Music Politics Class: Tuning in With a Questioning Ear

Music is never just about beats and lyrics. Among other things, it is about understanding the values, prejudices and fantasies of our culture.

I love music because it is a vehicle for engaging with identity, history, politics, economics, geography, technology and literature through a creative and accessible outlet. It draws you in, fills you with emotion, and transports you — all the while expressing the deep cultural contradictions and philosophies that surround us.

This is what I hoped to bring to the students in my Music Politics class. At Eagle Rock, music is never hard to find; from daily community gatherings in the hearth to iPhone speakers on a picnic table at lunch, students are constantly performing and listening.

music politics class at eagle rock school

But how often do we actively listen, picking apart the music that we take for granted? My thinking was that we should have an academic space to analyze, interpret, argue, and express our musical preferences to one another. I knew I had much to learn from our students about their connections to music.

In Music Politics, students listen, analyze and discuss songs, thinking critically about race, gender, genre, technology, money and the stories of the artists behind the music. We structure our class around three learning targets:

  • History — describing the context behind various musical evolutions
  • Lyrics — analyzing how an artist communicates its intended meaning and worldview
  • Identity — discussing how a genre can reflect cultural identity.

Students have brought in a wealth of knowledge regarding many of these topics. For instance, for one assignment, they dissected important aspects of their own cultural identity and wrote about how their favorite artists relate to those identities through music.

Students are combining this prior knowledge with additional background lessons to formulate opinion pieces. They answer questions such as: “Is white rap culture the modern-day version of blackface minstrels?” “What are the similarities and differences between Disco and Electronic Dance Music?” “Do you believe sampling music is the same as plagiarism?” Our texts for the class range from music criticism to scholarly articles to music videos to Genius.com — an incredible lyric annotation tool.

These lessons culminate in a final audio project — or podcast. In this short piece, students had the opportunity to discuss one of their favorite artists or songs, analyzing the music through the lenses of history, lyrics and identity. Building off the foundation that began with our February radio Explore Week class, this final project enabled students to express their learning with their personal voice — literally! (Visit the Eagle Rock Page on Facebook after the 4th of July for a link to listen to the students final projects.)

My belief is that my Music Politics students have the tools to develop a culture at Eagle Rock of actively listening, dissecting and questioning the world around them — in music and beyond.

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2016-Eagle-Rock-School-Fellow-Michael-Grant-225x225About The Author: Michael Grant is the 2015/2016 Public Allies Teaching Fellow in Music at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo. Grant arrived at Eagle Rock after working with youth in a variety of contexts, stemming from his love of teaching, music and the outdoors. He has lead wilderness trips for high schoolers in Alaska and Europe, as well as singing classes for public school students in Boston. Most recently, Grant worked in education administration for the San Francisco Symphony. Originally from the Oregon, Grant studied music at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where he sang with and directed the all-male a cappella group, The Beelzebubs — or more fondly, the “Bubs.”

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