Classroom experience maps the world through music

The sound of sitars filled the room as students entered Emily McManus’ Music in World Cultures class.

“How would you describe the music you just heard,” McManus asked after everyone had settled in.

“Meditative,” one student answered. “Calm,” said another.

As McManus moved through her lesson about Hindustani classical music, she played clips of songs for students and made comparisons to American rock bands to help them internalize the information. After the lecture, she invited junior Pranav Rao to play his tabla, an Indian percussion instrument, for the class.

It may seem unconventional, but this is a typical day for McManus’s class. Cross-listed with anthropology, this upper-level music course explores the complex relationship between music, society, and culture.

McManus’s students study how music reflects and shapes the cultural practices of different regions such as the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, India, and Indonesia. In addition to providing energy filled lectures, she engages her students in research outside the classroom.

Each semester, students conduct field work at local performances to understand the relationship between music and culture. They design a study which includes a formal research proposal, fieldwork, and analytical papers to learn how social scientists conduct research.

Each semester, students design ethnographic field studies at local performances to learn how social scientists conduct research and learn more about the relationship between music and culture.

“The idea is that we want to use music as a tool to understand culture,” McManus said.

One component of the assignment requires students to attend a performance by a cultural group with which they are unfamiliar. Some students visited Salsa, Zumba, and belly dance classes, while others might attend a Hindu spring festival or a Brazilian capoeira.

“They get to realize how much diversity exists in their own community,” said McManus. “They come away with an experience that changes how they approach their local, national, and international communities.”

Oftentimes, students are encouraged to participate in the performances.

After students attend their chosen cultural events, they submit field notes about their observations and experiences. The semester culminates in each group writing a case study about their event.

For their final papers, students are asked to consider what factors motivated the performances. Their analyses encompass how the music at the event related to the identity, politics, religion, economy, or development of a culture.

“This is precisely the kind of high impact research assignment that brings performance as research, into the core curriculum classroom,” said Judith Hamera, head of the Department of Performance Studies. “It’s really the strength of our department.”

The course fulfills three university requirements: visual and performing arts, humanities, and international and cultural diversity. Each semester students from many different majors ranging from music composition to chemical engineering register for McManus’s class.

To learn more about the mini-ethnography projects completed by McManus’ Music in World Cultures class, visit the course blog at

Story courtesy of College of Liberal Arts.
Contact: Alex Yap,, 979.845.6067

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