Music as a Human and Cultural Right

Subject: Music and Social Studies (World/Afghanistan; Human Rights of Artists; Women’s Rights);

Ages: 12+; Middle School and High School

Length: Film Clips: 26 minutes for the introductory short subject The Bolero; 57 minutes for two clips from the movie; and fifteen minutes from the ANIM performance at the Kennedy Center. This lesson plan is expected to take two 55 minute class periods.

The movie, Dr. Sarmast’s Music School, is available in the U.S. and Australia from Itunes.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



Consider having students approach the film through TWM’s Film Study Worksheet for a Documentary.


Students will learn that there are places where it is a crime to play or sing music and that some people take great risks to keep musical traditions alive. Students will be introduced to the Afghanistan war, the concept that the right to play and hear music is a basic human right, the traditional music of Afghanistan, the orchestral composition Bolero by Maurice Ravel (a piece that is part of the Western Classical repertoire), and to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.


It is helpful to expand the horizons of students, to show them cultures and places that are different from those they have experienced, that freedoms which they take for granted, such as the right to hear and play music, are not available everywhere, and that sometimes basic human rights can only be secured through tremendous effort and great risk.


The Taliban forbade music from 1996 to 2001 when they ruled Afghanistan, except for religious songs and Taliban “chants”. As the movie opens Kabul has been freed from Taliban oppression and Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the only Afghan ever to earn a doctorate in music, returns from exile in Australia. His goal is nothing less than to revive the musical traditions of Afghanistan. He also wants to re-introduce Western music. To fulfill these goals, Dr. Sarmast establishes the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Dr. Sarmast insists that some of the students come from the population of disadvantaged young people who make their living selling small items on the streets of Kabul and that as many girls as possible come to the school. This inspiring documentary recounts Dr. Sarmast’s efforts. The two suggested videos from other sources set the musical context and show a concert by the ANIM orchestra on its tour of the U.S. in early 2013, after the film was completed.


Afghanistan is a country in southern Asia, a little larger than Texas and inhabited by 31,000,000 people. Much of the country is very mountainous. Afghanistan is land-locked and has no outlet to the sea.

The Taliban controlled the government of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when they were ousted by a coalition assisted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The event which lead NATO to be involved was the 9/11/2001 al-Qaeda attack that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City. The Taliban provided safe harbor and training camps for al-Qaeda.

NATO was created as a vehicle to help Western European countries resist a feared Soviet invasion after WWII. The treaty that created NATO provided that an attack on one of its members was an attack on all of them. The 9/11 attack on the U.S. was interpreted as an attack on a NATO member country. A force to oust the Taliban was approved by the U.N. Security Council. While the vast majority of troops sent to Afghanistan came from the U.S., other countries contributed troops as well. Countries contributing troops included NATO members from all over Europe, countries in Central and South America, Asian countries, Australia, and New Zealand.

While the Taliban have been ousted from power, they have retained control of certain portions of Afghanistan and, using safe-havens in Pakistan, continue to be a threat to the current NATO-backed Afghan government. In the areas that they control, the Taliban severely repress and censor all of the arts, including music.

The West’s foremost expert on Afghan music is Dr. John Baily, Emeritus Professor of Ethnomusicology of Goldsmiths College in London. He reports that the censorship of music by the Taliban is not repression of all music because the Taliban allow very melodic renderings of certain types of religious songs and Taliban “chants”. The only instrument permitted is a specific type of drum only because the Koran reports that Mohammed permitted it to be played. See Censorship of Music in Afghanistan, London, April 24, 2001. The Taliban destroy all musical instruments except for this one type of drum.

Censorship of music is not new and it is not limited to Afghanistan or to the Taliban. Before the Taliban, lyrics to songs were censored for their content by the communist government installed in Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Governments of other countries, particularly dictatorships, have engaged in similar censorship. Some countries have censored types of music, fearing political or social disruption. For example, the Cuba’s communist government, led by Fidel Castro, prohibited American Jazz believing that the free spirit of jazz compositions would undermine political conformity. See A Lesson Plan on Artistic Freedom As a Human Right featuring the movie For Love or Country. However, the censorship by the Taliban has been one of the most complete and brutally enforced musical censorships in recent times.

In February of 2013 students from ANIM played concerts at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., Carnegie Hall, and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.


1. Read the Helpful Background section of this Guide.


2. Check the Internet to make sure that Dr. Sarmast, who is risking his life to develop the music school, has not been assassinated and that the school is still in operation. The lessons from this film, though still extremely valuable, will be very different if Dr. Sarmast becomes a martyr for the cause of music.


3. Obtain the DVD for The Bolero. Obtain Dr. Sarmast’s Music School and make sure it can be played on the equipment available. Watch the film to decide how much of it to use. TWM suggests the first 49:15 minutes (through the scenes with teacher Shefta playing the flute) and then 1:20:32 from the scene after the peace song where the children are playing in the yard until 1:28:15, teacher William Harvey’s statement about what keeps him in Afghanistan.


4. Test the set-up for showing the excerpt from performance by the school at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on February 7, 2013. (Note that the concert starts 11.5 minutes into the video.) Decide how much of this clip to use. The class will be interested in picking out young performers that they’ve seen in the film.


5. Check students’ knowledge of the Afghan War, the Taliban and Bolero. Develop an introduction that will supply any gaps in student knowledge of these topics so that they are aware of the information provided in the Helpful Background section. In the alternative, assign students the task of researching and presenting to the class five minute presentations about (1) Taliban suppression of the arts; (2) Taliban suppression of women; (3) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in particular Article 27; (4) the attack on Malala Yousafzaim (including her position on education and her survival); (5) attacks on education of girls by the Taliban; and (6) the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice.


6. Select the discussion questions and assignments that you will use with the lesson.


1. Show students The Bolero using appropriate discussion questions and activities from the Learning Guide to that film. There is no need for the viewing of The Bolero to be close in time to the presentation of Dr. Sarmast’s Music School. Do not tell students that The Bolero relates in any manner to Dr. Sarmast’s Music School. If the class is already familiar with Bolero this step can be skipped.


2. Show students the location and size of Afghanistan on a map or a globe. Provide them with a brief description of the recent history of the country and the censorship of music within Afghanistan (see Helpful Background section above) and/or have the presentations described in Preparation Step #5.


3. Show students the two film clips from the movie.


4. Show students fifteen minutes of the film clip from the performance by the school at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on February 7, 2013, starting at minute 11.5.


5. Lead a class discussion using some of the discussion questions suggested below.


6. Follow up with appropriate assignments.


Discussion Questions

1. Is access to music and freedom of musical expression a basic human right, like the freedom to express an opinion, the freedom to chose work and a profession?

Suggested Response:

The discussion should include a reference to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.


2. What would your life be like without music?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question.


3. One of the persons shown in the film states, “Music is a pure thing that helps you reach God.” Do you agree or disagree? Explain why?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. A strong answer will mention: (1) the strong feelings that music evokes; (2) its timeless quality; (3) its capacity to remove one from the cares of daily life; (4) its universal quality (most everyone can understand the emotions evoked by music).


4. One of the people shown in the film states, “When speech ends, music begins” Please explain what he meant.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. A strong answer will refer to the universal power of music to communicate feelings.


5. What would your life be without dramatic presentations as we can see in movies, on television, and on the stage?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question.


6. ANIM receives significant support from foreign donors, but some money comes from the Afghan government. Do you think it’s a good idea in a society that is as poor as Afghanistan and which is engaged in a war with foes like the Taliban to spend money on arts education?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question.


7. One of the people shown in the film states, “Religion is not something that should separate us.” Please explain what he meant.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. A strong answer will refer to the fact that people should look for those beliefs that they have in common, not those that are different.


8. The American violin teacher says that he believes that it is the responsibility of Americans to come and help rebuild Afghanistan. Do you agree or disagree? Explain your position.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question.


9. Does watching this film change your perception of the role of the United States and the other allied countries contributing troops to the NATO effort in Afghanistan?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question, but it is clear that the liberation of a country which was deprived of the human right to play and listen to music, and whose musical culture was being strangled by adherents of a fundamentalist ideology is a good thing. Whether it is worth tens of thousands of lives, tens of thousands of injured and maimed people, and the expenditure of billions upon billions of dollars is a different and more complicated question. But then again, the main reason for NATO involvement in the Afghan civil war was not primarily or even partially an effort to support freedom of artistic expression.



Any of the discussion questions can serve as essay prompts. Additional assignments are set out below:


1. Dr. Sarmast says that “Bach, Beethoven, Mozart are universal and do not belong only to the West.” Find a piece of music from another culture that you believe is so good as to be universal. [Teachers should consider allowing students several months to do the research on this assignment. Students should bring five to ten-minute excerpts of the music to class and share their selections. A class or two can be set aside to hear them, or they can be played one at a time over a longer period of time.]


2. As a follow-up to this film have students research and present to the class any of the reports described in Preparation step #5 that have not already been given, or presentations any of the following topics:

  • Christian and/or Jewish sects throughout history which have restricted music and/or dancing; [These include, for example, the Quakers, the Baptists, and many others]
  • Christian and/or Jewish sects throughout history which have restricted the activities of women, including requiring them to wear wigs and headscarves. [These include, for example, modern day ultra-orthodox Jews.]
  • The current status of ANIM and Dr. Sarmast;
  • The current political and military situation in Afghanistan;
  • The view of moderate Islam about music;


This Snippet Lesson Plan was written by James Frieden. It was published on November 19, 2013.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email