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Music to All Ears

Donna Stoering explains how cross-cultural music offers an excellent teaching tool for K–12 students of languages, literacy, and diversity

It is intriguing to realize that at times there is little distinction between spoken languages and musical ones. Consider, for instance, the complex rhythms and slight tonal variations of some Aboriginal tribes who communicate through clicking sounds; non-native Mandarin and Cantonese speakers who have to tune their ears to differentiate between the all-important but subtle changes in pitch inflection that determine very different words and meanings; and travelers who often describe the Italian language as being “extremely musical” with its “melodic” cadences and vowel combinations.

In the times of Bach and Mozart, it was common practice and widely understood that specific chords or keys in music were deliberately aligned with specific emotions or moods, and other “musical language” devices, such as two descending notes phrased together depicted the expression of a “sigh” or of weeping. As such, the intent was most definitely to speak and communicate with a musical language instead of verbal language.

And just as there are, sadly, several spoken languages under threat of extinction, the individual musical languages of many smaller tribes and regions have been dying out at an alarming rate as well. Ethnomusicologists and cultural anthropologists are generally in agreement that the world is losing music cultures at the rate of five per year, and for the first time in the history of many tribes or cultures, there are instruments in their villages that no living members know how to play.

The main cause of this situation, ironically, is global media. Just as most human beings learn language by trying to communicate with, and understand, others close to them, most cultures’ unique musical communication style and instrumental heritage is passed down by rote, from one aging music master to the next gifted generation (who is typically raised in the older master’s home from early childhood onwards). But now, as children around the world view their televisions and mobile devices, they are bombarded almost exclusively by Western pop culture, language, and values, as well as messages which are promoted by global media for the advertising revenue they bring them. Viewers sadly conclude that the world’s citizens must not be interested in their own (non-Western) cultural heritages and musical gifts, and they no longer see any value in “sitting at the feet of the master” to learn their own traditions, ethnic instruments, and cultural expressions.

Meanwhile, the music masters who have devoted their entire lives to memorizing ancestors’ unique drum beats, or being the “holders” of their cultures, have put down their instruments in despair at the lack of opportunity to communicate: to “speak” their sound and to share their cultures’ expressions, values, and viewpoints on the world stage. They feel no one is listening, and successful communication is, after all, a two-way street.

The good news is that many of today’s social entrepreneurs, educators, musicians, and music aficionados alike are applying their time and resources to remedy that situation. Through innovative projects and educational products, they work to both save and celebrate the manifold musical languages on the planet as not only as critical means of cultural and individual expression, but also as tremendous tools for learning.

One example is the global movement Listen for Life (LFL) ( and its award-winning production Travels with Music (TWM) ( In an effort to restore, encourage, and share some of these endangered music cultures, LFL began filming interviews with master musicians around the globe, hearing their stories and learning how their particular traditions valued music as a channel of communication and human expression.

LFL Productions compiled 300 of their short interview and performance videos featuring the master musicians of 15 specific world cultures and produced Travels with Music Series One as a digital, online cross-cultural exploration and educational product for all ages of language learners, armchair travelers, music enthusiasts, and K–12 students. TWM can be enjoyed by users of all ages, and it comes with study questions and teacher materials in alignment with the Common Core State Standards and other curricular standards.

It was created by a team of cultural anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, K–12 educators, videographers, musicians, programmers, and product developers, but even they have all been surprised at the level of international excitement that it has generated among those teaching or studying ESL/ELL, literacy, languages, multiculturalism, and cultural diversity.

The project has been praised in trials carried out by English teachers at international schools in eleven countries and by the heads of ESL/ELL programs on both coasts of the U.S., who repeatedly report that it is a joy to find multimedia, music-based resources that engage the students, in contrast with the more traditional materials of textbooks, spoken videos, or rote memorization. Each of the 300 short music and interview videos are filmed in the native language of the master musician being featured. A native English interpreter then gives a verbal translation, which is laid on top of the original language.
For example, in a unit on Peru, the music master is demonstrating the donkey’s jaw percussion instrument, while talking in Spanish about the history of the slaves that were brought from Africa to Peru. The slaves were robbed of their musical instruments, which represented their primary means of cultural expression and communication. The music master explains that the newly arrived slaves were so desperate for a musical language of expression that they invented instruments out of whatever materials they could find in their new environment. ESL/ELL students with Spanish as their native tongue can hear the Spanish explanation quietly in the background and connect this with the English version being spoken clearly by the translator. Students can absorb more information about the country and cultures of Peru as they learn to read the English text accompanying the online unit and listen to additional audio files of related songs. While those of African or Peruvian descent might be especially drawn into their ancestors’ story, all ages and cultures of users have been immensely fascinated by the verbal and musical demonstrations of the donkey jaw itself.

In another unit, we meet a Pakistani woman who shares her harrowing tale of trying to be a young female singer and music master in a country where that was unheard of and forbidden. She now teaches young girls in her country to read and write music, and she explains why she believes this is an equally vital language of communication for all people to master if they wish to understand their cultural heritage. This particular unit has proven popular with teachers of diversity, multiculturalism, social studies, literacy, and ELL; it provides a cross-curricular resource aligning with the desires of the Common Core while encouraging ELL students to get emotionally involved in discussions about gender equality, cultural norms, historic/religious perspectives, music as language, and other topics.

One of the two units on China features young guzheng master Winnie Wong. Winnie talks about growing up in China and studying music from a very early age under the nationally renowned master of her instrument. Now Winnie lives in San Francisco and fulfills the same inspirational role for scores of immigrant Chinese students and their children who are now studying in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and the principal Chinese language of cultural expression, the guzheng. Winnie’s interviews discuss childhood and the need for expression/communication, both verbally and emotionally. ELL students from Asia in particular find that they identify with the sentiments she so gently shares, and they are often inspired by Winnie to increase their language studies, while their language/ELL teachers are greatly assisted by the pre-video and post-video study questions that are provided.

Again, all units of TWM contain written background information about the culture, in English, videos with translated interviews in English where necessary, spoken stories and myths from that culture, audio samples, instrumental demonstrations, and music performances that can engender dialogue, spark curiosity, and increase personal involvement on the part of the student(s) and thus accelerate language learning and absorption.

The goal of LFL in making this program was that eventually, with enough cultures included, each and every student in a multicultural classroom will be able to stand up proudly, point to the screen, and say “that’s MY rich heritage, MY culture, and MY language of expression.” And if that goal is accomplished, Listen for Life and its Travels with Music program will have played a small role in cultivating language as “the quality that makes us human.”

Donna Stoering is an educator, keynote speaker, author, concert/recording artist, cross-cultural composer, and social entrepreneur who has served as an artistic ambassador for both the UK and the U.S., visiting countries and cultures worldwide. To learn more about Travels with Music or to begin your own musical language discovery, visit

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