In With The Old, Out With The New: Debates on “Tradition” in Western Music (IDSEM-UG 1823)

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, Carmen Miranda, 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, rap, and 2000s pop. 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–and music in particular–becomes a platform by which to observe how competing aesthetic value systems reveal deep social and cultural rifts. Each unit within this course has two parts. First, we scrutinize and discuss primary sources related to the debate: letters, scores, newspaper and magazine articles, journal entries, singles, albums, and films. Secondly, 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. What we will see is that debating music in terms of what’s “good” and “bad,” classical and avant-garde, edifying and dangerous, traditional and innovative, is, in the Western world, a long-standing tradition in its own right.

Interdisciplinary Seminars (Undergraduate)
4 credits – 15 Weeks

Sections (Spring 2024)

IDSEM-UG 1823-000 (12292)
01/22/2024 – 05/06/2024 Mon,Wed
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM (Early afternoon)
at Washington Square
Instructed by Coleman, Kwami