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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Gaining Insight into Cultural Geography through the Study of Musical Instruments


At present, the need for an understanding of both physical and cultural geography is increasingly urgent in America’s schools. The present study explores using music as focus for the exploration of geography. Not only is music strongly linked to culture and environment but also its study provides an experiential understanding of a given culture in a way that few others can. Instrumental music, unfettered by practical, semantic, or representational constraints of other traditional art forms, can be considered as one of the most direct forms of cultural expression, reflecting primarily the collective imagination of the culture that developed it and the environment in which it developed. Musical instruments are shaped by a culture’s aesthetics and made using locally available materials and technologies.

The present article takes as a case study a class at the Museum School, a San Diego Unified School District charter school that emphasizes experiential learning and the arts in its daily curriculum. In this case study, 23 children in grades 4-6 focused their attention on the culture and geography of the Island of Bali, Indonesia, through studying its instrumental music, known as “gamelan.”

The Museum School has had a Balinese gamelan program as part of its music curriculum since 2000 and thus all of the students approached the subject with substantial experiential knowledge. The course of study, which lasted several weeks, went through four stages of inquiry and discussion. First, the students conducted background research on Balinese music, focusing in particular on organology. Second, the students explored Balinese geography through organology, deducing aspects of the Balinese environment based on the design and construction of the instruments. Third, the students examined Balinese culture through its music, focusing on musical structure. Fourth the students were asked to make connections between Balinese culture and physical geography as seen through music. Finally, the students compared and contrast what they had learned with musics of their own choice, pointing out likely cultural and environmental factors that likely caused the differences and similarities they observed.

This course of study helped the students make connections between cultural and physical geography in a nuanced way. Further, although focus on music and art as a subject, the core elements of the class were writing and research skills. Combining these skills with experiential learning not only deepens and nuances understanding of geography but also expands students’ cognitive repertoire, providing tools for further exploration.

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