From ABBA to Zeppelin: an online popular music class, taught by Kerry Agnew and Allison Fairbairn, looks at popular music in North America.

Online music course a big hit

Instructors of a new refurbished music class hope to engage students in the historical context of popular music within the past 175 years.

By Lesley Porter

Allison Fairbairn and Kerry Agnew, lecturers in the College of Arts and Science, teach The History of Popular music, a first-year class covering the evolution and high points of the genre in North America. The class itself has been around for more than a decade but the content was getting outdated, “so it was time to do a re-do,” said Fairbairn.

From the start of blues after the Civil War to the swing era of World War II to today’s hitmakers, the class features the game-changers in popular music since 1840.

“If they’re covered in the textbook, they contributed something that made waves or sent things on a different trajectory,” said Fairbarn, listing Madonna and Michael Jackson as just a few of the notable names covered. While the class focuses on American and Canadian artists, international acts—such as David Bowie, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—are also examined because of the legacy they left in North America.

Taught entirely online, the class is more interactive than its predecessor, Fairbairn continued. There are listening examples for every module pulled from YouTube where students can also watch music videos and other clips. Another component of the class is using WordPress to blog about artists and their work, such as a live or film concert review or researching a band of their choice and writing about them using a specific lens. 

“We talk about the context and ask them to reflect on those social, historical things,” said Fairbairn. “Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘tell us about your favourite song but use terminology that you’ve learned in the course to talk about music.’ Or, ‘Here is a list of what people consider the best music of the 1970s. Listen to these albums, pick your favourite three tracks and tell why they’re significant.’”

There are 170 students registered for the blogs, “so the blogroll is constantly showing new content,” said Agnew. “This morning we got a post on Kenny Chesney and Queen, so students are going to find their own interests among their peers there, too.”

As a bonus, the online format offers flexibility for students at distance sites, explained Fairbairn. Some are further away than others, she added, with students as far away as Germany and Japan participating in the class and reviewing concerts.

“That’s very interesting to see and for students to get that different perspective, too,” said Agnew.