Friday, December 20, 2019

Christmas is a Musical

By Jake Johnson

These days, you can’t bump the radio dial without Angela Lansbury’s matronly voice commanding we haul out that holly, just this very minute. The song is familiar enough, but its origins are probably not. “We Need a Little Christmas” is part of a scene drawn from the 1966 Broadway musical Mame. When the fabulously wealthy Auntie Mame suddenly loses her fortune in the stock market crash, she turns on a dime and starts unpacking the tinsel and singing a tune. “We need a little Christmas,” she cries. “Right this very minute.” 

Scene from Mame, Angela Lansbury singing "We Need a Little Christmas"

If the scene sounds excessively cheery, welcome to musicals—welcome to Christmas. 

“We need a little Christmas” joins a robust list of holiday tunes drafted at one point or another from the musical stage. What would Christmas-time be without that Great White Way, I wonder? Would we ever know the dreams of white Christmases—or how about merry little ones?—without first invoking the charmed sounds of musical theatre? Would it even begin to look a lot like Christmas if we didn’t hum along with (and then cancel) “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? <1> 

Musicals and Christmas go mitten in mitten. Musical theatre, like religion—like capitalism draped in religion—is uninvested in the world as it is. Few would mistake the real world with the one where song and dance routines come unannounced. It’s often the job of a musical, after all, to clown away the problems of this world and invite us into a better one. Oscar Hammerstein once defended his cheery stories with, I imagine, a Santa-like twinkle in his eye: “I don’t deny the ugly and tragic—but somebody has to keep saying that life’s pretty wonderful, too. Because it’s true. I guess I can’t write anything without hope in it.”<2> Maybe this is why musicals are so invested in the Christmas season, and the season in them. I get it—Toni Morrison appreciated “constant unreality, steady illusion” no less than the rest of us.<3> Between the show tune’s bell-tone and button, life can seem wonderful, too.

I for one feel a bit like Auntie Mame these days—a little leaner, a little colder, a little sadder, a little older. Given our world’s slumped shoulders, are Auntie Mame’s demands for a happy ever after all that unreasonable? What’s the matter with lying to ourselves anyway? So what if the world burns around us, Auntie Mame, let’s surround ourselves with familiar trappings of consumerism and be happy. Escapism is one way to describe it, but it’s more than that. My work shows how communities large and small, near and far from Times Square, engage in musical theatre to reframe the past to better fit their present.<4> Musicals offer a classic alternative facts platform, and we love them for the fictions they afford us. No less than the Trappist monk Thomas Merton summed up theatre with such toothy devastation. “This sort of thing cannot make anybody happy,” he writes, “but it is a way of saying, ‘I wish you were happy.’”<5>

Well our stock market isn’t crashing (to the contrary, it seems) and Christmas creep has been at full throttle for weeks now, but I sense the set up for a happy ending (a musical!). Not that many of us can really avoid being part of the show. Sound bites of flops—the presidential, the Broadway—dominate the news cycle, the radio waves, the shopping mall. Climate change assures our world may soon be the abandoned trash heap of WALL-E’s imagination—that 2008 Disney Pixar film where a blue-collar robot learns to be human by salvaging, of all things, scenes from the musical Hello, Dolly! Meanwhile, musical theatre’s cheerful delusions spill out of tiny speakers hidden inside holiday cards. Of this season, Merton’s not unkind “I wish you were happy” weaves Orson Welles’s wet blanket reminder that happy endings of course just depend on where you stop the story. 

Scene from WALL-E (Disney-Pixar, 2008)

This is how musicals enable our season of inattention, our scene of festive purchase. Christmas is already so much a pageantry of pretend, a story paused on a happy moment. The deception is genuine enough; musicals just sweeten the deal. Star in your own show. Freeze the frame, print the negatives, and live as if “happily ever after” was as cheap as the paper it’s printed on. Musicals teach us that one strategy for surviving a pervasive post-truth world is to purposely live in its fictions. Haul out the holly, sing your blues away—right this very minute, before you realize the illusion, while you still can.

Christmas is a down payment on a better world. Christmas is a tidy ending. Christmas is a musical. But are we happy? I wish

<1> Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” from the 1954 film White Christmas; Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” introduced in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis;  Meredith Wilson included “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” in his 1963 musical Here’s Love, though it had already become a holiday staple with Perry Como’s 1951 recording; and Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” achieved acclaim in the 1949 film musical Neptune’s Daughter.
<2> Quoted in Ian Bradley, You’ve Got to Have a Dream: The Message of the Musical (London: SCM, 2004), 73
<3> Toni Morrison, “On to Disneyland and the Real Unreality,” The New York Times, Oct. 20, 1973.
<4> Jake Johnson, Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019), and Lying in the Middle: Musicals and the Heart of America (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming). Also see “Post-Secular Musicals in a Post-Truth World,” in The Routledge Companion to the Contemporary Musical, ed. Jessica Sternfeld and Elizabeth L. Wollman (New York: Routledge, 2019): 265-272.
<5> Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, fiftieth anniversary edition (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1948 [1998]), 380.


Jake Johnson is assistant professor of musicology at Oklahoma City University's Wanda L. Bass School of Music.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Harnessing the power of sound and music to inspire positive ecological action.

By Geoffrey Cox

In the summer 2011 edition of JAMS, Ralph P. Locke ruminates on what he describes as musicology’s recent concern with the idea that music exists ”in and for a ‘community’ of practitioners and listeners.” As an example, the journal dedicates its discussion section to a series of short pieces that address community in the emerging field of “ecomusicology.” Aaron Allen defines ecomusicology as a “socially engaged” musicology that studies “musical and sonic issues . . . as they relate to ecology and the environment;” it is a form of ecocriticism, a field that studies cultural products (music, film, text), “that imagine and portray human-environment relationships.” This essay looks at one such product, Tree People, a 45-minute documentary film I made that portrays the efforts of a local community-based group to plant trees in the valley they live in and, as much as image, uses music and creative sound design to not only convey its message, but to give life to the audience’s imagination. The film is part of my on-going research as a composer of acoustic and electronic music, filmmaker and writer, investigating the use of sound and music in documentary film. This has resulted in several solo and joint film productions (with Keith Marley) since 2000. The work focuses on how sound, especially creatively treated, can be a powerfully emotive signifier in documentary, perhaps even more so than image, and thus emphasises the potential of the form’s aesthetic aspect.

Autumnal oak tree. A still from Tree People.

If concerns about the environment fuelled interest in ecomusicology in 2011, then in 2019 such concerns have reached fever pitch. As I write, France has just recorded its hottest ever temperature of 45.9°C and a recent report suggested that, due to climate change, it is “highly likely” that human civilisation will come to an end in 2050. Meanwhile, in April, environmental protest activists, Extinction Rebellion, staged “die-ins” across the globe (and continue to do so), highlighting this all-too-serious doomsday scenario. Such events and research often lead to the couching of ecologically-focussed literature and film in what Alexander Rehding describes as ”apocalyptic” terms: “this orientation toward crisis makes sense, as it endows the literary products with political relevance, powerful realism, and—in a very literal sense—sublime terror. The earth needs to be saved, right now.” Timothy Clarke asserts the value of ecocriticism with a similar call to arms: “the new artistic and critical task is to make ‘real’ or make felt on the human scale all these alarming but also boring statistics on the planet’s condition.” The problem with such approaches, understandable as they are, is that, instead of serving as calls to action, they lead to a hopeless inertia, since the enormity of the task makes personal and individual action seem fruitless while also engendering fearful paralysis. Communication strategist Nicky Hawkins suggested recently that “we’re stuck in a climate disaster movie—and it’s not even a very good one… Our response is predictable: we switch off.” Instead we should move on from “chastisement and detachment” and focus on stories that suggest possible ways to save our planet, telling and retelling them “in ever more interesting and inspiring ways.” Tree People adopts this approach, appealing to the power of hope and memory, since ecological action is often driven by the nostalgic imagination and, as Hawkins suggests, stories of real and inspiring efforts to make change. In the service of such positive ecological consciousness-raising, the penetrating, enveloping presence of sound and its capacity to almost “touch” us only to explode a multitude of responses, is an all-important tool. Motivation to act positively (or even act at all) in the face of such daunting events and predictions requires something more than information and “instruction;” it needs a positive, emotive, even transcendental power, and as Steven Connor has said, sound comes towards us such that “we cannot listen without taking into ourselves the sounds we hear” and so has a very real physical power, while remaining “mysterious.” It is, of course, the ineffable power of musical sound that can potentially “move, shake and touch us” most of all.

Tree People’s account of 50 years of tree-planting by the Colne Valley Tree Society (CVTS)—at the edge of the wild Pennine moors, West Yorkshire, in the north of England—and the consequent transformation of a once relatively barren and scarred post-industrial landscape is a positive story. It reveals and charts the change to a quite heavily wooded valley in its lower reaches, and a lush “green lung” for its    increasingly densely-populated surroundings. Though not explicit in the film and not part of the original vision of CVTS, tree planting is now widely recognised as helping in atmospheric carbon dioxide reduction—recent research suggests that it is “by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis.” The film draws on nostalgic memories of the valley’s vibrant industrial past, of the teeming, smoke spewing woollen mills (early carbon dioxide contributors of course) and bustling villages, but also on the pre-industrial era in which myth has it that a squirrel could travel the seven miles down the valley, leaping from branch to branch without touching the ground. The film’s focus is on the natural landscape, planters’ testimony, society history and actual tree planting activities. It shows that though the laying to waste of woodland in the industrial revolution put paid to the squirrel’s journey, concerted, long-term and completely voluntary effort in planting 400,000 trees since 1964, has made it almost a possibility again.

Winter CVTS planting scene above Butterley Reservoir, Colne Valley, Huddersfield, UK.
Documentary film has many modes, from propaganda to “factual” to impressionistic, from didactic mainstream, to art-house experimentation. Though wedded to truth-telling, Tree People is, in a sense, propaganda—a celebration, even—but its mode is largely impressionistic, with music and sound playing a prominent functional role. Its basis is not in telling but in showing and making the viewer feel something, as much as understanding it. As far back as the 1930s, in documentary films like Night Mail (1936), with its score by a young Benjamin Britten and poetry by W. H. Auden, pioneers like John Grierson realised the power of artistically-driven evocation aided by the use of music, rather than word-heavy “telling.” Also drawing upon Auden, Coal Face (1935) goes beyond conventional music in its depiction of coal mining in Britain, with Britten scoring an ensemble of noise-making instruments to mimic and enhance on-screen events. I have written how this foreshadows, both practically and theoretically, Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète, where a sound’s source becomes secondary, or even irrelevant, to the timbral aesthetics of the sounding “object” itself. In the 1960s, promotional films about Scottish industry continued this tradition. Scores were commissioned by the likes of Iain Hamilton and Frank Spedding and, in a series of later edits, Grierson reduced the footage of films like Seawards the Great Ships (1960) and The Heart of Scotland (1962) to image and music alone. For him, the “magic” of documentary is not in its discussion and verbal instruction but in its aesthetic capacity to inform and inspire through appealing to what he described as the “imaginative life of the people.” The way the music of Hamilton and Spedding (and intriguingly, the services of Alfred Hitchcock) are used to this end is discussed in my article on the output of Films of Scotland. This musicological research into the highways and byways of the British documentary movement has had a deep influence on my own practice. Beyond Tree People, Mill Study (Cox and Marley, 2017), is a short film also made in Colne Valley about Spa Mill, one of its few surviving woollen mills, which aided by spoken poetry by Andrew MacMillan, explores its sights and sounds.

Milnsbridge, Colne Valley, 1930s. Very few woollen mills are active today.

Tree People strikes a balance between informing the viewer and inspiring them through artistic representation, driven by sound and music. The balance between more conventional exposition and artistic expression was a fine one to strike and quite subtle audiovisual manipulation proved very important in creating convincing juxtapositions and a satisfying temporal flow. The sonic strategies employed proved especially important and range from traditionally scored music (piano, and brass band), to electronic drones derived from piano string resonances; from vocal fragments naming tree species and locations (taken from participant interviews) randomly manipulated by complex software processes, to location recordings employed as much in the spirit of musique concrète, as realistic depictions of the events and environments seen. The sounds’ functions are multiple: the conjuring of a sense of place by location recordings, and musical contours that mimic the hilly landscape, recorded by Slaithwaite Brass Band in a band room overlooking the valley; the suggestion of the longevity of the planters’ task, the evoking of the slow growth of trees and the momentous history of the valley, by extended atmospheric drones; and the poetic abstraction of the spoken word by the erratically rhythmic naming of trees and places. Even the interviews to camera with the tree planters themselves are chosen and juxtaposed with a musical sensibility and attention given to complimentary vocal timbres, accent, and in the case of an archive recording, the nostalgic grain of the recording medium itself. By the end of the film, the story of the Society and its efforts is told and hopefully understood, but the lasting impression is engendered by sound, as much as image—sound that encompasses commemorative and relatively accessible music, as well as cutting-edge electronic abstraction and the affective grain of the voice, its penetrative powers engaging the audience in an emotive rather than cognitive sense.

The film seeks a local as well as an international audience, its themes both parochial and outward-looking in its search to find the universal in the particular. In ecomusicological terms, as Rehding suggests, “the commemorative and community-building powers of music in the service of ecological approaches, offer exciting prospects” and the use of a local brass band in the score is aimed at such community building and commemoration. The sound of the band also inspires the nostalgic imagination: Slaithwaite Band, formed as a wind band in 1819, was probably the first in the area and has been in continuous operation ever since. It is thus a living tradition and joins the electronic and abstract timbres and software-driven techniques that speak more to worldwide contemporary musical creation, in uniting past and present to offer a positive ecological vision of the future. The slowly evolving main brass theme that occurs at the midpoint of the film (and played on piano only at the start), suggests a dirge-like doggedness, rooted in the past. But its searching, restless harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts and gradually increasingly dense and dissonant textures suggest forward if slightly unsettling motion: this is not just about what has been but what is continuing and what will be—an increasingly wooded and verdant landscape.

Original piano score of the opening of the main theme from Tree People.

Page 1 of the main theme from Tree People scored for brass band.

Media researcher John Corner has spoken about how sound and music in documentary can help “connect knowing to feeling and hearing to viewing” as part of the “continuing exploration of the role of art in the quest for understanding,” suggesting that “knowing” is not simply found via information, generally conveyed through words, but that such felt understanding can be gained through emotional connection conveyed in artistic terms. Tree People strikes a balance between Corner’s idea of documentary’s capacity to be “sensual and intellectual, referentially committed yet often possessed of a dreamlike potential for the indirectly suggestive and associative,” Grierson’s desire to tap into the “magic” of the “imaginative life of the people” and Hawkins’ call in the time of climate crisis, for “stories that bring to life our capacity to dream big and get things done.” Trees take a long time to grow so the endeavours of CVTS’s past are only now becoming fully apparent. The film emphasises these visionary pioneers but also the continuing autonomous, voluntary effort, working outside of any official bodies, and shows what can be achieved in this way.

Tree People still: looking west down the valley to Marsden village showing summer tree cover, much of which has resulted from CVTS planting since 1964.


Geoffrey Cox is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Huddersfield, a filmmaker, and composer of both acoustic and electronic music with a focus on its application to documentary film sound; he is also an inveterate tree planter.

For a more detailed exposition of Tree People see ‘Planting Sounds: re-framing the acoustic environment in Tree People (2014), the story of the Colne Valley Tree Society


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Lil Nas X, the “Old Town Road,” and the (f)utility of genre labels

By Jeremy Orosz

“Old Town Road,” a country-trap<1> hit by 20-year-old rapper Lil Nas X, has become the unofficial soundtrack of 2019.<2> The song has held the coveted top spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 for the past 13 weeks—a feat no other hip hop or country single has achieved<3>—and it is on pace to become the first song this century to reach Diamond certification (10 million sales and streams) while still a #1 hit.<4> Consumer demand for both the original version and the remix alike seems insatiable:

Given the recent headlines surrounding Lil Nas X’s decision to come out publicly as gay, it may now seem a distant memory that mere months ago, the song’s rise to fame reignited fiery debates surrounding race and genre in contemporary music.  In late March, as the song was gaining in popularity, the powers-that-be at Billboard decided to remove “Old Town Road” from the country charts—much to the artist’s dismay, who had marketed the tune as a country track. Rolling Stone noticed the song’s quiet disappearance from the charts, and reported on March 26 that, according to an anonymous Billboard executive,

“upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”<5>

On the one hand, this decision should be uncontroversial, at least as far as OTR’s sonic elements are concerned; although Lil Nas X insists that his song is both country and trap—not one or the other<6>—Billboard is perhaps correct that, despite the eclectic mix of generic signifiers in the song, it is more of a hip hop/trap tune with country topoi (in both text and music) than the other way around.<7>  We might use the same “it’s more blueish-green than greenish-blue” reasoning to argue that Run-DMC’s “Rock Box” is a rap song with prominent rock elements while Rage Against the Machine’s “Testify” is rap influenced rock.  Yet conflating genre with style is of course a mistake; genre labels are notoriously unreliable at grouping music into coherent stylistic categories. True, if one uses historical style markers like the use of steel guitar and fiddle as a barometer, “Old Town Road” seems a poor fit for country radio.  But the same can be said of songs by Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line, whose recent hits are indistinguishable from contemporary pop.

This song held the top spot on the US country charts for 34 weeks:

And this was #1 for 50(!) weeks:

Although Billboard maintains that race was not a factor in the decision to remove “Old Town Road,” recent history belies this claim.<8> In this past decade, autotune, electronic beats, and even rapped vocals have been regular features on the country charts in the music of white artists;<9> Lil Nas X, however, faced unceremonious exile from the genre for including the very same elements in a nominal country song.  If the music of Darius Rucker is any indication, black artists—until quite recently—were most likely to find success on the country airwaves by producing songs that do little to push the boundaries of the genre. Rucker’s top-performing country hit is his 2013 cover of Appalachian favorite “Wagon Wheel;” none of his original tunes, have reached higher than #30 on the country charts, and even this modest success is likely a residual benefit of his previous life as the singer of Hootie and the Blowfish.

The historical racialization of genre in American popular music is hardly a story that needs re-telling at this late date. Countless episodes, both recent and distant, attest to the singular importance of race in genre assignment. Compare two crooning ballads that became major hits some two decades ago, Brian McKnight’s “Back at One” and Lonestar’s “Amazed:”

These songs have plenty in common stylistically with one another, yet the former was classified as R&B, and the latter as country. This categorization seems all the more arbitrary when we consider that Mark Wills’ cover of “Back to One” achieved nearly equal acclaim as a country song, and that “Amazed” has enjoyed several chart resurgences through various R&B covers.10> Such cases demonstrate that the very same song can be repackaged for a different listening public with only minimal modification to the music if it is sung by an artist who looks the part for their genre. None of this is to deny the role of sonic signifiers in genre identification, yet if style were the only factor considered, there would be no such category as “Blue Eyed Soul.”<11> It is equally telling that there is a well-known euphemism for “white soul artist,” while—to the detriment of Lil Nas X’s career—no comparable designation for “black country singer” exists.

Regardless of how “Old Town Road” sounds, had a song with the same stylistic components been recorded by Jason Aldean or Cole Swindell, there seems little chance that it would have been banished from the country charts. Even if the remix of “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus had been released a few weeks sooner, perhaps Billboard would not have been so hasty to deem the song inadmissible for mainstream country radio.  The controversy over Lil Nas X makes it clear that the now-abandoned chart categories of “race” and “hillbilly” music are hardly a quaint vestige of an earlier time; the racial and stylistic presumptions underlying these now passé monikers still inform the genre divisions in operation today.

Billboard nevertheless seems to have learned their lesson from mishandling of “Old Town Road.”  Remarkably, two songs by black artists currently hold Top-10 spots on the country charts: “Good As You” by Kane Brown (by now, an established country star) and—more significantly—“The Git Up,” an ironic (and perhaps parodic) treatment of a Western line dance by new artist Blanco Brown.  The latter is a truly remarkable earworm that will surely become a fixture of wedding-party playlists:

 "Old Town Road” of course paved the way for the meteoric rise of “The Git Up,” and the enduring popularity of both songs suggests that more black artists will try to catch lightning in a bottle by adopting the same cowboy aesthetic. Whether our genre system is prepared to accommodate it, however, remains to be seen.

<1>Thanks are due to the many students of mine, who brought the song “Old Town Road”—and the controversy surrounding it—to my attention. Trap is a sub-genre of rap associated with the American south, most especially Lil Nas X’s hometown of Atlanta, GA.  The music of Jeezy (formerly Young Jeezy) epitomizes the trap style.
<2>The story of Lil Nas X’s sudden rise to celebrity is provided in several journalistic venues.  See especially Joe Coscarelli, "‘Old Town Road’: See How Memes and Controversy Took Lil Nas X to No. 1.”
T<3>he previous record for a hip hop song was 12 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100. See
<4>Lil Nas X celebrated the Diamond certification of his single prematurely:
<5>Elias Light, “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind.”
<6>When asked about the song’s sudden removal from the country charts, Lil Nas X told Time, “The song is country trap.  It’s not one, it’s not the other.  It’s both.  It should be on both [charts].”
<7>Consider also Caramanica’s view that “‘Old Town Road’ isn’t quite fully country or hip-hop, at least not in the ways those genres taxonomize themselves. It’s something far more slippery, slithering between the two spaces and arriving at pop novelty.”
<9>For more in-depth discussion on the influence of hip hop on country music, see my forthcoming article on this topic: “‘Straight outta Nashville’: Hip-Hop Allusions in Contemporary Country Music,” Popular Music and Society, 43.
<10>Most prominent, perhaps, is Boyz II Men’s 2009 cover. Of note, while serving as a judge on The Sing-Off, Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman reported that “Amazed” was first offered to his group to perform before Lonestar recorded it. This claim is certainly plausible, though little evidence corroborates it.
<11>This term is associated with artists such as The Righteous Brothers, Hall and Oates, and Sam Smith.


Jeremy Orosz is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Memphis

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Practical and Engaging Alternatives to the Music History Research Paper

By Esther M. Morgan-Ellis and Kristen Strandberg

When Erinn E. Knyt wrote about alternatives to the traditional research paper in her 2013 article for the Journal of Music History Pedagogy, she observed that she was “certainly not the first to address problems surrounding the final research paper assignment in music history classrooms.” Half a decade later, the present authors aim to continue this discussion, the relevance of which has not diminished with the passing of time. Music history instructors continue to value writing and research, and we are relentless in our efforts to cultivate these skills in our students.

The “problems surrounding the final research paper assignment,” as Knyt put it, have been well documented. Instructors report that students don’t possess the necessary research skills, are not prepared to engage critically with the material, do not understand the objectives, are not interested in their topics, don’t perceive value in the assignment, become overwhelmed by the scope of the project, or simply procrastinate. At the same time, few instructors are willing to abandon such assignments. In his 2011-2012 study of college music history classes, Matthew Baumer found that instructors placed a high value on skills associated with “the final research paper assignment.” These included the ability to find and evaluate sources, to construct a compelling thesis, and to write a substantial and well-documented research paper.

Some of the problems surrounding the research paper can be addressed by providing students with the guidance that they require and by clearly communicating the purpose of the assignment. It’s usually worth taking class time to demonstrate how to use online and on-site library resources, or how to cite properly. When class size and teaching loads make it possible, instructors can cultivate good writing and thinking with in-depth personalized feedback. Some students might also benefit from in-class guided writing time, incremental deadlines, or detailed rubrics. Even in larger classes, many of the assignments below aim to build similar skills. Finally, it falls on the instructor to explain why the labor is worthwhile and convince students that their efforts will pay off.

However, many of us have found that alternative research and writing assignments inspire students to do better work. This may be because these projects provide a break from the norm, or it may be because students perceive certain alternative assignments as being more relevant to their career goals, skill sets, or desired learning outcomes. Following our own interest in building real-world skills through accessible and engaging writing assignments, we solicited further ideas from other pedagogues. Below you’ll find a collection of assignment descriptions. Upon testing in the classroom, the authors have observed that these assignments were popular with students and resulted in the submission of high-quality work.

These project ideas each satisfy at least one major goal of the traditional research paper assignment. Many of them emphasize the “research” element, but require that students go beyond the review of secondary literature and actually contribute to the body of scholarly knowledge. Others--such as the Grant Proposal, Program Notes, or Encyclopedia Entry--emphasize the “paper” element, but lead students to develop writing skills that will be immediately relevant to their careers as performers and educators. Finally, some of these projects transcend traditional media and ask students to convey knowledge through channels other than the printed word.

All of these projects give serious consideration to the question of audience. Engagement with an “authentic audience” is central to the practice of social pedagogies, which lead students to write for each other, the public, or other scholars--not for their instructor. Students who engage in this process are more likely to see their coursework as relevant, better equipped to perceive the limitations of knowledge, and quicker to make connections between disparate courses, ideas, and problems. Social pedagogies will be directly addressed in several of the project descriptions that follow. Many of these assignments also culminate in publication or presentation. When students know that their work will be preserved, disseminated, and consumed, the task of writing for a music history class becomes more than an academic exercise. In addition, these approaches often produce better quality writing. Rather than attempting to produce an essay using what they perceive as academic language, students write clearly and directly for a specific audience.

Interview-Based Research Project

Students can conduct original research by interviewing creators of the art that they study. These might be composers, songwriters, performers, producers, or other individuals who can provide unique insight. The interview should not be a stand-alone product, but rather a source in support of an argument or analysis that also draws upon secondary research. Such interviews usually constitute single-subject studies and therefore do not require Institutional Review Board approval—a tedious process that is probably not appropriate in most courses.

My Music History III (1900-present) students interview composers and engage with their music. By doing so, they move beyond the canon and learn about the working and creative lives of professionals in their field. I have described this project here and examined its effectiveness here. My students either present their work at a conference or write for publication in an undergraduate research journal. A number of my students have had excellent experiences presenting at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research, for which our institution makes travel funds available on a competitive basis. I have also worked with one of my colleagues to organize the annual Research on Contemporary Composition Conference, which brings scholars and composers to campus to present work alongside some of my students. While facilitating a conference is a lot of work, students report that participating in this event has a transformative impact on their perceptions of contemporary music, academic work, and their own potential as scholars. We invite undergraduate submissions from other institutions.

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis

Research Blogs

If blogging is a helpful way for scholars to work through issues in their research, so too should it prove helpful for scholars-in-training. In this assignment, students contribute a hefty number of posts (6-10) to a coursewide website, with each post serving as a kind of “show-and-tell” for a particular primary source. The website can be public, leveraging social pedagogies, or it can be private; either way, students are responsible for reading and synthesizing each other’s posts in brief, in-class presentations (called “round-ups” - h/t Hannah Lewis). The instructor specifies a different primary source collection to serve as the students’ “archive” for the week, with each collection corresponding in some way to one of the course topics covered in that week. Since blogging is low-stakes and iterative, it serves well as practice for a higher-stakes final product such as a traditional research paper or, in the spirit of alternatives to papers, a campus-wide exhibit featuring the primary sources that students uncovered through their work. This assignment works best in smaller, upper-level undergraduate courses or in graduate courses.

With various parts of this assignment “public” (whether with respect to the class or the wider community), students have multiple opportunities to experiment with writing and presenting for an audience beyond their professor, which has been shown to increase student engagement and motivation. And students who later seek fellowships or admission to graduate school or jobs will be able to show evidence of their intellectual and practical skills through either their public post or their part of the library exhibit. (I have started linking to particularly excellent student blog posts in my letters of recommendation.) Best of all, in the case of a public exhibit, students can experience the gratification that comes when we conduct humanistic research for the purposes of informing public discourse and educating a broader audience (#publicmusicologyFTW).

Louis Epstein

Grant Proposal

For this assignment, students propose a concert series, music festival, or other musical activity for the local public, backing up their ideas with what they have learned throughout the semester. The proposal consists of: 1) Overview, 2) Budget, 3) Rationale/value (the “meat” of the proposal, in which they need to justify their project with supporting evidence from external sources and their own studies), and 4) Marketing Plan. The grant proposal can be assigned as a group project or an individual project. In the case of group work, students split up the actual writing of each segment, although all group members should actively participate in planning every component. Depending on the topic and purpose of the grant proposal, this project may be less historically-driven and may engage less with existing scholarship than other assignments, although there is flexibility and potential for shifting the assignment parameters to fit your course’s objectives.

I assigned the grant proposal as a group project in the senior seminar for music majors. The major challenge of this course at my institution is that it also must fulfill our students’ world music requirement. Yet, I have found ways to emphasize connections between global versus local music, and music of the past versus present, so that the course functions as a culmination of their college experience. In this course, students designed a community musical event or series based on one of the themes in Kay Kaufman Shelemey’s book, Soundscapes, such as “Music and Migration,” “Music and Politics,” or “Music and Ritual.” Students expressed their appreciation for this project and felt that it was directly useful to them in their future careers. I brought in a marketing professor, as well as my campus’s grant-writing expert, to discuss portions of the project, which was very useful to all of us. The project resulted in clear, direct, and persuasive writing, and the students were extremely invested in their fictitious plans—one group even made t-shirts advertising their planned event, which they wore during their presentation to the class.

Kristen Strandberg

Program Notes

Have your students put their knowledge and research skills to work by writing program notes. These can be notes to accompany an actual performance by a school ensemble or student soloist, or they can suit a themed program put together by the author. Many musicologists do not seem to be fond of program notes, but they are a reality of professional life and many music majors will be called upon to produce them in the future. Help your students to do the job well! Encourage them to take an opinionated yet scholarly approach to the subject matter, and guide them in putting their research skills to use. Consider requiring citations, even though doing so is not common practice in the field.

This assignment, in combination with a grant-writing project similar to that described above, forms the foundation of a semester-long sequence in which my students plan a concert, complete an application for funding, and create a physical program, complete with a cover, list of works, and statement of artistic intent. I require that most of the works come from the time period under study, and I set a high bar for program cohesiveness and creativity. I adapt questions from a real grant application used by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and require that my students include a well-researched budget. While my students work individually, this project could also be completed by teams. One of my objectives is to encourage the future performers and educators in my class to program interesting concerts and consider how they might go about engaging audiences. The best projects are creative and meaningful, such as a recent program intended to demonstrate the value of music education and boost support for public school music programs. By the conclusion of the semester, students have put into practice a wide variety of professional skills.

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis

Annotated Playlist

In my women musicians course the final project is an annotated playlist that asks students to take seriously the work of their chosen musician by devoting time, thought, and effort to describing that artist’s musical materials, performances, and intentions. The course is a mix of music majors (often freshmen and sophomores who haven’t yet taken the music history survey) and non-majors representing a wide range of fields and undergraduate stages. The playlist is designed to introduce an artist chosen by the student from any time, place, or genre to a music-loving audience who may not be familiar with that artist’s work. Students write liner notes in which they frame basic biographical and historical information about their musician with ideas from secondary literature, materials from the course, personal experience, and/or reception history. The bulk of the assignment is the playlist itself. Students select five tracks on the basis of historical importance; representation of or departure from the musician’s style; personal connection to the piece; striking, beautiful, or otherwise compelling sounds; illustration of course concepts or concepts from the liner notes; or comparison with other versions of the song. Students annotate each track with a musical description that develops an interpretation of the piece. The assignment is also scaffolded throughout the semester; students write multiple drafts of project components and engage in peer reviews, and they also design a final presentation in which they present on one selection from the playlist in its entirety.

Students not only practice vocabulary of musical description but also deploy it as a means of expressing musical meanings, a notoriously challenging skill for music majors and non-majors alike. Non-majors in the course--even those who are accomplished musicians--often express a learning bottleneck of “not knowing the right words” to describe what they hear in a piece of music, and they have historically found the assignment initially daunting. As the semester progresses, they are excited to discover that they have always been capable of putting their musical experiences into words. The assignment helps them practice vocabulary, but more significantly, students give themselves permission to put forth their own interpretations and ideas about musical sounds. For music majors who will write a research paper in more advanced undergraduate courses, this assignment introduces them to basic music research, writing, and bibliography skills, and, just as importantly, it empowers them to listen outside the canon as they develop recitals, projects, and other research writing throughout their musical careers.

Katherine Altizer

Student-Developed Pedagogical Materials

One way to reap the benefits of social pedagogies without opening your students’ work to the general public is to ask students to generate teaching materials for future students. (I exhort my students to “Think of the children!” and it seems to motivate them to do better work.)  Along the same lines as the video assignment described below, I’ve asked my students to create screencasts on particular pieces with the intention that the screencasts replace or supplement my lectures in future iterations of the class. I call the assignment “Best Lecture Ever!” and it requires carefully structured group work, research, iterative writing, and the acquisition of video editing skills. A less intensive version with the same teach-it-forward idea is to have students create digital, media-rich timelines or narrative maps using free online tools. Again, they have to do traditional research, but the format of the final product tends to be more engaging (although instructors should caution against gratuitous use of design possibilities) for those making and consuming them. The best student work could truly be used in future iterations of the class (see, for example, this timeline of performances of H.T. Burleigh’s songs at Carnegie Hall, and two separate StoryMaps of Josephine Baker’s career), saving instructors the effort of preparing such tools and imbuing the student creators with the pride of knowing that they created something that continues to serve a purpose beyond their own time in the class.

Louis Epstein


Have your students create a collaborative resource for the entire class to use. Each student can select a narrow topic on which to write an encyclopedia entry. Keep the entries short and focused. After several rounds of revision, compile all of the entries into a class “encyclopedia” and distribute it to the students. They can then cite the encyclopedia as a source in other writing projects or use it to study for quizzes and exams. Retain the best entries from year to year and have each new class add to the resource.

I use this assignment in Music History I (pre-1750). Students in this class tend to struggle with unfamiliar concepts and terms, and they find the textbook overwhelming. (The Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition coverage of early music is perhaps too thorough for the average undergraduate.) By having each student tackle one subject, the material becomes more accessible and they are able to help one another. The fact that their work will be published for their peers and possibly passed on to the next class inspires them to give their best effort. One warning: This assignment invites plagiarism, so be sure to clarify with your students what constitutes plagiarism and how/why to avoid it. I explain to students that their task is to master a topic, discover what seems interesting or important about it, and then share what they learned by creating a historical narrative from a unique perspective. I also suggest that producing original writing will help their exam grades, since this process will make them much more likely to absorb and retain knowledge. Finally, I encourage originality by grading on improvement between the draft and final product. In this way, even weak writers can earn good grades.

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis

Music Magazine

In this assignment, students work in small groups with each group member contributing individual articles to a fictitious magazine about music in a historical time and place. Students might, for example, write a magazine for audiences in Elizabethan England, with articles about composers, contemporary religious debates, instruments, or musical genres. Articles may take the form of concert reviews, pedagogical or instructional writing, opinion pieces, or theoretical treatises, among other formats. Articles such as concert reviews may be fictitious, but must be based on real historical evidence from actual works, ensembles, etc. Images and cartoons are encouraged, but do not contribute to a student’s page count (specifying a word count, rather than page count, would also clarify the requirement).

Students appreciate the balance of specific instruction versus flexibility in this project. Group meetings with the instructor to discuss a plan, including the magazine’s setting (time/place) and each person’s contributions, also ensure a clear trajectory. Even though students are required to use scholarly sources, I have found that I must explicitly discourage students from writing simple composer biographies. Overall, the assignment provides a fun, creative opportunity for students to write in a journalistic style from the perspective of a historical person for a historical audience.

Kristen Strandberg

The Impersonation Paper

Students can become especially engaged with short research assignments when asked to assume the perspective of a particular historical figure and create a fictional primary source document summarizing their research on that perspective in the first person. There are many perspectives from which to research and write: an audience member at an important historical premiere; a composer or musician commenting on a contemporaneous controversy or debate; an administrator or government official navigating the politics of visiting performers or concert programming. And the resulting fictional primary sources can take the form of a private letter, a letter to the editor, a bureaucratic memorandum, or a public manifesto.  This assignment can also be an effective launching point for classroom discussions and debates about matters of more global concern.

One particularly rewarding assignment began as an experiment in my graduate seminar on Nineteenth-Century Music. The class was comprised of people from very diverse backgrounds (theorists, composers, performers, musicologists, music educators, etc.). Although I had held classroom debates about the New German School versus the traditionalists in the past, having students prepare in advance with an impersonation paper proved to be most effective. A week prior to the scheduled debate, I asked each student in the class to select their favorite historical figure from a list I provided of people involved in the issues. Each student was then asked to research their chosen/assigned figure (including their life, music, and personal writings) and write a brief (2-3 page) research report in the first person. They were required to succinctly summarize their opinion about program versus absolute music. Part of the requirement was that they discuss/mention/briefly analyze at least one piece of music and provide at least one quote from a primary source.  Students pretended to be figures such as Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Brendel, Fanny Hensel, Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, and Richard Wagner. Students turned in their written assignments the day of the scheduled debate, but also had to briefly and succinctly summarize their views in the first person orally in class prior to what turned out to be a lively debate that challenged conceptions of the spectrum of music created and the views/values held in the period.

This type of writing assignment can be applied to any period in history and to any style of music. (Here are sample assignments from a class on 1920s French music.) It can be used in undergraduate or graduate seminars, and it works best when there is a particular controversy to explore, such as French versus Italian language opera or the Artusi-Monteverdi debates, and when there are plenty of English translations of primary source material available. In larger classes, the assignment could be given with the expectation that there would be no chance for follow-up classroom discussions/debates.

Erinn E. Knyt and Louis Epstein

Travel Portfolio

In #Latergrams, a course on Early Modern Europe designed by Giovanni Zanovello and myself and taught by Zanovello, we offer students a metaphor: studying history is like taking a trip, and on a trip one often documents experiences as a means of both sharing and processing memories. Our daily, modular, and final assessments thus resemble a digital travel album through which students engage with a wide variety of sounding events throughout Early Modern Europe, including listening to Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus and Obrecht’s St. Donatian Mass, experiencing street music in Bruges, and visiting Petrucci’s workshop. In our flipped classroom students engage with a secondary source on the day’s topic prior to class, and during class they rotate through a series of in-class Travel Assignments.

Each daily Travel Assignment requires students to engage in a unique way with the secondary sources and an electronic archive we developed of images, music, and primary sources. For the Selfie+Instagram, students swap their faces into historical paintings or photographs of historical buildings and settings, also writing short accompanying captions and hashtags to reflect their perspective on being emplaced. In addition to being one of the most fun assignments, the Selfie requires students both to engage historical imagination and to capture something essential about the event in imagery and succinct language. The Blog Post asks students to write about the day’s sounding event from a first-person perspective as an historical traveler or as a participant in the event, which meant they not only have to develop a narrative for the event but also can engage multiple senses to communicate an embodied experience. For the Coffee Date, students record themselves conversing with each other about the meaning of the day’s event. They are free to use informal language, speak about ideas as they emerge naturally in conversation, and express metacognitive thoughts about the event. Finally, students writing Tomorrow’s Headlines review the other Travel Assignments, all of which were posted on a collaborative digital platform, to summarize and reflect on the class’s perspectives on the event. In addition to these smaller daily assignments, students write short three-to-five-page essays throughout the semester and also compile a reflexive final portfolio.

These assignments engage skills foundational to the music history classroom:  practicing synthesis of facts and ideas; developing frameworks for encountering primary and secondary sources; stretching historical imagination and empathy; cultivating an intimate sense of place and context; generating, examining, and returning to their own ideas about music and history throughout the semester; and engaging in vivid discussion of the experience and materials of sounding events. By design, the assignments encourage authentic learning by helping students  develop these skills working with the very media they might use to document their actual travels (and much else): Instagram, blogs, video blogs, etc.  A flipped classroom enables Zanovello to provide quality control; students did the most difficult work during class time when he was able to advise on historical facts and perspectives.  While our subject is Early Modern Europe and while we focused on sounding events rather than repertories and styles, these assignments and the metaphor of a trip are transferable to multiple places, times, and musics.

Katherine Altizer


The podcast assignment is essentially a short paper disguised as a fun, interactive assignment. The project will culminate in a written transcript of the podcast and a recording in which the student reads their transcript with the addition of any musical/sound examples that will help  illustrate the topic. I have typically instituted a draft and revision process for these short papers. I set the word count at around 1,000 words, which allows for a podcast of around 6-8 minutes. I have at times discussed recording options with media experts at my institution, though in recent years all students owned phones or computers with recording and sound editing capabilities.

I have assigned variants of the Podcast in several classes, from 100-level courses for non-majors to upper-level music history courses. It can also be used as a larger culminating course project, as described here. This is an engaging project that has been successful on several levels. First, students have a lot of fun with it. I’ve seen some very creative student work and we listen to some of the podcasts together in class (with permission from the student authors). Second, when students read their writing out loud they hear their grammatical quirks and run-on sentences. I often tell students to read their own writing for this reason, but the recorded medium pushes them to write carefully. Finally, students build skills beyond research and learn how to write for broader audiences.

Kristen Strandberg

A variation on the podcast-for-the-professor assignment is to leverage the power of social pedagogies and tell students that all (or at least the best) podcasts will be released to a wider audience, whether the campus community, or through iTunes, to anyone willing to listen. Students might model their work on Critical Karaoke’s “A Day in the Life” series or Switched on Pop. Beyond creating an authentic audience, students might also produce their podcasts as we’d like them to produce papers: as the result of an iterative, reflective process, with ample opportunity to revise. My podcast assignment requires first and final drafts of a short research paper, a podcast script (in which students start to imagine incorporating sound effects and sound clips), and a high-quality recording captured in a campus soundbooth and edited in Audacity or other audio editing software. Students have to work hard, but as there is no additional final paper, the work is equivalent to what they would normally do - and it’s easy to distribute deadlines over many weeks. Most importantly, the results make it all worthwhile.

Louis Epstein


A large group of students (perhaps an entire class) can work together to create a video. This project creates the opportunity for participants to take on roles that are relevant to their strengths and interests. Students might complete research, write narrative scripts, read those scripts, collect images, stage dramatic reenactments, study and perform music, engineer recordings, compile the final video, or direct the project. In this kind of project, students are responsible to one another. Each has a unique role, and the project can only succeed if every student fulfills their responsibilities. While a certain percentage of students are sure to grumble about this “group project,” it teaches skills in research, writing, and collaboration.

I had my entire class work together to create a video about Hildegard of Bingen for the website Women in Art Music, a project developed by Rebecca Cypess of Rutgers University. I have written about the experience here and posted my assignment here. This website publishes videos that are 1) created by undergraduate researchers and 2) feature new research, usually presented in the form of an interview with a scholar. Students in my class wrote questions for Margot Fassler and integrated her filmed responses into the video, which otherwise consisted of a narrative, images, and musical performances. I engaged an outside specialist to fact-check the script, but otherwise I played only a small editorial role and delegated all responsibility to the students. Most students who participated in this project found it valuable and recommended that it become a regular component of the course.

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis is Associate Professor of Music at the University of North Georgia where she teaches music history, world music, music in Appalachia, and cello, and she directs the orchestra in Dahlonega.

Kristen Strandberg is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Evansville, where she teaches music history, world music, Music in America, Music in Film, and courses on topics in music including local history.