Music, Self, and Society


Authored by Robert Lagueux


Course Code: OLSOC-210

Next Term Starts January 14

Level 2

Level 2

3-Credit Tuition


Non-Credit Tuition


This course is all about exploring why we listen to music, what we use music for, and, in some sense, how music uses us. Why do we have the musical preferences that we do? Is there really such a thing as “good” music? How does music create communities? How does music create social change? How does music function in our daily lives? These are all questions we will examine in depth throughout this course.

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You will become more sensitive to considering the ways that we, as individuals and communities, interact with the music we’re listening to—often without even noticing that we are. You will also become more attuned to the sometimes-covert ways in which music operates in our society, and to the ramifications that music can have in our individual and communal psyches.

Music, Self, and Society weaves together readings from music critics, sociologists, psychologists, scholars of ritual and drama, philosophers, and a number of other writers. In general, we take a big topic—such as musical taste—and evaluate it from a number of different angles, with the expectation that each angle brings a distinct, useful perspective to it.

We’ll consider music across almost every conceivable genre, from advertising jingles to jazz to pop to classical to world music. The music chosen helps bring to the fore the issues we raise, sometimes as answers to questions and sometimes as questions themselves. When we examine music and social change, for example, we’ll consider classics like “We Shall Overcome” and “Strange Fruit” while also studying more recent revolutionary acts like Pussy Riot. We will also use a number of TV and film clips to elucidate specific issues.

By the end of this course, you will be able to:

  • Describe and analyze a variety of contexts in which music, individuals, and societies intersect, including ritual, commerce, and politics
  • Describe and analyze the ways in which individuals and societies understand and use different kinds of music, including classical music, popular music, and jazz
  • Reflect on and evaluate your personal musical preferences and relate them to larger communal contexts
  • Explain, compare, and apply different schemes of apprehending musical meaning
  • Analyze and critique important musical ideas such as taste, audience, and censorship
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Lesson 1: Who Are You? What Are We?

  • What is the Use of Music?
  • What is a Self?
  • What is a Society?
  • In the Thick of It
  • Assignment 1: Thick Description

Lesson 2: What is Music?

  • Does Music Exist?
  • The Emergence of "The Work"
  • Works and Canons
  • Discussion: Who Are the “Patrons” of Today’s Music?
  • Assignment 2: “The Work”

Lesson 3: How Does Music Have Meaning?

  • How Does Music “Mean”?
  • What is Music About?
  • Bringing Things into Focus
  • Discussion: Frith’s “Performing Rites”
  • Assignment 3: Segmentation, Gaps, and Focalization

Lesson 4: Getting Emotional

  • Does Music Have Emotion?
  • Why Do We Respond the Way We Do?
  • Making the Unfamiliar Familiar
  • Discussion: Chance Factors
  • Assignment 4: Share Playlist

Lesson 5: Getting Together

  • The Problem with Feelings
  • You Are What You Listen To...Or Are You?
  • Fandom
  • Geek Culture
  • Assignment 5: Music Interpretation

Lesson 6: The Meaning of Musical Taste

  • Taste and Audience
  • Hume Sweet Hume
  • Advanced Genius Theory
  • Aesthetic Taste As an Act of Faith
  • Assignment 6: “Good” and “Bad” Taste in Music

Lesson 7: Music and Ritual

  • Ritual and Music Defined
  • Genres of Ritual
  • Rites of Passage
  • Characteristics of Ritual
  • Assignment 7: Analyze a Ritual

Lesson 8: Music, Ritual, and Society

  • Magic, Religion, and Performative Utterances
  • Durkheim’s Elementary Forms
  • Social Drama
  • Discussion: Music and Weddings
  • Assignment 8: Create a Ritual

Lesson 9: Music and Commerce

  • Music and the Retail Sector
  • Music and Consumer Choice
  • Art Meets Commerce: Komar and Melamid
  • Discussion: Music and Commercial Space
  • Assignment 9: Identify Examples of Music Intersecting with Commerce

Lesson 10: Music, Politics, and Social Change

  • How Can Music Change Society?
  • We Shall Overcome
  • Strange Fruit
  • Pussy Riot
  • Assignment 10: How Has the Legacy of Protest Songs Evolved?

Lesson 11: Music and Censorship

  • Defining Our Terms
  • The PMRC, Part 1: Backstory
  • The PMRC, Part 2: The Testimony
  • Ripped From the Headlines
  • Assignment 11: Censorship Analysis

Lesson 12: Into the Great Wide Open

  • Voyager 1 and 2
  • The Golden Record
  • Recap and Mission
  • Assignment 12: Analyze the Musical Playlist on Voyager's Golden Record



None required

Recommended Textbooks

Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson, Bloomsbury Academic

Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song by David Margolick and Hilton Als, Harper Perennial

Ritual: A Very Short Introduction by Barry Stephenson, Oxford University Press

Required e-Coursepack

Your course author has created an e-coursepack ($29) that you will be able to purchase, once you sign up for the course.

Software Requirements

Mac Users

  • OS X 10.9 Mavericks or higher (click here for system requirements)
  • Latest version of Google Chrome

Windows Users

  • Windows 7 or higher (click here for system requirements)
  • Latest version of Google Chrome

Hardware Requirements

  • 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended)
  • 500 MB hard drive space
  • Speakers or headphones
  • Webcam
  • Internet connection with at least 4 Mbps download speed ( to verify or download the Speedtest by Ookla app from your mobile app store)




Robert Lagueux is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dean of Graduate Studies, and founding Dean for Faculty Development at Berklee College of Music. He oversees Berklee's graduate-level degree programs as well as the creation of learning and development opportunities for faculty at all of Berklee's campuses, as well as for instructors at Berklee’s international partner schools. He has worked with faculty to enhance teaching and learning at the University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, and Northeastern University. As a Fulbright Scholar at City University of Hong Kong, he spent a year developing programs to support general education and leading teaching workshops throughout Southeast Asia.

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Lagueux is a music historian who has published and presented on topics as diverse as Leonard Bernstein and the medieval celebration of Christmas. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and an M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Read Less



Katherine Dacey is an Assistant Professor of Liberal Arts at the Berklee College of Music. Over the last five years, her research and teaching has focused on two main areas: the development of the American music industry, and the relationship between the music and broadcast industries. She has given presentations and published articles on a variety of topics, including George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess and the pioneering work of ethnologist Alice Fletcher, and has authored an online rock history course for Berklee College. She holds degrees in History (BA) and Musicology (MPhil) from Columbia University, as well as a degree in American Studies (MA) from the College of William & Mary.



Nathan Link is Associate Professor and Chair of Music at Centre College. He received his doctorate from Yale University with a dissertation on Handel's operas, and his areas of interest include African music, popular music, and German Romanticism. His student ensemble at Centre has toured nationally and internationally, performing a mix of traditional American folk and modern acoustic music. In 2015, he received the Governor's Award in Arts Education, naming him the top arts-educator in Kentucky.



Nicholas Stevens is a musicologist and music journalist whose primary interests span the past century in Western art and popular music. He has lectured in music history at Case Western Reserve University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 2017, and in musicological research methods at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He specializes in modernism, minimalism, multimedia forms, and popular music, with additional interests in literary and media theory, sound and performance studies, and Romanticism from Berlioz to Berg. His current research and writing projects involve hybridizing interactions between contemporary opera and other genres and media, such as reality TV, immersive theatre, video diaries, film, and the book. This research has yielded several talks, delivered at regional, national, and overseas conferences; an ongoing monograph project, currently under consideration for publication; and a number of in-progress journal articles.


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