over two decades of marketing experience under her belt, Amy’s expertise lies in project management, honed during her 10-year tenure at adidas. At adidas, she spearheaded marketing initiatives with budgets ranging from $3 to $12 million, showcasing her adeptness at navigating complex campaigns.

Beyond her professional achievements, Amy is deeply committed to giving back to her community. For five years, she served as a dedicated board member for Camp Ukandu, a retreat for children battling cancer, where she also volunteered her time for an additional 13 years. In 2010 and 2011, Amy lent her marketing prowess to Salud, an organization providing crucial medical care to seasonal vineyard workers, further exemplifying her philanthropic spirit.

Amy’s involvement extends to her children’s education, where she has been an active volunteer in their schools for over a decade. With a passion for nurturing young minds, she has conducted over 800 Music Workshop classes for students from kindergarten to eighth grade, leaving an indelible mark on countless young learners.