US285: Sound Tracks through media Culture
Semesters taught: Spring 2014
Catalogue Description: The study of music in colleges and universities has traditionally focused on the formal qualities of music itself: melody, tempo, key, meter, instrumentation, and so on. But popular music in the United States is also part of a broader set of media industries that have their own histories, operations, and influence. This course starts from the supposition that the things that we often think of happening to music (marketing, sales, licensing, adaptation, inclusion in other media, etc) are actually fundamental parts of popular music. Starting from this point, we will attempt to understand the soundtracks that run through our contemporary media culture.
Sample Course Materials:
While working on my book proposals, I began to think about the emergence of Media Industries and Sound Studies, two sub-fields within cinema and media studies that had risen to prominence since the time I had completed my graduate work. In the process of writing Back to the Fifties, I learned about the influence of radio programming on the design of MTV, the influence of record companies on the emergence of youth cultures in the 1950s, and the ways that Hollywood soundtracks revised the cultural meanings of songs like “Blue Velvet” and performers like Roy Orbison. I proposed this university seminar as a way to explore those issues, as well as test out a new way of studying music–not in its form or in its history, but rather in its industrial relations with other media forms.
The class exceeded every expectation that I had for it. While there were many moments that I will change next time around (changing the order of some reading assignments, varying the weekly assignments to include more audio and video annotation, changing the order of the screenings), and the scheduling was disrupted by multiple snow days, I was enormously pleased with the way that students engaged with the course material, and was doubly pleased by the quality of their final projects.
Pedagogically, this course also allowed me to experiment with new forms of assignments and instruction. As I have used YouTube in my film studies classes, I utilized the streaming music service Spotify to queue examples of pop music in class, as well as distribute playlists to and receive playlists from students for the purposes of studying and homework. For the final project I allowed students to experiment with video essays, audio recording, and multimedia features using free online tools like Mozilla PopcornMaker, Soundcloud, and Creativist. These tools and techniques were not only valuable in this particular class, but will surely be priorities for me to integrate to other courses, as well.
— Student in US285, Spring 2014