How Can We Use Music to Think About How History Works?

By Tim Cochran, Eastern Connecticut State University

The purpose of an intro-level music history course is not always straightforward. I imagine if we polled our colleagues, we would find varied goals for similarly-named courses, which might include turning passive hearers into active listeners, exposing students to music they might otherwise ignore, fleshing out their knowledge of history with perspectives from the arts, promoting the value of particular repertoires for intellectual stimulation and enjoyment, using music as a case study in cultural practices, developing research methods, and so on.

Complicating the menu of approaches to a beginner music history class, broader liberal arts objectives often influence the way we think about these classes. An arts-oriented designation can accommodate most if not all of the goals above in a single course, but how should we approach music history courses when they occupy curricular categories not emphasizing artistic exposure? At my university, some of our intro-level music courses fulfill arts requirements, while others satisfy cultural and historical requirements, necessitating clear distinctions. As an example of how we can treat music as a vehicle for developing methodologies and patterns of critical thought that are applicable beyond the music classroom, I want to describe my design for a music history course that uses stylistic awareness to explore historiography .


When I arrived on the job last year, my new colleagues asked me to refine an existing Intro to Music History course so that it aligned more closely with its “Historical Perspectives” designation in our liberal arts core. The purpose of this course-type is to teach students how to “evaluate claims about the past,” reflect critically on “the nature of change,” understand the role played by “temporal and geographical contexts,” and analyze relationships between past and present. In short, the category helps students explore one big question: How does history work?[1] I began thinking not so much about music appreciation and instead about ways to reflect on historiography via music. The question for my particular course became: How can we use music to think about how history works?

To address this question, I organized my course into three broad units centered around types of historical claims.

Unit I: Convention vs. Innovation

The first unit introduces some basic musical elements and builds a rudimentary framework of style periods in European art music. We use these burgeoning listening skills and historical knowledge as vehicles for reflecting on the ways historians interpret convention and innovation.

I introduce three eras and three musical elements in quick succession (a couple days each on Classical and Instruments, Romantic and Melody, Modernism and Rhythm), allowing new material to build on and refine previous material: when we explore Modernism and Rhythm, we do it comparatively, flashing back to contrast examples of rhythm from the twentieth century with pieces from earlier class periods while applying our accumulated understanding of instruments and melody to the Modernist examples. The framework grows in depth and complexity as it expands, and we cycle back to it throughout the semester.

This comparative approach fosters a continuous conversation about how to evaluate convention and innovation,[2] particularly because the relationship between them is so distinctly different for, say, Haydn and Stravinsky. If Haydn treats stylistic convention as a common language, which is largely affirmed and playfully broken, in one era and Stravinsky reflects an age that questions the idea of common language—often treating traditional gestures ironically—and values innovation for its own sake, how can convention and innovation ever be stable concepts for the historian? This leads to a number of questions to explore: What kinds of claims can we make about history by identifying conventions and innovations? Which is more important in our assessment of history? How does privileging one over the other lead to different historical claims? Should one balance them differently in different circumstances? In the end, students learn how to identify the common and anomalous features of particular eras, but this demonstration of basic stylistic competency provides data for critical thought as students wrestle with how to interpret historical significance.

Unit II: Context

The second unit is where we explore the issue of context explicitly. To our framework of historical periods and musical elements from the first unit, we append analyses of texture in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque. But the purpose is again not solely musical. Rather, we use the idea of texture as a launching pad for discussing the ways music both reflects and influences the physical spaces and social dynamics of cathedrals, courts, and theatres, leading us to claims about how art and contexts interact and how one might be used to understand aspects of the other. Then, I turn students loose to make their own historical claims via context. They do research in groups on a specific piece, making as many contextual connections with their assigned musical work as possible as they consider details of race, gender, politics, audience, biography, nationality, performance space, and so on. This is where we throw out any remnants of chronological organization, opting instead to cross back and forth across the boundaries of eras to compare, contrast, and complicate similar types of contexts.

Unit III: Relationships Between Pieces and Eras

The final unit is about intertextuality of various overlapping kinds (this is where postmodernism shows up in our historical framework if you’re wondering): influence, borrowing, stealing, pastiche, collage, pop/art intersections. We also address reception history and canon formation here. Let me recommend excerpts on the afterlife of classical music in cartoons from Daniel Goldmark’s Tunes for ‘Toons (University of California Press, 2005) and Chuck Klosterman’s “Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?”[3] as fuel for discussing these two issues.

The point once more is not simply to recognize connections but rather to interrogate the lenses we use for making historical claims about connectedness. For example, in one lesson, we explore Wagner’s leitmotiv technique then fast-forward to John Williams’ score for the film E.T., noting similarities and differences in style and technique. After discussing what it means to influence something, I ask them if the similarities confirm that Wagner influenced Williams; and almost all of them say “yes” predictably. This is a good opportunity to teach students that the easy conclusion is not always the best (or even the right) answer and that the questions we ask matter because they affect our historical claims directly. I problematize the class consensus by asking if there are other ways of explaining similarity (I owe some of these questions to Umberto Eco[4]): If this is influence, was it a direct connection, or was it mediated by a chain of influences involving other film composers in the intervening century? Or was Williams’ influenced by a third party or some cultural factor shared between him and Wagner? Or was Williams’ commenting on Wagner ironically, in homage, or as a period study? Did he quote Wagner directly or plagiarize some aspect of his style? Or was he simply appropriating and reinterpreting an existing set of gestures, ascribing new meaning? Our initial interpretation that similarity = influence is no longer so certain. The class quickly ascertains that they need more data points to winnow our expanding list of reasonable questions: more Williams scores, more Wagner music and philosophy, a broader understanding of film music developments, a clearer picture of Williams’ relationship with romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism, journals and interviews, the list goes on. I then walk them through some of the ways that these questions could be answered, but if there were time to play with in the semester, this sort of exercise could be the starting point of another exploratory research project.

Students learn through this example and others that connections between works and across eras can have many meanings, and that if we are to be historians, we must evaluate a plethora of explanations for the connections we make by exploring a range of creative, critical questions that lead to further questions, discoveries, and hopefully a plausible story.


I find with this course a duality between teaching students how to ask questions and how to find answers. This sentence would imply that one leads to the other, but this isn’t always the case. We spend a lot of time talking about primary sources, databases, analytical tools, and foundational facts; but we spend just as much time learning how to complicate, to be comfortable with ambiguity, to follow questions down rabbit holes that may not lead to answers at all but only more questions. Although I continue to refine this course, this duality is not something I’m trying to resolve. It’s how music history works.

[1] John H. Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) is a great source for reflecting with students on how history works.

[2] I’m looking forward to using Nicholas Lockey’s essay ( from The Avid Listener this term to add further depth to our reflections.  


[4] Umberto Eco, “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence,” in On Literature (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004), 119.