top of page

Music Scholarship is Fun!

By Hannah Grantham

Why do we study music?

Have you ever asked the question, "I wonder why they wrote that" while listening to music? Did you look up a musician on Wikipedia? Spend hours reading about their life on various websites? Listen to the same album over and over and over again? Read every interview your favorite player has ever given? Transcribe a song just for fun? Tell your friends all about the artist you just discovered to the point that they ask you to stop? Then you've studied music history! As a performer, this ear bug you couldn't get out of your head, or the artist you obsessed over for two months, helped you discover something about your voice, and informed your perception of music moving forward. And the music we perform today - be it jazz, K-pop, reggaetón, Carnatic, hip-hop, Zydeco, Baroque, choral, or classical - is the result of centuries' worth of performance practices and development that culminated in the music we play today. When we study music history, we can look at music, performers, composers, theaters, social history, technology, and human movement.

How to come up with a research project?

Do you have a class project coming up? Why not find a way to get music involved? Or, develop your interpretation of a song you're working on in lessons or at school by researching its history.

Here are some steps to get you started.

Step 1. Who wrote the song? What was their life experience? Who were their influences?

Step 2. When did they write the song? What was happening in their life? What was happening in their community and in their country?

Step 3. How does the song reflect what was going on in their life at the time?

Step 4. Who performed the song? Where was it performed? Is there a specific performance you liked?

Step 5. How does that impact the emotion of the piece? How can you convey that?

As an example, let’s unpack Lauryn Hill's "Doo-Wop" (That Thing) a bit from the magnificence that is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Here are some questions, and short, notes-style answers that can help us identify a specific point that we'd like to make.

Caption: Fugees January 28, 1994. Original photograph taken by David Corio. Photograph taken by me of the picture on display at the National Museum of African American History & Culture

Step 1. Who wrote the song? Lauryn Hill

· Who is she? Lauryn Hill is a singer, rapper, actress, and former member of the Fugees. Raised in the New York/New Jersey area, Hill grew up in a musical family. In her childhood, she listened to a lot of Detroit-scene music (i.e. Motown), she sang gospel music in high school, and began collaborating with Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean (Future Fugees bandmates).

· What is it important about the album? The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was her debut solo album released in 1998.

· What was happening in the late 1990s?, increased presence of hip-hop on the Billboard charts, rise of neo-soul, socially conscious music of the 1990s (TLC's "Waterfalls" of 1995, Queen Latifah's "Ladies First" in 1989)

- You could explore the album in a number of different ways though. You could talk about her album in the contexts of international politics, fashion, etc. Explore what connections you can make between things.

· Other neo-soul artists creating at the same time as Lauryn Hill: D'Angelo, the Roots, Erykah Badu, Soulquarians, Raphael Saadiq, and Mos Def.

Step 2. When did she write the song?

· She wrote the song as part of her introspective album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her solo debut and masterful challenge to former bandmate and romantic partner Wyclef Jean. Through each song, Hill confronts issues with sex, racism, adulting, and feminism, showing the world the multifaceted life women lead. It was her calling out the limitations placed on her to be a pretty face, pretty voice, and submit to the male geniuses around her.

· This song seems to specifically address her feeling towards romantic relationships in the 1990s. Like early-20th-century folksongs, the message of the song calls out unfaithfulness and the hurt that accompanies love.


Check out Rhiannon Giddens take on the old folksong “O Love is Teasin’” for a comparison

Step 3. What does the song reflect about Lauryn Hill's life in the late 1990s

"Now, Lauryn is only human

Don't think I haven't been through the same predicament

Let it sit inside your head like a million women in Philly, Penn

It's silly when girls sell their souls because it's in

Look at where you be I, hair weaves like Europeans

Fake nails done by Koreans

Come again, come again, come again, my friend come again"

· These lyrics address the confusion of relationships and the nasty habit that people have of transforming themselves to fit the image they believe their partner desires. Lauryn's reference to her own humanity and experience with this predicament, hints at the overarching theme of the album - the miseducation, which encourages her to break out of societal norms.

· There are many ways that you can break down even this small portion of the music. This one in particular emphasizes how black women struggle with embracing natural beauty in a world that, traditionally, has not praised their looks. She's touching on contemporary trends (weaves and fake nails) that connect to a much longer history of black women altering themselves to conform to an exclusive understanding of beauty. Through the song, Hill is expressing her frustration with beauty standards that impact people's ability to form authentic romantic relationships. She expresses her empathy with the plight of single and partnered people hurt by those that they love.

Step 4. Where did she perform the song?

· I'm going to reference Hill's music video for "Doo Wop" (yes! You can also talk about music videos in music scholarship). The video is a comparison of American music, fashion, community, and femininity from 1967 to 1998. A side-by-side shot, shows two Lauryn’s singing, rapping, and dancing, highlighting how things have, and also have not, changed in American society.

· The comparison sparks a dialogue about the evolution of black femininity and sexuality in American popular culture during the 20th century. This commentary taps into the social conscious themes common in 1990s hip hop and r&b.

Step 5. How does this narrative impact the emotion of the piece?

· Along this line of thinking, we could address Lauryn's influences and how they feed into her argument of a more enlightened black woman, herself, emerging in 1998. We could talk about musical influences, like the doo-wop tinged choruses, and discuss the personification of black women in Motown's heyday, and work forwards touching on the reggaeton and hip-hop elements that also permeate the piece. With each point we look for information that connects to the feminism Lauryn Hill drew from for "Doo Wop (That Thing)".

-Other examples of music scholarship at work:

-"Unpacking all the references in Childish Gambino's Phenomenal New Video" - Natty Kasambala (

-Switched on Pop! Hosted by Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding, great for learning about the various musical influences from 808s to rhythm changes in contemporary popular music.

Research resources available to everyone

-Your Local Library - through your neighborhood, city, or county library you have access to a lot of information. And, don't worry if your library doesn't have the book or album you are looking for. Most likely, the library can help you order what you're looking for through Interlibrary Loan.

-Google Scholar - Through Google Scholar you have free access to peer-reviewed articles, books, and other sources that will help you tackle any research project. - This online library catalog gathers collection information from libraries around the world. If you're curious about something just type in a subject and see what comes up. Scrolling through what books, videos, cds, and articles are held in libraries near you really shows how much information is available to you.

-Museums, Archives, and Libraries - Are you looking at a particular artist or object? Do a google search to see if any museum, libraries, archives, or historical societies have anything that would help you. The information in cultural heritage institutions is available to you, and they are happy to answer your questions or help aid you in research!

Got Questions?

Music scholarship is complex, and it’s all about asking questions. Do you have research questions, or do you want to know how to get into musicology, or museum work? Ask me or tag me in your research projects @theinstrumentgirl

68 views0 comments


bottom of page