Ground Control to Major Tom: Supporting Music Across the Curriculum

Steve Volk, February 5, 2018

Here I am sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

David Bowie, “Ground Control to Major Tom” (1969)

Could you use David Bowie’s songs to teach a cultural studies class? Certainly. How about English, History, Environmental Studies, Physics or Math? The question was answered at the “Music +” workshop which unfolded Friday in StudiOC. Kathryn Metz, an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, crafted the session designed to help us think about the whys, hows, and with-whats of using music across the curriculum. If the lessons learned can apply in literally any liberal arts setting, it wasn’t hard to understand why the appeal of using music across the curriculum seemed particularly opportune for Oberlin, which has a unique (in the true sense of the word) set of resources that faculty and instructional staff can tap into. These include, of course, everything that a world-class Conservatory brings to the table: faculty, staff, a superb library that features a massive collection of books, scores, and music, streaming options, instruments, photographs, art works, and an impressive archive. Further, there is the opportunity to attend over 500 live performances a year including an Artist Recital Series that brings some of the most revered musicians as well as many rising young performers to campus each year (Sleep? Pfff, that’s for the weak!). Finally, we have an often overlooked but unparalleled resource: our students. Whether in the Conservatory or the College, a substantial number of students not only have come to Oberlin because of the music, but are at home with music from Bach to Beyoncé.

But, as much as I love bragging about how Oberlin’s musical button is bigger than yours, the central message of the workshop was that any teacher in any school can leverage music to increase student learning with access to a simple sound system and the internet.

For me, the workshop stressed the learning potential of using music across a liberal-arts setting, both in the curriculum and in a broader, extra-curricular fashion, explored the resources one can use to make this happen, and provided a methodology that can be applied for teaching popular music in a variety of contexts. And it asked one important question: Why the hell aren’t more or us making use of this unparalleled resource?

The Role of the Arts in Learning: Arts Across the Curriculum 

Oberlin can be justly proud of two outstanding artistic institutions that bolster teaching and learning across the campus: The Conservatory of Music, as I’ve already indicated, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Let me turn to the AMAM as an example of the potential of using art to scaffold an entire curriculum.

In the past decade, based on an outstanding staff headed by the Curator of Academic Programs, Liliana Milkova, and a well-conceived and designed outreach program, the AMAM has become an important pillar of instruction in the college, reaching far beyond the art history or studio art curriculum. In the 2016-17 school year, for example, over 6,000 students visited the museum as part of 368 class visits from 33 different disciplines in the College and Conservatory. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we now have in place a significant art-across-the-curriculum program at Oberlin.

The Music + workshop was intended to encourage a process that can replicate the AMAM’s success in the context of music.

Of course, one question to ask is why? Why leverage the arts to support learning? Fortunately, there is a substantial body of research on the impact of the arts (music, visual, performance) on student learning. If you are interested, I would recommend the following, among many others:

One of the most influential studies in the field, highlighted at the workshop, was the 1999 study commissioned by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (Sigh. Remember when we had a White House that cared about … ? Sorry, must stay on task!). “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning,” edited by Edward B. Fiske, argued that the arts, when well taught, “provide young people with authentic learning experiences that engage their minds, hearts, and bodies.” I probably don’t have to convince you, esteemed readers, of this, but just in case I’m bullet-pointing some of their conclusions. The arts, they argue,

  • Reach students who are not otherwise being reached;
  • Reach students in ways that they are not otherwise being reached;
  • Connect students to themselves and each other;
  • Transform the environment for learning;
  • Provide new challenges for those students already considered successful;
  • Encourage self-directed learning;
  • Promote complexity in the learning experience;
  • Allow management of risk by the learners.

So what, in particular, can music add to the mix, and what is the best way to go about integrating music into the curriculum? The question was answered through a wonderful demonstration, “What’s Music Got To Do With It?,” presented by Metz and Jason Hanley, the VP of Education and Visitor Engagement at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.  The interactive discussion was based on a model for studying popular music developed at the Rock Hall. You can read more about the approach in Susan Oehler and Jason Hanley, “Perspectives of Popular Music Pedagogy in Practice: An Introduction,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 21:1 (April 2009): 2-19. Oehler and Hanley explore a set of guiding questions that can be used to help students to dig more deeply into different genres of popular music. The authors organized them into three categories: context, sound, and meaning. And that’s where we went in the workshop.

Ground Control to the Workshop

We examined the value of using music in a variety of ways through the work of Major Tom, aka, Ziggy Stardust, aka David Bowie, although his name was only revealed (to the unenlightened few who didn’t already know it) towards the end of the session. Our engagement with Bowie helped us think about how the investigation of a single musical example can lead students down multiple avenues, exploring aural experiences, the importance of historical context and cultural reception, repetition and creativity, and so many other things.

Begin with “Meaning.” We dissected the lyrics to “Ground Command to Major Tom.” (You can find them on, but here they are in any case if you’d like to try this at home.)

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills
And put your helmet on
(10) Ground Control (9) to Major Tom (8)
(7, 6) Commencing (5) countdown
Engines on (4, 3, 2)
Check ignition (1)
And may God’s love (Liftoff) be with you

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
She knows
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you….

Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Within no more than 5 minutes we had generated dozens of questions and observations about the lyrics. We discussed issues of communication (Can you hear me?), technology (I think my spaceship knows which way to go), environment, religion, shirts, relationships, allegory, history, and oh so much else! And while it’s true, as a colleague pointed out, that we are more expert at pulling meaning and questions from texts than our students, the exercise highlighted the potential of using popular song lyrics as a gateway to a variety of subjects as well as different pedagogical practices (close reading, evidence and analysis, etc.).

Turn, next, to “Sound,” listening to the song itself.  The exercise brought me back to museum pedagogy. Much as the “Visual Thinking Strategies” (VTS) approach employed by the curators in the AMAM and other museums is launched by asking the simple question, “What do you see?” the “Rock Hall” pedagogy of popular music, which I’ll here officially name as the “Aural Thinking Strategies” approach, begins by asking, “What do you hear?” And, just as VTS follows up by asking “What more do you see,” ATS did the same: “What else do you hear?” Those with training in music theory or who can boast a performance background will certainly hear different things than the lay listener, but we all heard – and reported on – what the aural experience was for us. (While I won’t cover this point here, both VTS and the ATS approach can be modified and used with those with visual or hearing impairments.)

Investigating the “sound” layer opened new areas for discussion: instruments and instrumentation, tone of voice, employment of instrumental bridges, shifting narration, use of base, reverb, harmony and chaos, all of which suggested different meanings for the lyrics than those we had discussed previously. Adding visuals to the music added yet another layer. We watched the original 1969 video of “Ground Control,” and suggested how the visuals either supported or undercut understandings that we had developed before as well as how the music in the video different from the original audio performance, and why the changes were made.

We continued along the visual path by examining the album covers from the original UK edition released in 1969 and the U.S. release (“David Bowie: A Space Oddity”), highlighting the impact of Op-Art on the UK edition and considering the impact of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the second (“A Space Oddity”), moving – as with VTS – from “what do you see?” to interpretation: why?

Then to “context,” as we followed the reappearance of themes raised for the first time in “Ground Control” (1969), to Bowie’s reimagined appearance as Ziggy Stardust in “Starman” (“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars,” 1972), and on to “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), “Hallo Spaceboy” (1996), and, ultimately, sadly, following some of the religious themes (“And may God’s love be with you”) through to his last album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, January 8, 2016, two days before he died. Intertextuality, the continuities and disjunctions of artistic lives and themes, the opportunity to see an artist reprocess central images over 40+ years of creativity, the historic meaning of Bowie in 1969 and at his death… So many themes to explore!

But the discussion didn’t end there. We considered how “Ground Control” was taken up anew in the work of other artists, viewing Peter Schilling’s video, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (1996). One could go on and on: we could have checked out K.I.A.’s version (“Mrs. Major Tom”) from 2002, in which Larissa Gomes narrates the story from the perspective of Major Tom’s wife who has been left at home. Or Sheryl Crow’s cover of that version on William Shatner’s Seeking Major Tom album from 2011. But my hands-down favorite was a version of “Ground Control” recorded, mixed and produced on the International Space Station by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013. Promise me that you’ll look at that, not to mention the original. (And I’ll leave it up to you and your students to discuss among yourselves what is original, or the meaning of authentic, or how we understand creativity itself in the context of remixing, sampling, or reimagining.) All of this by looking at one song and its history.

Where do you fit in?

If you haven’t figured out by now, I was incredibly energized by the workshop, not only because it featured the artistry of David Bowie, but because it offered teachers, particularly in liberal arts colleges, another way to integrate our students’ learning and their lived experience. Much as with (visual) art, and the value of the Allen Memorial Art Museum to students’ learning across the campus that I referenced earlier, music can provide a link into virtually any course.

At my “breakout” table, for example, we discussed the distinctions that different people or cultures make between “sound” and “music,” and just how critical these distinctions can be. Fredara Hadley, who teaches an “Introduction to African American Music,” among other courses, in the Conservatory, reminded us of the case of Jordan Davis, an African American teenager, who was shot and killed in Florida in 2012 because his white, middle-aged killer, Michael Dunn, was “offended” by the loud hip hop music that came from his car.

Much as we peeled off the various levels of engaging with “Ground Control,” so we can think of the many ways of deploying music across the curriculum. As with art, the most straightforward approach is through its content or subject matter: Medieval European history can be enriched with medieval music, either in live performances (and we are fortunate to have the exceptional Collegium Musicum, directed by Steven Plank), through recordings, or by viewing the instruments of the period. Courses on U.S. history in the 1960s or a study of social movements will easily find ways to use music as a text in their courses. Nor is this limited to social science or humanities courses. Our massive 4,014 pipe Kay Africa Memorial Organ in Finney is a perfect instrument, pun intended, for a physics lesson. But content or subject matter aren’t the only ways in when thinking about music across the curriculum.

As Professor Hadley observed, so many of our students traverse the campus with headphones on or ear-buds firmly in place, surely listening to music. But, are they listening or just hearing? Is the ubiquity of music actually getting in the way of listening (and not just because they don’t take out their ear-buds when they’re talking to you).  Bringing music into a class can be a method for helping students become careful, discerning listeners which, I would argue, is a skill that we could all use more of today. In a similar way, music can be used to bolster dispositional outcomes, ways of being in the world, that we hope to foster in our students. We know quite well that students (as well as most of us) are hyperactive; moving rapidly between various operations. “Empty” time that previously existed between tasks has basically disappeared since technology provides us with something to do to fill quiet spaces. What deliberate listening, as a learned disposition, can provide, much like close looking or careful reading, is a means of slowing students down, moving them out of hyperactivity – which has its place, to be sure – and into a modality where deep analysis and reflection can occur. While it is unlikely that most classes will find the time to play an entire album that students can listen to collectively, even 5-6 minutes of thoughtful and close listening can help students slow down.

Music to Unite

At the beginning of the Music + workshop, Dean Andrea Kalyn talked about music as a “thing” and a “mode”. In the former sense, music, she argued, is an experience that can awe us, an artifact that stands in its own right and in relation to the culture around it, and a set of skills to be learned whether via performance or as a new language, a different way of understanding. In the latter sense, it operates as a mode of creation (composition), re-creation (performance), and collaboration, a mode of listening, synthesis, and practice (discipline). Each of these aspects holds out potential to further engage and activate student learning by weaving together cognitive and affective, what they study and what they experience across the campus and the community. Music, then, has the potential of crossing barriers, both imagined and real.

Let me conclude, then, by referencing one of my favorite composers, John Luther Adams, who has been featured in these pages a number of times. Music (its study, composition, performance, reception, discipline, magnificence) offers us the potential of speaking to everyone on campus. But, in the wider world, it can unite those who have been separated. In late January, Steven Schick, a percussionist and conductor, peered through the fence that separates San Diego, California, from Tijuana, Mexico, and proclaimed, “Con la música nunca se puede dividirnos”: “With music, we cannot be divided.” He proceeded to lead a group of musicians located on both sides of the border in a performance of John Luther Adams’s hour-long percussion work “Inuksuit.” Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, observed the event from the Tijuana side of the border.

“The performance began almost inaudibly,” he wrote, “with musicians breathing into paper and plastic tubes. Then Schick let out a foghorn tone on a conch shell. This was a signal for a gradual crescendo, building to a gaudy roar of drums, gongs, cymbals, and sirens…Only performers were allowed in the adjacent strip; for security reasons, Border Patrol kept the audience behind the second fence. Some two hundred and fifty Americans showed up, having hiked nearly a mile to reach the site.”

Ross had seen “Inuksuit” a number of times but this performance, he wrote, “was overwhelming in its impact, for obvious reasons. As I listened, I couldn’t help registering the messages inscribed on the [Mexican side of the] wall: “What God has joined together let man not separate”; “Stop family separation”; “How many hearts must bleed?”; “La poesía es gente con sueños” (“Poetry is people with dreams”); “Love trumps hate.” Yet, as at other performances of Adams’s remarkable creation, the sheer volume of the climax had the effect of wiping my brain clean of concrete thoughts. I closed my eyes and found myself unaware of the wall’s existence: the wire mesh did nothing to stop the flow of sound.”

Music has the power to do so much. What are we waiting for?

Added Feb. 5, 2018 (1:06 PM)

A few additional resources:

Christy Thomas, “Active Listening: Teaching with Music,” Yale Center for Teaching and Learning (November 30, 2015).

Ronald A. Berk, “Music and music technology in college teaching: Classical to hip hop across the  curriculum,” International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 4:1 (2008), 45–67.

Janelle Monae f., “Hell You Talmbout,” Wondaland Records.

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