Music History

Music History at Sarah Lawrence encompasses a broad range of musical styles from Western Music to music from around the world. Students have the option of studying music history as part of a Music Third, or as seminar or lecture. Historical periods range from ancient music of Greece to current trends in contemporary music. Genres cover classical, jazz, rock, blues, electronic and experimental, and many other idioms. Topics in world music include Southern Indian classical, West African percussion, Iraqi Maqam, and Gamelan; with many courses including such issues as Climate Change, Social Activism, Ethnomusicology and Social Change. All music history courses are open to the entire college community. No previous knowledge of music is required.

Music History 2024-2025 Courses

Music and (Almost) Everything All at Once

Open, Lecture—Fall | 5 credits

MUHS 2040

A while ago I went to a visual arts museum, and they had their collection displayed in an unusual fashion. Instead of grouping art in rooms according to genre, chronology, nationality or particular artists, the art was arranged by intriguing concepts. A room might contain an O’Keeffe painting, a centuries-old indigenous piece from Australia, a Rodin sculpture and a poem that were in some way connected by a fascinating idea. I want to recapitulate something like this experience. Every class will begin with some concept from mathematics, poetry, philosophy, astronomy and more, and then we’ll gradually explore different music that engages with that concept in some way. The musical examples every week will span centuries and cultures—one week might have an avant-grade piano sonata by Boulez, a 1980s art-rock song by Laurie Anderson and a Kendrick Lamar album; the next week might have an ancient Sumerian song, a piece by Debussy and a work from the Indian Carnatic tradition. Gradually, more and more connections between the seemingly disparate topics will be revealed. So, ok, it isn’t everything exactly—and it’s more like “across the course of two semesters” rather than “all at once”—but you will know a whole lot more across a wide range of disciplines by the end. And, most importantly, we’ll listen to a metric ton of fantastic music. This course may be counted as humanities credit as MUHS 2040 or music component as MUSC 5276. 

Cross-Cultural Listening

Open, Lecture—Fall | 5 credits

MUHS 2034

This course will explore the relationship of listening, music, and sound across different cultural and historical contexts. Recent scholarship on listening and sound has revealed how listening plays a crucial role in the formulation of theories about music, and we will study how various ideas about listening inform contemporary understandings of music and sound. Drawing from research from the field of sound studies, cultural theory, and ethnographic case studies from ethnomusicology and anthropology, we will understand key concepts of listening with specific musical and sonic examples. Course units may include technologies of listening, listening as an impetus for empathy and to stimulate political action, strategies for listening to cultural and musical difference, and music and sound as tools for torture and healing. Individual class sessions may include sound technologies such as the phonograph, the MP3, the recording studio, and AI; soundscapes; music therapy; and the listening contexts of individual genres, such as South African pop, Buddhist chant, Arabic maqamat, lofi hip hop, muzak, and EDM. Participation in either African Classics or the Balinese Gamelan Chandra Buana is strongly encouraged. No prior music experience is necessary.


Words and Music

Open, Lecture—Fall | 3 credits

MUHS 2071

Note: This course may be counted as humanities credit (MUHS 2071) or music component (MUSC 5229). 

In this course, we will examine and try to understand the magic that happens when words and music combine in song. Song will be defined broadly. Most of our repertoire will be drawn from Western music history, and the range of compositions will be extraordinary: from the chants of Hildegard von Bingen to the often esoteric and intricate motets of the Ars Nova, from the late Renaissance madrigals to early and romantic opera, and from the art songs of Schubert and Debussy to experimental contemporary works. There also may be some in-class performances. Participants will be responsible for regular listening and reading assignments, listening exams, and group presentations. There will be no conferences, but we will have regular individual and group consultations to help prepare presentations and papers. For the three credit lecture, there will be a number of shorter paper assignments. 



Open, Lecture—Spring | 5 credits

MUHS 2014

Note: This course may be counted as humanities credit (MUHS 2014) or music component (MUSC 5278). 

This course will examine punk rock as a musical style and as a vehicle for cultural opposition. We will examine the musical, cultural, and political conditions that gave birth to the genre in the 1970s and trace its continuing evolution through the early 2000s in dialogue with, and sometimes in opposition to, other musical genres such as progressive rock, heavy metal, ska, and reggae. We will begin with the influence of minimalism on “proto-punk” artists such as Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, which will provide a foundation for seeing how minimalism—as well as modernism, atonality, and electronic music—continued to resonate in punk and rock music generally. We will examine the intellectual background of early UK punk with readings by Guy Debord and Situationist International and look at the theories of Gramsci and Foucault on the question of institutional power structures and the possibility of resistance to them. To deepen our understanding of punk style and the culture of opposition, there will also be readings by Adorno, Bakhtin, Barthes, Antonin Artaud, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Julia Kristeva, and others. We will trace the splintering of punk into various sub-genres and the challenges of negotiating the music industry and remaining “authentic” in a commercialized culture. Another major focus will be the Riot Grrrl bands of the 1990s as the catalyst for third-wave feminism. Given the DIY aesthetic at the heart of punk—in addition to listening to, analyzing, and reading about the music—students who want to get creative will be given the opportunity to work with musicians and write some punk songs. In light of the large amount of valuable documentary film footage relating to punk culture, the course will include a film viewing every other week. 


Jazz History/The Blues and Beyond

Seminar—Year | 2 credits

MUHS 3162

Note: This is one of the music history component courses required for all Advanced Theory students. It is a two-semester course; however, it is possible to enter in the second semester. This course is also available as a two-credit, stand-alone, yearlong class.

Out of one of the worst atrocities of humanity, we were gifted with the extraordinary music that would become known as the blues. In this class, we will explore and analyze the origins of the blues, the uniqueness of this great American art form, and how it is related to jazz but takes a completely different path—ultimately leading us to rock ‘n’ roll and all forms of popular music. We will dissect the unique components of the blues, which defied conventional music theory as we knew it, made it different from any music that came before it, and out of which rock ‘n’ roll was born. Through listening to and analyzing these early developments, from African drumming pieces to field hollers, work songs, spirituals, early country blues, Delta blues, urban blues, and Chicago electric blues, we will discover the African culture and musical concepts that survived and how they are the foundation of every part of popular music—be it jazz, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, country, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, gospel, funk, rhythm & blues, hip hop, rap, Brazilian, and on and on. We will study the unique African contributions of music in form, rhythm, melody, tone, and timbre that has now permeated all styles of music. Without this incredible, invaluable, unique contribution, our music today would be very different—and there would have been no Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, James Brown, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, and on and on and on...right up to every new artist today.


Survey of Western Music

Seminar—Year | 2 credits

MUHS 3210

Note: This component is required for all students taking Theory II: Basic Tonal Theory and Composition and is also open to students who have completed the theory sequence. The course is also available as a two-credit, stand-alone, yearlong class.

This course is a chronological survey of Western music from the Middle Ages to the present. We will explore the cyclical nature of music that mirrors philosophical and theoretical ideas established in Ancient Greece and how that cycle most notably reappears every 300 years: the Ars nova of the 14th century, Le nuove musiche of the 17th century, and the New Music of the 20th century and beyond. The course involves reading, listening, and class discussions that focus on significant compositions of the Western musical tradition, the evolution of form, questions of aesthetics, and historical perspective. There will be occasional quizzes during the fall term; short, written summary papers or class presentations are required in the spring.


The Beatles

Open, Seminar—Fall | 3 credits

MUHS 3164

Note: This course may be counted as humanities credit (MUHS 3164) or music component (MUSC 5254). 

The impact of The Beatles has been immeasurable. In their seven years as a recording band, they explored and enlarged every aspect of songwriting technique, producing one musical milestone after the next. This class will trace the development of The Beatles chronologically through their 12 original English albums and the singles that were released alongside them. We will focus on the ways The Beatles used harmony, phrase structure, rhythm, structural ambiguity, and sonority in continuously innovative ways. We will also look at some of the of musical styles and cultural phenomena that The Beatles assimilated and transformed—from early rock & roll, Motown and the Goon Show to 1960s counterculture—and explore how The Beatles, in turn, influenced music and culture in the 1960s. There will also be guest-led discussions by other members of the music faculty on the following topics: The Beatles and the evolution of studio recording, the use of electronic music techniques (Yannelli), Norwegian Wood and the great sitar explosion (Higgins), electric guitar techniques (Alexander), and acoustic guitar techniques (Anderson). 


Sounding Creativity: Musical Improvisation

Open, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

MUHS 3033

Note: This course may be counted as either humanities or social science credit. This course may also be taken as a semester-long component.

This seminar will focus on the widely practiced creative process of musical improvisation. Using footage of live performances, reading and listening assignments, and class discussions, we will learn to hear and understand improvisation as an array of specific choices as musicians from different backgrounds progress through their performances. We will question how personal expression and cultural context shape creativity, which will reveal improvisation as an intrinsic form of adaptation that is essential to artistic expression, communication, and survival. Using a cross-cultural perspective, we will examine the similarities and differences of musical improvisation around the world, exploring themes such as freedom, community, free will, determinism, social justice, ethnicity, race, nationalism, class, gender, and sexuality. Using ethnomusicology’s interdisciplinary approach to learning about music and culture, this seminar will draw from anthropology, linguistics, social theory, sociology, psychology, and artists’ personal accounts. Class topics may include music in Turkey, Egypt, West Africa, India, Cantonese opera, 20th-century experimental art music, improvised singing games in Nepal, free improvisation, international and American jazz, and turn tabling and DJing. Participation in the Faso Foli, SLC’s African percussion ensemble, is strongly encouraged. No prior experience in music is necessary.