World Music Literature

Preface | What's This Course About?

Peter Kun Frary


Welcome to World Music Literature. This is a course about listening to music with understanding. You're already good at listening to music? Indeed, humans come fully equipped for this task but there are things you can do to improve your skills. And it's all about the understanding part. We'll work on the understanding aspect one step at a time throughout the semester.

Three Female Musicians | New Kingdom Dynasty (Egypt), c.1400–1390 BC |  Metropolitan Museum of Art

What's This Course Really About?

World Music Literature focuses on culturally significant music from major regions of the world, including Europe, Asia the Americas and beyond, encompassing music from prehistory to modern times. Scattered Paleolithic period artifacts from prehistory confirm that music existed but not much else. The appearance of writing, circa 3100 BC in Mesopotamia, marks the beginning of ancient history (3000 BC to 500 AD) and a watershed of information about human culture.

Unfortunately, it isn't possible to accurately recreate the music of our prehistoric and ancient ancestors. After all, there are no recordings or living musicians from those periods. However, the music of the last millennium is illuminated with numerous historical accounts, treatises, scores, instruments and ongoing performance practice. Thus, the bulk of our listening begins at the 1000 AD mark.

One thousand years of music from multiple regions of the world is a lot to cover in one semester! Consequently, the materials of this course have been distilled down to representative pieces from selected regions. Featured music will be examined from a stylistic, historical, social and cultural perspective. First, we'll explore characteristics of style, e.g., melody, harmony, texture, form, etc. Next, we'll delve into the function and purpose of the music. Was it created for ceremonies, worship or entertainment? Who listened to this music? Finally, the times and lives of the musicians will be examined and linked to their creations. In short, we won't merely listen to pretty pieces but will also learn the how, why and where of what we listen to.

Seated Female Musicians | Tang Dynasty (China), c. 618–906 | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Before embarking on our one thousand year journey around the world, we'll build a foundation of musical concepts and terms as a basis for listening and discussion. For example, we'll examine the instrument families and learn terms for describing musical technique and sounds. These concepts and vocabulary are known as musical elements and the first month of the semester will be spent studying them. An understanding of the elements of music will increase both your involvement in listening and enjoyment.

On the next page, I'll explain how to get the most from your listening sessions.

Undercover Guitar | Peter Kun Frary

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