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25 October 2012

Teaching Cultural Capital with Music

I've found music to be a fun and effective way to teach about cultural capital. Here is what I do. I first tell the class to imagine that they are executives at a record label and need to come up with a marketing strategy for some of their artists. I tell them to think stereotypically about what kind of person is most likely to purchase this genre of music. I tell them to jot down some notes for each clip of music that I'll play for them, including race/ethnicity, education, occupation, income, gender, region, urban/rural, etc. Then, I play 30- to 45-second clips from each of the following songs. (The genres are more important than the songs themselves, although I've found it useful to find songs that are somewhat obscure, at least to the students, which isn't all that difficult given our age gap.)

After listening, I have the class name each genre and share what they noted about the stereotypical consumer of each while I record the descriptives on the blackboard. (I also ask if anyone knows any of the artists/songs; they almost never do.) Over several years of doing this, I've noted a surprising amount of variation in whom students assume listen to each genre. I explain to them that in the past classical and jazz music were thought of as high brow cultural capital while country, hip hop, and metal music were thought of as low brow; appreciating certain musics demonstrated sophistication and aided in distinguishing oneself from others in terms of social class.

Importantly at this point, I explain how these divisions no longer hold. We are generally all cultural omnivores, now. I use myself as an example. I ask the students to guess which genre is my favorite from the examples we used in class. Most guess jazz or classical (probably given my education and professional presentation of self in the classroom). They are invariable shocked--and often angered--when I reveal that I am a metalhead. I quickly tell them, though, that while I have my favorites, I do own all five of these songs which clearly places me among the omnivores. I also speculate that if I randomly chose one of their MP3 players and scanned through their playlists that I'd find at least a smattering of several genres.

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