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Music in Contemporary Society: Its Role, Function and Position


Admission requirements

This course is an Honours Class and therefore in principle only available to students of the Honours College. There are a few places available for regular students.


Recent research on listening attitudes has revealed that at any moment between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. there is a 50 percent chance that people will have heard music in the preceding two hours. However, there was only a 2 percent chance that music was the main focus of their attention. A nice paradox!

Music therefore plays an important role in our everyday lives. It surrounds us, every day and everywhere, even if it is hardly listened to. Many people cannot live without it. What makes music so important in our contemporary society? What is the role, the function, and the position of music in our everyday lives? These and other questions will be discussed in this Honours Class.

This course settles scores with the prevailing idea that music is an autonomous art form, functioning independently from social, political, economic, technological, and ethical developments. This does not mean that music merely passively represents society; music does much more than “depict” or embody values. Music is active and dynamic, constitutive not merely of values but of trajectories and styles of conduct. It plays an important role in shaping society and identities. The scope of music reaches far beyond the concert hall. It accompanies our traveling, sports, shopping, and working activities. It speaks to us and silences us. It sways and soothes us. Music provides parameters that can be used to frame experiences, perceptions, feelings, and behavior.

This course introduces students through a close reading of sociological and philosophical texts to think on different roles, positions and functions of music: an aesthetic, a political, an ethical, and an emancipatory function. And of course, lots of music will be played during this course.

Course objectives

Upon successful completion of this course, students will:

  • learn to think about different roles, functions, and positions of music in contemporary society.

  • develop a new attitude to music. They learn to bring music into philosophical, sociological, and various cultural perspectives. Music is placed in a socio-cultural context.

  • practice so-called ‘close reading’ of philosophical and sociological texts on music.

  • learn how to relate music to philosophy and v.v. They learn to think on music not (only) in a historical or theoretical way but (also) within a philosophical tradition.

  • learn to evaluate and present their own listening and thinking about music.


17 October (17:00 – 19:00h)
24 October (17:00 – 19:00h)
31 October (17:00 – 19:00h)
7 November (17:00 – 19:00h)
14 November (17:00 – 19:00h)
21 November(17:00 – 19:00h)
28 November (17:00 – 19:00h)
12 December (17:00 – 19:00h)
19 December (17:00 – 21:00h)


Old Observatory, room C006.


Week 1: Music’s Societal Roles and (Lack of) Autonomy (Janet Wolff; George Steiner)

The Omnipresence of Music
Week 2: Music and/in Shopping Malls (Brandon LaBelle; Björn Hellström)
Week 3: Music, Sports, and Commuting (Michael Bull, Tia DeNora, Ruth Herbert)

**Music and Politics **
Week 4: Disciplining Music (Katherine Bergeron)
Week 5: Music and The Political (Jacques Attali, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu)

**Music and Identity **
Week 6: Music and Identity (Simon Frith; Stuart Hall)

The Critical Role of Music
Week 7: Music and Society (Theodor W. Adorno)
Week 8: Music and Gender (Susan McClary)

**Music and Ethics **
Week 9: Music and Wiolence (Dubravka Ugrecic; Johnson & Cloonan)
Week 10: On Listening (Marcel Cobussen)

Course Load

This course is worth 5 EC, which means the total course load equals 140 hours.

  • Lectures/Seminars: 8 interactive lectures of 2 hours one lecture of 4 hours

  • Listening Walk Through Leiden: 2 hours

  • Literature reading & practical work: 4 hours p/week

  • Assignments & Music Diary: 60 hours

Assessment method

Course Evaluation
Seminar Assignments: 70%
Sonic Diary: 30%

Seminar Assignments
The final mark for this class consists of several ‘submarks’, based on weekly assignments the student has to submit. After or during each class the student gets a questionnaire which s/he has to fill in and hand in at least 24 hours before the next class. More details concerning the marking will be announced at the first meeting.

Music Diary
The music diary contains 5 short multimedia essays of 5 situations in which music plays a role, 5 descriptions from your personal experiences with music. The short essays (± 400 words) should contain information about the location, the time of the day, the event, the type of music, the role music plays in/during this event.

Please note: Attendance is compulsory.

Blackboard and uSis

Blackboard will be used in this course. Students can register for the Blackboard site two weeks prior to the start of the course.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Reading list

  • Wolff, Janet (1987). “The Ideology of Autonomous Art.” In: Leppert, Richard and Susan McClary (eds.), Music and Society. The Politics of Composition, Performance, and Reception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-12.

  • Viriasova, I. (2011). Politics and the Political: Correlation and the Question of the Unpolitical. Peninsula: A Journal of Relational Politics, 1(1).

  • Bergeron, K. (1992). Prologue: disciplining music. Disciplining Music: Musicology and its canons, 1-9.

  • LaBelle, Brandon (2010). Acoustic Territories. Sound Culture and Everyday Life. New York: Continuum, pp. 165-200.

  • Bull, Michael (2003). “The Soundscapes of the Car: A Critical Study of Automobile Habitation.” In Bull, Michael and Les Back (eds.), The Sound Studies Reader. Oxford: Berg, pp. 357-374.

  • Sterne, J. (2005). Urban media and the politics of sound space. Open, 9, 6-14.

  • DeNora, T. (2003). After Adorno: rethinking music sociology. Cambridge University Press.

  • Adorno, T. W. (1991). On the fetish character in music and the regression of listening. The essential Frankfurt school reader, 270-99.


Enrolling in this course is possible from August 21st until September 6th 23:59 through the Honours Academy, via this link.


Prof.dr. M.A. Cobussen