MUS 250 Sound Cultures in the World (WORLD MUSIC)


Write an autobiographical essay about the role of music in your life.


Format: 3-4 pages, double spaced, typed and proof read, + cover page, no binders. Give it a title.

Given the wide range of life experiences and depth of musical involvement of people in this class, no one formula will work for everyone, but here are some suggestions on how to approach the subject. DONT ANSWER ALL OF THESE QUESTIONS -- SELECT WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU.

Before you write your autobiography, consider how much you agree with or disagree with these statements.

      Everyone can be a good musician.

      It takes talent and a lot of hard work to become a good musician.

      Good music helps me relax.

      Good music stimulates profound thoughts and feelings.

      Music is mostly for entertainment and fun.

      Music is frivolous and distracts people from more important things.

      Music is an integral part of my religious faith and experience.

      Everyone should learn how to sing or play a musical instrument.


Imagine that that you are an anthropologist and a musicologist investigating the role of music in a particular culture. It just so happens that your primary contact, the person whom you are interviewing, is yourself!


Examine what uses and functions music has served in your life. One possibility is to look to ritual moments in your family life such as a bar mitzvah, a wedding (and reception), the blessing of a new house or business, or high school graduation.


How has your musical taste changed with time? Is there a kind of music that you listened to five years ago that you would never be caught dead listening to today? How is the music you like different from or similar to the music preferred by your family, high school friends, and current friends? Is there a music shared between you and your siblings, parents, and grandparents? How do these differences and commonalities relate to your personal identity as both an individual and as a member of a group?


Family background and immigration experience often have musical dimensions. Many immigrant groups keep up the performance practice and social use of music from the "old country." On the other hand, as a teacher, I have often encountered Asian-American students whose parents insisted that they learn primarily European classical music. (In fact, in some university classes I have taught, the only students that were thoroughly acquainted with European classical music were second generation Asian-Americans.) Some people, having lost all direct connection to their ethnic heritage, have begun to reconstruct their ethnic identity, as when an nth-generation Japanese-American takes up the shakuhachi, or a Scottish-American takes up the bagpipes and the wearing of tartan. Just as often it seems that a person may find or recognize himself or herself in a different culture. I knew a student from Japan who, upon encountering Cuban music in a world music class, dropped her science major and began studying percussion. I also knew a Brazilian student who, while very much in love with Brazilian popular music, found that the music of native North Americans touched her heart like no other music. How to account for these cross-cultural connections?


For some students with a deep involvement with music or with a rich family musical heritage, the problem of this assignment will be to condense it all to a mere three pages. For others who have had less of involvement with music, three pages might seem like a challenge. Carefully review the list of uses and functions of music. To which do you relate the most? Are there moments in your life when a certain kind of music or even a particular piece seems exactly appropriate or inappropriate? Why? What belief systems underlie that judgment? (These moments could include religious services, a romantic evening, or even something like a movie.) Are these private moments or in social settings? Does this make a difference? When you listen to a song on the radio, you experience its as a private moment (a communication between you and the performer) or, even if you are alone, do you listen to it as if you are in a gathering of people? What is the difference between "hearing music" and "listening to music"?


If you are comfortable discussing religious issues, please feel very free to do so. Does music have some particular connection to God, or does it connect humans with God in any particular way? How do you feel/know this? How do you experience this? Alone or in a group?


Speculate! Why do human beings listen to music? Is there an answer to this question that goes deeper than our list of uses and functions? Some cultures build buildings costing millions of dollars that are simply large boxes designed for people to sit in and listen to music as it is being performed. Such strange behavior! I encourage speculation and generalization about music and culture, but always relate your thoughts to specific experiences that have affected you in your life.


It is best to begin with a topic sentence. You might list several uses and functions that have meaning to you, and then give specific examples, describing the concrete details as well as discussing the larger social meaning of it. The more specific and more focused, the better. You may pick one specific event or use or function of music and devote the entire three pages to it. If you are using several examples, you should probably organize your report chronologically.

I often wish to refer to these in the future; many are quite moving. Please indicate if I may keep a copy of your story in my files. All uses I might make of it will be with proper citations or anonymity, which ever you prefer.  After returning them for your (optional) correction, I will gladly put them on the class website, if you so choose.



30% material/focus;

40% interpretation/contextualization (what big picture do you fit into?)

30% writing quality

Objective & Purpose of this assignment: as we examine the role of music in various cultures, I believe our perceptions are sharpened by turning the anthropological eye on ourselves. An ultimate goal is that moment of anthropological insight into the contingent nature of our personal view of the world.

Revised Oct 2007
DC Meckler


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