Lesson Plan: Music Formats, Music Listening Practices


Ian here—

The following is a lesson plan I used for one day on popular music in my “Introduction to Mass Communication” course at DePaul University. I first incorporated it into my syllabus for the winter 2016 quarter, and refined it some for my spring 2016 section of the class.

The overarching theme I try to give the course when I teach it is the relationship between technologies and our use of those technologies. It’s a two-step dance where the two partners frequently get out of synch, and try to adapt to one another in unexpected ways. This week, we examine how specific music format technologies created certain behaviors of listening … which then went on to shape future technologies, and so on and so forth.

If you would like to follow along with the visual presentation for this lesson in motion, it can be found here.

I start with a historical look at the format war between 45 rpm records and 33 1/3 rpm records, primarily because it’s well-covered in the “Radio, Recording, and Popular Music” chapter of Stanley J. Baran’s Introduction to Mass Communication textbook, my students’ assigned reading for this particular class. Riffing off of Melvin Kranzberg, I note that format are neither “good” nor “bad,” but nor are they neutral. A format can be a good fit for one use and ill-fitted for another use, subtly nudging consumer behavior. In the case of 45 rpm vs. 33 1/3 rpm, an obvious rift opened up between classical music listening and pop music listening.prezi_screenshot-formats_1My ultimate goal is to break students down into small groups to do presentations on the fault lines between modern, digital formats, looking at their technological histories and the types of listening they encourage. The first time I tried this, however, I ran into a problem: students weren’t fully grasping the history of the technological division between formats that are downloaded (such as the MP3) and those that can be streamed, primarily because they weren’t old enough to remember a time when simply downloading music off of the internet (let alone streaming it!) was quite an ordeal. Clearly, a quick history lesson was necessary.prezi_screenshot-formats_2The second time I taught this, I ran through the above timeline, mapping out roughly 20 years of the history of the internet and the parallel history of music as a consumer product and as a service. We start with Napster, the original MP3 file-sharing client, which debuted in 1999. MP3s are a lossy format, but they were a godsend in the late 1990s, because they allowed music files to get small enough for the first time to be easily downloaded. “Easily” here is perhaps a bit of a stretch—as people my age know, downloading a single song through Napster on a dial-up connection was a process that could take 45 minutes or so.

Napster was, of course, illegal, and legal challenges forced it to shut down in 2001. In its wake, we find the emergence of Apple’s iTunes Music Store and The Pirate Bay, both in 2003. The former was a legal service, poised to overcome music executive’s skittishness about digitally-distributable formats (this time, Apple’s proprietary AAC standing in for MP3). The latter was another peer-to-peer service, using the new BitTorrent protocol that made it much more difficult to shut down.

After briefly noting the popularization of podcasts as an alternative to spoken news radio broadcasts, I move on to Spotify and YouTube. Launching in 2011 in the US, Spotify, along with the earlier Pandora, represents a shift away from download-based online music storefronts such as the original iTunes Music Store, towards internet streaming audio. Also relevant here is YouTube. As of today, Psy’s 2012 “Gangnam Style” music video still holds the record for most-watched video on YouTube (with 2.25 billion views), clearly indicating that a substantial number of people use the video streaming service as one of their primary ways of exposing themselves to music.

Once I feel that students are comfortable with the basic matter of why download-based formats such as the MP3 would be preferable in the era of dial-up, whereas today streaming music services seem to be the future, I break them down into groups to present on some specific issues. I’ve done this with four groups and six groups, depending on the size of the class. The visual presentation I linked to above assumes four groups, but here are the questions I give to prompt the presentations of six groups:

Group 1: The MP3

  • What does the MP3 offer to listers of music?
    • Sub-question: What, specifically, might the MP3 have offered to internet-enabled listeners of music in the era of 1997–2003, when services like Napster and MP3.com were booming?
  • What situation does the MP3 cause for the music industry (positive or negative)?
  • What sort of ownership model of music does the MP3 allow for, or promote? By this, I mean:
    • Where do people get their music?
    • Do people spend money on music? Is it a consumer product?
    • Do people “own” their music? Where, and how, is it stored? How is it listened to?

Group 2: Napster vs. iTunes

Between June 1999 and July 2001, Napster became a tremendously popular peer-to-peer file service, dedicated to the sharing of MP3s. In April 2003, Apple unveiled its iTunes Music Store, a delivery service for music encoded in the AAC format (a close relative to the MP3). Following up on some questions asked of group one, do some research and answer the following:

  • How did Napster and the iTunes Music Store contrast in their relationships to the music industry?
    • Why might the music industry have had a different reaction to one than the other?
    • Why might the music industry’s reaction to iTunes have been initially colored by their reaction to Napster?
  • What sort of ownership model of music does Napster promote, versus iTunes? By this, I mean:
    • Do people spend money on music? Is it a consumer product?
    • Do people “own” their music? Where, and how, is it stored? How is it listened to?

Group 3: Music streaming sites

This business model was pioneered by Pandora in 2000, before gaining other major players in Spotify (2006) and Apple Music (2015).

  • What do music streaming services offer to listeners of music?
  • What sort of business model, or economic arrangement, do they offer the music industry?
  • What sort of ownership model of music do streaming services allow for, or promote? By this, I mean:
    • Where do people get their music?
    • Do people spend money on music? Is it a consumer product?
    • Do people “own” their music? Where, and how, is it stored? How is it listened to?

Group 4: U2’s Songs of Innocence and iTunes users’ music libraries

On September 9, 2014, U2 released their album Songs of Innocence for free on iTunes. As soon as it was released, it was added to the music library of every iTunes user, and for some users automaticaly downloaded to their devices. This proved to be controversial, as many users did not like having music added to their library without their consent. Eventually, U2 frontman Bono offered an apology, and Apple offered a way to remove Songs of Innocence from users’ libraries. Following up on some questions asked of group three, research, discuss, and answer the following:

  • Why did some iTunes users react the way they did to the album being automatically added to their library? What does this say about the relationship of a user to their library—particularly, those of certain music connoisseurs?
  • Following off of this, consider how this reaction may have stemmed from the ownership model of music iTunes had, until this point, seemed to adopt. That is:
    • Do people think of themselves as “owning” their music on iTunes?
    • What ways of storing and sorting music does iTunes allow for?
    • How might those methods of storing and sorting encourage a certain type of relationship to one’s music?
  • A year later, Apple unveiled Apple Music, a music streaming service. What sort of tensions between the traditional iTunes model, and streaming music services such as Apple Music, does the Songs of Innocence release reveal?

Group 5: The Podcast

  • Are podcasts a “replacement’ for traditional radio?
  • If so, what do they seem best positioned to replace?
    • Popular music radio?
    • Talk radio?
    • Radio journalism?
    • Or are they fundamentally differently positioned than traditional radio?
  • What sort of listening model for content does the podcast allow for, or promote—especially when compared/contrasted to traditional radio?

Group 6: The music video, in the age of YouTube

Note: please find online at least one example of a music video from the 1980s, and at least one example of a music video from the past few years, as a way of cementing this compare/contrast.

  • What is the function of the music video, in 2016?
  • Is this all that different from the function of the music video during its introduction in the 1980s?
  • Are there notable stylistic difference that we could point to as a way of talking about how the format has diverged, as it has moved from television (in the 1980s) to the internet (today)?
    • Show us some examples.

I give students time to prepare, and then each group gives individual presentations, followed by large group discussion. My basic objectives are the conversation are this: I want students to be able to enunciate the distinction between music as a product and music as service. This distinction of course has effects on the music industry (think of Taylor Swift’s rebellion against Spotify), but it also has effects on music listening practices. This is why I encourage students to consider the difference between music that is owned (i.e., the AAC files in one’s iTunes music library), which appeals to collector types who like to curate their music, and music that is streamed as part of a service, which appeals to people who value convenience of access above all. Other major points: I want them to enunciate the obvious reasons why the music industry prefers legal services such as iTunes and Spotify over peer-to-peer services such as Napster. I also want to get them thinking of congruences of modern and historical listening practices—for instance, the fact that both traditional news radio and modern podcasts appeal to people with a commute.

I let students use computing devices to do any extra research they want to before their presentations (especially necessary, since some of these formats aren’t extensively written about in the Baran textbook). If they’re having trouble finding helpful and relevant sources, I have a few things up my sleeve I point them to. For instance, this article by Myke Bartlett on the U2/Apple Songs of Innocence kerfuffle offers some keen insights into the ways in which “curation”-based modes of musical consumption seem to be dying away in the era of internet music streaming. And although it came out about a week after I last taught this class, meaning I couldn’t assign or suggest it, this article by James Pinkstone about how Apple deleted 122GB of music from his computer (including the master files of music that he, as a musician, had recorded) after he signed up for Apple Music is a great look into the potential pitfalls of a shift in emphasis in modern computing away from one’s own hard drive and towards the wonders of the cloud.

After discussion, I wrap up. In the shift from the dominance of the MP3 and download-based music consumption to music streaming services and cloud storage, we’ve moved from a model in which people own music collections, to which they consume music as part of a service. This may seem like a shift that’s unique to 2016, as cloud computing means people store less and less data on their own devices, and rely more and more on internet access to companies’ servers. But, really, this disjuncture between ownership models and service models has been with popular music from the beginning. The choice between a curated music collection on one’s hard drive versus streaming one’s music from the cloud isn’t that much different from the choice between building a vinyl collection versus listening to one’s music over FM broadcast radio. We can think of consumers’ relationship to music along two axes. One axis is a spectrum between the collection-centered consumer of music-as-product and the other as the convenience-centered consumer of music-as-service. The other axis is a historical one.

prezi_screenshot-formats_3In fact, we can think of things as at least somewhat cyclical. 20th century popular music was popularized by means of popular radio, before it inspired a generation of serious record collectors. When internet-based digital audio distribution first emerged, it first appeared to be a replacement for physical audio recording collections. (After all, if you were going to spend 45 minutes downloading a single song, it had better be something you liked, and would like to have in your permanent music collection.) As internet speeds increased, and streaming audio became a technological possibility, this model has begun to recede, and many consumers have proven happy to return to the whims of an “over the air” format.


(Yes, that is a screenshot from my iTunes music library at the head of this post. Yes, music collection and curation is important to me. No, I’m not happy about a random U2 album invading my library.)


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