Teaching About Multiple Faiths Through Music

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX


*This article has been reviewed by individuals from each faith. However, if there is an issue with the phrasing or accuracy of any facts, please don’t hesitate to contact the McLerran Journal.


Music is a powerful and unifying force that affects every facet of the human experience. Whether directors wish to include multi-cultural music in their winter program or simply integrate various fun facts into the daily warm-up, December is a month with ample opportunity to introduce music students to the sounds and traditions of different world cultures.

December 1st - Mawlid el-Nabi – Islam

*It should be noted that this holiday does not always fall on the same date on the Gregorian calendar, instead refer to the Islamic calendar.

According to Annemarie Schimmel from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Islam is a monotheistic religion that focuses on submitting to Allah’s will through observance of the five duties, or “Pillars of Islam;” shahādah (profession of faith), ṣalāt (ritual prayer), zakāt (alms tax), ṣawm (fasting during Ramadan), and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The sacred scriptures of Islam, the Qurʾān, are studied in Arabic. Religious services are held in a mosque, led by an Imam.           

Mawlid el-Nabi honors the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam (Scribner). The Islamic Supreme Council of America attributes the tradition to “the early days of Islam” when poetry and songs were performed publicly to “honor the dignity and the righteous example of the Messenger of Allah.” Although not all Muslims celebrate this holiday, the occasion is most often marked with sweets, brightly colored decorations, and poetry readings (Kaplan). The most popular poem, “Qasida Burda,” praises the Prophet Muhammad for bringing mercy to the people (Kaplan).

The music of Islam combines elements of several cultures; Persian, Byzantine, Turk, and Moor (Britannica). Traditional Islamic music is characterized by the “subtle organization of melody and rhythm” with a dominant vocal component (Britannica). Instruments of Islamic music include the qaḍīb (“percussion stick”), a variety of frame drums, tambourine, and the “oboe-like” zornā (Britannica). Famous Islamic musicians include Sami Yusuf (b.1980), Zain Bhikka (b.1974), and Irfan Makki (b.1975).

Book Suggestion:

“Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar”

Lisa Urkevich


December 8th - Rohatsu (Bodhi Day) – Buddhism

Buddhists, adhering to the teachings of the Buddha, believe in continuity of all things and seek enlightenment (Snellgrove). There are several different sects of Buddhism across the globe with slightly different variations in beliefs and worship (Snellgrove). Buddhist religious services are held in a Temple and are led by a bhikkhu (monk) or bhikkuni (nun). 

According to Barbara O’Brien of ThoughtCo, Rohatsu is Japanese for “eighth day of the twelfth month” and marks the day that The Buddha achieved enlightenment through meditation. This celebration is also frequently referred to as Bodhi (or “Awakened”) Day and is celebrated with “intensive meditation retreats” or sesshins (O’Brien). It is also common practice to decorate one’s home with small images or statues of Buddha under a fig tree and to light candles or colored lights; the many colors signify that enlightenment can be attained several ways (A Global World).

Traditional Buddhist music utilizes primarily bells, drums, and the voice. In order to place the importance of religious chants on the words, Buddhists perform the majority of their prayers in monotone with short instrumental interludes (Powell). Mahayana Buddhism (Central and East Asia) also employs several wind instruments and the meditative act of circular breathing (Powell). The most important instrument in Buddhist music is the drum; sharing the Buddha’s teachings is commonly referred to as “sounding the drum of the Dharma” (Powell). Famous Buddhist musicians include Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), David Bowie (1947-2016), and Herbie Hancock (b.1940).

Book Suggestion:

“Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices” Tcich Nhat Hanh


December 12-20th - Hanukkah – Judaism

Judaism is a monotheistic religion that is based on the “establishment of peace and well-being [among] humankind” (Cohen). Followers of Judaism study the Torah, which is written in Hebrew. Worship services are held in a Temple or Synagogue led by a Rabbi. 

Hannukah (or Chanukah) is the Jewish “festival of lights” that takes place in early December (Chabad). “Chanukah” in Hebrew means “dedication” and celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to the Jewish people in the second century BCE (Chabad). After driving the Greeks from their lands, Judah the Maccabee and his followers attempted to light the menorah (a candelabrum with seven branches) in the temple but found that most of the olive oil had been contaminated. Miraculously, the single remaining cruse of oil lasted eight days; just long enough to properly purify additional oil (Chabad). To honor this miracle, Hannukah is celebrated over the course of eight days with the nightly lighting of a menorah, prayers, and fried foods (Cohen).

According to Joshua Rabin of My Jewish Learning, the implementation of musical instruments into Jewish religious services is a controversial topic. Several conservative communities strictly prohibit the use of instruments on Shabbat or Yom Tov in order to encourage reverence for the occasion (Rabin). Other communities have “long embraced the use of musical instruments in synagogue” including the organ, guitar, and tambourine (Rabin). Famous Jewish composers include Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Aaron Copland (1900-1990), and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).

FUN FACT: Both Arabic and Hebrew are read from right to left, the opposite of English.

Book Suggestion

“The Complete Chanukah Songbook (Transcontinental Music Folios) English and Hebrew Edition” J. Mark Dunn and Joel N. Eglash


December 24-25th - Christmas – Christianity

The primary mission of Christianity is to spread the word of God and to achieve peace among men through charity and goodwill. The Christian holy book is called the Bible and was originally written in Hebrew (and later, Greek). Christian religious services are held in a Church and are led by a priest or pastor.

Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God, on December 25th. Celebrations generally include a special church service and a large family meal. Christians exchange gifts to replicate the offerings brought to the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because of the fusion of Christianity and Paganism, particularly in the mid-19th century, contemporary Christmas celebrations also include the decorating of a pine tree.

Music has been a priority of Christian religious leaders since medieval times and is a staple of the majority of celebrations and ceremonies. Traditional Christian hymns are monophonic and “display precision and finesse of poetic technique” (Clarkson). The importance in Christian music is placed on the words and on honoring God. Common instruments included in religious works are the organ, piano, trumpet, drums, and voice. Famous Christian composers include J.S. Bach (1685-1750), G.F. Handel (1685-1759), and R.V. Williams (1872-1958).

Book Suggestion:

“Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories” Robert Morgan



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