I was in a punk band in high school. We wrote songs full of material that suburban teenagers in a blue state typically harp on, such as relationships (mostly unrequited love at that time), politics, and social issues (we ended most sets with our opus, F*ck Homophobia).
One day one of my band mates came to us with a concept for a new song that was definitely not the motivation for an average punk rock song: physics. As a project for class, our lead guitarist chose to show his enduring understandings of an inverse-square law by having our band write and record a song about it. The lyrics provided an overview of Newton’s law of gravitation. When I took physics the following semester, our song played in my head throughout the unit on classical mechanics. Associating the formulas to the song my band wrote made applying them in class a fun and efficacious experience.
Like visual art, music also has a long history of informing popular culture, as well as educating people of all ages. Many generations of students have been reared on the songs of Sesame Street, The Electric Company (see: In the Good Company of Art Education), Schoolhouse Rock and the Children Museum of the Arts’ The Look Make Show. Each program is notable for creating music videos that teach essential foundations of language, mathematics, social studies and visual art theory. These audio and visual compositions are effective in reaching a variety of learners because they support the theory of multiple intelligences, which means that there are differentiated modalities that shape our social, emotional and cognitive knowledge. The inventor of this theory, Howard Gardner, identified eight of these modalities: linguistic, logical/mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist (see: Marenus, 2020 and Chen, n.d.).
While we each process information through one or more of these modes, some of us are more adept at certain modes than others. Gardner postulates that this is because of a combination of our genetic background and our life experiences (i.e. nature and nurture working in tandem). He states that intelligence is the “biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture” (Gardner, 2000, p.28). Because of its social and cultural connections, the benefits of multiple intellegences in education are amplified through arts-centered learning.
I was lucky to have several teachers who understood the benefits of incorporating music, art and performance in their classrooms to both introduce and expand upon themes and learning segments in the curricula. One of my teachers, Mr. (Frank) Squillante, recorded an album of educational songs. We were the initial audience for some of his compositions. These songs activated participation and collaboration in the classroom. With catchy verses and choruses, my classmates and I belted out lyrics that also helped us synthesize and retain important information from subjects like geography (The Continental Shuffle) and literacy (What’s in a Book?).
Other musically endowed educators are similarly helping their students succeed by writing and performing educational songs. In Fort Worth, Texas, a math teacher by the name of Thomas Mayfield, helps his fifth-grade students become proficient and confident at math through hip-hop.
Mayfield’s current and former students provide ample formative and qualitative assessment of how successful his music and math mashups have been on their comprehension of learning segments. They appear in music videos for the math-centered rap songs and proudly show off their math knowledge in a manner that radiates confidence. Additional positive outcomes include increases in attendance and high scores on state tests. But clearly, the most profound outcome is that the students are discovering ways to make learning academic content relatable to their lived experiences and identities. Mayfield’s former students, include Pareece Morehouse, who is now in tenth-grade and credits Mayfield’s use of music in class as a major reason for her growth as a student. She recalls that not only did Mayfield’s lyrics help her in math going forward, but that the overall learning environment “was a truly, truly amazing classroom and an amazing space to be in” (Estrada, 2022). Morehouse is one of several former students that collaborate with Mayfield on his educational and empowering music.
In addition to themes related to math, Mayfield and his students rap and sing about the overarching benefits to having an education and being part of a strong united school community. In Queens, one of Mayfields past students, named Jailah, raps, “grow up to be a lawyer, a vet or a scholar, cause knowledge is stronger than that almighty dollar.”
Those lyrics embody Mayfield’s educational philosophy that “Hard work turns into heart work before you know it.”
When school and schoolwork become an environment and endeavor that builds competency and confidence, students truly understand that they have agency in the paths they pursue throughout their academic, professional and personal lives.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Chen, Jie-Qi. “Multiple Intelligences,” Education Encyclopedia – StateUniversity.com. https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2102/Intelligence-MULTIPLE-INTELLIGENCES.html
Estrada, Mia. “After a Texas teacher saw his students struggling with math, he turned to rap music,” NPR, 11 April 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/04/11/1091229133/after-a-texas-teacher-saw-his-students-struggling-with-math-he-turned-to-rap-mus
Gardner, Howard. 2000. The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts and Standardized Tests: The K–12 Education That Every Child Deserves. New York: Penguin Books.
Marenus, Michele. “Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” Simply Psychology, 9 June 2020. https://www.simplypsychology.org/multiple-intelligences.html