Student Engagement

Use PBL to Innovate the Music Classroom

Opening students’ ears and minds

March 5, 2012

Happy Music in Our Schools Month! I wrote in a previous blog, Visual Arts as Critical Thinking, that I was a vocal jazz nerd (and still am to some extent). Music was crucial to my growth. When I was going through some rough times as a high school student, it kept me in school. It was an outlet. We've heard or experienced similar stories. Music is crucial to a student's education as a whole child, as it aligns to principles of social and emotional learning.

But I believe we can up the practice of music education a notch with project-based learning (PBL). PBL can further champion music education and continue to legitimize it as critical content, even as it is under attack by naysayers and budget cuts. In addition, music educators deal with the same concerns as core teachers, including student engagement, assessment and standards. Utilize PBL to address these concerns and embrace new possibilities for the music classroom.

PBL and Standards

It is important to know what you are assessing, as it drives what the assessment and project will look like. Music standards are quite targeted and quite rich. From music theory notation to understanding cultural connections of music, there is much that can be targeted in the music classroom. Unpack the standards by starting to look at the skills as well as the concepts that are contained within them. You might be surprised that the standards ask for more than you thought. Consider Standard 6 from MENC's National Standards for Music Education: "Listening to, analyzing and describing music." How are you teaching students all the skills embedded in this standard? In addition, you may have specific state standards that break these power standards in to smaller, unpacked standards. Regardless, examining the standards can make sure you create a PBL project that is targeted with in-depth inquiry.


PBL projects create the need to know critical content through an authentic purpose. After examining your standards, consider creating an engaging context to learn a power standard or multiple smaller standards. Let's be honest. Not every kid you get in your class may want to be there initially. Therefore, you must create engaging contexts for learning -- which is the essence of PBL. Perhaps to learn Standard 8, "Understanding relationships between music, the other arts and disciplines outside the arts," students will engage in a project where they advocate for music education to their local school board by showcasing it as crucial to the curriculum in all disciplines.


Performance is the essence of the music classroom. However, these performances can have a variety of focuses, depending on what is being targeted. In addition, not every assessment for a PBL project in the music classroom needs to be a performance. In fact, if you were assessing Standard 6 above, you might create a project where students write music recommendations to people with heart problems. This fulfills an innovative and authentic purpose, and creates a relevance for learning the skills of listening, analyzing and describing music.

Music educators, please continue to do what you do, but consider taking it up a notch from time to time with a PBL project. There is much more to PBL than I have highlighted here. I recommend watching the Buck Institute for Education's webinar on the Essential Elements of PBL to learn more. PBL can help focus your instruction, build authenticity and create purpose and relevance for reluctant students in your classroom. Look at their learning targets and consider new possibilities for assessing those needs and creating a PBL project that will engage them.

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Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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