Music, Self, and Society


Authored by Robert Lagueux


Course Code: OLSOC-210

Next Term Starts June 25

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)



Author & Instructor

Robert Lagueux is the founding Dean for Faculty Development at Berklee College of Music, overseeing the creation of programs providing innovative learning and development opportunities for faculty at Berklee’s Boston, Massachusetts and Valencia, Spain campuses as well as for instructors at Berklee’s international partner schools. In addition to Berklee, 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 the medieval celebration of Christmas, Leonard Bernstein, and the use of sound and music in sports. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and an M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Read Less



Karl Haas teaches at Berklee Online.


Contact our Academic Advisors by phone at 1-866-BERKLEE (U.S.), 1-617-747-2146 (INT'L), or by email at

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