COOL CLASSES: “Thinking About Music: Ideas, History, and Musicology”

A music class that examines how musicians and musical thinkers have tried to answer the big questions—who owns music, what is genius, what is the relationship between music and the state or music and technology? —over the ages.

Class name: Thinking About Music: Ideas, History, and Musicology

Taught by: John C. Whitehead ’43 Professor of Humanities and Associate Provost Richard Freedman


Here’s what Freedman had to say about his class:

The class examines the big questions that swirl around music and musical creativity, and it tries to examine how musicians and musical thinkers have tried to answer them over the ages. We begin by examining assumptions about greatness, talent, and genius, which seem to be indelibly part of every bit of writing about musical skill, from antiquity through Beethoven—and even folks like Prince. We then turn to examine another set of “myths” about music, in this case the interplay between reason (and rationality) and sensation, which run from Pythagoras and his followers through St Augustine, Calvin, and beyond.

From here we move to put music in social contexts, examining now music has been used as a measure of gender and ethnicity, and how it has been used and mis-used in various utopian landscapes, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Hitler’s Germany. Finally, we put music in the context of changing modes of reproduction, in which technologies of writing and sound recording—from the Middle Ages until the digital domain—have changed what it means to be a composer, performer, listener. We conclude with a provocative question—”Who owns music?”—which requires us to consider art as gift and commerce.

The course is uniquely Haverfordian, as I suppose all my classes are, created five or six years ago as my own response to issues and debates that seemed to come up in almost every one of my courses. I thought:  what better way to help our students become thinking musicians and musical thinkers than this? Students listen, read, write, discuss, and think.


See what other courses the music department is offering this semester.