The MYP Music Unit Planner helps you to design a “Understanding By Design” type unit that is based on big ideas. Sure, it’ll list out all the activities you are planning to do with your kiddos, but first it’ll ask you to clearly define the whys of your unit. Ten years from now, your students will have left you and probably won’t remember how to create a Neapolitan6 chords, but they’ll remember the big ideas of the unit.

What are some of my big ideas?

Grade 10 Jazz: If you don’t enjoy a style of music, then look at subgenera – there’s almost always something to love.

Grade 9 Beginner Band: Some pain is good and some pain is bad; do you know the difference?

Grade 8 Movie Soundtracks: Sometimes, our best work should go unnoticed.

Grade 7 Protest Songs:  Art is a powerful, persuasive tool.

Grade 6 Rock Bands: Musicians have to listen to each other. 

If my kids only remember these points, twenty years from now, I’ll be happy. 

Once you’ve figured out the big ideas of your MYP Music Unit Plan, then you will start drilling down to the other important bits, which include differentiation, music student learning outcomes, assessments types, etc. 

But it all starts, first, with the big ideas. 

Checklist of Key Concepts and Inquiry Statements for ManageBac's MYP Music Unit Planner

The Top of the Unit Plan (The Big Ideas from an IB Workshop)

(We started off the Arts Open: Category Two workshop with an introductory workshop in which people had to rate their opinions from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) on a number of topics. The instructor wanted to very quickly gauge our comfort levels with the IB. The very last question was something like, “I feel knowledgeable and confident about teaching MYP Arts.”  Another lady and I stood by the 5, a group stood by the 4, the majority was in the 3s, and a large number were in the 1s (newbies). My partner looked a little nervous, but reasoned she’d been teaching both MYP & DP Theatre and Music for many years. Both of us were experienced in EY, PYP, MYP, and DP Music and so had a strong overview of the International Baccalaureate in general.   I figured… well, I’ve been teaching MYP for the past 12 years and I do run a website on how to teach MYP Music… I must be confident and knowledgeable.  Well, it turned out I was confident, but not totally knowledgeable.  It’s not that I was totally clueless, but there were subtle differences and nuances that I had missed in my own teaching.

Key Concepts: The Arts’ four key concepts are communication, aesthetics, identity and change. Before, I was falling into the ‘homo faber’ trap in that everything music did seemed to fall into communication. I was chatting with the workshop leader about expanding my skillset, and so I started looking at how I could change my protest unit by picking different key concepts. For our activity, I also brainstormed on aesthetics, identity and change. I wanted to see how the unit would evolve under radically different lenses. 

Related Concepts: These are 12 concepts that are Performing Arts specific. Using them allows you to dig deeper into subjects. I always choose two or three to use. While we were working on our mini project, for some reason I only chose one (I think I was nervous and trying to play safe!). The workshop leader said that you must always choose a minimum of 2, but perhaps 3, at any given time. He said if you only choose 1, then the topic is too narrow and you finish too early. However, if you choose 2 or 3, then you have more directions in which to take the unit… How could I have missed that? I went back through the guide and saw it wasn’t even mentioned. Okay… this is why we are supposed to attend workshops! So that we can get more specific, nuanced help from the IB for when the guide is silent!

Statement of Conceptual Understanding: This is a big-idea sentence, related to the key concept and related concepts, that is true across disciplines. I could take this sentence and apply it across any subject, and it would still be true. 

Now, according to our workshop, you are supposed to choose your key concept and your two related concepts, write your statement of conceptual understanding, choose your global context, and then write your statement of inquiry (the old guiding question). 

I was totally confused. Whenever I read the guides, ‘Conceptual Understanding’ was simply the section title for key concepts, related concepts, global contexts, etc. I went looking in my Atlas Rubicon planners, and there’s no field for a Statement of Conceptual Understanding. Then I went looking through my ManageBac planners, and couldn’t find it there, either.  

Okay, so I don’t feel so bad for being clueless about this.  It doesn’t exist in my world!

Global Contexts: These are 6 lenses that allow you to focus your unit. They include:

  • Personal & Cultural Expression (the Arts’ favourite, but don’t over use it!)
  • Identities and Relationships
  • Orientation in Time and Space
  • Scientific and Technical Innovation
  • Globalisation and Sustainability
  • Fairness and Development

I didn’t feel like I had much to learn from this. I’m also the PP Coordinator at my school, and I’m an xBlock teacher, so talking about Global Contexts feels very familiar to me.

The best to way to pick a Global Context is to ignore the title and dive right into their substrands. That’s where you find the meat of them. For example, you might want to do something about health. When you look at the titles, the old “Health & Social Education” AOI is missing. However, when you drill down, you find that health is a substrand of Identities and Relationships.

I found this document on my hard drive. It’s fantastic, but there’s no copyright information saying, “Don’t share” or “Hey, this is mine.”  I’m going to post it here, and if someone would like me to take it down, I will. However, the people at my table today loved it and I was Airdropping it around. I think you might find it helpful as well. 


Statement of Inquiry: This is a child-friendly sentence that sums up your concepts and global context into a neat package. It’s so easy to write, and yet so incredibly difficult. I wrote mine and showed it to my elbow partner. We were provided with a rubric that we could use to assess whether we had written a good Statement of Inquiry or not. He said mine was in the lower top band, and the workshop leader had helped me with it. I was feeling confident.  Well, when it came time for a feedback gallery walk, my potential unit was totally slaughtered! They ripped it a new one! To be honest, guys, I was really gutted. I was like, “Sigh… I need to go back to the number 1 group. I know nothing, Jon Snow.”  But then later, a friend pointed out that it was good to be sitting in the experienced group because at least I understood all the feedback they gave. If I was sitting in the beginner group, they’d be like, “That sentence is great!” and I would come away not having learned anything. 

Of course… what we were taught in the workshop, the feedback I received, and the guide, were all slightly different. I think at the end of the day, Wordsmithing is hard and teachers love to spend hours picking sentences apart. There. That’s the end of my snark. 

However, I know that tomorrow we’ll be developing the units even more, so even though it’s the evening and I should be binge-watching YouTube comedians and failing cats, I will be tightening up my units so that I have something to be proud of come tomorrow morning.

Of to start wordsmith. I’m sure it’ll go much smoother tonight – today was so loud I could barely think. I like the quiet of falling rain and light traffic 25 floors below me. 

Time to get to work. 

Criterion Aiii vs. Di

While clearing out the ‘dump’ folder on my desktop, I came upon a mental meandering about those criteria that I had done with my grade 10s.

Just to give you some background… the unit is a grade 10 soundtracks unit. We open up with Criterion A: Knowledge and Understanding. There, we learn about the power of silences, mickey-mousing, source music, underscoring, the history of music soundtracks, leitmotifs, voice as an instrument, etc. Then, the students have to compose 1:40 of music based on an Aardman’s production clip that has all sound removed except for the voices. 

One day, at the start of the creative cycle, we were talking about what creative thinking looks like:


Criteria C & D What Do They Look Like
C: Creative Thinking

  • how did you come up with your plan
  • #1brainstorming
  • #2mind mapping
  • #3storyboards
  •  #4research into music genres; Storyboarding; Annotating the script; summarising how did you think creatively during your creative cycle 
  • #5Reflections that show how you solved problems really creatively; show how asking a question lead to other questions; challenge a convention about how you think about movie soundtracks (e.g. break the rules); write about problems in a positive and upbeat way; draw diagrams of other possibilities; get feedback from other people and consider their different perspectives; experiment with sound – if you try something and you don’t like it, then export that to MP3, put it in your DW, and write about why it didn’t work; trusting your gut reactions; anticipating problems that might arise when you are composing; decide IF an idea is good and then try it; seek out unusual solutions when you encounter problems. 
  • Plan

D: Responding

  • #5Reflections that show you took what your learned about movie soundtracks and applied it; how the movie itself inspired the composition

Examples of Brainstorming Activities

  • finish researching music genre characteristics
  • create a brainstorm on what types of music genres they could use for their composition
  • pick a genre, now do a brainstorm on all the characteristics they know about that genre
  • watch the video and do a brainstorm on the types of emotions that could be portrayed through the video
  • do another brainstorm on the characteristics and the emotions combined, and see how you can use characteristics to create those emotions
  • watch the video again and make a list of all the sound effects you don’t hear; give your list to a friend and have them watch the video while reading your list; what sound effects did you forget? Did you remember to add ambient sound as well?
  • complete the storyboard for your video


But back to Criterion A. Criterion A is how students use their knowledge of movie soundtracks to compose while Criterion D is more how the movie stimulus influenced them. Therefore, in my grade 10 moderation, I broke these strands into two distinct ideas:
1. Is the composition’s technique correct? Criterion A.
2. Does the composition match the vision shown on the screen? Criterion D. 

Here is an example. Let’s say the student writes…
“While watching the clip, I noticed that the penguin character is very evil, and that he’s introduced during a clap of lightning. I had to decide whether I wanted to play this clip as a parody, with funny music, or whether I wanted to follow the action on the screen and make the character evil as well. But is the character evil or very evil? I could maybe use minor chords in a lower register to make him sound evil, but perhaps using a series of diminished chords, repeated in the upper register would make him sound super evil.”   For me, that’s Criterion D because his/her artwork is based upon a stimulus. He is composing a response to what he sees on the screen.

Now let’s say the student writes…
“There doesn’t appear to be any sources of music in this clip, so I’m going to use underscoring music instead. There should be two pieces of music present – when the dog turns off the light and then when the penguin starts to change the robot pants. I think the best way to show the difference between the two scenes would be to have a period of silence when the thunder rolls. Silence is important because it emphasizes the action on the screen. As the penguin starts to build the robot, I’m going to have a choir come in and sing some really creepy, “ooooh” over top of the drill sound.”  That would be Criterion A because his/her artwork is based on the technical knowledge gained in the class, and the composition is highlighting their understanding in how to apply it. 

So that’s now how I separate A3 and D1. Sure, I’ve seen a document floating around that says A is head-knowledge and D is heart-knowledge, but how can teachers criterion-assess someone’s heart? It’s too fuzzy and vague. We always have to go find proof.  That’s why, for me, I’ve separated the strands like this:

Grade 6 Compositions
D: Heart Knowledge: After studying Chinese drumming and watching several live performances, how have you used them as a stimulus to create your own drumming ensemble?
A: Head Knowledge: Which instruments are involved in Chinese ensembles? How do costumes play a roll? Which rhythms are stereotypical? How do the different non-pitched percussion instruments interacting with each other throughout? How do hand positions influence not only the sound but the look of the ensemble? 

Grade 7 Performance
D: Heart Knowledge: We have looked at how locations inspire musicians to create and perform because often the best music grows out of personal experience. How has this unit inspired you to perform a particular song? How is the location of this song special to you?
A: Head Knowledge: How does the form and orchestration of the song emphasize the lyrics? In your personal interpretation of the song, how will your group arrange it to highlight the meanings you found?

Grade 10 Compositions
D: Heart Knowledge: After studying rondeau, how have you used them as a stimulus to create your own? 
A: Head Knowledge: How do you compose a rondeau? What is its structure? Which key does each section use? How are phrases built?

If you’d like another example of how to write a great MYP Music Unit Plan, check out Samuel Wright’s example