The Social History of Popular Music

MUSC 171/3.0

A survey of important trends in 20th century Western popular music. Topics include genres, individual artists and groups, record labels and stylistic trends, and sociological issues.


Learning Objectives

By the end of the course, students will be able to

  • demonstrate a solid foundation in relevant musicological terms and concepts
  • understand and discuss the social and political context in which we experience pop music
  • understand and discuss raced and gendered approaches to the study of popular music
  • address the question; What does it mean to experience popular music?


Major Assignments

Initial Song Review (no marks): Post a link to your favourite song on YouTube. Post a one or two paragraph explaining why it's your favourite. This is not a “formal” assignment, so no title page or references are required. There are no marks for this assignment, but it is a requirement for your credit.

Part 1: Describing popular music charts (25%): Select a chart from a major popular music magazine. Search on-line to identify all of the performers listed on the charts (soloists & bands). Identification includes: names; musical responsibilities (e.g. lead singer, drummer, MC, etc.), gender; sexual orientation; ethnicity/race; nationality; and anything else you think we need to know to get a “picture” of the musicians on your chart. Construct a spreadsheet to display your information, which should include descriptive stats on who does what (e.g. x performers on chart; y% are exclusively singers; z% are women; aa% are women who play instruments; etc.). (spreadsheet)

Part 2: Analysing pop music charts (25%): Report on one or two of the acts from your assignment # 1 music chart (soloists or whole bands). Explain how these performers fit into their socio-historical musical context, OR, explain an absence in your chart. (4-5 pages)

Book review (25%): Choose a book from the book review list.Tell us if it’s a book that’s worth your classmates’ valuable time to read.  Your review should include a summary of the book, which will probably note several highlights. The remainder of the review should address questions or issues such as, but not limited to, the following: Did you enjoy this book? Is it well written? Does it sound accurate/believable? (Is it credible?) Did the book inspire you to seek out the artists’ material? Did that material sound and/or look as you expected? What the author’s intention? Does the book tell a limited or very focused story, or does the author offer a sense of the subject’s socio-historical context? What do you expect will happen next to the book’s subject? Should other people read this book? The strongest reviews will explain the writer’s reactions, i.e. do not simply write what you thought about the book; always explain why. Remember: you are reviewing the book, NOT the artist. (4-5 pages)

Books available to review (available at Queen’s Campus Bookstore):

  • Ahmad, S. (2010). Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim rock star's revolution. New York: Free Press. 
  • Bidini, D. (1998). On a cold road. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
  • Des Barres, P. (2008). Let's spend the night together: Backstage secrets of rock muses and supergroupies. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. 
  • Dixon, W, & Snowden, D. (1989). I am the blues: The Willie Dixon story. U.S.A.: Da Capo. 
  • Motley Crue. (2002). The dirt: Confessions of the world's most notorious rock band. New York: Harper Collins. 
  • O’Brien, J. (2007). Like an icon. New York: Harper Entertainment 
  • Pope, C. (2001). Anti diva. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

Song review (25%): Choose a “pop” song. Tell me if it’s a song that’s worth our attention. Your review should address four key ideas: 1. Is the song worth our attention? (and maybe, Do I like it?) 2. What musical elements are critical to the song’s impact? 3. Put the song into its socio-historical context. 4. Why might someone else feel differently than you do about the song? (4-5 pages)


Unit 1The Theoretical LensChapter 1
Unit 2The Seven Elements of Music and the early days of Popular MusicChapter 2
Unit 3Social Dance and JazzChapter 3
Unit 4Tin Pan Alley, Race and Hillbilly MusicChapter 4 & 5
Unit 5The Swing Era & Post-War PopChapter 6 & 7
Unit 6The Birth (and death?) of Rock'n'Roll, American Pop, and the British InvasionChaper 8 & 9
Unit 7Folk Music and the 1960sChapter 10
Unit 8Early Metal, 1970s Pop and Disco, and CanConChapter 11
Unit 91970s "Outsiders' Music"Chapter 12
Unit 10MTV, "Relief Rock," Hip Hop, and more MetalChapter 13
Unit 11Metal, Hip Hop, Grunge, and Riot GrrrlsChapter 14
Unit 12The 21st CenturyChapter 15


Quite some time ago now, I was a professional musician, always out on a cold road. I've done just about all the legitimate jobs one can do in the music industry, and even a few of the more questionable ones. I find myself now an Adjunct Lecturer at Queen's School of Music, and a Special Education teacher in the Limestone District School Board. My research focuses on the effects of gender in music education and on broader social justice issues in education. I have taught this course for Queen's on-campus many times, and this is my second year leading the on-line course.

Robbie MacKay

Time Commitment

To complete the readings, assignments, and course activities, students can expect to spend, on average, about 10 - 12 hours per week on the course.

Course Resources


SOLUS is Queen’s Student On-Line University System. You’ll have access to a SOLUS account once you become a Queen’s student. You’ll use SOLUS to register for courses, add and drop courses, update your contact information, view financial and academic information, and pay your tuition.


Moodle is Queen's online learning platform. You'll log into Moodle to access your course. All materials related to your course—notes, readings, videos, recordings, discussion forums, assignments, quizzes, groupwork, tutorials, and help—will be on the Moodle site.

About Credit Units

Queen’s courses are weighted in credit units. A typical one-term course is worth 3.0 units, and a typical two-term course is worth 6.0 units. You combine these units to create your degree. A general (three-year) BA requires a total of 90 credit units.

Computer Requirements

To take an online course, you’ll need a good-quality computer (Windows XP/Vista/7, Pentium III, or Mac OS X 10.5, G4 or G5 processor, 256 MB RAM) with a high-speed internet connection, soundcard, speakers, and microphone, and up-to-date versions of free software (Explorer/Firefox, Java, Flash, Adobe Reader). See also Preparing For Your Course.


The deadlines for new applications to Queen’s Arts and Science Online courses are in our Dates and Deadlines section.

Tuition Fees

Tuition fees vary depending when you start, your year, faculty, and program. Fees for 2014-15 first-year Distance Career Arts & Science Canadian students are as follows: for a 3.0-unit course, $605.31; for a 6.0-unit course, $1210.62. See also Tuition and Payment.

Grading Scheme

The information below is intended for undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Science. Academic Regulations in other Faculties may differ.

Letter Grade Grade Point

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Campus Bookstore

All textbooks can be purchased at Queen’s Campus Bookstore.

Non-Queen’s Students

All Queen’s Arts and Science Online courses are open to students at other universities. Before applying as a visiting student, request a Letter of Permission from your home university that states that you have permission to take the course and apply it to your degree. See also Apply.

Academic Integrity

Please see Queen’s policy statement on academic integrity for information on how to complete an online course honestly.