“Media Smarts”: Examining Online Music Literacy

Chrysalis L. Wright
University of Central Florida

Francesca Dillman Carpentier
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Megan Hopper
Illinois State University

Wayne Warburton
Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media (2009) has recognized that popular music plays an important role in the social development of youth and may hold both positive and potentially harmful outcomes for these consumers. This recognition carries with it a call for increasing awareness of the potential negative impact that popular music may have on the socialization process.  Despite this need, most media literacy programs focus on print media (Olson & Pollard, 2004), television advertising (Draper et al., 2015), video games (Walther et al., 2014), and social media (Vlieghe et al., 2014). Internet sites devoted to media literacy rarely include music.  Experts agree that media literacy needs more attention, especially during the elementary school years to enhance young consumers’ ability to critically evaluate media and make good media choices (Šupšáková, 2016). This need relates to music as well (Ey, 2016). The Division 46 Committee on Music and Media recently recommended that music literacy begin at a young age and continue through the lifespan. It should include aspects of understanding, analysis, and reflection based on a consumer’s stage in development.

We used the Google search engine to search the internet for music literacy websites but located just one legitimate media literacy site that included a focus on popular music (http://mediasmarts.ca). “MediaSmarts” is a Canadian based Center for Digital and Media Literacy.  This site includes resources for various forms of media (e.g., television, film, internet, video games, music), contains “special issues” for children, teens, and girls, and focuses on resources for parents and teachers.

The music page provides information related to popular music but has less content than other media pages. The “Music Overview” section discusses the popularity of music in Canada and how adolescents utilize music.  The “Inappropriate Content in Music” section confers explicit lyrics, the parental advisory label, and music videos.  The potential positive (i.e., prosocial lyrics) and negative (i.e., risky behaviors, early sexual activity, alcohol use) impacts of music are included.  The “Online Music” section covers the ease of music access and copyright issues.  While the music page does not include a “special issues” section for children, teens, and girls, it does provide parent and teacher resources.  Parent resources include tip-sheets for how to co-view media and discuss gender stereotypes with children and manage media in the home.  Sexual references in music along with information on how to contact media industries are also included.  Teacher resources contain lesson plans for gender stereotypes and popular culture in music, information on digital literacy skills, and an online game focusing on privacy policies.

While it is promising that there is one website addressing music media literacy, there is clearly a paucity of resources in this area. This gap could be addressed with a comprehensive research-informed website aimed at youth.  A music media literacy website should include education regarding the music industry including its social functions and genre specific histories, and a clear acknowledgment that music content is a result of both the artist and the record labels (Hobbs, 2009; Tobias, 2014). Music literacy should also include discussion of easy music access (Olson & Pollard, 2004) and balance ideas of consumer empowerment with protectionist orientations (Sekarasih et al., 2016; Šupšáková, 2016). In this way lessons could be based on the tenets of social learning theory (Bandura, 1977), aiming to provide protective measures so that adolescents might be inoculated to the potentially harmful effects of music content.  Music literacy should provide tools needed to compare and contrast music from different cultures, understanding music representations regarding stereotypes (e.g., gender, race, class, sexuality), as well as social context, control, resistance, and pleasure related to media use, ultimately to encourage mindful music consumption (Hobbs, 2010; The New London, 1996; Tobias, 2014).

With advances in technology making music readily accessible and the irrelevance of geographic distance in distribution and dissemination of music (Sen, 2010), it is important for scholars to produce clear guidelines on healthy music consumption and a template for an effective popular music literacy program. Effective music literacy education will allow for the use and enjoyment of popular music minus the potential harmful effects.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


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