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Top of the Pops History: Juniata Professor Orchestrates Music Course

(Posted January 24, 2005)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- A Juniata College music professor hopes to strike a ringing chord in the minds of his students in a new course, "History of American Popular Music," that will show a classroom raised on Boyz II Men and the Beastie Boys how the music of the Beach Boys, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Boy George and Kid Ory all relate to how people perceive and listen to music today.

Jim Latten, assistant professor of music at Juniata and percussionist with the Altoona Symphony, will take Juniata students on a two-century journey through the history and influence of colonial songs such as "Yankee Doodle" through the work of Stephen Foster, jazz, musical theatre, country, rhythm and blues through to the present day.

In addition to learning the roots of all types of popular music, the entire class will also orchestrate a grassroots political event by organizing a public forum for members of the community to discuss if the lyrics and driving rhythm and melody of popular songs shape or encourage deviant social behavior. "I've noticed more and more that the lyrics and dissonance in musical melodies are affecting the behavior of the young people listening to them," Latten says. "I'd like the students to think about these issues and bring in some experts who can comment on how music might affect behavior."

Latten says the class will organize and host the public forum. He would like them to invite a variety of commentators. "I think they could bring in clergy, a social worker, teachers, performers, perhaps even a couple of high school students," Latten says.

Although the course will deeply immerse students in the history of pop music, Latten says the class will avoid the "Trivial Pursuit" approach to pop music appreciation. For example, Latten will explore how the seven musical modes, identified by Greek scholars such as Plato, appear in pop hits. He illustrates Dorian mode, which features contemplative, balanced melodies, by citing the songs "Eleanor Rigby," "Scarborough Fair" (by Simon and Garfunkel) and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

In addition, students will be tested by writing detailed analyses of several songs and by a listening examination in which students will be expected to identify the one or two influences or musical styles used in an unidentified popular song. "I am more interested them being able to hear the song and identify that the song was influenced by calypso or rockabilly," he explains. "They don't have to know who the artist singing the song is."

In addition, students are expected to make several presentations on musical genres that will not be covered in depth, including such areas as bossa nova, zydeco, klezmer, Berry Gordy, Jimi Hendrix and many other subjects. "The student can use any format to present the information but we'd like some sort of historical perspective and analysis. " Latten says. "They won't be simply doing a DJ presentation."

All the students will have completed a pre-requisite music history introductory course, which focuses exclusively on classical music. Latten believes any college student interested in music should have a solid background in both classical and popular music, particularly if students go on to be educators. "If you are only knowledgeable in a small area of your subject such as classical music, it means you will be pretty unprepared if a student asks about The Beatles or Miles Davis," he says. "I think a few students will start the course thinking we're taking all the fun out of music, but analysis of so many rich areas of music will lead to a better understanding of the entire field -- that's what Juniata is doing in all fields of study."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.