Teaching contemporary history and music with Spotify

For my new BA course on music and contemporary history I use Spotify for (collaborative) playlists. We started with an introduction on musicology, (global) music history and how historians have engaged and engage with music, followed by two contextual classes on functions, technologies and categorisations of music. In the remaining classes we will talk about intersections with politics, nationalism and nation building, class, youth culture, (post-)colonialism, migration, religion and gender.

I am very very happy to return to music & history since my MA thesis on Jewish instrumental music in the 1990s (‘klezmer’ nowadays) and I am educating myself as much as the students.

In addition to reading and listening, part of the (group) work for students will be to create and curate their own playlists about the main themes (I am aware of much of the valid criticism of Spotify from an artist point of view, but as a teaching tool it adds a dimension that would be difficult to add otherwise).


Edit 30 May 2021: the weekly classes have now ended, below is the complete set of playlists that we created during the course:


Music & History 1 - Introduction:

My playlist for the introductory class is intended to illustrate some of the big themes we will discuss in the course of the seminar. They relate to both the contextual topics (functions, technologies, categorisations) and the themes outlined above.


Music & History 2 - Functions and Technologies:

During this class we discussed functions of music as well as recording/mediation technologies and how they have changed music. As a hands-on exercise, I asked students to add songs to a collaborative playlist which, in their opinion, represented certain functions of music, or technologies. I added the Phonautograph recording of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville at the start to provide some inspiration and get them started.


Music & History 3 - Categorising music:

During this class we discussed the various ways in which music is categorised, including definitions of genre, and how that affects the ways in which people perceive, listen to and identify with music. As an exercise, students worked with Musicmap to explore genres and subgenres, and think about how they are constituted and interlinked, and what this could tell us about cultural contacts, subcultures, etc. The key thing was to think beyond formal characteristics of genre and consider its broader social aspects and effects.


Music & History 4 - Politics:

This was the first of the thematic classes and we started with the intersection of music and politics. By way of a mini in-class research assignment about music and cultural policy, students were asked to find information about, and document, the 1ère Biennale artistique et culturelle de la Jeunesse that took place in Mali in 1970.1 As usual, I asked the students to add a song to the playlist, either on this topic or the general theme of music and politics.


Music & History 5 - free week anything goes

This was a no-teaching week reserved for student & group work as well as individual feedback. The playlist was therefore not related to a theme but open for students (and myself) to share any music we felt like sharing. 


Music & History 6 - Nationalism

This thematic class dealt with the intersection of music and nationalism. Students were asked during one of the class exercises to think about examples.


Music & History 7 - Youth Culture and Class

This thematic class dealt with the intersection of music, youth culture and class. As usual, I asked the students to add a song to the playlist.


Music & History 8 - Colonialism and postcolonialism

This thematic class dealt with the intersection of music and colonialism/ postcolonialism. We discussed this in a very broad sense, and as a specific example the students read about Indorock (which also connected this theme with the previous youth culture class).2 I asked them to add a song to the playlist, either related to Indorock, or on the general theme of music and (post-)colonialism.


Music & History 9 - Migration

This thematic class dealt with the intersection of music and migration. Following a generic overview we focused on the important role that the children of socalled guest labourers ("Gastarbeiter") played in the development of rap in Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 


Music & History 10 - Gender and Religion 

This thematic class dealt with the intersection of music and gender & religion. 


Music & History 11 - Final session

This was the final session of the course. During the class I asked the students to watch the Dutch Eurovision 2021 entry by Jeangu Macrooy, Birth Of A New Age, a song that illustrates many of the themes we discussed in the seminar. Other songs on the playlist relate to the topics that the students write about in their final papers.


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