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Bring History to Life Through Music: Family Road Trip

This week my family took an epic road trip to Gettysburg National Battlefield in Pennsylvania. We kicked off our journey by rocking out to some pop songs (my kids really like AC/DC’s Thunderstruck). Plus, we read two books on the battle, which were Guts & Glory: The American Civil War by Ben Thompson and What Was the Battle of Gettysburg by Jim O’Connor.

Once we arrived, I was taken by the endless learning opportunities with music. As my family took in the sites of the battlefield, I realized that historic music could really bring the experience to life for my kids. In this article, I’m going to use my experience at Gettysburg to show you how to make history real for your own kids by using music.

Listening to Historic Songs

As my family drove through historic sites at Gettysburg, like Little Round Top, Devils Den, and The Angle, we listened to music of the American Civil War. Now, before I go any further I have to confess that as we started to drive through the trees and fields of the battlefield we were initially listening to Shout it Out Loud by KISS. While this a one of my family’s favorite rock tunes, it just seemed inappropriate for the location and what occurred there.

So, what did I do? I quickly pulled over and asked my teenage son (our self-appointed in-car DJ) to turn it off and then we started driving in silence. Soon, I realized that there would be a missed opportunity of you didn’t play some Civil War music. To set the mood, I started with Ashokan Fairwell, which is not a period piece, but it set the mood and context as a drove through sites. Then, we started listening to 1860s songs like Goober Peas and John Brown’s Body (orig. John Brown Song).

Of course, this changed the entire dynamic. For example, my littlest kids repeatedly asked, “dad, is this the music the soldiers would have sung” and the answer was repeatedly, “yes.” After a few times through a song, my kiddos had it memorized, were signing along, and asked if they could do it again.

What if you don’t know what music to use? The simple answer is just look it up, but try to use sources that you are confident are credible. As an example, check out Smithsonian Folkways: Songs of the Civil War for music of the 1860s. The same types of sites exist for just about any historical event.

Musical Artifacts

Okay, I’m going to get a little nerdy; so, stay with me. When we went into the Gettysburg Museum there was a beautiful collection of saxhorns, which are unique to military brass music in the 1860s. Of course, having a dad with a Ph.D. in Music that taught collegiate music history, my kids had to endure a longer lecture than most. But, the point is even my little ones were captivated by this new instrument and could plainly see how the instruments functioned, which is different than modern instruments. This led to some great discussions and they pointed out similar instruments as they explored the museum.

As we were looking at more historic locations later in the day, I heard brass music coming from my teenage son’s iPhone. On his own, he sought out Civil War brass band music, which would have been regularly heard by soldiers during the war. This was awesome!

If you see a musical artifact, take a moment and make sure your kids see it. Like seeing any interesting object in a museum, I take care to point out the nuance of the many things we find. For example, my youngest son noticed that the trumpet on display had no keys, which led to a discussion about how bugles didn’t originally have keys and at this time, the trumpet like brass instruments were in fact, cornets.

Of course, none of us knows everything. When visiting an antique dealer in Gettysburg, my kids and I listened as the dealer told us that many Civil War drums were made into gentleman’s hatboxes after the war. While my whole family was concerned, it is another important piece of history and enhances my kids understanding.

When you find historic musical artifacts, I recommend taking the time to show and discuss them with your kids. Even if you don’t know much about them, taking the time to consider the object can be valuable. Ask you kids questions like, what was this for? How might it be used? What instrument is it like today? If you don’t know, just take a picture and look it up when you have a chance. But, if they take the time to look at it or get to touch it, they’ll remember it.

Music and Daily Life

You probably listen to, sing, or make music at your home everyday. While we may not think about it, that type of experience was also true for people of just about every era in history. In all contexts, music was a way to remember where people came from and what home is.

If you look up music in the 1860s you’ll probably find the music of romantic era composers, such as Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Wagner, Dvorak, and others. But, the music of everyday life for the soldier was folk music and some popular music, such as the works of Stephen Foster. Thinking about this, you may want to consider the type of music that was enjoyed by the people you are studying in the museum.

Using the Gettysburg Battlefield as an example, the music that soldiers listened to everyday provides the best likeness for kids to understand daily life. Folk music may be the most powerful tool for this type of experience. Yes, classical music was a part of daily life for a few (mostly officers), but folk and popular music was want reminded soldiers, nurses, and others of home in difficult times. Thinking about the daily use of music by historical figures helps kids relate to historical experiences and think about the individual.


When visiting historical sites, take the time to make musical connections. If you do, your kids will get a richer experience and greater understanding. To do this, use the three points below, which we covered in this article.

1. Listen to songs related to the event

2. Take time to discuss and think about musical artifacts

3. Consider music as it exists and would have existed in daily life

As you do these three things, let your kids know, see, and hear the links between music and history. This will help make history come to life for them in a very real way.

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John Owens, Ph.D. is the author of Music at Home: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Musically Insightful Kids. Check out his upcoming books, articles, and courses at


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