Experiential Learning with Antiquated Musical Media

Categories: Teaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Ryan Gourley, Music

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023

Teaching the history of recorded sound poses a unique set of challenges. Class discussions involve technologies and recordings that have fallen into obscurity. Photos and diagrams do little to convey the feeling of operating devices such as a phonograph or a gramophone. Digitized recordings from a century ago tend to sound distorted to modern ears, replete with pops, cracks, sizzles, and grainy hiss. Students often struggle to hear the music amidst the noise. In an age when a plethora of songs is instantly available to stream online and algorithmically-curated playlists are ubiquitous, how can students become interested in antiquated musical media?

My solution draws on the ideas of experiential learning, which center an exploratory and hands-on approach to pedagogy. I organized a workshop where students could experience playing several different analog music formats firsthand. In partnership with a local archive, I borrowed the recordings and equipment necessary for the workshop. We only looked at recordings that the archive designated for public demonstration to avoid the risk of damaging any rare or fragile materials. In line with the core beliefs of experiential learning, I wanted my students to be able to hold and play the recordings themselves. Just like working in a laboratory setting on campus, my students were briefed on how the equipment worked and the proper procedure for playing back each type of recording. 

After demonstrating several examples, the students were able to use the equipment under my supervision. There is something magical about holding a recording that is more than a century old and releasing the voices trapped inside its grooves. I stopped hearing the perennial complaint that “old recordings sound so bad.” Instead, students began to ask detailed questions prompted by using the equipment: What happens if you play a 78 rpm recording at 33 rpm? How do you choose the size and shape of a gramophone stylus? What happens if you stop and restart playback in the middle of a recording? What sorts of inscriptions would be etched into the mirror space of a gramophone record? What is shellac made of? How were the microphones positioned for different kinds of recordings? In the span of an hour, my undergraduate musicology lecture had evolved into a technical masterclass. 

The tactile experience of operating sound reproduction equipment proved invaluable to the class’s command and retention of the course material. In later written work, students exhibited a deep understanding of the media formats that we explored in the workshop. Even months later, students were able to recall details and nuances from the workshop that were not emphasized elsewhere in the lectures or assigned reading. In a post-course survey, several students identified the workshop as their favorite part of the entire semester.

In my view, experiential learning in a college setting is more than just archival “show and tell.” The opportunity to stoke interest and curiosity in a given topic is at the heart of any good syllabus. Letting students rediscover the inner workings of old sound reproduction devices proved to be an essential part of understanding the topic from the inside. The sensory experience of hearing, touching, and seeing archival recordings in a supervised classroom setting was both memorable and meaningful to the students. I foresee planning similar types of workshops during my time as a GSI at UC Berkeley and beyond.