by James T. Spartz


Course design and implementation for ecomusicology courses vary depending on the instructor’s background and institutional learning environment. Drawing on participation in a two-part ecomusicology panel presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2019 conference and a subsequent weeklong Citizen Artist residency, the author developed an Ecomusicology & Place course for a section of undergraduate students at a rural environmental college in the northeast United States during the spring 2020 semester. Course design and implementation are discussed and evaluated with reflection on the ultimate success and challenges of the course.

Sunrise over village in mountainous valley in Niñocorin, Bolivia

Trail marker on the Hills to Sea Trail, photo by the author.

Course Development Contexts

Similar to Donna Lee Kwon’s (2017) path to ecomusicology “by way of an earlier interest in the nexus of music, space, and place,” I took the opportunity to “explore a few of these interdisciplinary connections” through a course titled Ecomusicology & Place (link to syllabus). This course was offered under a sophomore-level “Topics in Humanities” rubric in the spring 2020 semester at a small, private, environmental college in the northern New England region of the United States. In this essay, I share my approach to developing and teaching the course, basic activities within the course, and a summary critique and reflection.

My approach to ecomusicology has been informed by both academic work and practical experience. To be clear, I did not approach the course development and implementation from a background in formal music education, ethnography, or musicology. As a musician, I have had no formal post-secondary training yet have studied the craft of songwriting and performed solo and with small ensembles in the Roots-Rock or Americana genre for the better part of twenty-five years. These caveats create both constraints and affordances for a somewhat idiosyncratic and intuitive approach to developing, teaching, and evaluating Ecomusicology & Place as a course.

In June, 2019, the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA) convened its biennial Conference on Communication and Environment at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. The theme of the conference was Waterlines: Confluence and Hope through Environmental Communication. The conference included a two-part ecomusicology panel titled Waterlines, Melody Lines, and the Environmental Imagination: Mobilizing Community through Music (Part 1; Part 2), organized by Mark Pedelty, author of Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment (Pedelty 2012). I was honored to chair one of the Waterlines, Melody Lines panels, submit a research essay titled Songwriting as Expression of Cultural Ecosystem Services, and present a song during a full evening of musician-scholar performances emceed by former IECA Chair Richard Doherty and featuring the Vancouver-based “eco-rock” musical duo The Wilds. The Waterlines, Melody Lines panels explored various ways “musicians, environmental organizers, activists, and audiences imagine more sustainable and equitable futures through music” (IECA 2019). This was the first formal ecomusicological event in which I was a direct participant as both scholar and performing songwriter. As such, my preparations for the conference and interactions with various panelists and attendees significantly influenced my understanding of ecomusicology as a wide-ranging nexus of scholarship, artistic pursuit, grounded research, storytelling, environmental advocacy, and multi-media performance.

My immersion in the breadth of ecomusicological work continued through August of 2019 where I participated in a weeklong, collaborative, citizen-artist residency hosted by historian, educator, artist, and rural entrepreneur Erin Dorbin of Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge in southeast Minnesota’s geologically unique Driftless Area. This collaborative residency, a pairing of myself and Los Angeles-based experimental sound artist and songwriter Nick Byron Campbell, was designed with the intention to “rediscover and re-imagine” Driftless Minnesota through “Meet & Greets and Community Workshops… coordinated with the citizen-artists and residents of Houston [County], MN, in partnership with local arts, history, and community organizations” (Dorbin 2020). The residency included regional travel; informal interviews with local residents; and musical performance, creation, and experimental documentation. A local journalist covered these events and brought our efforts to light for regional readers through newspaper articles and social media posts.

Through the encouragement of colleagues at my (now former) institution, Unity College, I proposed a course for the spring 2020 semester under the established rubric of a three-credit Topics in Humanities course. The proposal was accepted and set for an 8 a.m. section of twenty students meeting for seventy-five minutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays over a sixteen-week semester spanning January to May (including a two-week spring break in late March). Course development for Ecomusicology & Place was idiosyncratic in that I drew as much or more from recent personal experience, as described above, than from extant academic scholarship. For some institutional context, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic Unity College was a small, residential campus oriented toward in-person experiential and environmentally-focused learning for undergraduates in Waldo County, Maine. It is considered an “environmental college” in that its institutional mission is situated upon a framework of sustainability science. I needed to develop a course that would resonate with this particular student body, with whom I had been working since 2014. As such, the course needed to span the gamut “from political and practical (activist and applied) to the poetic and intellectual (reflective)” (Allen 2017). My goal was to include experiential components while also being supported by theory, yet without an overly turgid academic tone. I wanted to allow and encourage each of the varied students to “start where you are” with a course rooted in topics suggested by its title—ecological systems, musicality and sound, scholarship, and place theory—and allow room for students to individually pursue intellectual and experiential learning guided by course concepts, discussions, and sense of self-in-place writing and introspection.

Course Implementation

The course was structured with three main sections. Course objectives included students becoming familiar with the central concepts and practices of ecomusicology and situating those concepts and practices into place-based scenarios for the benefits of self-knowledge, skillful listening, and public engagement. Learning outcomes aligned with a generic Topics in Humanities rubric and were amended for this course as follows:

  • Develop working familiarity with central concepts of a place-based ecomusicology
  • Develop and perform basic ecomusical activities (i.e. engage in active listening with/in local soundscapes)
  • Understand the role of citizen artists in facilitating an ecomusical sense of place
  • Produce original research and analysis relative to course content and emergent discussions

The first five weeks were structured as a broad introduction to ecomusical terms and concepts, discussion and practice in active listening, and a place-based framework developed by phenomenologist Daniel R. Williams (2014; Williams, Stewart, and Kruger 2013) based on humanistic geographer Robert Sack’s basic premise of place as a “fundamental means through which we make sense of the world and through which we act” (Sack 1992, 1; 1997). Here we established a baseline of terminological understandings and connected the central ideas encapsulated in the title of the course: Eco (ecological systems), Music (musicality and sound), -ology (study of, or scholarship), and Place (geographic location imbued with relational meaning). At the end of this first section, the class embarked on the first of three “soundwalks” in an effort to cultivate active and continuous listening amid the soundscapes of their quotidian campus environment. The middle five weeks introduced the role of citizen artists as bridges between artistic pursuits and community-scale civic engagement. The course focused on how select citizen artists centered their work broadly on environmental justice or ecocultural awareness, developed and implemented in place-based contexts (e.g. neighborhoods, communities of practice, watersheds, etc.). In the final weeks of the class, disrupted and displaced by COVID-19 adjustments (i.e. students working from home, in relative quarantine, through distance-learning protocols), we finished the course focused on student-centered personal explorations of ecomusicology and place.

Week 1 included an introduction through examples. We reviewed the panels presented at the 2019 International Environmental Communication Association conference to demonstrate the breadth of ongoing ecomusicological topics, research questions, musical styles, and place-based components. Through this broad introduction, I asked rhetorical questions meant to prime students’ thinking and orientation to the course. I also distributed a hardcopy of the glossary from Current Directions in Ecomusicology (Allen and Dawe 2016) as a discussion prompt.

In Week 2 we continued broad discussions of musicality in various environments while integrating “place” concepts. A short reading from Keith Basso’s (1996) Wisdom Sits in Places was paired with an excerpt, titled Creation Songs, from Sherri Mitchell’s book Sacred Instructions (2018). To further situate and solidify a place-based foundation to the course, we also discussed an excerpt from Cantrill and Senecah’s (2011) conceptualization of sense of self-in-place. To add a visual complement, and conceptual connection, we viewed and discussed the Venn diagrams presented in Allen, Titon, and Von Glahn’s (2014) Sustainability and Sound: Ecomusicology Inside and Outside the Academy and “examples of ontological, epistemological, and axiological pluralism and positional lenses based on Sack’s (1992, 1997) relational geographic framework” from Williams, shown in figure 1 (2014, 80).

Diagram of Williams' "cone of knowledge."

Figure 1. “Examples of ontological, epistemological, and axiological pluralism and positional lenses based on Sack’s (1992, 1997) relational geographic framework,” from Williams (2014, 80).

Building on the foundations of scholarship connecting ecologies, musicalities, and place concepts and practices, we took Weeks 3 and 4 to address aspects of listening. Podcasts (e.g. Krista Tippett’s On Being interview [2012] with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton), short videos (e.g. R. Murray Schafer’s “Listen” [2009]), and a TEDx Talk (e.g. Soundscape: How it Affects Body and Mind, by Roxanne Layton [2018]), complemented audio segments from Emergence Magazine and writing by David George Haskell (e.g. The Voices of Birds and the Language of Belonging [2019]; Chapter 1 – Ciebo, from The Songs of Trees [2017]) and audio segments from soundscape composition vanguard Hildegard Westercamp.

This first section of the course culminated in a three-phase writing project—proposal, draft, and final draft—centering each student in their own ecomusical sense of self-in-place, as they understood themselves to be. Students drew from course readings, discussions, sound segments, and ecomusical place-based personal experiences to compose their projects.

To bridge the transition from the first to the second phase of the course, directed by student feedback, I took one class session to insert a “crash course” in songwriting. Drawing from my own experiences in songwriting, coordinating songwriter groups, and other sources such as songwriter Mary Gauthier’s advice to “Write Clear, Write Plain, Write True,” I covered basic distinctions and guidelines for keeping voice notes and written notes, woodshedding, jamming, co-writing, using demo recordings, and integrating turns-of-phrase. As an example, I used one of my own songs about picking up a hitchhiker on a very cold winter day and how the “Acadian sounds” of rural Maine were, at the beginning of the song, disorienting for the hitcher but by the end of the song—being my creative projection—ecomusical connections become uplifting as the hitcher heads off, “Skowhegan Bound.”

Building on the broad examination of introductory ideas, experiences, and practices to connect ecology, music, scholarship, and place, the course focus shifted to examples of civically engaged musical artists, a section called Musickers as Citizen Artists. We began with the Aspen Institute’s definition of citizen artists as: “Individuals who reimagine the traditional notions of art-making, and who contribute to society either through the transformative power of their artistic abilities, or through proactive social engagement with the arts in realms including education, community building, diplomacy and healthcare.” We added an environmental justice realm as complement and contrast. A series of short videos from the Kennedy Center 2019-2020 Citizen Artist Fellows helped personalize the variety and depth of citizen artistry. After introducing the topic and viewing examples from the Kennedy Center and the Los Angeles-based Street Symphony (, we broke into small group discussions. Having built rapport with the students in the previous several weeks, I was able to successfully call on some of the quieter students to share brief summaries of their discussions.

By introducing the ideas of musicking alongside citizen artistry we were able to explore a wide range of styles and media formats. We drew on a description from Notre Dame Collegiate Fine Arts of musicking as musical experience that echoes Christopher Small’s now-classic definition (Small 1998):

Music can be a historical artifact that represents sound, such as the great works of Beethoven, Handel or Mahler, or the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, or Freddie Mercury. Music can also be an aesthetic experience, something that can be enjoyed on its own merits. Music can also be an induplicable experience, something that cannot be copied because it is never played in the same way with the same reasons and the same audience ever again, and therefore becomes a fond memory. In each of these cases, music is a noun… [for our purposes], music is a verb.

Upon checking in with students about the course, several indicated that it was “not the class they thought it would be” and wanted less academic readings and more, well, actual music. With that feedback, we integrated a variety of audio-only and audio+video formats accompanied by conversations connecting lyrical, visual, auditory, and rhythmic components. During our first lengthy “listening session” we reviewed work by groups like Minneapolis-based hip-hop duo Atmosphere (e.g. songs Bde Maka Ska; Sunshine) and Ottawa-based First Nations electronic producer and DJ duo, A Tribe Called Red (e.g. live event footage, interviews, and official videos). On another day, through a supplemental post on the course Canvas “Announcements” page, our listening sessions were supplemented with links generated by the College president, a foreign-born American who, as an adult, immigrated with family from The Gambia (West Africa) to the United States. An informal conversation between him and myself resulted in him sending three songs to supplement our class discussions by artists such as Cheb Khaled, K’naan, and Youssou N’Dour. These examples were not all explicitly “ecological” in nature, but they did highlight musical place-connection in various ways.

The following week, students met one-on-one with me for about ten minutes each to discuss developing their Citizen Artistry research essay. Other students, alternately, endeavored to complete their second soundwalk assignment, despite very cold and icy weather conditions. In this middle section of the course we also began a series of student-led group assignments. Students were randomly assigned to one of five generic categories: Air, Water, Fire, Land, and Animals. These “sound profile” assignments asked student groups to find music related to their respective theme and reflect on their individual and collective contributions. Question prompts included: What song or musical element did you select? Why? What connection (e.g. musical, place-based, etc.) does this selection have to the group theme? Whether air, water, fire, land, or animals, we discussed how the selected songs represented particular facets of the general theme and what ecomusical and place-based components exist within the materials presented. Students submitted lyrics, musical elements, place connections, and other details to support and highlight their insights.

A two-week spring break provided a natural break in the course. This also distinguished the end of the middle portion of the course and beginning of the last portion with a move into “personal directions in ecomusicology.” Late March 2020 also marked a decisive shift in not just the course, the college, or students’ lives, but for the world. Due to COVID-19, in-person classes were suspended after spring break. We finished the course in an asynchronous, distance-learning format focused mostly on developing a personal narrative connecting students’ lived experience with the central tenets of the course. Students finished the course from homes in California, Georgia, Texas, and throughout New England. Given the massive disruption, one topic of discussion dropped during this change was a focus on non-human song. Readings for this focus area would have been drawn from Voices of the Wild by Bernie Krause (2015) and other work, such as a colleague at the college whose research focuses on elk bugling and other animal communication.  A third soundwalk, one piece of reflective writing, and online discussions through Canvas also helped bring closure and synthesis to the course, albeit in ways not originally intended.


In an Ecomusicology Review piece titled “Teaching Ecomusicology” by Sonja Lynn Downing (2012, 12), ten out of eleven ecomusicology courses reviewed were “based in some sort of music department as their home department (from musicology to composition).” The list of glossary terms included in Current Directions in Ecomusicology (Allen and Dawe 2016), as several of my students noted in the initial weeks of our course, lacked basic musical term definitions and instead focused on terms that might be considered more aligned with sustainability studies, acoustic ecology, ethnography, etc. These two points underlie potential biases in the field: assuming a pre-existing understanding of formal music terminology but not of sustainability studies terminology. Reflecting on this very contrast, Allen acknowledges the glossary’s original development as targeted toward a readership of likely “music scholars and not environmental scholars” (Post et al. 2021, 23).

In designing this course, I had to keep my own students in mind and develop a course that would resonate with the immersive sustainability studies curriculum of their college experience as well as with my own authentic experience, knowledge base, and curiosities. The twenty students enrolled in this class, given the sustainability studies focus of the institution itself, were already well versed in the language of ecological sustainability. Despite all having an interest in music, however, understanding formal music theory or terminology ranged from a few who considered themselves musicians/lyricists/songwriters to several who had some experience in high school band, chorus, or theatre but did not maintain a musical practice, and numerous who loved music as listeners but had little or no musical training. Within our campus, there was no music or musicology program and no extracurricular musical club outside of an active vocal chorus group. The experience of these students, being an inverse of the Current Directions glossary’s intended audience, supports Allen’s ongoing assertion that ecomusicology, as a broad field rather than a narrower discipline or interdiscipline, exists as a convergence “where many disciplines come together, cross-pollinate, provide mutually beneficial services, and stimulate further growth and change” (Allen and Dawe 2016, 11).

This course did align with previously described ecomusicology courses in other ways, however. It drew on “artistic, ethnographic, historical, literary, and scientific perspectives to explore the relationships between the natural environment and human sound” (Downing 2013, 8) as well as including “one of the most prevalent themes in approaching the teaching of ecomusicology” (Downing 2013, 9)—a focus on geographic notions of “place”—and humanistic connections to a generalized conception of Cantrill and Senecah’s sense of self-in-place (Cantrill and Senecah 2001). Indeed, we started with “place.”

To ground student perspectives in learning about the nexus of ecology, music, scholarship and sense of self-in-place, I introduced a basic diagram of place—the “cone of knowledge” (Williams 2014)—and asked students to reflect on place-based concepts, identities, and experiences. While the general focus of “place” resurfaced occasionally throughout the course, I was unsatisfied with my own ability to connect the low-abstraction, experiential, components of being-in-place with higher abstractions such as musicology, humanistic geography, social-ecological systems, ethnography, etc. The introductory nature of this course, as compared to the advanced nature of most published ecomusicology literature (i.e. dense academic prose written for graduate school level scholars-in-training), pushed the iterative design of the course towards shorter multi-media interludes and examples screened during class, discussed in small groups, then synthesized through full-class discussions using Socratic methods of rhetorical inquiry. Switching from reading-heavy content in the first weeks of the course to more multi-media content as the basis of our discussions added to quality and quantity of engagement from students who, for an 8 a.m. course, maintained very good attendance throughout the in-person portion of the semester.

Another similarity between my course and many others was the inclusion of “some version of a soundwalk” (Downing 2013, 11). I wanted a central underlying theme of the course to include open-eared, continuous listening for the anthrophonic, biophonic, and holistic mergings of musicality within one’s typical surroundings—the songs of everyday life. The series of three soundwalks allowed students to experience different versions of what a soundwalk can be. The first was in small groups along assigned routes on campus; the second, included individually selected on-campus walks; and the third took place off campus, at “home” during the early days of initial pandemic lockdown. Here, I agree with Allen’s (2013, 14) assertion that whatever version of a soundwalk one composes, crucial elements include not just the sonic milieu, or even the specific location, “but the ultimate reflections and conversations that result.” Written reflections on the soundwalks allowed me as the instructor to connect more directly with each student as I offered written responses to their experiential writing and positive encouragement for students who, at least at first, didn’t quite “get” the soundwalk as a potentially robust ecomusical experience.

My own musical background emerges out of a fairly narrow practice of songwriting informed by North American folk, blues, country, and popular music (i.e. Americana genre), I remained conscious of this bias and was intentional about bringing into the class examples for our listening sessions that did more than simply mirror my own experiences. I also encouraged students to delve into their own past and their family’s past of place-based existence and/or migration. In doing so, for example, one student was able to break through his initial frustration with “place” concepts in realizing that urban environments were very relevant and valid to “sense of place” even though environmentalists often focus on conceptions of “nature” and “wilderness” as rural or otherwise outside of urban or suburban spaces. Another student was able to connect her family’s Peruvian background with an ecologically themed radio program based in that country. Another looked at prison songs and contexts as a particular environment (e.g. both Johnny Cash and Los Tigres del Norte concerts at Folsum Prison). Yet another was able to connect our coursework to the final soundwalk through her home neighborhood in Los Angeles. In encouraging and welcoming an open range of reflections on place, music, identity, and experience outside of the isolated rural setting of northern New England, the class benefited from subsequent and ongoing discussions and, importantly, students appeared to develop a deeper understanding of their own sense of self-in-place from an ecomusical perspective.

“How could this course be improved?” is a useful question for any educator. I kept notes in a dedicated journal throughout the course and was able to reflect on these notes afterwards. Student evaluations can offer some useful feedback though are also prone to distinct biases. One change would be to include more music in structured “listening sessions” from the outset. Connecting with students through the experience of listening (as a group and as individuals within a group) might help bond the class, create an atmosphere of engaged learning, and introduce a diversity of musical styles and genres to underscore the breadth of ecomusicality as a plurality of lived experience, natural occurrence, and field of scholarship. Starting with “listening” would also center the course on this phenomenon and could be used to introduce other experiential concepts, such as entrainment, mindful attention, and metacognition. I would definitely keep the soundwalk component. These were very useful, even in icy cold Maine, though I might try variations such as an initial full-class guided walk (with intermittent “listening stops,” particularly where crunching snow and ice can be louder than one might suspect); small group, student-led guided walks; and “free range” individual walks using hand-held recording devices (e.g. mobile phones) to catalog sounds for subsequent reflection and discussion. As noted, one core component for soundwalks in a class like this is an immediate written reflection and debriefing discussion. For debriefing sessions, I recommend a leading question or two for students working in small groups while the instructor circulates to engage with these groups. After ten or fifteen minutes in small groups, open the discussion to the whole class by leading with thoughts or comments gleaned from small-group dialogue. Regarding terminology and language, I might also develop an addendum to the Current Directions glossary (Allen and Dawe 2016) to include basic musical terms or other core concepts relative my particular course goals. Such a list will be idiosyncratic to the instructor and the institutional context yet help establish conceptual parameters for the course (e.g. citizen artistry, ecocultural identity, ethnomusicology, decolonial social movements, etc.). One other element I could have used more effectively were ongoing discussions on social media forums such as Decolonizing Ethnomusicology and the Ecocultural Communications Page, both on Facebook. With discretion and context (not all, or even most, posts will be relevant to “eco”-musicology), posts or ideas from such groups could provide useful points of departure for reflexive engagement. Similarly, creating a unique course hashtag via Twitter, and using a digital widget in Canvas or other Learning Management System, can create a direct pathway for bringing links, clips, infographics, discussion forum posts, etc. into the classroom. I have done this for various courses and found it very useful for merging current events with course content and discussion.


This course was a success for the context of its delivery and with the students for whom it was intended to serve. The course attempted to connect a range of complex social-ecological phenomena and musicology in a way that needed adjustment throughout the sixteen-week semester, based on mid-semester student feedback, yet was accessible and meaningful (based on final student course evaluations) to undergraduates with little or no formal musical training or experience. As an introduction to the field, it appeared to help students connect previously disconnected interests in ecological sustainability, music and sound, citizen artistry, and senses of self-in-place or ecocultural identity. Synthesizing formal scholarship and writing, visual and artistic representations, audio and video prompts, and experiential components, the course generated an effective combination of established practices and knowledge from a diverse range of sources. While it might not be a curriculum suitable for all learning environments (e.g. music programs rather than sustainability studies programs), it fit well within the experientially oriented milieu of sustainability studies on the campus at hand. Future versions of this course could include significant re-design to the curriculum described above but also would maintain core elements such as soundwalks, connections to civic engagement, and, of course, plenty of music.


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