Hearing Geography and Infrastructure in Seattle Grunge Culture – Part 1

Essential Question

How did Seattle’s geographic isolation contribute to the development of Grunge?


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 Part 1 of 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. 

Part 2 of the lesson delves deeper into the collection of Seattle record producers, musicians, and visual artist which helped make Grunge culture into a national phenomenon.


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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • About the development of the Interstate Highway System
    • The geography of Seattle, WA and its surrounding areas
    • How the geographic isolation of Seattle, WA helped inspire the Grunge movement
    • Be able to contrast pre-internet culture with post-internet culture
  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.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • What’s the farthest place from home you’ve driven within the United States? How long did it take you to get there?
    • Think about the place you just named–how might you have gotten there in 1900? How long do you think it might have taken?
    • In what ways do you think paved roads and automobiles may have changed American life? (Encourage students to consider the movement of goods, people, ideas, etc…)


  1. Show Clip 1, “Isolation in Seattle, WA.” Ask your students:
    • According to Dave Grohl, how did bands communicate with fans in the pre-internet era? How much could they know about their fans in a city before playing there? (Students should recall Grohl discussing that bands often had no way of directly connecting to anyone in a city before arriving).  
    • Why might have Seattle been unappealing to such touring musicians at this time? (Encourage students to consider the distance and relative isolation of the city, and the expense of traveling there and to the next city.)
    • Why do you think Seattle was so much more isolated that many other cities? (Encourage students to consider the city’s geographic location as well as what they know about the roads and highways that reach it).
  2. Display Image 1, “Seattle Topography,” and ask the class:
    • What types of geography do you see around Seattle? (Students should recognize that Seattle is flanked by National Forests to the east, the Canadian border to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.)
    • By which directions is Seattle accessible? What barriers complicate access to the city?
    • Do you think the immediate areas around Seattle are densely populated?
  3. Show Image 2, “Cities Nearest to Seattle,” and for each of the marked cities, ask:
    • What city is closest to Seattle? How long do you think it would to drive there?
    • Do you think any of the cities around Seattle are “major” cities? Why?
    • Looking at the map, do you think there are any places in between any of the above cities and Seattle in which a traveling band could have performed on the way to Seattle? Why or why not?
  4. Distribute Handout 1, “The American Interstate System.” Read the handout out loud as a class, then ask:
    • In what ways do you think the Interstate Highway System might “generate life and commerce”?
    • What factors might make it difficult to “generate life and commerce” even with the Interstate Highway System? (Encourage students to consider physical barriers, such as mountain ranges, as well as the longer distances between cities in the Western United States).  
    • How do you think the highways might change rural America? How might they impact cities?
    • Why do you think Samuelson suggests that “to understand America, you must understand the highways”?
  5. Show Image 3, “United States Interstate System.” Ask students:
    • Where is the construction of highways most dense? Where do you see it the least?
    • Why do you think there are so many more highways in some places?
    • Imagine you are in a band. You want to perform outside of your city for as many people as possible, but you don’t have a lot of time or money. Would it be easier for you to perform in more places on a limited budget in the Northeast or Northwest?
  6. Divide students into groups. Have each group produce a map of the place they live, emphasizing the major highways that lead in and out of their region, and, if possible, natural barriers surrounding their location.
  7. Have groups share their maps with the class and explain the logic they used to draw them. Then draw a “composite” map of the city on the board. Ask students:
    • Based on the map we drew, would you say our area is easily accessible? Why or why not?
    • Do you think touring musicians would want to travel here to perform? Why or why not?
  8. Play Clip 2, “The Seattle Local Music Scene.” Ask students:
    • According to the people interviewed in this clip, how did Seattle’s geography and the roads to and from it affect its development as a music hub?
    • In what ways might Seattle’s relative isolation have allowed it to develop something unique? (Encourage students to consider how people in the area looked to each other for inspiration rather than the “mainstream” or “national” trends happening at the moment.)

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • Overall, in what ways do you think Seattle’s geographic isolation in the Northwest corner of the country may have helped it develop a local music scene?
    • Do you think Seattle would have developed the same way had there been Internet in the 1980s? Why or why not?
    • How do you think your area has been affected by geography and roads?

Extension Activity:

  1. Look at a map of the United States and find a city that is not geographically isolated. Research the music of the city from the 1960s to the 1980s. In a short essay, address the following questions:
    • Describe the geography of the city you chose as well as the major roads leading in and out of it.
    • What kind of music did you find in that city?
    • Was there a “scene” in which multiple musicians and bands performed in a similar style?
    • Did any of the musicians or bands from that region become known nationally?
    • Did you find evidence of any local music industry, such as magazines or fanzines, record labels, or prominent venues?


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard #7-Perceive and analyze artist work.
  • Anchor Standard #8-Interpret intent and meaning in work.
  • Anchor Standard #9-Apply criteria to evaluate work.


  • Anchor Standard #11-Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.