MUSIC IN WESTERN CULTURE
You probably can’t remember a time in your life when you didn’t know some music. Your parents likely
sang to you when you were a baby, you might have learned the alphabet to a song, you will have played
games or jumped rope with songs, you have heard music while watching television shows, and if you
attend religious services you hear music there. Music surrounds you at clubs or restaurants, you might
go to concerts, and you can carry your playlist with you on your MP3 or iPod player.
You don’t have to
be a musician to love music, to find it intriguing
or to learn about it.
We hear music more than we listen to it. Hearing music might amount to no more than noticing that
someone is singing or that music plays a part in the soundtrack to a film. Listening should be a more
active experience than that. When we know what kinds of things to listen for in music, then we get
much more out of it than if the sound merely washes over us. And we can learn to perceive details in
music without a lot of training; we just need to know and pay attention to the elements that music
contains, and to develop some basic vocabulary for identifying those when we hear them.
While we acquire some skills for perceptive listening, we can also go further and learn how music
becomes meaningful. Music does not exist in a vacuum but in society and culture, forming part of real-
life experience, engaging with everything else that people do. To understand music, we not only have to
listen attentively but also listen in context. We should ask ourselves all sorts of questions about what
music means. How does music respond to war or patriotic movements? How does it reflect moral or
religious values? How does it express celebration or mourning? How does it respond to nature or
One fascinating way to learn about music is to talk to musicians. You might have some experience
making music yourself, although presumably not as your vocation. Musicians have a special calling, and
they express themselves primarily through their composing, singing, and playing
. There’s no substitute
for finding out how they understand the music that they make. At the same time, musicians are real
people who have to work hard every day. They puzzle out concepts like scientists or lawyers do, and
they train like athletes. They also have to deal with the real world of business. Their world is one of
beauty, challenging ideas, and hard knocks.
In MUH 2012 you will listen to a lot of music; learn some of the great masterpieces of the classical music
tradition; read, talk, and write
about music’s meanings and values
; and get to know some musicians.