Prefatory note: Every first year student at Wheaton College takes what is called a “First Year Experience” course, where two or more faculty from different disciplines co-teach a course on the same topic. I team up with my brilliant colleague in the psychology department, Kate Eskine, to teach a course called “What Is Music?” FYEs are less formal than a standard class and also include a lot of “Here’s How To Be A Student” lectures and guests. But they are one of my favorite things about Wheaton, and an incredible opportunity to model how different disciplines conceive of similar phenomena. When I tell people about this course, I tell them it’s less a course about music psychology and more a course about what constitutes evidence, and how to construct claims about music.

FYE: What Is Music?

I. General overview:

You have a lot of experience listening to and maybe even creating music. You probably have ideas about what you would consider music and what would not fall into the category. You might have songs you listen to because of the way they make you feel (joy, excitement, calm, agitation), or a memory they remind you of (school dances, driving in the car with family, a favorite movie). You may have bought music as physical media (a vinyl record, a CD) or you may only stream your music via a platform like Spotify or Tidal. Maybe you play an instrument; maybe you know all the words to your favorite musical; maybe you dance. 

What you may not know is that beyond its effects on mood or focus, music listening and performance has also been shown to affect disparate behaviors including cooperation, the immune system, purchasing practices, pain perception, and physiological arousal. Music is an expression of, and a tool for, empathetic experiences. And in the long history of human development, music-making may predate speech as an expressive utterance. In this course we will explore how music, its definition, and its social functions vary across historical periods and cultures. We will also explore theories for why music makes us feel, why it might make us want to move, or to sing along.  

However, the most important thing we will learn to do is to evaluate the evidence for these different ideas by learning the tools that cognitive neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists, music theorists, and musicians use to support their ideas and processes. This will make it possible to evaluate the merit of the findings presented in our readings, to construct our own arguments about music, and to test those arguments in experiments.

This is a hard task, but we will be practicing how to evaluate information in class discussion, break out groups, demonstrations, and in writing. As you progress through the course you will get feedback on your development of these skills.  Toward the end of our course you will have the opportunity to showcase all you have learned by applying the tools and content you have learned in this course to answering your own questions about music.  We are excited to join you on this journey and can’t wait to learn what you are curious about. 

Ia. Sectional description: Will Mason

In this section of the course, we’ll begin by cultivating some basic literacy with the elements of music (melody, harmony, rhythm, form, timbre). Then, we will look at aesthetic debates in the history of music in the West surrounding musical autonomy: does a piece of music exist on its own? Can it be removed from its social context, or the network of people (performers, listeners) who bring a musical work into being? Are certain types of music as being more “natural” and thus of greater aesthetic value?

Our core concept underlying this discussion will be embodiment, or the idea that human perception, cognition, and physiology (alongside the environments in which we move and develop) are all inseparable. We’ll also look at the ontological shift that music underwent in the twentieth century, as new technologies, as well as cultural and class refigurations, dramatically expanded the kinds of sounds and performances that we consider “musical.” Through all of this, we will listen to great music from across the world, and make music together when possible.

Ib. Sectional description: Kate Eskine

In this section of the course we will learn how cognitive neuroscientists explore questions about music. We will discuss the methods and tools used to understand the effect of music on the brain and mind and identify questions that remain out of reach. We will take a close look at what we have learned about music and the brain by studying people with music specific deficients and compare module and systems theory of brain organization. We will also look at how music makes us feel, both good and bad.  Why does some music create the sensation of chills are there individual differences in this phenomenon? How do perceptions change when a machine makes music? Throughout the process we will learn techniques for understanding and evaluating research articles and create our own questions around music using the tools we have learned in class. 

II. Course objectives:

  • Explain how neural activation when listening to music differs from other tasks like reading
  • Theorize on why so much of our brain is involved in listening to music from an evolutionary perspective
  • Provide evidence of the neural organization of music processing using examples of amusics
  • Explain the common methodological tools used to study neuromusicology
  • Recognize the limitations of methodologies used to understand music processing in the human brain
  • Analyze disparate primary and secondary sources about music and neuroscience to discern commonalities and disagreements
  • Understand core elements of musical practice including timbre, rhythm, pitch, harmony, and form
  • Understand how music formed as a social, expressive, communicative, and regulative practice and how certain cultures have come to reify it as an object or "work"
  • Create music through graphic scores, text pieces, improvisation, and other means; and evaluate those works in light of music theoretic and neuroscientific sources from the course

Sequence of topics for Will Mason’s lectures:

Fundamentals (rhythm and meter)
Fundamentals (melody, harmony) 
Fundamentals (form, timbre) 
Fundamentals (improvisation)
Aesthetic Autonomy
Humanism and Cognition
Technology and ontology
Pauline Oliveros

Embodiment and mimesis
Embodiment and mimesis continued
Race, timbre, and empathy 
Gender and sexuality in the voice