Subject: Social Studies/History

Essential Question

How did the cassette tape change the audience’s experience by allowing the listener to record, compile and disseminate music?


It is hard to imagine now what a revelation recorded sound must have been to those who heard it in the beginning of the 20th century. After millennia of music existing only in the moment that it was performed, for the first time, people could play their favorite performances at will, with no musicians present.

The invention of the consumer cassette tape in the early 1960s and its subsequent incorporation as a mainstream recording format throughout the 1970s and 80s represented another shift in the way people gather, share, and listen to the music they love. Unlike records in which the sound is literally carved into the album’s surface, the magnetic tape inside a cassette is reusable. “Blank” tapes–cassettes sold with no music on them–and home-use tape recorders brought an element of the recording studio and record plant into the average American household. For the first time, people could record songs from the radio or act as their own DJs by making “mixtapes” of songs from different sources. They could record the live performance of a band, and then make copies for friends. Suddenly, the consumer could play the roles of engineer, producer, even distributor – and all that was needed was a blank cassette tape and a home tape recorder.

This lesson explores the possibilities created by the new technology of cassettes and how people made use of them. In many ways, the digital future and its interactive possibilities were prefigured by the cassette era. By viewing and discussing clips from Soundbreaking Episode Eight, students learn how the Grateful Dead allowed their fans to tape their concerts and freely trade cassettes of their recordings, a move that helped establish the group as innovators in how bands cultivate relationships with their fanbase. Students will also consider how the cassette allowed individuals to express themselves through the selection, sequencing and re-packaging of commercially released music. In the last part of the lesson, they will look at the Sony Walkman and related devices, the first portable cassette players that led toward the current age of iPods, Mp3 players, and other forms of personal digital listening devices, exploring a period in which the boundaries between “consumer” and “producer,” and “fan” and “participant” began to erode, allowing even the casual music fan a degree of access to the creative process.

View More


Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How the technology of the cassette enabled consumer participation in areas previously associated with music production
    • How the cassette created new possibilities for music dissemination and how bands such as the Grateful Dead capitalized on these possibilities
    • How the mixtape provided a creative outlet for personal expression in the pre-digital era
    • How the personal portable cassette player changed the ways in which people related to music
    • How the personal portable cassette player drove the movement toward private listening and “personal music environments” that we still see today
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and musically, as well as in words
    • Analyze the effects of technological advancement on popular culture and art
    • Examine visual texts for information, point of view and argument
    • Evaluate the effects of technology on history and culture


Motivational Activity:

Display Slide 1, a record, and Slide 2, a cassette tape. Make a T Chart on the board on which the left side represents the record and the right side represents the cassette tape. Ask your students the following, keeping track of the answers on the chart:

  • Can you play this in a car?
  • Can you buy a blank version of this?
  • Can you combine recordings from various sources to make a “mix” on this?
  • Can you record the radio on to this?
  • If you were going to a friend’s house and want to bring music, could this fit in your pocket?
  • Could you play this while jogging?
  • What do you think happens if you drop this?


  1. Display Slide 3, “Vinyl Cutting Lathe” and tell your students it is the machine used to “cut” a record. It made one record at a time, and if the operator made a mistake, the record was ruined and discarded. Ask your students:
    • Where do you think record lathes were found? (Encourage students to recognize that they were only in professional production facilities.)
    • Do you think the record lathe was a technology that the average music consumer had access to?
    • Do you think this lathe was something someone could learn to operate quickly?
    • Do you think the lathe was a tool with which the average person could express him or herself?
    • Do you think this machine was affordable to most people?
  2. Display Slide 4, a 1970s advertisement for the “Easy-Load” Cassette Recorder with which one could record the radio direct to the cassette, record to the cassette with the built-in microphone, or attach a record player from which to record music. Ask your students:
    • Who do you think this advertisement is suggesting could use this machine?
    • Does this machine look like it would be hard to use?
    • Where do you think you could use this machine?
    • In what ways does this advertisement suggest that this machine might be fun to use?
    • Do you think this machine was affordable and accessible to many people?
  3. Show Clip 1, Soundbreaking – The New Possibilities of the Cassette and have your students write down all the new possibilities of the cassette that they hear discussed. Ask your students:
    • What are the key contrasts to vinyl records mentioned here?
    • What do people say they did with cassettes?
    • In what ways does Dave Grohl suggest that the cassette allowed he and his friends to feel more personally connected to the music they loved as kids?
  4. Introduce your students to the Grateful Dead, who many would suggest advanced their career by encouraging fans to record the band’s live performances on cassette tapes and share them freely with their peers. Tell them that the band was formed in 1965, and though during their 30 years together they never had a hit single, they are among the largest grossing live bands in Rock history. Show your students Clip 2, Soundbreaking – The Grateful Dead and Tape Trading and ask:
    • Why does Mickey Hart suggest the Grateful Dead decided to allow taping at their shows?
    • In what ways do you think an “army of tapers” who distribute the band’s music for free could help them gain popularity?
    • Why do you think someone would want to do the work required to record a band and distribute the music with no chance of personal financial reward? (Encourage your students to consider how a fan becomes involved through taping and, almost like a stockholder, feels invested in the success of the music she or he loves. The tape trader becomes part of a community striving to achieve similar goals.)
    • What do you think it might mean to gain “social currency” for having a collection of Grateful Dead tapes? Can you think of any other types of collections that might be similar?
  5. Now show Clip 3, Soundbreaking – Cassette “Bootlegs” and the Grateful Dead. As they watch, have your students consider why someone might want to hear every night of a band’s performances.
    • Judging by what you’ve just heard in this clip, in what ways do you think the Grateful Dead inspired people to want to hear recordings of so many of their concerts? (Encourage your students to consider the Grateful Dead as inspiring FOMO, or the Fear of Missing Out. Because every night was different, every night was also a chance for something to happen that had never happened before.)
    • In what ways do you think the cassette helped the Grateful Dead reach and empower fans in a way that would not have been possible on the radio or through albums?
    • It is suggested that the Grateful Dead is the most recorded band in history, in what ways do you think this has helped them engage fans? (Encourage your students to consider how they hear a fan talking about shows by date, and those shows are ranging across decades. The cassette has helped people embrace not just their songs, but to think of the group as a living, changing entity with different yet connected identities throughout their career.)
  6. Show the pictures of Grateful Dead cassette collections in Slides 5, 6 and 7 and ask your students:

    • In what ways do you think cassette tapes may have offered a creative outlet for users?
    • What is different about these tapes than the “official” releases of albums one could have purchased at music stores during the same time period?
  7. Distribute Handout 1 – The Mixtape. Show the class Clip 4, Soundbreaking – MixtapesThen have students follow the prompts on the handout individually. When they have completed the handout, discuss the following as a group:
    • Ask each group to go through the first four steps for the class, explaining why they made their decisions.
    • Ask each group to say something that was hard about the idea of the mixtape.
    • Ask each group to say something that was fun that they hadn’t considered.
    • Ask the class whether they think they would make mixtapes for friends if the technology was still in use and if they have anything similar that has replaced it today.
    • How is a mixtape like a love letter?
    • If someone made you a mixtape, and you wanted to listen to it privately, how would you do it?
  8. Show Clip 5, Soundbreaking – The Walkman and ask your class:
    • What was so significant about the development of the Walkman?
    • What current technology do you think it prefigured? Why?
  9. Show your students Slide 8 and ask:
    • How has the portable cassette player changed this environment?
    • What do you think each person is listening to? (Allow students to have fun guessing, as much as it’s impossible to know.)
    • In what ways do you think both the mixtape and the portable personal cassette player changed the way people listened to music in the 1970s and 1980s? (Encourage your students to discuss the shift from open, shared music environments to closed, headphone-based personal music environments in which the listener has complete control of the content.)

Summary Activity:

Ask your students:

  • Overall, how do you think the introduction of the cassette tape changed the way people interact with music?
  • In what ways do you think some of the new ways of interacting with music enabled by the cassette are reflected in how you listen to music today?

Extension Activity:

The cassette brought on another revolution: that of home multitrack recording. Starting in the late seventies, companies like Tascam were creating small, consumer devices that could record four tracks, later even eight tracks, onto a cassette’s magnetic tape. This meant that what an artist once needed a professional studio for, multitrack recording, could now be done at home.

The introduction of the cassette multitrack recorder did not put the commercial recording studios out of business. But it did initiate changes that would, by the digital era, make the home studio the dominant location for record production.

In this exercise, have students research Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska and write a brief two-page paper on their findings. These papers should answer the following questions:

  • What recording device did Bruce Springsteen use to record Nebraska?
  • How did the Nebraska project begin?
  • What were Springsteen’s frustrations as he tried to re-record the original Nebraska demo recordings?
  • Why did Springsteen make the choices he did in choosing what to release as the final version of Nebraska?
  • What is the mood of Nebraska, and how did the technology used help to create that mood? How did the places Springsteen recorded in affect that mood?
  • For artists today, is there a technology that allows them to record wherever they want? Why might they want that? What did the example of Nebraska teach recording musicians?

© 2016 TeachRock


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • 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 for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker ‘s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for  Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

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

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 7: Production, Distribution and Consumption
  • Theme 8:  Science, Technology and Society

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.1 Identify and describe the role and influence of new technologies on contemporary arts industry.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.3 Analyze the aesthetic value of a specific commercial work of art and defend that analysis from an industry perspective.
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.1 Compare and contrast the ways in which different artistic media (television, newspapers, magazines, and electronic media) cover the same commercial content.
    A5.2 Explore the role of art and design across various industry sectors and content areas.
    A5.4 Predict how changes in technology might change the role and function of the visual arts in the workplace.
    A5.7 Synthesize traditional art work and new technologies to design an artistic product to be used by a specific industry.
    A8.0 Understand the key technical and technological requirements applicable to various segments of the Media and Design Arts Pathway.
    A8.1 Understand the component steps and skills required to design, edit, and produce a production for audio, video, electronic, or printed presentation.
    A8.3 Know the features and uses of current and emerging technology related to computing (e.g., optical character recognition, sound processing, cable TV, cellular phones).
    A8.7 Evaluate how advanced and emerging technologies (e.g., virtual environment or voice recognition software) affect or improve media and design arts products or productions.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.1 Identify and compare how film, theater, television, and electronic media productions influence values and behaviors.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B7.4 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the actor and performance artist in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.