Music History Essays

Vivaldi and Star Wars, rap and Gregorian chant, Mozart and jazz, and many other musical works share unexpected connections. These essays, organized by topic rather than time period, explore the history of western music by tracing the links between pieces created hundreds of years apart. By looking at these pieces from a new perspective, we can see what changes and what remains the same in the way people create, perform, and experience music in the past and present.

Music and Words

Language and music have played important roles in culture ever since their emergence in prehistoric humans. In this section, we will examine several genres of vocal music that have a particularly close relationship to language. Read more...

Music and Drama

Music has been coupled with drama for centuries, and its role in this pairing remains quite complex. We will be exploring how music can illustrate, narrate or tell a story, provide character depiction, encourage a certain emotional reaction in the audience, and even communicate something that is not being shown. Read more...

Writing About Music

Why do we write about music? No description, no matter how detailed, can substitute for the experience of hearing the music. In some cases, these words about music can increase our understanding of the audible experience, and thus deepen our connection with the work or its performers. Read more...

Musical Borrowing and Appropriation

Composers and performers are constantly emulating one another, trying to forge something new from the best elements of pieces that have already been created and performed. Read more...

Music in Politics and Revolution

Music and politics seem a natural pair: most political events are accompanied by great bombast and fanfare, and have been for centuries. But the relationship can be much more complex than simply providing a soundtrack for political events. We will explore several angles in the examples that follow, from composers who had to code their meaning under threatening rulers (and who were so successful that we are still trying to understand their intentions) to musicians whose messages actually contributed to political change. Read more...

Dance Music

Dance has been an important social ritual and leisure activity since ancient times. When it comes to music for dancing, there are three main categories in the Western world: social dance music (for amateur merrymaking), art dance music (for professional dancers), and stylized dance music (for the concert hall, not the dance hall). Read more...

Extended Techniques and Experimental Music

Often the term avant-garde (a French military term meaning 'vanguard' or 'front line') is used to discuss music that challenges audiences and critics to reexamine their definition of music itself. Using this term in a broad sense, we will examine several different composers whose controversial work questioned traditional notions about the nature and purpose of music. Read more...

Humor in Music

Music has been the vehicle for scathing satire, bawdy double entendres, and mistaken-identity antics throughout its history. Sometimes the seriousness of a particular musical style is used as an ironic backdrop for irreverent lyrics, and other times the music captures the playfulness of a humorous subject. Music can also be used to make fun of itself. The following are examples of humor in music from the 14th to the 21st centuries. Read more...

Improvisation

When you hear the word improvisation, jazz is likely the first thing that comes to mind. But jazz is not the only type of music to engage in improvisatory gestures, and we will explore some of these other avenues as well. Read more...

Music and Philosophy

Where do the paths of music and philosophy cross? Early and often. Music has been the topic of philosophical debate since the ancient Greeks, and it has continued to slide in and out of focus to the present day. Read more...

Music and Visual Art

From music that illustrates art to music whose notation is a work of art, from artists inspired to create in both visual and aural mediums to visual and aural artists who chose the same titles; the following are examples of the many kinds of parallels between visual art and music that have occurred over the centuries. Read more...

Music Basics

Our pages on basic music theory are now at Music Crash Courses.

Music Crash Courses

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The Sonata, painting by Childe Hassam
sheet music
Hildegard van Bingen receiving divine inspiration

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