Final Projects that Promote Community and Career Development
I teach an upper-level class on the history of popular music in America called “The Evolution of the Popular Song.” The course is a requirement for Belmont’s students whose emphasis or major is in Songwriting – one of our most popular majors. With Nashville’s famous “Music Row” just across the street from our admissions building, there are many young people who come to Belmont to understand what makes a popular song “popular.” By creating a podcast, my students not only learn what features made past songs popular, but also learn to identify similar musical features in their own songs.
Before I started teaching the course, I familiarized myself with the required academic criteria. While I was acquainted with the required textbooks and assignments focusing on primary sources, I was taken aback to find out that there was no required paper to write. So many of our courses require a paper as the final research project for the course. I was very glad for this, because it left room for a creative research project that was more fitting for the student’s major. What is more, is that the research project I came up with has actually helped some of my students’ careers by getting their music out there and heard as a podcast.
I have implemented the project in my curriculum for two years now, and the students rave about how fun and creative it is.
During my long commutes in Nashville’s traffic, I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of my favorite sites for finding music podcasts, especially the music of up-and-coming musicians, is Song Exploder. Each podcast episode featured on Song Exploder showcases an original song by an artist or group, and a discussion of the artist’s career, influences, and individual stylistic features of their music. I love how the musicians talk over the music and then point out specific moments where they define how the lyrics are married to the features of the music, such as melody, harmony, dynamics, form, etc. I realized that this was the perfect final research project for my Songwriting majors. I have implemented the project in my curriculum for two years now, and the students rave about how fun and creative it is, as well as how the podcast gave them something that was “so much more than just a song” to give to their representatives at ASCAP, SESAC, BMI, or to talent scouts from labels who are interested in their music.
The project is broken down into stages: 1. Signing up with SoundCloud, 2. Uploading a song and giving feedback on classmates’ songs, and 3. Creating the podcast. First, students create a SoundCloud account if they do not already have one, and begin to work on uploading an original song. (The basic SoundCloud account is free.) When students first go to the SoundCloud site, they must click the orange “Sign-up” button on the top right corner of the screen. A pop-up screen will appear. There are three options for creating an account: they can sign up using Facebook, Google+, or email.
Once students are signed up, SoundCloud’s welcome screen will ask them to choose genres they want to hear in the categories of available songs. If they don’t want to bother with this task, they can choose the “Skip and Finish” button to bypass it. Each account must be verified before students can start uploading songs. They must check their email for a message from SoundCloud regarding the verification process. After clicking the link provided in the email, their account is created!
In the second stage of the project, students are asked to upload an original song. SoundCloud does not permit cover songs on the site due to licensing of the live streaming. Because my students are Songwriting majors, this is usually not a problem. Once students have uploaded their song, they must identify three important musical features of their song by adding comments on the song-player image. The students are allowed to use their textbooks and class handouts to help them correctly identify their musical features and use the correct musical terminology. SoundCloud is a great tool to use for uploading songs because it has so many help functions if the students are unsure of how to complete the song upload. I encourage the students to use settings such as “Permissions and Availability” in deciding how “public” they want their song to be. Students may choose to make their song available only to the class through private invitation. I also remind them to be sure the comments are turned on so that other students in the class may comment on their song. After each student comments on three places in their song where they identify a specific musical feature, they then comment on at least two other students’ songs and point out at least one musical feature they hear in the songs that has not already been described by the songwriters themselves.
After we have spent some time in the class discussing the songs and their musical features, student are then ready to create their podcast. Here, students create a new upload a file where they speak over their song (or in-between segments of it) to describe their songwriting process. Students are encouraged to focus on the musical features of their song, and how they relate back to musical features of songs of other styles we have learned about in the history of popular music in America. Students must describe at least three musical features in terms of a comparison to a song from the past with the same or similar feature. Once again, SoundCloud is great for those who are new to making podcasts by provided easy, step-by-step instructions.
When the students submit their final podcast, they must also turn in an electronic copy of their bibliography of sources they used when researching a history of their musical features, the songs from the past, past artists, albums, etc. that they used to create their project. For my grading criteria, each student must use at least three significant sources, including books, scholarly articles, Oxford Music Online, or other databases.
Students are then graded on a number of criteria. Students must use correct musical terminology in their comments and in their oral podcast when describing the musical features of their songs. I also check to see that students comment on the songs of at least two other students in the class identifying at least one musical feature that they heard in that song. Commenting on the work of fellow students helps foster a sense of community within the class. Students must describe the history of that style, feature, the artist who made the song, and a history of the past song itself in detail. Students also know that their comments should be appropriate, spelled correctly, and written for an audience of college-level music students.
Creative projects like podcasts create an environment of a learning community within the classroom, and on social media. I have been in awe of some of my students’ work. Here is an example podcast from one of my students (which I am sharing with her permission). At the same time, my students also appreciate the opportunity to complete a project so personal and creative. While SoundCloud projects have been a great success for Songwriting majors, there are podcast sites that are not specific to music. Students in the humanities and sciences can also benefit from creating research projects on podcasts with Archive.org, a site for podcasts as well as short films for any subject; OurMedia.org, a site specific to “digital storytelling,”; PodOmatic, a site like SoundCloud where a podcast can also be made directly on the site with access to social media through Facebook; or LibSyn, short for “Liberated Syndication,” one of the longest-running and most trusted podcast sites that hosts over 25,000 podcast episodes a year and 44 million monthly audience members. When students create research podcasts, they are not only displaying their research, creativity, and critical thinking for a professor or a class, rather, they have the ability to have their work heard by those in their intended profession, and throughout the world.