Teaching children to sing and play their country's national anthem—and those of other nations—can be a fun, effective musical lesson. National anthems can also serve as an effective means of connection between the arts and studies in geography and culture, at a time when educators are realizing the value of helping students build bridges between subjects.
Enriching the music curriculum through cultural geography
In units on patriotic songs, teachers have come up with rich curricula on the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and many other national anthems. Information on some of these is available through the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). The organization offers links to repositories of vocal and instrumental performances of these anthems, as well as sheet music and background summaries on hundreds of current and historic anthems.
In addition, several publishers offer engaging books for children explaining the origins and importance of national anthems. Also widely available are books for all ages containing sheet music of the world’s anthems. The book National Anthems from Around the World, prepared by well-known music publisher Hal Leonard, LLC, is just one example.
Thanks to the internet, recordings of these anthems in their original languages are only a few clicks away. Several versions are accessible on YouTube and Spotify. Public libraries are another rich—and free—source for streaming versions of the world’s national anthems.
Music is a truly universal language. On the other hand, a country’s national anthem presents its people’s viewpoint on their history and their hopes for the future. Let's take a look at a few contemporary national anthems and learn how the stories they tell demonstrate both the diversity and common experiences of the world’s peoples.
A poignant reflection on war
While it's notoriously difficult to sing well, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had become a time-tested American institution even before it became the country’s official anthem in 1931. President Herbert Hoover signed the congressional resolution declaring the song’s historic status on March 3 of that year.
Francis Scott Key famously wrote the words as a poem on September 14, 1814. Key drew inspiration from his sighting of a single American flag still flying over Fort McHenry in Maryland as the fort sustained British bombardment during the War of 1812. Key was an eyewitness to the attack, as he waited on board a ship only a few miles away with the friend he had just helped release from British captivity.
Key titled his poem the “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Years later, others set his words to the tune of the English drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” composed by John Stafford Smith.
A royal and national hymn that went around the world
The country from which the United States gained its independence has its own time-honored anthem in “God Save the Queen” (sung as “God Save the King” during the reign of a male monarch). This anthem is also often used throughout the British Commonwealth.
The song’s origins are obscure. The Oxford Companion to Music lists several early variants. Some authorities credit Henry Purcell or any of several other 17th century composers. Many music historians cite composer and keyboardist John Bull, who died in 1628, as the song’s likely author. Others point to a passage in an old Scottish carol as remarkably similar to the current version of the anthem.
In any case, the earliest known printing of the unattributed lyrics to “God Save the Queen” appeared in 1745. The song soon appeared on the English stage and found its way into the work of composers George Frideric Handel and Ludwig van Beethoven. American composer Samuel F. Smith borrowed the tune for “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” which appeared in 1832 and has become an unofficial second national anthem for the US.
A paean to the “True North”
Canada’s national anthem, “O Canada,” was first publicly performed in 1880. Its title in the original French, as written by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier to music by Calixa Lavallée, was “Chant national.” A special government committee approved the song as the country’s national anthem in 1967, and it was officially adopted in 1980.
The song’s lyrics celebrate the beauty and strength of this country of the “True North,” and express the hope that, through the help of God and “patriots,” it will remain “glorious and free.”
Born in revolution
France’s national anthem, the marching song “La Marseillaise,” literally calls citizens to arms in defense of freedom in the fight against tyranny. Amateur composer Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle came up with the song overnight in 1792, at the height of the revolution that overthrew the French monarchy. The song’s current popular name arose after troops from the port city of Marseille adopted it as a particular favorite.
The beauty of the land
Some national anthems focus less on military or sovereign power and more on the natural beauties of the lands they represent. Australia’s national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” exalts its people’s home “girt by sea,” with its “beauty rich and rare.” Similarly, the Czech Republic’s national anthem’s title translates literally as “Where Is My Home?” The song’s simple, meditative music and lyrics convey the loveliness of the country’s landscape of pine trees, mountain crags, and flowing streams.
A symbol of national reconciliation
Other countries’ national anthems focus on their diversity and hard-won unity. South Africa’s national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is based on a 19th century hymn originally written in Xhosa that later became the anthem of the African National Congress. In the early 1990s, during the dismantling of apartheid, the country declared two national anthems: “Nkosi” and the Afrikaans apartheid-era anthem “Die Stern van Suid-Afrika” (“The Call of South Africa.”)
When the country won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, both songs were sung together. Today, South Africa's national anthem combines shorter versions of both songs into a single national hymn, with lyrics in five languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English.
When students of any age are learning about music, they will find their studies enriched by learning about the history of different musical forms. The following survey of medieval Western music can serve as one doorway into this topic for young musicians, as well as for adult learners interested in the musical history of Europe.
Defining an era beyond the stereotypes
The stereotypical view of anything “medieval” conjures up images of dank, fusty monasteries, brutal warfare, and stagnation in the arts and sciences. However, this is far from the truth. The Middle Ages in Western Europe were years of great creativity in the arts, sciences, and exploration.
Authorities differ on which time span precisely defines the Middle Ages. The most generous reckoning begins the period at the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century and ends it in the late 15th century AD.
A world centered on prayer
The medieval period was characterized by the central place of liturgical music as both high art and a daily companion for the nobility and common people alike.
The practice of singing psalms and setting prayer to music dates back much earlier than the Middle Ages, into the beginnings of human history. While much of this ancient religious music was performed a cappella, instruments often lent their voices to the mix, enhancing the sound.
The medieval Christian church took many of its cues from ancient Jewish sacred music, in forbidding the participation of women’s voices after the late sixth century AD and limiting or curtailing instrumentation.
In the church, mass was the chief occasion for the performance of this music, sung by priest, congregation, and choir. The choir typically filled an “answering” function, responding to the themes of the main part sung by the priest.
The human voice as instrument
The long tradition of prayer through song reached a pinnacle in the development of Gregorian chant, a variety of plainchant, during the ninth century AD. Gregorian chant is still often used today in Catholic ritual. This style of plainchant puts the religious text at the heart of the composition. The human voice is the only instrument used.
The music of Gregorian chant is described as monophonic—it consists of one melody, sung in unison. The chant serves to frame the words of the prayers, rather than to overpower them. The majority of Gregorian chants originate in the Latin Vulgate, the version of the Bible in widespread use in medieval Europe.
Although most Catholic congregations today celebrate mass in the community's vernacular language, traditional Gregorian chant holds an honored place, both esthetically and liturgically, in modern Catholic culture. Its popularity with both religious and secular audiences is attested by the many recordings now available.
Hildegard von Bingen – a composer of mystic devotion
Hildegard von Bingen, later Saint Hildegard, was born in Germany at the close of the 11th century and died near the end of the 12th. This abbess, mystic, and prophetic visionary is considered one of the first and most talented female composers. Her monophonic works are characterized by soaring lyricism and a deeply felt spirituality.
St. Hildegard set dozens of her own poems to music, assembling them into a collection entitled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. She was also a scholar who wrote widely on science and medicine and traveled as an itinerant preacher.
Numerous musical ensembles have produced recordings of St. Hildegard’s surviving compositions in recent years, and contemporary audiences continue to find them musically and spiritually rewarding. Contemporary collections of her music have titles that reflect her mysticism: Canticle of Ecstasy, Music for Paradise, and A Feather on the Breath of God are only a few examples.
Moniot d’Arras – exemplar of the trouvère esthetic
One enduring tradition that flourished particularly in the later Middle Ages was that of the secular romantic balladeers and traveling entertainers known as troubadours and trouvères. Lutes, citterns, and other stringed instruments frequently accompanied these musicians' compositions, although their vocals often stood alone.
The city of Arras, France, in northern France was noted as a center of the delicate and refined trouvère style. The trouvères’ style evolved roughly in tandem with that of the troubadours, although the trouvères typically composed lyrics in their northern French dialect, and the troubadours drew from the vernacular native to southern France, the langue d’Oc.
One monk, Moniot d’Arras, earned widespread recognition as a composer in the early 13th century. While much of his output was focused on liturgy, many other pieces extol the culture of chivalry and courtly love between a nobleman and his lady. These were often the main subjects of troubadour and trouvère compositions.
The sacred and the secular
The traditions of the troubadours and trouvères were part of the larger growth of non-sacred medieval music from about the 13th century onward. The ballade, the rondeau, and the virelai were the three leading types of secular compositions in France at this time.
Guillaume de Machaut – lyricist supreme
Guillaume de Machaut, considered today one of the towering figures of medieval European music, was born at the beginning of the 14th century and is thought to have lived well into his 70s. He wrote in both French and Latin.
Machaut composed one of the first polyphonic treatments of the mass, a development moving away from the monophonic plainchants. Polyphonic music features two or more independent melodies. Machaut's dozens of motets demonstrate the full flowering of this type of music.
In 1337, Machaut became the canon of the cathedral at Reims. He wrote poems and musical compositions, with experts today viewing him as a master lyricist and versifier working in the then-current Ars Nova (polyphonic) style. Machaut also used and reworked the courtly love theme, creating beautifully constructed poems that blend technical virtuosity with lyricism.
The universality of music as an art form—and as a cultural treasure—has become a cliche. However, as music teachers know, that cliche represents an important truth about the way in which music can expand horizons, facilitate understanding, and contribute to a broader appreciation of the heritages of all the people in the world.
Children who learn that there are others much like themselves who make music, dance, and sing together just as they do, can be a powerful motivator for them to learn more about other cultures. And when they participate in positive programs that introduce them to cultures other than their own, they learn to become more tolerant and accepting of other human beings.
In addition, participation in multicultural musical activities exposes children to a wider variety of sounds, intonations, and rhythms than they would ordinarily experience at home.
Educators point out that the process of teaching children music from a rich variety of cultures should begin in early childhood with an emphasis on broad participation. And any good early childhood music program will typically incorporate rhythmic movement activities and opportunities to develop social skills.
Studies validate multicultural music experiences.
Research has shown that when children hear music from other cultures, they develop the ability to perceive fine distinctions among sounds. This is just the type of experience that helps them to acquire and build on vital early language skills. They also learn the art of listening and increasing their ability to concentrate.
Experts assure anxious parents that hearing music in multiple languages—just as in the case of learning a second language—actually helps young children to improve their primary language skills.
World Music Day honors many traditions.
In fact, there is an entire day dedicated to the celebration of listening to, performing, and enjoying music from all over the world. World Music Day, which is observed in a multitude of ways in numerous countries, occurs on June 21 of each year.
The observance began in France, as Fête de la Musique, in the early 1980s. Since then, it has served as a means of promoting free access to music for everyone in some 700 cities worldwide, and it is supported by organizations such as Musicians Without Borders.
A treasure trove of recorded music.
Teachers and parents who want to focus on offering a multicultural palette of musical experiences can begin with one of the many well-reviewed recordings for children. These include the series published by Putumayo, which provides high-quality CDs of representative musical compositions from a wide range of cultures for children of all ages.
Putumayo’s children’s catalog, which is available online, includes the classroom favorite and Parents’ Choice award-winner World Playground. The label’s other selections include Kids’ African Party, which also offers an aid to learning with a list of instruments and musical genres that are distinctly African.
Other Putumayo titles include Cuban Playground, Italian Playground, and other “Playground” CDs featuring musical styles from New Orleans, Brazil, France, and the Caribbean. The albums are joined by several “Dreamland” collections, featuring multicultural songs suitable for quiet family times.
A classic American performer interprets the music of the world.
Ella Jenkins is a performer beloved by generations of parents and children. Jenkins, an African-American singer and actress, has worked since the 1950s to deliver definitive renditions of a wide range of folk songs for audiences of children. Her albums are available on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Jenkins’ classic Smithsonian Folkways albums include Multi-Cultural Children’s Songs and More Multicultural Children’s Songs. Children can enjoy songs from these albums that teach common greetings in many languages, including Swahili. Other tracks include renditions of beloved songs depicting the cultures of Israel, China, Australia, Germany, and many other nations.
Smithsonian also publishes Jenkins’ early albums Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, which introduces listeners to West African music, and Adventures in Rhythm, which teaches awareness of rhythmic concepts in music from the very basic to the more complex.
A bilingual educator offers multiple ways to learn music.
José-Luis Orozco is another musical artist with an international catalog that spans decades. A teacher with a master’s degree in education, Orozco has made a career of sharing the joys of music in Spanish and English with children and their families. He performs throughout the Americas to promote the value of bilingualism and multicultural understanding.
Orozco’s albums include Caramba Kids, De Colores, Esta es mi tierra/This Land Is Your Land, and numerous others. His website also offers educational kits that can enhance classroom music and cultural programming.
Putting traditional American classics in a global frame.
Another Smithsonian Folkways artist, Elizabeth Mitchell, offers recordings anchored in her early work as a teacher of young children in New York City. Her classes consisted of children who spoke a wide range of languages. Mitchell discovered that music could serve as a bridge among cultures. She has since gone on to immerse herself in the American and world folk music traditions. Her highly accessible albums include You Are My Little Bird, which features interpretations of American Appalachian and other folk melodies appropriate for all ages.