Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2017-2018 (archived)

Module MUSI2751: Philosophy, Music and Improvisation

Department: Music

MUSI2751: Philosophy, Music and Improvisation

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2017/18 Module Cap None. Location Durham


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • This module explores the relation between music and philosophy, considering the philosophical issues to which music gives rise, how music may illuminate some of those issues, and how philosophy may illuminate the understanding of music. The module will explore a selection of philosophical questions in aesthetics, epistemology and metaphysics in relation to the general phenomena of music, musical works and musical performances, across a range of musical cultures and practices. There is a particular, though not dominant, focus on the aesthetics of improvisation; in this connection, jazz features strongly in the second half of the module, but improvisation will also be reflected in the first half of the module in connection with (inter alia) the identity of the musical work, the relationship between work, score and performance, and the phenomenology of the experience of listening to music. In the first half of the module, broader philosophical questions will be considered in the context of a number of significant works within the western ‘art-music’ canon, including choral works by J S Bach and Sergei Rachmaninov, and a number of the symphonies of Jean Sibelius.


  • The module is structured around philosophical considerations concerning musical experience. They comprise a range of questions principally concerning (a) the identity and nature of music; (b) the ontology of musical works and performances; and (c) the phenomenology of musical experience including ‘composition’ and improvisation, broadly understood. More detailed topics are distributed as follows. Under (a) we shall consider: a set of issues including whether musical experience is a wholly distinct phenomenon; whether it has features shared by other kinds of (aesthetic) experience; whether music can be ‘substituted’; whether music ‘means’ anything, and what that might be; and how it stands in relation to representational arts. Under (b) we shall consider: the relations among works, scores, performances, recordings and audiences; whether music is created or ‘discovered;’ and the claims of expressionist, formalist, symbolist and representational theories of music. Under (c) we shall consider: the role of the body and of embodiment in musical experience – in making as well as receiving music; the role of the imagination and cognition; the widespread view of music’s being the expression of emotion; the aesthetic value of improvisation versus composition, and what these contrasting practices involve. The foregoing questions concern philosophy’s examination of music, but we also address the converse: what music can illuminate with regard to philosophy’s nature and characteristic questions. We shall look at what musical experience tells us about aesthetic and other intensified forms of experience; at whether the composition of music constitutes the production of any form of knowledge or understanding; what might be the relation between music and ethics; and arguments concerning the relation of music to reality and our knowledge of reality. In undertaking the above, we shall consider en route the views of a number of prominent recent/contemporary philosophers of music including Peter Kivy, Roger Scruton, Jerrold Levinson, Viktor Zuckerkandl, Stephen Davies, Lydia Goehr and Jennefer Robinson, as well as those of major historical philosophers Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, and the musicologist and critic Eduard Hanslick.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • By the end of the module students will have gained a familiarity with a range of characteristic philosophical enquiries, and be able to understand their bearing upon the nature of music and musical experience. They will correspondingly be able to assess the capacity of music to illuminate philosophical enquiry.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • The module will develop students’ capacities for critical reflection and for reasoning through valid argumentation, and their ability to recognise and, where appropriate, challenge the foundational premisses upon which arguments are grounded.
Key Skills:
  • The development of a range of appropriate analytical and research skills together with the ability to articulate ideas in writing, whether in précis or essay form. Students will also be expected to develop presentational skills by working in groups for tutorials.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Whole group lecture/seminars, both including class discussion to ensure the active participation of students.
  • Individual and group oral presentations within tutorials.
  • Directed reading.
  • The assessments address creative, practical, and critical modes of engagement, leading students to develop original research questions, and honing their capacity for logical argument and written eloquence.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lecture/Seminar 20 Weekly 1 hour 20
Tutorials 3 Termly 1 hour 3
Reading and Preparation 177

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Set essay 3,000 100% Yes
Component: Essay Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Set essay 3,000 100% Yes

Formative Assessment:

In preparation of summative assignments, students will be asked to prepare a short written outline of their essay and bibliography. Together with a 15-minute presentation, this will form the basis of two out of the three tutorials. The remaining tutorial will involve presentations on a set work or extract.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University