Popular Music, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Swing Music, Early Jazz


This essay explores three approaches to “musical writing” from a course called “Writing About Popular Music.” I designed the course with the help of Dr. Robert Ray while finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Florida and continued to develop it with the help of Li Wei of the music program at the University of Central Florida.

Though this course offers standard approaches to music history, theory, and analysis, it also aims to produce new forms of writing about music that are themselves musical. To this end, the course explores how information is stored, organized, and processed in music, and it borrows and transforms these musical practices into writing practices.

The course is framed around the following research questions:
1. If music communicates information, what are the modes by which it does so? What are the processes by which we assign meaning to music?
2. Are storage technologies (sheet music, the phonograph) necessary for music?
3. How do compositional strategies associated with music relate to writing in other disciplines? What is the relationship between the history of music and other histories?

To address these questions, we take up theories about composition, performance, syncretism, propaganda, mass media, appropriation, and information technology to look at important music genres and their representative figures, such as jazz (Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller), big band (Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington), popular vocal (Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald), and rock (Elvis Presley, Little Richard). These musical genres/styles/individuals not only coincided at transitional moments in music technology (recording studios, radio, long-playing phonographs, television, digital and sampler), but also represent stylistic and conceptual contrasts manifested in the dichotomies of "composition/improvisation," "vocal/instrumental," "rhythm/melody," "original/copy," "black/white," "understate/virtuosity," and "art/entertainment."

Publication Date


Original Citation

Mauer, Barry. “Musical Writing.” Sapaan: Volume 3. Spring, 2004.

[Note: This journal no longer exists. I believe the copyright reverts to the author.]

Document Type


Publication Version

Publisher's version


This essay originally appeared in Volume 3 Fall 2004. The journal has ceased publication.


College of Arts and Humanities


Orlando (Main) Campus





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