Songs of Love, State, and Self

13 November 2018
Megan Sarno, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music
Megan Sarno, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music

In her course Songs of Love, State, and Self, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Megan Sarno invites students to share their musical knowledge and creativity through public-facing podcasts. Professor Sarno has built her course around traditional music analysis and academic research, while also integrating digital tools and a web platform for students to share their work, making this class a good example of Digital Humanities across campus. Through research, reflection, and experimentation, students in this course will produce thoughtful and entertaining podcasts about music. Professor Sarno’s approach to this class was partially inspired by the work of her music colleagues at St. Olaf, who regularly incorporate music podcasts into their courses.

Professor Sarno also draws inspiration from two significant players in music history, Alexis Roland-Manuel and Leopold Stokowski. Roland-Manuel was a composer and well-known music critic, and Stokowski, a conductor of multiple high-profile orchestras, is most often recognized by his appearance in Disney’s Fantasia. Roland-Manuel and Stokowski both actively participated in public conversations about music, musical analysis, and criticism, and their opinions were shared with wide audiences through radio broadcasts. Their willingness to engage with public scholarship through the radio helped pave the way for a modern version of public musical reflection: the podcast.

Podcasts are a highly effective method for sharing information, and music naturally flows with the audio experience of podcasts, making the podcast an essential component of the student experience in Songs of Love, State, and Self. Professor Sarno’s course serves as an introduction to music analysis and understanding basic music structure, so the majority of her students students do not yet have the skills to read and critique written music. However, students often have the skills to recognize musical concepts by just listening to the pieces, and can use podcasts to comment on the song’s significance without referencing written scores. Podcasts give students a platform to highlight key moments in songs and contribute to music criticism in a different way. Professor Sarno aims to help give students the language and know-how to review music in a way that is both accurate and engaging to general audiences.

Students are free to select whichever songs they’d like to analyze, then they consider and investigate the basic musical structures that comprise the song, providing them with insight into the cultural impact of the music. Most of the students in Professor Sarno’s class are new to producing podcasts and must navigate the difficult process of with creating concise, engaging, and informative podcasts.

Most of the major challenges with this project stem from technological troubles in the recording studio, which is a common hurdle for anyone exploring a new tool. Professor Sarno partnered with Public Works to foster an environment for experimental learning and academic growth with room to fall and get back up. Professor Sarno challenges her students to try something new and intimidating, while also providing space for students to comfortably reflect on their successes and shortcomings when experimenting with new tools in the classroom.

Through these podcasts, students have the opportunity to present their own ideas and experiment with sound and technology at the same time. Although students are sharing their own ideas and reviews about music, their ideas are shaped by current research in the field, and they are encouraged to build off of ideas already circulating in the music world, as scholars would. This project is a building block for students interested in researching music analysis, pop culture, and innovative ways to share knowledge.

Professor Sarno hopes that a project of this nature helps students recognize that they have persuasive means for sharing information, and producing podcasts is just one of many tools students can use to bring what they learn in the classroom to a more public space. Professor Sarno also hopes that her students will feel empowered to continue exploring new forms of communication after the conclusion of this project, and that adapting to the challenges of this class will help students develop the confidence to pursue this type of experimentation in the future. Most importantly, the course prioritizes individualized learning goals and student reflection. Throughout the term, students write personal reflections on their creative process, their intellectual development, and their ambitions for the future. Reflections and writing are core components of student growth, and the course is dedicated to giving students critical thinking tools that prime them for success.

Students in Professor Sarno’s class have already broadcast their creations through KRLX, Carleton’s student-run radio station, sharing their work with the wider Northfield community. Looking ahead to the future, she would like to see more possibilities for students to experiment with and share student-produced podcasts. For example, she encourages students to take a step further and publish their work on broader public platforms such as SoundCloud and iTunes. Professor Sarno hopes to one day see a collective digital space for students to collectively store their podcasts as both a public resource and an academic record, and until then, she will continue helping students explore music at all levels.