Music, Storytelling, & Identity

Music is said to be an intensely personal art form. It both imprints and triggers powerful associative memories: childhood experiences can often be reconstructed with a simple sensory cue, like the sound of a familiar but long-forgotten song. In Western culture, music has been both prized and disparaged for its perceived abstraction; musical sound unfolds, it has been thought, without reference to anything outside itself. But as long as such stories have been told about music, music has been telling its own stories to us. Music is a systematic, hierarchical, and symbolic form of language that is intimately connected with narrative, whether we recognize it or not. When we tell stories through music and about music, we are also constructing narratives about ourselves and the culture(s) in which we live.

Inside the Classroom

This course explores music as a narrative mode of discourse through genres as diverse as operas and music videos, symphonic works and pop songs. It also examines how music can shape narrative, from the biographies of singers and composers to the stories we tell about ourselves: musical experiences are a form of self-knowledge. We’ll examine musical works, music criticism, films, interviews, music videos, and biographies, observing how musical narratives (and narratives about music) interact with the memory and experience. In particular, we will pay attention to the experiences of people from marginalized backgrounds, for whom music has historically served both constraining and liberating functions. The relationship between music, narrative, and personal identity will underpin most of our course work.

Outside the Classroom

We plan to experience music and storytelling in action by traveling to New York City, where we’ll visit the Metropolitan Opera and see a show on Broadway, perhaps with opportunities for backstage tours or conversations with performing artists. We’ll also explore museums in Washington, D.C., to learn how institutions tell stories about music and musicians. 

The course trip may be convened with Dr. Love's SSIR, Popular Music and the Margins.

Research and Capstone Project

During the spring semester, we will work in groups on creative or community-based projects, such as creating a podcast with a musical storytelling theme, or collaborating with elderly people to produce musical autobiographies in audio or video format.