FALL 2021 - The Experience of Music: Social, Emotional, and Transcendental

Thomas Brothers
LS 770-05
Fall 2021
Tuesdays, 6:15-8:45 pm
Mary Duke Biddle 069

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This course explores musical experience according to three different dimensions: first, music as a social phenomenon, second as an emotional one, and finally as transcendental (aka ineffable, spiritual, sublime, holy). Examples are drawn from African-American music in New Orleans, popular music, jazz, Bach and Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and the Romantics, sacred music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, John Coltrane, and Gospel.


Each of us already has a sense of music as a social phenomenon.  We like a certain kind of music, in part, is because it helps define our peer group, social class, and self-identity as a rebellious person, a conformist, and so on.  All music is socially conceived, but some kinds of music invest heavily in this project.  Many genres of African-American music, for example, are designed to bring people together in a participatory way.  The inquiry extends to the use of music as a way to energize ideologies.


Most people are also aware of their own emotional experience of music, but it is possible to go further.  We have been taught how to articulate emotions in socialized ways, and this can be observed musically. Musical gestures correspond with feelings. This section of the course includes readings on emotions, neuroscience and music. 


It is challenging to talk about music as a transcendental phenomenon, but that does not invalidate the experience.  For the nineteenth-century Romantics, music was the queen of the arts because of its ability to transport listeners into ethereal realms.  African-American churches rely on music to do the same thing as they try to connect with the Holy Spirit.  We may separate the themes of social, emotional and transcendental for analytical purposes, but in the end they are closely connected. This is demonstrated by another African-American example: the participatory music-making of nineteenth-century slaves was primarily social at the same time that it was intensely emotional and also transcendental, the latter indicated by the name of the great body of music that emerged—the Spirituals.

About Thomas Brothers

GLS Advisory Committee Term: 2019-2022

Thomas Brothers is Professor of Music.  He joined the faculty at Duke in 1991 after completing his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley.  He has published three books on Louis Armstrong, most recently Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism (W.W. Norton, 2014).  In addition to African American music, Professor Brothers also teaches music of the medieval and renaissance periods. His most recent book, Help! The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration, was published in 2018.