Hearing Geography and Infrastructure in the Musical Culture of Seattle, Washington

Essential Question

How did Seattle’s geographic location affect its musical culture in the early 1990s?


In the decades before the internet emerged as a virtual “information superhighway,” people, goods, and culture traveled largely on actual highways. When viewing a map of the United States, cities such as Atlanta, GA, and Nashville, TN, appear to sit in bullseyes, at the crossroads of several interstates and all the traffic they carry. Others cities appear more remote, isolated from the regions around them. Such is the case of Seattle, WA, which is tucked beneath the Canadian border and between mountain chains, dense national forests, and the Pacific Ocean. 

In the episode of Sonic Highways featured in this lesson, musician Dave Grohl reflects back on the relative isolation of the Seattle area in the 1980s, concluding that the geography of the region led Seattleites to develop the Grunge music scene that became a global sensation in the early 1990s. Grohl, along with other musicians, suggests that most mid-level touring bands didn’t perform in Seattle because getting to the city was too costly both in terms of money and time. In the absence of live music from touring bands, Seattle locals thus created and supported a regional music culture of performers, recording engineers, venue owners, artists, and record labels–largely without the influence and interference of the outside world.

In this lesson, students consider how the geographic position and infrastructure of a city influence its cultural development. Through analyzing various maps, listening to interviews with Seattle locals, and conducting hands-on activities, students explore the creation of the Interstate Highway System, learn about the musical culture of Seattle in the early 1990s, and consider the role roads and highways play in the cultural life of their city. Students will also reflect on ways culture might have spread before the internet. 

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How the Seattle Grunge scene developed through the efforts of a wide range of artists, professionals, and hobbyists
    • How local music “scenes” and economies interact and emerge
    • About the Sub Pop record label and its importance to American Music
    • About the style and impact of photographer Charles Peterson
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • By analyzing how the physical location of Seattle, Washington influenced the development of Grunge music, students will be able to better understand how issues of geography contribute to the creation of arts and culture.