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Artistic to the Core: Music and Common Core

Dr. Karin Nolan

Music professor at the University of Arizona and former K-12 music teacher
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I'm not a gambling person, but if I had to place a bet on one sure-fire method for engaging students, increasing test scores, reaching students who fall below standards, challenging students who exceed grade-level standards, accessing students' creativity and originality, maximizing brain connections formed, applying concepts to new situations, and making the learning process more fun for the students and teacher, I would place that bet on . . . teaching the core curriculum through the arts.

Our Common Core Standards exist to support students' future success -- namely, college and career readiness. As a former K-12 music teacher now in charge of a music career preparation program for college students, I feel confident asserting that creativity and problem-solving skills acquired through arts training have prepared my students uniquely for their future success. I am truly honored to share with you my thoughts regarding integrating arts into your curriculum.

Why is There Resistance to Integrating the Arts?

If such seemingly guaranteed improvements exist with arts integration, why aren't all teachers using arts while teaching other standards? These are the two biggest mental blocks I see:

  1. I am not a musician/singer/artist myself, so I do not feel comfortable with the art forms.
  2. There is no instructional time available to do anything "extra."

Overcoming These Mental Blocks

You certainly do not have to be an "accomplished" artist to integrate the arts into your lessons. You, as a teacher, are creative and original! Teachers must think on their feet, modify plans on the spot, approach content from different angles, support uniqueness, and inspire and foster growth.

Arts integration does not take time away from required Common Core and state standards. Think of teaching standards through the arts, not independently of the arts.

Holding onto misconceptions might prevent you from unlocking your students' creativity, originality and spark for learning. You already have the skills it takes to be a great arts integrator. It's time to dive in and have fun with your lessons.

How to Plan Arts Integration Lessons for Any Teacher

When incorporating arts into lessons, where to begin is often a daunting first step. This activity guides you through that first step -- brainstorming creative, artistic lesson plans connected to your existing standards. Start with a standard or concept you need to address. Ask yourself the following questions, and jot down all ideas you can. Your creative brainstorming will take your students beyond worksheets and unlock your creativity as a teacher and your students' enjoyment of the learning process.

Brainstorming Questions for All Grade Levels

  • What is the related historical background? What was the prominent art, music, food, dance, literature and dress?
  • Can the topic be written and acted out as a skit by the students?
  • Can we visually draw or sculpt the topic or its history?
  • How can we move to recreate or interpret the topic?
  • Can we show cause and effect through creative movement?
  • Are there any related musical pieces to hear and discuss?
  • Are there songs we can learn about the topic?
  • Can students write their own lyrics about the topic and put it to music?
  • Can you write your own song to help students remember important facts? They can help choreograph creative movements to "show" the lyrics (and thus, the facts) through their bodies.

Example Lesson Ideas for an Elementary Classroom

  • Animal Identification and Characteristics: Play Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, and for each part, have students move with the music and guess what animal the composer portrayed. Then draw their favorite animal from that piece, write a poem about that animal (using characteristics, classifications, food source, habitat, etc.) under the drawing, and set the poem to music by using sounds on classroom instruments that represent how the animal might sound/move. Perform the final pieces as your own "carnival of animals."
  • Number Awareness: Because math can be a fairly abstract concept, why not put sound and movement to number awareness and equations? Connect math to how sound changes between a musical solo, duet, quintet, 100-piece orchestra, etc. Then, have students create music (using classroom instruments, voices or body percussion) and compare how their sound and overall movement change based on number of players (volume, different instruments heard, different parts being played at the same time, motion needed to create sound, etc.). Students visually, kinesthetically and aurally become math.
  • Geometric Shape Awareness and Comparing Shape Attributes: Have students "conduct" music using shapes. Listen to music and ask them to draw shapes in the air that match the music's pattern (number of sides in the shape = groupings of the musical beat). For example:
    • A slow waltz (try "Sleeping Beauty Waltz" or "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") has groupings of three beats which could be conducted as a triangle.
    • Most pop tunes and marches can be drawn as squares or quadrilaterals because they have strong groupings of four beats (try "Anchors Aweigh" or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star").
    • Fast waltzes can be drawn as circles because they have a strong one-beat pattern (try "The Beautiful Blue Danube").
    • More advanced students could listen to music with groups of five beats and "conduct" pentagons in the air while the music plays (try "Theme from Mission: Impossible").
    It is important for students (like real conductors) to show clear, sharp vertices on the actual musical beat. Students put sound and movement to shapes, taking them beyond the typical visual representation most commonly taught.

Through arts-integrated lessons, students are engaged and focused on the content because it takes them beyond the confines of "traditional" learning. They get to hear, see, and become the content through the arts. Good luck and happy planning!

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Tom Campbell's picture
Tom Campbell
teacher, college adjunct

The broader the educational exposure the more neuron development. And of course the benefit is not limited to music. Music teaches us many things mathematical. In my time at a corporate tech ed center we regularly recruited liberal arts grads to join our six week bootcamp program to become programmers. Not surprisingly many of the best were degreed as artists or musicians.

Dr. Karin Nolan's picture
Dr. Karin Nolan
Music professor at the University of Arizona and former K-12 music teacher

Very Inspirational! I think many of us arts educators have that transformational moment where we witness the power that the arts have on our students. I believe that creating truly effective and memorable lesson plans means integrating drama, visual arts, creative movement, and music into as many subjects as possible. Thanks for sharing!

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Besides studies, a student of all age group needs some or the other kind of knowledge pertaining to art, etc. This helps student gain knowledge about every sphere of life. Art and Learning Conservatory provides all of these without fail. Hence, it is quintessential.

Dr. Karin Nolan's picture
Dr. Karin Nolan
Music professor at the University of Arizona and former K-12 music teacher

Thank you for sharing. The Art and Learning Conservatory looks like an amazing program for our youth in the field of theatre, music, and dance. Best of luck and thanks for reading!

Richard J. Frank's picture
Richard J. Frank
President and Founder of

Hi Karin - really nice thread you've planted and fertilized. Kudos. Jumping on Becky's points, I have a question on the reverse. As a secondary music specialist in rhythm-section based modern world styles, do you see all of the core subjects (math, history, science and English...) coming into the music classroom as well? My concern is TIME. CCSS is a new learning curve, reverse integration can be a stretch ... music and the arts takes a lot of time to impart and I wouldn't like to see more distractions for any teacher - personal accountability yes, but where is the line? Is there a line?

Marcia McCaffrey's picture
Marcia McCaffrey
State Director of Arts Education, New Hampshire Dept. of Education

Joan's comment about "more is better" when it comes to arts education sits well with me. Because arts provide students with pathways to discover their world and the world of others while expressing who they are, their observations, thoughts and ideas in ways that transcend words and numbers, the more opportunities provided to students, the better. If the goal of language arts is literacy, and if the goal of mathematics is numeracy, then the goal of arts education is logically artistic literacy. For students to be artistically literate, one is required to engage with the arts through artistic processes of creating, presenting/producing/performing, responding, and connecting. This occurs most predominately in classrooms where arts is primary--but also occurs when quality arts integration is in place (which I view as quality teaching--how else do teachers reach all students, differentiate for all learners, and address Universal Design for learning...?). In school, after school, with the support of community arts partners--yes, more is better. Two websites to visit for more information include and

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

A student of all era groups needs some or the other kind of awareness pertaining to art, etc. which helps student increase knowledge about every sphere of life and provides all of these without fail. Hence, it is quintessential.

Amanda Fishel's picture
Amanda Fishel
Elementary general music specialist, Maryland

Karin, thank you for this wonderful article about teaching the common core through the arts. I am a K-5 general music teacher and, like many of those who posted here, definitely believe in the value of arts integration. I heard it explained once that education is not a hallway full of doors wherein behind door number one is history, and this room houses math, reading behind this door, and so forth. Rather, education and our minds are constructed more like a street fair where everything--from the proverbial smells in the air to the carousel music to the cries of the game masters--contributes to our total experience and understanding.

Language arts do not stand in isolation, nor do science or social studies. Our full understanding as individuals and learners is the composite of the sum of our experiences and knowledge. Thank you for taking the time to offer practical, easily manageable suggestions for classroom teachers to create greater connections through Common Core State Standards. I am delighted to have stumbled upon this article just in time for a presentation on infusing the arts into the general education classroom that I am giving to new teachers in our county. I will post a link to this site under resources. Again, thank you!

Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC's picture
Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC
Autism Specialist & Music Therapist

Your lesson plan examples are great and highly adaptable for students with special needs as well. I plan to share these with my staff who will be thrilled to add some more "fun to functional" activities to their musical toolboxes.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Lovely article and good points. I cover CC ELA and social skills using contemporary songs written especially for students- even the voices on our studio recordings are students. I am happy to report that general ed teachers LOVE us! Deep and meaningful lyrics work great for critical thinking, close reading, the works. It's doable!

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