Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Music from Across America

Created September 28, 2010


The Lesson


Music from Across America: Zydeco musician

Zydeco musician Geno Delafose

Credit: courtesy of River of Song

In this unit, students listen to a variety of popular, traditional and ethnic American music, from the evocative sounds of Native American drumming to the lively sounds of zydeco music from Louisiana. To develop their listening skills, students use worksheets to record their impressions about the music they hear. In addition to learning about musical instruments and the geographic and cultural context of music, children are encouraged to think about and express their personal responses to music.

The learning activities presented in this unit are appropriate for students in Kindergarten through grade 5. A range of ideas are provided to help extend this lesson for students in higher grade levels or who are more advanced.

Guiding Questions

  • What can we learn from listening to music? What does music tell us about the instruments and people who create it? How does music make us feel?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the "families" of musical instruments and the typical sounds of each.
  • Recognize several styles and genres of American music.
  • Begin to comprehend the rich diversity of American music and how music reflects community and culture.
  • Understand how emotions are expressed through music, and how music evokes emotion in the listener.

Preparation Instructions

You may wish to work collaboratively with your school's music teacher to present this lesson to students, if appropriate.

Log onto the  Mississippi River of Song Project, available through EDSITEment. For background about this project, you may want to read the introduction by John Junkerman, Director of the River of Song Project. Or peruse Music Along the River for an overview of the scope and variety of music presented in the project.

(Note: Listening to the music requires RealPlayer software, which can be downloaded without charge at the River of Song Project. See Audio/Video Instructions for complete details.)

Preview the following artists and their music to choose musical selections to use with this lesson. Click on Audio/Video to hear a sampling of music from each artist. As you preview the music, you may want to make note of background information, videos and photographs of the musicians you will want to share with your students when you teach this lesson.

Please note this is just a small sampling of the musical selections available through EDSITEment. For more selections, explore River of Song and see additional resources in the Extending the Lesson section.

If appropriate technology is available, you may wish to have students work in small groups for the listening exercise in Lesson 4. Each group should be responsible for listening to one of the musical selections and completing the worksheet for that selection. Groups should begin by reading the background information available on the musicians who recorded their selection. They should then listen to the selection several times, discuss the music and fill out the reflection worksheet. When all groups are done, each group should present its selection to the class and explain its responses to the worksheet.

Print and review the Student Worksheet provided with this lesson. Make copies so you will have one worksheet per student for each musical selection you plan to play. You may wish to model for students the process of listening to a musical selection and filling out the worksheet.

Note: Two worksheets are provided with this lesson in .pdf format. One is designed for students in grades K-2, with questions that do not require written answers; the other is designed for students in grades 3-5 and incorporates more challenging activities. The worksheet for grades 3-5 could also be used with younger students if you with to extend the lesson. (Download Adobe Acrobat ReaderĀ®)

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Meet the Instrument Families

Begin by explaining that students will listen to different kinds of music and learn about musicians and the instruments they use to play it. You may want to introduce this topic by asking students what instruments they or members of their family play and what other instruments they know about. As students answer these questions, write the instruments on the chalkboard, categorizing them by musical family:

  • Percussion: drum, xylophone, woodblocks, tambourine, gong, cymbals, triangle, rattle, etc.
  • String: guitar, violin, viola, cello, etc.
  • Woodwind: clarinet, flute, oboe, etc.
  • Brass: trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn, etc.
  • Keyboard: piano, organ, harpsichord
As you categorize the instruments, draw students' attention to the key features of each family of musical instrument as suggested below. Once they are familiar with these features, allow students to decide which family an instrument belongs to. As part of this lesson, you may want to discuss the following questions: How are instruments in a family "related"? What traits do they share? Do they look alike in any way? How is a family of musical instruments similar to and different from a family of people?
  • Instruments in the percussion family make sounds when they are struck, shaken or scraped. This very large family includes instruments of many sizes (from huge kettledrums to tiny bells) and many different types of materials including wood and different metals.

  • Instruments in the woodwind family make sounds when players blow air into them. Some woodwinds have a reed that vibrates when the player blows into the instrument, setting the air inside the instrument in motion to create the sound. Although they are called "woodwinds," these instruments might be made from metal or even bone.

  • Instruments in the brass family also make sounds when players blow into them. To set the air in motion, players "buzz" their lips together to create vibration and get the air inside the instrument in motion. These instruments are usually made of brass.

  • Instruments in the string family have string stretched over them and make sounds when the player plays the strings in different ways. Depending on the instrument, the player may draw a bow across the strings or pluck or strum the strings with his or her fingers.

  • Instruments in the keyboard family have keys and make sounds when the player strikes the keys.

Activity 2. What Sounds Does Each Family Make?

Begin this lesson by talking about the key traits of each musical family and summarizing them on the chalkboard. If possible, show and play an example of an instrument from each group. Ask students to share their impressions about the look and sound of each instrument.

As preparation for this lesson, you may want to invite students to bring instruments to play for the class. After a student demonstrates an instrument, ask the class to decide which family it belongs to. Again, ask students to share their impressions about the look and sound of each instrument.

As you talk about each instrument, ask students where they have seen and heard it played (parades, concerts, musical theater events, etc.). Ask students to use descriptive words to characterize the sounds each family of instruments makes. (Young students may be best able to describe the instruments' sounds in terms of the feelings they evoke -- happy, sad, angry, etc.) As students respond to these questions, write their answers and descriptive words on the chalkboard with the corresponding instrument family.

Activity 3. Exploring Music and Movement

If you have enough space in your classroom, gather the students in a large circle. As an introduction to listening to and interpreting music, play several of the musical selections listed below and let the students improvise their own movements to the music. Talk about how and why the music inspires movement.

Activity 4. Let's Listen to the Music!

In this lesson, students will listen to the same musical selections as in Lesson 3 -- this time with more background on the artists who made the music, and with the goal of listening carefully and thinking critically about the music. Distribute copies of the student worksheet (for grades K-2 or grades 3-5) [links to pdf of the worksheet], providing every student with a copy for each musical selection you plan to play. Review the worksheet activities with students, reminding them they will need to listen carefully as the music is played.

If you're using the worksheet for grades K-2, let students know that activities two and three ask for their ideas and opinions so there are no "right" or "wrong" responses. (Note: With young students, questions can be discussed as a class, with answers posted on a class worksheet.)

If you're using the worksheet for grades 3-5, let students know they will be able to answer the first three questions by listening to the background information you give before playing the music (or by reading website content if they are working independently or in groups at a computer). You may wish to use a wall map in the classroom to show students the origin of the music and help them locate it on the worksheet map. To answer the remaining questions they will need to listen carefully as the music is played. Remind students that questions 5 through 8 ask for their ideas and opinions so there are no "right" or "wrong" answers for these questions.

Play one or more of the musical selections listed below for the class. These suggestions may be helpful in presenting the music to your students:

  • To introduce each selection, supply key facts provided below or read aloud the background information about the musicians provided on the website. If you can, gather students around the computer to see video clips and photographs of musicians available on the web pages.

  • Play each selection several times as students complete their worksheets. After worksheets are completed for each selection, lead a discussion that encourages students to share and talk about their answers and responses to the music.
Chippewa Nation
This Native American group from northern Minnesota uses contemporary powwow drumming style, mixing Ojibwe rhythms and songs, to express their heritage and connection with each other and with the natural world.

Skal Club Spelmanslag
This Scandinavian fiddle orchestra from Minnesota plays traditional Swedish and Norwegian dance tunes to entertain audiences and keep their Scandinavian heritage alive.

Sounds of Blackness
This 30-member ensemble from Minneapolis, Minnesota plays the entire spectrum of African-American music, from work songs and spirituals to reggae and jazz, to communicate African-American pride and self-reliance and to give something back to the community that originally produced their music.

Karl Hartwich and The Country Dutchman
This popular band from Wisconsin plays polka music, developed by German immigrants, for people to dance to. (The thumping bass sound of the tuba and the German concertina are distinctive to this music.)

The Bob Lewis Family
This family from Illinois plays popular bluegrass music to entertain audiences throughout the Midwest. Singing and clog-dancing add to the lively sounds of this group's string instruments.

St. Charles High School Band
(Note: Choose video to see this band performing music.) This St. Louis area marching band plays everything from Sousa marches to modern show tunes, using its distinctive brass sound to display its school spirit during parades and football games.

Sunshine Drum Group and Eugene Redmond
Drummer Sylvester "Sunshine" Lee and the poet Eugene Redmond from East St. Louis, Illinois, combine African drumming traditions and poetry to instill pride and a sense of history in the younger generation.

Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie
This popular Louisiana musician plays button accordions and the piano accordion, reflecting the traditional zydeco music of the Creoles in everything from old-fashioned waltzes to blues and soul hits.

Activity 5. Sharing the Joy of Music

For this collaborative, take-home activity, provide several extra copies of the worksheet for each student to take home. Assign students the task of choosing any musical selection of their choice for members of their family to listen and respond to. (Students could choose a tape or CD, or even music from radio or television.) Ask students to bring the completed worksheets back to class and to be prepared to present an oral summary of this activity. Some of the questions they might answer for the class include:

  • What musical selection did you play?
  • hy did you choose it?
  • How many people in your family listened to it?
  • Did they know which family of instruments created the music?
  • Did everyone like it?
  • Did this music make everyone feel the same way?
  • Does your family feel the same way about this music as you do?
To extend assessment of students' learning through this lesson, you may wish to add the following questions:
  • How does your feeling about the music compare or contrast with one family member's feelings?
  • What instruments do you think you heard? How do you know?
  • Which group of musicians that you listen to in class might play this song? Why do you think so?
Students also could be asked to choose a song that represents their heritage or culture to share with the rest of the class.

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

Use one or more of the following ideas to expand children's understanding of this topic:

Connecting Music and History
Any of the songs featured in this unit can be used in conjunction with a history lesson on the same subject. For example, songs by Chippewa Nation may be used with they study of Native American history and culture. This type of listening activity could serve as the "hook" or motivation for students at the beginning of a new unit of study.

Create Musical Storybooks
Set aside specific times to listen to a variety of music in your classroom. Use the worksheets from this lesson for each listening session and have students compile the worksheets to create personal musical storybooks. You may wish to allow class time during each session for students to write stories or illustrations about the music they hear.

Bring Music into Your Classroom
Invite students to play an instrument they are learning for the class. If you play an instrument, share your talents with your students. Or make arrangements for amateur and professional musicians to come to your classroom to play for your students and to talk about and answer questions about their instruments.

Link Music and Maps
You may wish to review River of Song for music that makes connections with curriculum topics and geographical areas in the U.S.A. you are covering with your class. Or, work with students to pinpoint on a map the hometown of the musical groups you study.

Find More Ideas for Using River of Song
The River of Song Teacher's Guide provides activities related to each episode of "Mississippi: River of Song," a Smithsonian Institution series for public television and radio. You may be able to adapt some of these activities for your elementary students.

Further Explore America's Rich Musical Heritage
Look for more musical selections to play for your class at The American Folklife Center, available through EDSITEment. The archive collections of music at this site include: Omaha Indian Music; Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier (Virginia's Appalachian frontier); Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande (northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado); Blues, Gospel and the Fort Valley Music Festivals (music from Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama); and Southern Mosaic (folksongs from the southern United States).

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Music
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Compare and contrast
  • Interpretation
  • Map Skills
  • Musical analysis
  • Synthesis


Activity Worksheets