Values in Music: Lecture series

Values in Music is a lecture series created as a part of the minor Music Studies at Leiden University. It offers an introduction to social, ethical and aesthetic values in classical and contemporary art music. The course takes as a premise that art music not only acts as a mirror of society, but also as a field of exercise, exploration and negotiation of values which are potentially constitutive for culture at large. The series forms a more or less coherent whole of three blocks of lectures and is aimed at bachelor university students. Separate lectures for a general audience are available on request.


Since antiquity, the awareness and experience of the strong affective power of music have led to divergent views on desired or unwanted roles of music in society. The lectures in this first block develop a broad perspective on valuations of music that can be related to culturally determined listening modes or attitudes, social expectations but also perceived dangers and needs for social control of musical behaviour.

Lecture #1: Introduction to values in music 

This first lecture introduces the concept of value in music from a wide range of perspectives. Different uses and functions of music are introduced from an anthropological and music-philosophical perspective and applied to the role of music in our daily lives. Distinctions are made between intrinsic and instrumental values of music, and between aesthetic, artistic, social and practical approaches. 

Lecture #2: Musical listening modes and attitudes

The appreciation of musical styles and genres requires adequate listening modes and attitudes. In this lecture we explore different listening modes and investigate how altering ways of listening might change our valuation of the heard music. Codes of silent listening in classical music are confronted with embodied participation in popular music or immersive listening in minimal music and sound art. 

Lecture #3: The promise of music // Harmony

Throughout history, musical virtues have often been linked to ideals of harmony, order or state of being. Medieval views on music as a mirror of the cosmic order or the romantic concept of ‘absolute music’ as a gateway to a sublime reality express a hope that is put into music. The phenomenon of the ‘music manifesto’ and the explorations of the musical ‘avant-garde’ of the twentieth century testify to a musical optimism, a belief that the musical field can be democratised and expanded to include ‘other sounds’, alternative tone and tuning systems and sound movements in space. Do we find comparable beliefs in an as yet unrealized musical potential in contemporary music culture? 

Lecture #4: The danger of music // Noise & loudness

If a hopeful approach to music can often be linked to concepts of harmony, a negative reception of music is often associated with the concept of noise. However, the music manifestos of the beginning of the twentieth century make us aware that noise in music can be appreciated positively and has even become an emancipatory element in twentieth-century music. Nowadays, when music is felt like a dangerous sound, it usually points to the possible impact of the loudness of music on the listener’s body. What seems to need social control is not so much the effect of specific musical patterns or modes on the character or moral behaviour of the listener, but the impact of the loudness of music on our hearing system and the mental stress it can cause. Are we witnessing a shift from a moral and educational value of music towards a valuation in terms of its impact on health and well-being?


In the musical field, the popularity of artists, songs, compositions and music genres is in constant flux. In popular as well as in contemporary art music, new subgenres and niches emerge and styles transform in rapid succession. Are changing musical preferences indicative for changing social values? In this second block, we discuss the dynamic relationship between extra-musical values and concrete musical characteristics. The lectures will limit the focus to characteristics that can be extracted from a small musical time window and that can be linked to three strongly interrelated concepts: memory, identity and collectivity. 

Lecture #5: Memory // pattern & gesture 

Music plays on our memory in different ways. Songs are often so deeply anchored in our memory that they can form the last remnant of our personality, even in severe dementia. In speech and poetry, we find musicality in the form of rhythm, stress and intonation that not only give an expressive meaning but also offer a memory support to language. Musical styles and genres could be considered repositories of patterns and gestures of non-verbal cultural knowledge that play an important role in building a personal identity through the reliance on, but also through the variation and transformation of this heritage. 

Lecture #6: Identity // Sound & timbre

In classical music, the sonic identity of instruments is a stable but secondary parameter. But both in contemporary art music and in pop and dance music, ‘the sound’ of a musician, band or instrument is often central to artistic creativity. Sound ideals of musical genres can often be characterized by their timbral homogeneity or heterogeneity. A modern grand piano or a classical string quartet are the embodiment of a fairly homogeneous sound ideal, while West African music or Indonesian gamelan ensembles show a preference for a heterogeneity of timbres, both in the choice of their instruments and playing techniques. Current digital technologies in music offer morphing techniques that enable a more fluid approach to sound identity. Do we hear a resonance between changing values of identity and sound ideals in music?

Lecture #7: Collectivity // Pulse & rhythm

Music offers an infinite number of possibilities for distinguishing oneself from others in a sonic way, but it is also commonplace to emphasize the social bonding power of music. This lecture examines the value of ‘togetherness’ in music, as can be seen not only in communal dance and ritual but also in the physical synchronisation of the individual listener or performer with the music. The ability to synchronize with the unfolding music is conditional to the experience of flow, drive and energy. Simultaneously, it supports values such as precision, sense of detail, and micro-temporal ‘feel’. Pulsation in music can lead to synchronous behaviour, but it can also be a foothold to deviate from the beat or to share musical time in a syncopathic way and create sonic complexity and diversity. Can we hear social values resonate in the way musicians interact with the beat?


In this last block, we explore the different roles of listening, performing and composing in music. Although all three activities can refer to different human actors within the musical field, they are also highly interdependent. Active listening to music can be seen as a form of co-performing or co-creation. The ability to listen is also a condition for music performance, just as an implicit physical understanding of performance seems to be a requirement for composing music for human musicians. Each lecture discusses values that are typically related to listening, performing or composing, paying special attention to the transient zones where composing and performing collapse, or where performing becomes a way of listening and vice versa.

Lecture #8: Contemplation // Musical silence, detail & duration

From the slow movement in early romantic instrumental music to the American post-war experimental traditions or current trends in post-classical music: music shows a potential not only to escape reality, but also to create awareness of the environment and the self. This lecture concentrates on the appeal of slow unfolding, soft or quiet types of music which require an attentive and introspective listening approach.

Lecture #9: Play // Music as interaction 

After the inward listening perspective central to lecture #8, we shift the focus to music as a playful interaction between musicians, instruments, sounds and acoustics. In the performance of music, the ‘now’ is celebrated and that entails the risk of the unpredictable and the unforeseen. This lecture pays special attention to experimental improvisation practices in music and the mindset they require. Can the aims of such experimental practices be understood through a passive listening attitude, or should the values they embody be experienced rather through active musical participation?

Lecture #10: Form // Musical formats

What values are constitutive for musical order and structure? Current trends in music creation show a blurring of the boundaries between composing, improvising and performing. Musical form can be the result of both real-time musical interactions or premeditated compositional choices. However, musical formats, as typical arrangements of elements, are mostly shaped by cultural traditions and standardized production. This lecture confronts ideas about the value of music as an autonomous art form with contemporary approaches in art music in which musical form arises from the interaction with other media, disciplines or specific use contexts. 

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