Diversifying Primary Music

By Sarah Wordlaw

Music is a universal language and is one of the highest forms of creativity. It has the ability to ignite all areas of child development: literacy, intellectual, social-emotional, motor and understanding of language. It supports children to explore the meanings of words and sounds, within a social/historical context.

We are in a climate where creative arts are beginning to be squeezed out of timetables but we simply cannot let this happen. Music is a wonderful platform to learn about society and its people: struggles, celebrations and protests. I wonder, how diverse is your music curriculum? A diverse and actively inclusive music curriculum encompasses more than simply African drumming” for one term in KS2.

Across a childs journey through primary school, they should be exposed to a wide range of music genres from: popular, traditional, orchestral and jazz and improvised. These could be covered both in lessons, but also through singing assemblies and woven into other subjects in school such as Geography or History. Through a range of genres, you can teach the key elements of music: timbre, texture, rhythm, melody, beat, harmony, structure, tempo, pitch and dynamics. Being able to recognise, hear and describe these different elements, allow us to understand music theory better, and coupled with an understanding of historical and social context, allow us to improve childrens musical development. Below are some examples of genres of music to include in your whole school map.








Hip hop









Indian classical





20th century









West African drumming


Big band





Gypsy jazz



Singing Assemblies

Assemblies are a wonderful time to teach music, the history of genre and about musical legends and their background. You do not have to be a music teacher, or even a great singer, to lead a brilliant singing assembly.  A great way to ensure coverage of a variety of genres is to link the taught songs to a whole school learning theme or to something thats happening in the world at the time. For example, Ive taught Born This Way” by Lady Gaga during LGBT History Month and taught I wish I knew” by Nina Simone on Martin Luther King Day.

There are many different structures to singing assembly, here are some tips on delivering a powerful singing/music assembly:

  • Start by playing a song, giving no context, only the opportunity to listen. Children may close their eyes when listening.
  • After listening to the song (or an extract from the song) ask them:
    • How did this piece make you feel?
    • What do you think this song is about? How do you know?
    • What might the artist have been thinking about when writing this song?
    • What can we tell about the artist from this song?
    • What genre of music do you think this is?
    • When do you think this song was written? What makes you think that?
  • You could also show children an extract of the lyrics and ask them the same reflective questions.
  • Once youve introduced the song, and children have shared some reflections, you can start to give wider context to the song: genre, the historical and/or societal context it was released in, is it music of struggle or music of celebration?
  • The only way to learn and perform music in the way in which it was intended, is to fully understand the meaning and context. Once you have shared these, then you can teach the children to sing it.

A huge amount about a cultures struggle and evolution can be told through the medium of music. Music is a cultural practice passed on through generations, from ancient civilisations until the present.

For example, it is possible to trace modern day hip hop to West Africa in 1800. Many West Africans who were traded into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic told stories of their memories and hopes through music, and some used instruments such as banko and tambourine. Some sang about hope through religion, for example Christianity, and throughout time those Christian songs evolved into what we now call Gospel (which means good news”). In many modern-day rap songs there are remnants of repeating verses much like was prevalent in songs sung by the enslaved. This music with a sadder, more downbeat tone we call Blues and the more upbeat sounds grew to become Jazz. Gospel music over time evolved to soul, and soul to R&B and hip-hop.

The evolution of hip hop itself is a cultural learning journey, throughout segregation, the fight for equal rights in 1970s New York City, protests, poverty and systematic racism from the government and police.

Music as a source of Education in communities

Throughout history, and in many places still today, music is used as a key vessel to educate communities about its people about key issues. Some examples of songs which have been written to educate communities are: Kano Boys from Nigeria wrote songs to educate about health issues such as HIV, Dobet Gnahoré from Ivory Coast sang songs to educate about gender equality and Lucky Dube from South Africa performed songs to educate about peace between races with Together as Onebeing the first ever song by a black artist played on a white radio station in South Africa.

Here is a list of great songs to teach in assembly, as a platform to learn about key human rights issues:


Big Yellow Taxi – Counting Crows and Vanessa Carlton

Truth to Power – One Republic

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye


A Change Gonna Come – Sam Cooke

Whats Going On – Marvin Gaye

Changes – Tupac

Female Empowerment and Self Love

Brown Skin Girl – Blue Ivy, SAINt JHN, Beyonce and Wizkid

Respect – Aretha Franklin

Beautiful – Christina Aguilera

War and Peace

Whats going on – Marvin Gaye

Imagine – John Lennon

Music is a tool that connects people across time and space. It transcends walls and boundaries with its language and is a wonderful way for us to express emotions and complex ideas. Use it wisely! Make sure that the music you teach and expose children to has key messages and give children the space to explore, reflect, learn and perform, in order to find out about the world them.

Find out more about how to diversify the primary curriculum – Music and other subjects –  in my book Time To Shake Up The Curriculum.


Sarah is a Deputy Head and Year 6 teacher with a real flare for writing, project-based learning, Music and Performing Arts.

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