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MUS 272
Music and Meaning Spring 2021
Division I Writing Skills

Class Details

Nearly everyone finds music meaningful, but what exactly does it mean? Without the help of words, this largely non-referential art presents special challenges to interpretation. While most would agree that musical sounds can do such things as mimic the rumbling of thunder, evoke the countryside, suggest the act of chasing, or express rage, the capacity of music to convey meaning remains controversial among scholars, performers, and listeners. Some, following music critic Eduard Hanslick, assert that musical works are essentially “tonally moving forms”–patterns of sound with no reference to the world outside themselves; a work’s meaning derives solely from the interplay of musical elements. Others counter that music can signify aspects of human experience, its sounds and structures not merely referring to the outside world but even relating complex narratives. Certain writers have argued that, without the assistance of language, what music signifies remains vague, while others insist that the meaning of music is actually more precise than that of words. In this tutorial course, we will explore a range of questions regarding musical meaning. How can combinations of pitches, rhythms, and instrumental timbres signify something beyond themselves? Is the subject of musical meaning more relevant to some historical styles or genres than others? How can we glean the meaning(s) of a work? Should we concentrate on formal processes within the music? Consider socially constructed meanings? Seek the composer’s intentions? What makes some interpretations more convincing than others? In grappling with these questions, students will engage with writings by Agawu, Cone, Hanslick, Kramer, Langer, Lewin, Newcomb, and Schopenhauer, among others. Music to be studied includes works by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Stravinsky, Glass, and Adams.
The Class: Format: tutorial; during the first and last weeks of the semester, students will attend two group classes; in the other weeks, students will meet with the instructor in pairs for a one-hour session at a mutually convenient time
Limit: 10
Expected: 10
Class#: 4431
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: students will write and present a 5- to 6-page paper every other week and a 1-2 page response to their partner's paper in the alternate weeks; evaluation will be based on five papers/presentations, and five responses
Prerequisites: ability to read music, or permission of instructor
Enrollment Preferences: sophomores, juniors, and any student who expresses a strong interest in the course
Distributions: Division I Writing Skills
WS Notes: In this tutorial course, students will write and present a 5- to 6-page paper every other week (five papers total) and a 1- to 2-page response to their partner's paper in the alternate weeks (five responses total). Through discussion in the tutorial sessions, comments on the papers, and opportunities for revision, the course will place strong emphasis on developing students' critical thinking and writing skills.

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