Considering the Hidden Curriculum in Music Classrooms

Considering the Hidden Curriculum in Music Classrooms

Every classroom, including yours, has a “hidden curriculum.” The Glossary of Education Reform defines hidden curriculum as “the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn in school. This curriculum can have a positive impact on learners, but may also lead to negative understandings.

I’d like to highlight some concepts that might be considered hidden curriculum in relation to musical understandings, social understandings, and cultural understandings. My goal is to encourage you to think about the notion of hidden curriculum in relation to your classroom. While my examples may or may not be part of the hidden curriculum in your school, I challenge you to recognize additional examples of hidden curriculum (both the positive and the negative) and to think about how you might address them

Musical Examples

Let’s begin with musical examples as these tend to be concepts that music teachers have autonomy over and could easily address if they chose to.

Sing vs. Chant

It is common in instrumental music to ask students to “sing their part” when what is really meant is to “chant” the rhythm. No tonality is provided, no starting pitch is given, and the expectation is not to “sing” pitches in tune. The hidden curriculum asks us to consider what students learn about the notion of “singing” within this sort of classroom interaction.

Sing vs.Play

Instrumental music is sometimes given more credit, even by music teachers (i.e. posters asking for “Musicians and Singers”). What does the hidden curriculum teach when a student sees a poster like that?

Parts of a Time Signature

Educators need to think mindfully about concepts that do not stand the test of time. When time signature is taught as if “The top number is how many beats in the measure and the bottom number is what note gets the beat,” the hidden curriculum has set students up to be confused once they get to triple meter (i.e. 6/8/. 9/8, 12/8).

Thinking about Key Signature

Music teachers have a variety of tricks for teaching students to memorize “right” answers to key signature questions. However, unless we teach the notion of tonality such that a key signature is a “Do Signature” then students become confused in minor, dorian, etc. Focusing on the hidden curriculum encourages us to consider how to introduce concepts that will stand the test of time for students.

Defining Tonality and Meter

When minor is “sad” as compared to major, and 6/8 is “slow” as compared to 2/4, the hidden curriculum creates misunderstandings.

Popular Music Belongs Outside of School

By choosing only the traditional band, orchestra, and choir music that often gets performed in school music, the hidden curriculum sends the message that popular music does not belong in school.

Social Examples

Most of the social examples are issues that music teachers have little control over.

Graduation Requirements

When no music or arts classes are required for graduation, the hidden message might be that these classes are less important than others.

Class Interruptions

When instruction is interrupted by announcements from the office or other things, the message is that those issues are more important than what is taking place in classrooms.


Subjects that are not tested might be considered (within the hidden curriculum) to be less important than subjects that are tested.

Administrators at Concerts

If administrators attend sporting events and not concerts, the hidden curriculum teaches that those events are more valuable than the music events.

One social example which music teachers can control is how the concept of competition is addressed both within the music classroom (e.g, chair placement tests) and outside (i.e. attending ranked competitive festivals and events). In highly competitive classrooms, the hidden curriculum might teach music as a race to be won rather than an important opportunity for artistic expression.

As mentioned previously, hidden curriculum can also have a positive impact on students and student learning.  There is no doubt that, in the area of social learning, music classes have unintended positive impact on concepts such as collaboration and hard work. When thinking about the positive elements of hidden curriculum, the challenge is to reflect on ways to make those positive elements more intentional and transparent in our teaching.

Cultural Examples

The two cultural examples provided here (gender and race/ethnicity) are constructs which are challenging beyond the music classroom but are also areas where music teachers may be able to address, in small ways, through the content of music. If music teachers regularly make gender stereotypes regarding instruments (for example, always referring to the flute section as “ladies” or to the percussion as “boys”) then the hidden curriculum teaches that these stereotypes are acceptable.

The use of pronouns in relation to gender identity is another place where the hidden curriculum can either teach acceptance or not for transgender persons. Although it may take some practice for the secondary choral conductor to refer to the students as “tenors and basses” rather than “men” this is the sort of effort needed to address the hidden curriculum in relation to gender.

When composers who are studied and performed by school music groups are primarily white men, the hidden curriculum teaches potentially negative ideas regarding both gender and race in relation to music. Hidden curriculum can refer to what is not done in a classroom as well as what is.


There are a variety of resources within music education to assist teachers with many of the musical (Conway, 2015), social (Rawlings, 2015) and cultural (Carter, 2014; DeLorenzo, 2015) issues involving the hidden curriculum in music courses.

I hope reading about some of the ways in which the hidden curriculum might be at play in music courses has gotten you thinking about your own classroom and the additional unintended, unplanned, and unofficial lessons that student might be learning, both good and bad.


Carter, B. (2014). Intersectionalities: Exploring qualitative research, music education and diversity. In C. M. Conway (Ed.). The Oxford handbook of qualitative research in American music education (pp 538-552), New York: Oxford University Press.

Conway, C. M. (2015). Musicianship-focused curriculum and assessment. Chicago: GIA Publications.

DeLorenzo, L. D. (2015). Giving voice to democracy in music education. London: Routledge.

Rawlings, J. (2015). Traversing the terrain of music competition: Curricular mapping with adjudicated events in mind. In C. M. Conway (Ed.), Musicianship-focused curriculum and assessment (pp. 425-456), Chicago: GIA Publications.

Colleen Conway is professor of music education at the University of Michigan. She has published over 90 research articles in music education. Book publications include: Great Beginning for Music Teachers: A Guide to Mentoring and Induction (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); Handbook for the Beginning Music Teacher (GIA, 2006); Teaching Music in Higher Education (Oxford, 2009,); Handbook for the Music Mentor (GIA, 2010); Handbook of Qualitative Research in American Music Education (Oxford, 2014) and Musicianship-Focused Curriculum and Assessment (GIA, 2015). Her most recent book, The Oxford Handbook on Preservice Music Teacher Education in the United States, will be available from Oxford in 2018.

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