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Syllabus: MUS 253B

UC Santa Cruz—Spring 2015  (course# 42254] [ B. L. Carson email / faculty page ]

Thursdays 4:00 - 7:00 PM in Music Center 245

Office hours (Music Center 148):  Mon 11:30-1:00 PM; Tues 3:00-4:00 PM


Traditional and experimental rhythmic and temporal systems representing diverse cultures, with emphasis on unmeasured, divisive, additive, and multilayer practices in cultural context. Students will examine rhythmic composition, improvisation, and rubato performance in selected cultures, and study rhythm notation and transcription systems.


Somehow the course title makes sense: In the broadest sense of the word, a rhythm is a perceived distribution of events in time; rhythm counts musical form as one of its manifestations. (If a rhythm is any organization of aural experience through time, then a form can be heard as one such organization.) 

Down closer to earth, the term “rhythm” in music usually refers to a play of timespans in our immediate sensory experience. If this play implies or defines a pulse, it can compel us to tap our feet; if repeated, a rhythm can be motivic; in this way rhythm is part of what helps music to promote social unity and identity. One of our goals in the course is to inquire a little more deeply into what kinds of rhythmic experience arise in widely divergent material and cultural conditions. What does Korean ritual dance ask of us, as listeners or participants, in the realm of rhythm, order for its ritual purpose to be fulfilled? How do we experience the rhythm of cadential harmonic movement differerently from that of sequential or prolongational harmonic movement, in court and church music of the 17th century? In North Indian classical music, what are some differences between experiences of rhythm pedagogy and experiences of rhythm in performance?

Another of our goals will be to look critically at assumptions that flow naturally—but not always usefully—from our musical practices. For conscious appraisal of timespans in rhythm (for foot-tapping or motive-tracing) there are lower and upper limits of timespan length: Streams of timspans below about 1/20 of a second occur only as fields of experience, from which we perceive pitch and timbre emerging. (We study these “rhythms” as waveforms with frequencies and amplitudes.) On the other end of the spectrum, timespans longer than a few seconds usually cease to form the grouped relationships that characterize musical rhythm, starting to register instead as form—they separate whole expressions, perhaps phrases or sections within a larger narrative of listening.* Are these boundaries fixed across all situations and material conditions, and are there productive ambiguities on these boundaries? Does hierarchy (or its opposite, heterarchy) within or across those boundaries help determine what we expect of musical form?

This course is designed to expose students of musicology and composition to a small sample of writing on rhythm, time, and form; represented fields include music theory, critical theory, experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and analytic philosophy. Supplementing each 1-2 week “unit” of readings below, each student will choose from among a range of informal transcription, analysis, or composition exercises; final projects will be an analytical or pre-compositional studies chosen in consultation with the instructor.

*Some composers, taking cues from the music of Morton Feldman and others, add a fourth field of temporal experience, in which (under certain conditions) even longer timespans cease to occur as form, and must be apprehended as scale.

Below are some readings and assignments, to be modified from week to week, appropriate to our discussions. Wewon’t get through all these readings. Readings will be assigned weekly on the basis of the developing priorities of the seminarians.

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