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2023/24 Undergraduate Module Catalogue

MUSS2520 Aesthetics and Criticism

20 creditsClass Size: 40

Module manager: Dr Matthew Pritchard

Taught: Semesters 1 & 2 (Sep to Jun) View Timetable

Year running 2023/24

This module is not approved as a discovery module

Module summary

Music aesthetics is a discipline driven by inquiry into the essence of music and why we value it so highly as a cultural form. Such inquiry has a long history – which this module explores – stretching back to the ancient Greeks and taking in some of the key philosophers of the Western tradition such as Plato, Kant and Hegel. Students will learn not only how to trace the development of themes within this history, but also how to identify their continuing resonance within contemporary media, literature, and academic discourse. They will also have the chance to demonstrate their understanding, as well as their own personal engagement with the value of music, in a series of music reviews framed in the light of particular aesthetic concepts. Though the module will engage with both philosophical texts and a broad range of musics, no technical knowledge of music or prior acquaintance with philosophy is required – only a passion for music and reflecting on its cultural value. Assessment is via an examination and four 500-word music reviews.


The module seeks to develop in students an understanding of a range of historical positions within the history of aesthetics, viewed both as a part of the history of ideas and as part of the history of musical culture, extending from the Greeks to the last few decades. Building on this understanding, students will be helped to recognize how concepts in the history of philosophical aesthetics feature within polemical debates, some of whose conflicting terms and implications continue to resonate today both in and outside of musicology, and how such concepts recur within contemporary media, from newspaper criticism to novels, films and internet sources. Finally, the module gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their grasp of aesthetic concepts through the writing of music reviews in light of particular aesthetic theories.
More generically, the course aims to develop in students an ability to handle large volumes of complex information, as well as to be able to summarise such complex information in a pithy, linguistically accurate, and stylistically appropriate form. They are expected to be able to identify where texts rely for their presumptions upon the thought of others and to show, in such a light, where presumptions might be faulty, or might be re‐modulated to produce different consequences. They are expected to be able to demonstrate a similar, if developing, level of self‐awareness about their own thought and its assumptions.

Learning outcomes
On completion of this module, students will:
1) have gained knowledge of a range of concepts, arguments and positions within the history of aesthetics, learning how these play a role in intellectual history but also how they affect the history of musical culture(s);
2) know how to recognise where and how aesthetic modes of thought recur within contemporary media, such as films or novels, and when typical ideas and arguments from the subject’s history are at stake in both contemporary debates and cultural representations of music;
3) be able to carry out a close reading of a complex text, reading for both detail and general sense;
4) be able to demonstrate skills in writing with elegance and technical accuracy within a particular (journalistic-critical) style, while retaining intellectual depth.


The syllabus as given is indicative rather than prescriptive; the exact syllabus is expected to change in response to the particular interests of staff members leading sessions. There are 20 class sessions across the year, providing a mixture of lecture-type teaching, class discussion, skills/assessment-related workshops, and student-led presentations. Students prepare for these sessions by reading extracts from key texts in the history of music aesthetics and philosophy. The first half of each class will comprise lecture-style commentary on the set texts, their argumentative structure and historical background, but also incorporating questions both from and to students on key points. In the second half of the class, a group of students, who have been briefed and have prepared material in advance of the session, provide a c. 15-20 min presentation, serving as an introduction to class discussion focussing on certain contemporary sources or debates in which the chosen aesthetic issues recur. This part of the session is designed to give students practice in the key module skill of applying aesthetic themes and concepts to ‘real world’ contexts, and as such no particular genre, period, style or category of music will be privileged.

The first term will deal with aesthetics from the ancient Greeks to the end of the nineteenth century, taking an historical and broadly developmental approach. Understanding of issues from this term’s work (only) will be tested through a 2-hour examination at the end of semester 1. An indicative list of sessions might read as follows:

1. Introduction
2. Plato and Greek views of music
3. Medieval attitudes to music, God and cosmology
4. Humanism and Renaissance opera
5. Taste, sentiment and genius in the eighteenth century
6. Music in German classical aesthetics
7. Early Romanticism
8. Idealist aesthetics and programme music
9. Wagner and the music drama
10. Hanslick, formalism, and the defence of ‘absolute music’

The second semester takes a more theme-based and less strictly chronological approach, centred on but not limited to the study of twentieth-century authors and movements. An indicative list of sessions might thus read:

1. Modernism and ‘new music’
2. The musical sociology of class
3. Gebrauchsmusik and the future of the concert
4. Women and music
5. Jazz and race
6. Marxist music aesthetics
7. Popular music and cultural criticism
8. Authorship and the ‘open work’
9. Music review workshop
10. Aesthetics between East and West

Skills and knowledge gained in seminars are then applied on an ongoing basis outside the classroom. Students are expected to submit 12 300-word reviews of musical performances (live or recorded) to the VLE over the duration of the course. Each review should bring to bear in a recognizable fashion a different aesthetic concept or mode of thought taken from the lectures and readings, while at the same time remaining a comprehensible critical assessment of the music. Each student will additionally be obliged to offer formative feedback on one other review submitted by another student (and should comment on a different student’s work each time). Students will also receive (from staff leading the course) formative feedback on ways in which reviews could be improved, both via the VLE and through a dedicated music reviews workshop session in semester 2. For final submission for summative assessment, students should select the FOUR reviews they think represent their abilities best and expand these, following the feedback received, to 500 words apiece.

Teaching methods

Delivery typeNumberLength hoursStudent hours
Private study hours160.00
Total Contact hours40.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)200.00

Private study

- Preparation for class seminars: 40 hours
- Attendance at performances and writing of reviews: 80 hours
- Exam preparation: 40 hours.

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

Students will have opportunities for formative feedback on their understanding of key concepts through questions, oral feedback on presentations and class discussion within seminars, supporting their preparation for the exam and the writing of music reviews. In addition to mandatory peer feedback on their reviews posted online, students will also receive (from staff leading the course) formative feedback on ways in which reviews could be improved, both via the VLE and through a dedicated music reviews workshop session in semester 2.

Methods of assessment

Assessment typeNotes% of formal assessment
Written Work4 music reviews (500 words each) each worth 15% of the final module mark.60.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)60.00

Students submit 12 c.300-word reviews on the VLE across the course. Each student will be obliged to offer feedback on one other review submitted by another student (and, where possible, should comment on a different student’s work each week). Thus, they will receive consistent and ongoing peer feedback to supplement formative feedback being received in class and online. These activities are not in themselves assessed, but are qualificatory (i.e. if they are not undertaken, a student should receive no grade for the course as a whole). At the end of the course, students should submit four reviews which they believe represent their strongest work (each of which will be worth 15% of their final mark for the course).

Exam typeExam duration% of formal assessment
Open Book exam48 hr 00 mins40.00
Total percentage (Assessment Exams)40.00

Normally resits will be assessed by the same methodology as the first attempt, unless otherwise stated

Reading list

There is no reading list for this module

Last updated: 28/04/2023 14:43:21


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