Blog Post

12. Sonic Composing Assignments

For my contribution to The Pedagogy Project, I wanted to share a few successful sonic composing assignments. Both projects ask students to think critically about the relationship between sound (music and voice, respectively) and identity. I have used each assignment in introductory composition courses--First-Year Comp with an emphasis on multimodal composition--but I would encourage others to adapt or transform these projects for their own pedagogical needs and purposes. Below I provide some context for the courses, as well as the full assignment descriptions. 



Context: I have used this project in several different classes, and it has been a hit both in terms of my students' enthusiasm for the assignment and the thoughtful and creative products that resulted from it. The point of this assignment is not only to have students examine their personal tastes, but to inquire into how and why people form opinions more broadly. While students often consider the formation of musical taste to be a highly subjective process, this assignment challenges them to uncover some of the social and cultural factors that figure into the formation of tastes as well. The project was inspired by Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love, an excellent and engaging example of critical inquiry. 


Assignment Description: 

What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it weren’t about making cases for or against things? It wouldn’t need to adopt the kind of ‘objective’ (or self-consciously hip) tone that conceals the identity and social location of the author, the better to win you over. It might be more frank about the two-sidedness of aesthetic encounter, and offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir.

 -Carl Wilson, Let's Talk About Love

“That song rules.” “This song sucks.” When it comes to taste, many people have strong gut reactions. Something is either good or bad, worthy or unworthy. Rather than taking an either/or approach in this project, we will be experimenting with what Carl Wilson calls a “sympathetic hearing.” In other words, you will need to listen to a song that you despise with open ears and an open mind. Your task is to document your journey with this song—to explore what you find unappealing and off-putting about the song, AND what might be valuable or interesting or aesthetically pleasing about the song (to you and/or others). In short, this assignment asks you to recreate “a tour of your aesthetic experience” with a song that you just can’t stand.


Your challenge:

1.     Choose a song that you hate with a passion.

2.     Live with your most hated song for a week. Listen sympathetically to this song multiple times a day. Eat, sleep, and breathe this song. Study its lyrics, its rhythms, its composition. After a day or two, do some research. Have critics reviewed the song (in magazines, websites, iTunes reviews)? What has been said about it? Become an authority on the history and reception of this song.  

3.     Keep a journal that documents your thoughts and feelings about the song after each listening. You should have a minimum of TEN journal entries that are a minimum of 150 words. Each entry should be very detailed and descriptive. We will talk more about this in class.

Some questions you might consider as you write about your song (these are meant to generate ideas, not provide a step-by-step formula for your writing):

-Why do I hate this so much? What is it about the artist, the music, and/or the lyrics that irritates me?

-Are there people that really like this song? What audiences does this song appeal to? Why do you think? What audiences might hate the song like you? Why? 

-What do your friends think about the song? (you may want to include actual interviews in your podcast)

-If you had to pick something you liked about the song, what would it be? Are there redeeming qualities to the song?

-A la Carl Wilson, how might you describe what your hatred for the song reveals about you? What might your hatred for the song illuminate about your identity (race, class, gender, sexuality) and the social circles you identify with (What kind of music do your friends listen to? How would you describe what you and your friends value in terms of music, art, film, TV? How would you describe the taste of people in your peer group? In what ways does (or doesn’t) your peer group influence your personal tastes?)

4.     Write a podcast script that captures your journey with this song. You will need to include relevant excerpts from the song in your podcast (we will be talking about copyright issues in class). Your script should be between 5 and 6 double spaced pages. This podcast should recreate your listening journey, so your diary entries may serve as a good way to structure the script (though there are many other ways you might approach it). You are encouraged to quote from Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love, or any other sources you might find relevant.

5.     Record and edit the podcast using Audacity (we will practice this in class).

6.     You will present a rough draft of your script and podcast to the class for peer feedback, and then have a chance to revise it for the final portfolio.

The point of this assignment is not to trick you into liking a song that you initially hated. Rather, this assignment is meant to be an inquiry into the development of your musical tastes. It provides you with an opportunity to examine not only your own personal opinions about something, but how and why people form opinions more broadly. Taste is not merely a subjective matter; it is not just an internal feeling we have about something. As Carl Wilson discusses in his text, there is a whole network of people, things, and experiences that influence why we love or hate something. Your job in this assignment, then, is to begin to uncover some of the social and cultural aspects of the formation of your own tastes—to question your taste in music rather than simply declaring it.  




Context: I assigned this project as part of a "Humanities and Writing" seminar entitled "Composing Lives." This writing-intensive seminar examined the complexities involved in telling stories about our own and others’ lives and asked students to think through the challenges of representing people's stories through various kinds of media--text, audio, video. The key to this project is getting students to think about the process of composing their interviewees' stories (what they edited out, what they chose to leave in, etc.), and how the choices they made as composers shaped the meaning and feeling of their final products. 


Assignment Description: 

This project requires you to interview the person of your choice (a stranger, friend, family member, etc.). You will be recording and editing their personal history in a digital audio editor. As an interviewer, you will need to come up with questions that will give the story focus. In other words, try to be specific rather than asking interviewees to talk generally about their lives. Is there a particular story that you’d like them to relate? Think about why you chose to interview the person—what is special about them and why might others find their stories interesting?

You will be using Audacity—a free digital audio editor—to record your interviews. I will provide you with instructions for downloading and installing the program to your computer. We will also be going over how to use Audacity in class.

To ensure that you have enough material to work with, your full interview should produce a minimum of 20 minutes worth of audio. Once you have completed the interview, you’ll need to make decisions about what parts to leave in and what parts to cut. You might consider adding music or other kinds of transitions as well. We will be going over options in class.

Though you will have a lot of material to work with, the challenge of this assignment will be to make choices about what information to include or exclude in order to present the most poignant and powerful version of the story (or stories) that you collected. The final oral history must be 6-8 minutes in length. 

In addition to your audio file, please write a 2-3 page cover letter that addresses the following questions:

-What do you want the listening audience to learn or take away from the personal history that your project highlights?

-What ideas or content did you choose to leave out and how did the absence of this content affect the story?

-Do you feel that your version of the personal story is an accurate or truthful representation of the interviewee’s life? What do listeners miss out on by only “meeting” this person through an audio narrative? In other words, what are some things about the person or the person’s life that might not come through by listening to the audio alone?

-Discuss some of the stylistic and compositional choices you made as an oral historian (adding music, editing, etc). How did these choices shape the meaning of your project?

-If you had a chance to revise this project, what would you do differently? What would you add or change or cut and why?

-What have you learned so far about the complexities and challenges of representing personal experiences in audio?


Further Reading About Sonic Pedagogies:

Both of the above sonic composing assignments are primarily language-centric. However, I think teaching students to compose with non-discursive sound--to critically consider the effects and affects of environmental sounds, for instance--is an essential task that is often left out of multimodal projects. For more information, see my previous blog post on the "Sounding Pittsburgh" Project



Steph, thank you for sharing these assignments. They are helpful to read as I refine my podcast assignments for a global literature class. I'd love to hear more on how scripting podcasts go down with your students. Are these scripts that your students write read word for word when they record? Or, are they outlines that allow them to speak extemporaneously? I can see all the pros for having students script word-for-word, especially if it's a solo voice podcast. However, the assignment I am thinking of having students do is to work in pairs and have a conversation on a literary work. I worry that the script will make them sound stiff and over-prepared, at the expense of listening to one another and responding organically. Would love to hear your thoughts on scripted vs. extemporaneous (but prepared) podcasts


Glad you found them useful, Fiona! In terms of scripting, I do often have students write and workshop several drafts of the script before recording when we are working on assignments that require a polished podcast (like the "I Hate That Song" podcast). However, with the Digital Oral History Project, the challenge was to edit down and refine extemporaneous interviews. I think the approach you take really depends on the assignment, and it sounds like the one you're thinking about might work better off the cuff. Good luck and let me know how it goes!