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In with the Old, Out with the New: Debates on "Tradition" in Western Music

Semester and Year SP 2018
Course Number IDSEM-UG1823
Section 001
Instructor Kwami Coleman
Days MW
Time 2:00 PM - 3:15 PM
Units 4
Level U
Requirement   HUM



Contests between stalwart custodians of “tradition” and rebels searching for new, untested modes of expression pervade Western music history. This course surveys some of the most contentious debates on music’s past, present, and future waged between music theorists, critics, artists, and audiences, spanning the last five hundred years. Our focus is on the seemingly inevitable tension between what music is, what it should be, and what it can be. Starting with the Greek philosophers of antiquity, we explore debates on the music of Claudio Monteverdi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Cage, Bob Dylan, and The Slits. We also examine the backlash against and subsequent defense of styles like jazz, rock and roll, punk rock, and rap. Our goal is to better understand how culture is “made” ​precisely ​during ​these ​moments of charged debate, where a particular music’s perceived merits​ or transgressions serve as the pretext for larger ​often controversial ideological issues. Art, in this sense, becomes a platform by which to observe how competing aesthetic value​ systems​ reveal deep social and cultural rifts. This class meets twice a week. Our first session is devoted to scrutinizing and discussing primary sources​:​ letters, newspaper and magazine articles, journal entries, sound recordings, and film. For our second session we read and discuss secondary sources by scholars, critics, and investigative journalists for context, using this new information as a way to think critically about the primary sources and our own aesthetic judgments. Debating music tradition and innovation, as we shall see, is a long-standing tradition in its own right.


All Syllabi

Course Type

Interdisciplinary Seminars (IDSEM-UG)