Song and music in history lessons
Prof. Dr. Juliane Brauer / History
Photo: Friederike von Heyden

We have songs for all situations in life

Music and history scholar Juliane Brauer on the importance of music and songs in history classes

"Wind of change" (Scorpions), "Candle in the wind" (Elton John) and "Only time" (Enya) are admittedly just pop songs. But can they also have a meaning for our understanding of history? If we think of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the death of Princess Diana in 1997 or the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, these songs do have a whole special appreciation. Dr. Juliane Brauer, a professor of history and its didactics at Bergische Universität, is concerned with the significance of music and songs in history lessons and says: "People have always woven their own wishes, their ideas about the past and the future, their own longings and their perception of the world into songs." In her book, titled 'Lied und Musik im Geschichtsunterricht` (Song and Music in History Teaching), the scholar explores the origins and uses of historical songs and their particular applications in the school classroom.

Music (...) can be a key to the imagination of past times

Folk songs and songs of local history are certainly not in vogue. But according to Brauer, they vividly portray the longings people had in times past. The songs tell what people were thinking, he said. "We have a source with historical songs that is very close to the time and gives us immediate access to what people felt, thought, desired and hoped for." This particular source for a history of emotions is usually examined only textually by many history teachers, he said. "But that doesn't help in doubt," Brauer says, "because songs, unlike poems, can be sung together. That is the special potential of songs. They are performed publicly or communicated in a social space." Even in the darkest times of German history, they have special meaning. "I've also studied singing in concentration camps as a survival strategy. There you can see what the emotional power of singing can be. And so through the song itself, but also the situation of singing in certain historical contexts, you get very deep into history and past imaginative worlds."

Historical music in modern history lessons

The historian doubts whether singing per se makes people happy. While it is not without reason that people are enthusiastic about so-called pack singing, in which people get together and sing pop songs under professional direction, and choral singing in itself also strengthens a great sense of community to which people are happy to belong, history also shows quite different examples in the context of violence and dictatorships. What is certain is that the 19th century could justifiably be called the singing century. "That's when the bourgeois singing societies were founded, and the motto was, 'Where people sing, just settle down, bad people don't have songs,'" Brauer says, a fallacy, as the history of the 20th century also teaches. "This basic idea that singing makes people better or is morally good, that is contrasted when you look at what situations in the violent history of the 20th century are sung in. I looked at singing in trenches of WW1, singing in the field, singing in concentration camps. Even the SS guards claimed to be good people and to love music and then tortured Jewish prisoners with orders to sing." Another example: singing in the GDR also clearly shows that it was used in a purposefully manipulative way to educate children and young people in a certain direction.

There is no singing in history classes. So how do you teach songs then? Historical songs are an additional source that can be used, the researcher knows, citing the Hitler Youth anthem as an example. "'Unsere Fahne flattert uns voran...`. The song is banned, but in educational contexts we are allowed to use it. It doesn't even need to be sung to still understand that it has an emotional impact. The point is that today, with our emotions and our range of experience and expectations, with our existence and our world of life, we have a completely different access to this song than the pimps did in the 1930s. Therefore, re-singing at this point makes no sense. So when we look at historical songs as a source, we do so without recreating the emotions of that time, but with the goal of understanding what emotional dynamics were purposefully produced at that time to inspire people for an ideology."

We have songs for all situations in life.

"Songs have certainly existed as long as there have been people," Brauer says. There are few traditions, he says, but many illustrations and depictions even from ancient times that tell us about art songs and instruments. Songs also carry a sense of community over long distances. The singing of the slaves on the cotton fields of North America stands for it e.g., the rhythm of the songs gave the beat for the monotonous work. And mothers signal to their children with singing until today that they are there. Even today, one can only speculate about the content of the songs, Brauer reports, because the tradition up to the late Middle Ages is difficult. "We do have an idea of roughly what was sung," she says. "In the Middle Ages, we have the Minnegesang, this love courtship song of the knights. But we also know that in the Middle Ages there was singing in villages and at village festivals. We have from the early modern period the peasant lament songs, in which the hardscrabble everyday life and the hard life is described, in which death and destruction through war is sung about."

Then, in the 18th century, the sources change, he said. This began, for example, with the poet Johann Gottfried Herder (1744 - 1803), who began to collect children's songs. In it one can also understand very beautifully the educational thought of the time. Furthermore, dance songs, war songs and laments have also been handed down.

The sound of the past

Today, people often don't even know what music sounded like in earlier centuries. "We actually don't know and can't get to it," Brauer reveals, but sees this fact as very valuable for historical learning and continues, "Historical learning is always learning from something that isn't there. Students come to understand that everything I present and tell about history is a construction, a narrative, a story that I put together based on the sources I have." Minnesang, he said, can be easily accessed today through medieval markets or the Internet, because there are always bands there that deal with medieval music. "And then you can say:Yes, that's how we believe it sounded today, because we know the sources and the old instruments. But that's a construction, our idea today of how the music might have sounded back then."

Jimi Hendrix and the National Anthem

For students to be ready to engage with historical music, listening habits must be broken.

Brauer offers a pool of methods and suggests ways to work with songs in the classroom. Using the American national anthem as an example, he says, one can move away from the familiar sound example of the orchestral work and offer an interpretation in class that completely contradicts the original. "One interpretation of that is Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. He intones the national anthem of the U.S. on his electric guitar in 1969. He distorts the anthem electronically. The melody is the same, but he interprets it with acoustic feedback, vibrato, drums, etc. in such a way that it sounds like bomb impacts and the rattle of machine guns. It's his statement against the Vietnam War, and thus also an anthem of the American peace movement." Building on that, one might ask why people would need a national anthem at all, and then be right in the middle of the historical topic.

Song Biographies

One of the more modern Christmas carols from the early 19th century is the song "Silent Night," which originated in 1818 in Salzburg County. "There are beautiful interpretations, stories and films about it," the expert explains. "The question is, what is the meaning of the song over time? Why has it remained the most famous Christmas carol to this day with translation into countless languages?" To that end, she looks at the various contexts in which it was sung. These certainly include the bourgeois living room in the Empire, but also the trenches in World War I, where, according to tradition, it was sung together by German, Belgian and Scottish soldiers at Christmas 1914 during a kind of short-lived truce, the so-called Christmas miracle. The song takes on an entirely different meaning, he said, when one knows that in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1941, the SS had the prisoners line up and then they had to sing this song all night. "Then it's coercion again. It's force, and the song breaks the identity of the prisoners because all of a sudden they couldn't associate that song with safety, domesticity, and good times, who knows if they could ever sing that Christmas song again in their lives without thinking of the fear and despair in Sachsenhausen concentration camp." The meaning of songs changes in use and over time, he said, and that is highly exciting.

Pop songs can depict contemporary history

Dealing with contemporary history can be wonderfully creative with songs in the classroom, Brauer says, allowing students to find new ways of knowing. The potential production of a music video would be a feasible variant. In this way, pop songs can also depict contemporary German history well. "An example would be 'Wind of change` by the Scorpions, because that became the song to sound the fall of the Berlin Wall." What is interesting about it, he said, is the accompanying music video, which was only produced in 2009, 20 years after the song was released, and clearly shows that the hopes of 1989 were not fulfilled. In 2022, due to Russia's war of aggression on Ukraine, the lyrics were even changed once again because the band did not want to continue the gushing about Russia in the first verse.

"We have natural disasters again, new wars have broken out again, the reunification has not led to the "blooming landscapes" that the then Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised and that people hoped for in the euphoria of 1989/90. Making your own music video to a historical song is a creative exploration of history that is far away for today's students. So even today, there are traces of the German-German division in your own living world that you can find." Then, he said, it's a matter of discovering products, language, pop culture or holidays that date back to the fall of the Wall and can still be found in our lives today. "With that, students can create an interpretation of history from their own lifeworld with the question, What does that have to do with me today?"

New directions in teaching history

The use of music and songs in history lessons is not so obvious, the researcher knows; history teachers have too much respect for the musical score. Yet knowledge of music is not at all necessary to work historically with music. "You can also work a lot on listening, i.e. distribute listening assignments. Which words are emphasized? What associations does a melody lead to? Music always does something to the text. I regularly use this method in teaching future history teachers to familiarize them with historical songs. I also give workshops as part of teacher training courses."

The goal is to explore new ways to make history lessons more interesting. And material is always being added. "Just last year," Brauer concludes, "there was the song "Scheiss Wessis" by the Toten Hosen and, appropriately, "Scheiß Ossis" by Materia, songs that very nicely describe the sensitivities in our reunification society."

On February 23, an event entitled "89rockt" will take place at the CityKirche in Elberfeld at 8:00 pm. This discussion concert, co-organized by Juliane Brauer, will explore precisely this question of the extent to which pop culture and music lend themselves to a conversation about reunification and its consequences. The event with the author Hendrik Bolz and the musician Lùisa is free of charge.

Uwe Blass

Prof. Dr. Juliane Brauer teaches history and its didactics in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of Wuppertal. Her main research interests in the field of history didactics are emotions and historical learning, music in history education, imagination and historical learning, and digital historical cultures. For modern and contemporary history, she researches and teaches primarily on the history of divided Germany.

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