Inclusion is one of those things in life and music, and music education that can seem straightforward. It is a desirable principle: we all want to feel included, don’t we? Sort of, maybe.

Take 2, we want the right to be included in places, activities and conversations that interest us; the situations where we feel we have a right to be. And, maybe, we want the right to be included on our terms? We want our needs and interests to be considered and don’t like barriers that block our involvement.

Being inclusive requires making involvement possible.

Multicultural inclusion

Barriers that prevent access aren’t always obvious. They can, for example, be physical, psychological, social or ideological. In music education, planning for access might involve thinking about

  • Physical spaces. Can everyone get into the space and participate in the music-making comfortably? Are the acoustics suitable? Is the space organised so people can hear what they’re playing, hear other parts, understand the ensemble’s sound and talk about the music they’re making together?
  • Psychological spaces. What can be done to make everyone feel comfortable and welcomed, inspired and challenged? How can people make their feelings known?
  • Music spaces. Who decides what will be played? Who decides how the music will sound? How can ideas be contributed, revised, thrown out? Is a dress code for performances necessary? Is it ok if audience members talk during performances?

In her article for the Oxford Handbook of Music Education, vol. 2 about musical development in inclusive music settings Judith Jellison suggests that inclusive music programs are those where

  1. students with disabilities attend regular music classrooms in their schools, and are not isolated from their peers without disabilities
  2. students with disabilities interact with their same-age, typically developing peers and participate with them in regular music classes and other age-appropriate school music activities
  3. music and music-related goals are flexible and individualised and instruction is not solely based on disability categories
  4. progress is assessed in a variety of contexts
  5. music teachers, professionals, and parents collaborate in determining what is important for students to learn and ways to incorporate special supports and services into age-appropriate school, home, and community music activities and experiences.

Jellison’s view is that the ultimate goal for inclusive music programs is to develop learning environments where students both with and without disabilities participate successfully and happily in meaningful music experiences. I’d like to see that!

Steve Holley, writing on the NafME Music Program Leaders Virtual Forum takes a broad but pragmatic view of the qualities of inclusive music education and encourages us to ‘change our core narrative from what we think music education is currently and adjust our focus to what it  could be in the future. He says that ‘ to ensure our mission of music for all, it is imperative we explore a diversity of musical styles which will embolden us to better connect with our students in an effort to offer them a transformative music education experience’.

How do we connect with students? Perhaps through the practices of music – listening, creating and performing? For example, listening. Musicians use many different listening strategies in different contexts and for different purposes. For inclusion, respectful listening is needed. Respectful listening asks us to hear and reflect on what we hear. In music classrooms it might involve hearing both sounds – speech and music, and silences or thinking about student’s participation habits and attitudes or listening to understanding perspectives and preferences.

Inclusion in music education can mean many things from whether students can play instruments available to them or sing in the keys and languages of the songs teachers select for the class. Instruments in a range of sizes or modified in other ways can assist students with specific physical needs and others who might find the standard size too small, or too large. An ensemble of instruments in a range of sizes can also provide useful options for dynamic variation, arrangement or interpretation. Assistive technologies such as captions, enhanced audio, enlarged text and images, screen readers, subtitles, tactile materials all have their uses. Activities can be modified from verbal to physical, analogue to digital; time can be spent checking students’ understandings – is their view of the mood or importance of a piece of music the same as yours? Do the students all agree with each other on these questions? How would the students present the next concert on your school’s schedule? What would the concert look and sound like if students took responsibility for its organisation and presentation?

For further information about approaches to inclusive education, see the Student Diversity pages on the Australian Curriculum website.

Helen Champion is the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA)  curriculum specialist in charge of writing the Australian Curriculum: The Arts. You can contact her at

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