Histories of Western Music

Fall 2019Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Tuesdays and Fridays, 12:00 – 1:50pm
404 West Hall
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In this course, stu­dents will acquire a broad foun­da­tion of the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge, musi­cian­ship skills, and prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence in order to cre­ate and under­stand music in a con­tem­po­rary con­text. We will explore sound as a phys­i­cal phe­nom­e­non and will cov­er the basics of music the­o­ry and lit­er­a­cy in a way that can be applic­a­ble to a wide vari­ety of musi­cal tra­di­tions and prac­tices. In addi­tion to con­tin­u­ing work on the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts and musi­cian­ship skills, we will pur­sue cre­ative projects, learn how to approach the music around us crit­i­cal­ly, and exam­ine the ways in which music can acquire extra­mu­si­cal mean­ings and res­o­nances. No for­mal musi­cal back­ground is required. This course is a pre­req­ui­site for Music and Sound I and II.

Past Meetings

Introduction: Music is Always in Context

Friday August 30th, 2019

We'll meet one another, go over some class logistics, and then ask the question: What the heck is the difference between sound and music?

no assignments due
I. Describing Sound

Six Qualitative Perspectives on Sound

Friday September 6th, 2019

We begin with a stirring examination of the physical basis of sound. Then we explore six perspectives that help to describe it: pitch, timbre, intensity, duration, location, and source.


This is the class where everybody gets a kazoo!
Please. Treat your kazoo with compassion.

assignments due

I've made this brief survey so I can learn about your past experiences with music and better tailor the course to your needs and interests. Don't worry if you don't know all of the answers!

  1. Your mission is to share two pieces of music with the class — one that you love and the other that you (love to) hate.
  2. Add a row to the linked spreadsheet for each song including the title, artist, and a public link to where we can listen to the song on Youtube, Vimeo, or something similar.
  3. IMPORTANT RULE: Look at the spreadsheet before you add your music! You are not allowed to repeat anything that's already been posted!
  4. Give this some thought. We are going to use the music that you post here throughout the semester.

On Pitch

Tuesday September 10th, 2019

How is it that some sounds seem "pitchy" while others do not? What is the physical basis for "pitchiness" and how is it that some sounds are higher or lower than others?

no assignments due

Timbre is not Wood

Friday September 13th, 2019

What's the difference between Beyoncé and a classroom full of engineers playing a song by Beyoncé on kazoos?


In past semesters, students have deemed this assignment to be a "real doozy" or "extremely difficult." Please plan your time accordingly!

assignments due

Using pitch as your guiding perspective, you are going to compare two renditions of the song Hallelujah.

Another Long-winded and Intense Class

Tuesday September 17th, 2019

We'll consider how length is a ubiquitous metaphor for duration and we'll connect the ideas of loudness, dynamic, and intensity.

assignments due

In this assignment, you are going to identify prominent frequencies within three sounds and then name those frequencies in terms of pitch and pitch-class space. If you wish, you’ll also have an opportunity to step outside of 12TET pitch space for extra credit.

Wherefore Art Thou, Sound?

Friday September 20th, 2019

The location of a sound-producing body affects the way in which its sound reaches our ears. At the same time, our conception of the source of a sound profoundly shapes our response to it.

no assignments due


Tuesday September 24th, 2019

As a physical phenomenon, sound always travels through a medium. In a different sense, so too does music. We'll think about headphones, car radios, television, movies, and other media that make the conditions in which we experience music.

assignments due

You will analyze two renditions of Amazing Grace, one by LeAnn Rimes and the other by… Barrack Obama.

First Group Project Meeting

Friday September 27th, 2019

Presentations of… Description Telephone!!!


Bring your A-Game y'all!
In all likelihood, things are gonna get feisty 💀!!!

assignments due

You will work in groups to describe a song of your choice using the qualitative perspectives on sound as a framework.

II. Fundamentals of Notation

Introduction to Musical Notation

Tuesday October 1st, 2019

We'll take a whirlwind tour through the history of (Western) musical notation and discuss some fundamentals principals thereof.


After the tumult of our first group project, you won't have homework for a few classes. Take this time to focus on internalizing the new topics in notation that we will learn!

no assignments due

The Basics of Rhythm

Friday October 4th, 2019

We'll talk about the lengths of notes and rests; we'll gawk at flags and gaze longingly at beams; and we see how we can tie it all together to make a nice whole (note).

no assignments due

Meter, Time Signatures, and Tempo

Tuesday October 8th, 2019

What is a beat, anyways, and how can we write them down? We'll also talk about repeating patterns of rhythm through meter and time signatures. Finally, we'll examine the bizarre relativism of tempo.

no assignments due


Friday October 11th, 2019

I'll be having fun somewhere else. You're on your own.


Don't come to class.
No one is going be there.
It will be lonely and probably cold, too.

no assignments due

The Basics of Pitch

Tuesday October 15th, 2019

We'll distinguish between pitches and pitch-classes and we'll learn about several ways of visualizing them: graphing them as integers, using the keyboard (a la piano), and on a staff with clefs.

no assignments due

Oops! On Accidentals, Leaps, and (Tentative) Steps.

Friday October 18th, 2019

What's the difference between a leap and a step, and what does that have to do with the moon. And how on earth can we fix the bizarre staff system using accidentals?

assignments due

You will practice identifying pitch-classes just long enough to master the skill.

Intervals: Measuring Distance in Pitch Space

Tuesday October 22nd, 2019

Sort of like with pitches and pitch classes, we will discuss generic and specific intervals. We will enjoy using the word "notch" and we will have even more fun thinking about addition and subtraction in mod-12 space.

assignments due
Interval ID

You'll practice identifying generic and specific intervals.

How Pitch Affects Rhythmic Notation

Friday October 25th, 2019

We'll practice identifying intervals and we'll see how pitch impacts the way in which we notate rhythms. We will also discuss BEAMING 🚀.

assignments due
Summary Notation Olympics

We'll make sure that you're solid on the basics before we move onto the good stuff in the next unit!

The Dreaded Notation Exam

Tuesday October 29th, 2019

A test for which you will be very well prepared. A test in the face of which you will laugh gently. A test you will look back upon with a quiet sense of nostalgia.


The name says it all…

assignments due

Complete the practice test, then check your work with the attacked answer key!

III. Pitch and Rhythm at Larger "Scales"

Tonality, Scales, and Pitch Hierarchy

Friday November 1st, 2019

What are scales and what do they contribute to music? How are they made and how do they suggest a hierarchy amongst pitches?

assignments forthcoming

The Chords that Bind Us?

Tuesday November 5th, 2019

We will discuss a variety of chords through the lenses of cardinality and quality. Triads and seventh chords will be center of our focus for the remainder of the course.

assignments forthcoming

Relating Chords and Scales

Friday November 8th, 2019

We can think of chords as drawing from scales and further organizing them into a palpable hierarchy.

assignments forthcoming

Tonal Harmonic Function

Tuesday November 12th, 2019

By extending the idea of scale degrees to Roman numerals, we'll learn how chords are typically arranged in tonal music.

assignments forthcoming

The Idea of Form

Friday November 15th, 2019

Examining musical examples from a variety of media and traditions, we will discuss how rhythm, harmony, and other musical factors contribute to our sense of musical structure.

assignments forthcoming

Third Group Project Meeting

Tuesday November 19th, 2019


assignments forthcoming
III. Music in a Digital Age

A Practical Introduction to Digital Audio

Friday November 22nd, 2019

We will learn how DAWs, Drum Machines, and Virtual Instruments have revolutionized the production of music.

assignments forthcoming

The Fine Art of Sampling Fine Art of Sampling

Tuesday November 26th, 2019

We will examine the tools and ideas behind sampling as a compositional practice.

assignments forthcoming


Tuesday November 26th, 2019

Stoically, we will consider the meditative value of washing dishes.


Good luck with Thanksgiving. Safe travels!

no assignments due

Music About Aliens (in Movies)

Tuesday December 3rd, 2019

We will have fun considering film music's wildly diverse evolution over time.

assignments forthcoming

Spotify, Muzak, and the Art of Relaxation

Friday December 6th, 2019

We will examine the cultural force of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, as well as the ubiquitous access to music they facilitate.

assignments forthcoming

Regarding Your Precious Feelings

Tuesday December 10th, 2019

In light of everything else we've discussed, how can we talk about our feelings in response to music? Is music a vehicle for social manipulation, a dangerous tool, a beautiful weapon, something more boring, something more sinister?

assignments forthcoming