Cool Class: Popular Music in America

At Penn State Scranton, students learn that pop music started long before the Beatles.

Professor Sharon Toman head shot, Penn State

Most Penn State Scranton students who take INART 115 start the class believing that pop music was born “when the Beatles got off that airplane in the ’60s,” says Sharon Toman, associate professor of music. Her job, she says, is to dial them back—all the way to the late 1800s, when the elements that define pop music as a genre were born.

In the online class, students listen to audio clips of different kinds of pop music that date as far back as back to the early 1900s and they meet in online forums to discuss what they have learned. Toman, who has been teaching at Penn State Scranton for over 20 years, also links pop music to other genres like rock and roll, rhythm and blues, hard rock and heavy metal, so students can learn about the interconnectedness of different styles. “We get into the music of Stevie Wonder. We do Motown and then we talk about the singer-songwriters like Carole King,” she says. “Many students don’t realize that R&B has its roots in blues, which is closely related to jazz music. We’ll talk about rock operas, too, like “Tommy,” try to figure out what genre it is exactly—is it popular? Is it a classical hybrid?”  

Toman also teaches MUSIC 9: Introduction to World Music, a gamification course where students take a virtual world tour to learn about different genres of music, from traditional folk to classical and popular,  in countries like India, Indonesia, and Ireland that are featured in their textbook. Students create an AVATAR for online travel to different countries, explore diverse musical and cultural traditions—food, rites of passage, celebrations, as well as music and musical instruments—via Youtube videos and other material. As they progress in the class, they stack up points on their virtual “passports”—which are updated weekly as they “travel” around the world. Their gaming rankings are then posted on the Passport Leader Board.   

“When I started teaching the course about five years ago, I noticed that students weren’t 110 percent in it,” Toman says. “At conferences, I’d heard about courses being gamified, so I sat down and thought about how I could turn this into a gamification class so that I could get students more involved and interested.”

Toman, a Scranton native and classically trained pianist, won a Royer teaching award for MUSIC 9. She is a one-person music show at Penn State Scranton, serving as director of music for the Penn State Scranton chorale, The Roc[k]tet (a mixed voice show choir) and the campus jazz band.