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MU103: Emotion and Meaning in Music

Why do you like your favorite music? Answering this question is not always easy because individual preference emerges from both the affect of the music on your emotions as well as the appeal of specific compositional aspects. The process of expressing feeling and meaning in music has deep roots that provide a foundation for understanding our musical world today. During the history of music in Western culture, some composers have focused on the expression of emotion regardless of form while others have sought to bring a greater degree of order to the mix. In fact, we might view music history as the swing of a pendulum from periods of unbridled romanticism to others that privilege a more methodical approach. Our course explores such trends and considers how social and cultural considerations influence the creation and meaning of music from Bach to the Beatles. We will focus on periods of change in our musical heritage, changes that generally result from a desire for greater emotional content or a renewed interest in musical structure or order. Such periods include the outburst of romanticism in the early 19th Century when the music of Chopin, Berlioz, and Liszt seemed to trump that of Mozart and Beethoven, the emergence of “Modernism” in the early 20th Century when the music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg superseded that of Mahler and Debussy, and the age of minimalism where Terry Riley and Steve Reich inverted the overwrought procedures and techniques of the post-WWII generation of composers that preceded them. The turn to the 21st century was marked by several new musical directions: the expanded impact of digital technology and multimedia, the growing interest in non-Western traditions and of a new, globalized sound, and finally, the increased use of extended-techniques and the invention of new instruments. The course would culminate in a musical collaborative project, where students will have an opportunity to create short original musical theater works or an opera. The meaning of a piece of music today depends greatly on cultural considerations, regardless of where it lies on the spectrum of expression and form. Because the cultural context so greatly influences a piece of music, we will always examine the political, philosophical, and social contexts of the works we study. Music provides a window into the lives and cultures of past and contemporary generations. These experiences help us understand our own world and our place in history while providing a variety of models for expressing our own musical tastes more clearly. Students do not need to have prior musical training or experience to participate in this course.