This is the second of our instructor-led online discussions for Mu 101 (Fall 2019). Refer to the handout you received the first day of class (click on this highlighted text to go to that page our class website) that describes the amount and kinds of contributions you’re expected to make to these online discussions — they’re all the same parameters of good conversation that happens offline, too!
The reading time of this post is approximately 3 minutes, not including links to additional materials.
What’s an ethos, anyway?
Whenever we’re talking about a complicated idea with a lot of nuance, it’s often helpful to have a single word that encapsulates all of its ideas. The word “ethos” refers to:
The characteristic spirit or values of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations
…and that’s certainly a complicated idea with a lot of nuance.
Sometimes people use the German word Zeitgeist (literally, “spirit of the times”) to refer to this same idea. It’s the energy in the air that makes now feel like now.
Ethos and music
The idea of a “characteristic spirit or values of an era” is a really important one when we’re thinking about music and music history. Music is simultaneously both a product of our human society as well as a cultural force which shapes it—everything that we can possibly talk about with regard to music is connected to the geographical time and place in which it exists: what music sounds like, how it’s made, who makes it, how it’s consumed, who consumes it, audience taste, cost… And that means there are three big, connected ideas to think about with all music we come into contact with:
- Everything involved in the experience of music is affected by the ethos of the world,
- Music can be an indicator of a particular ethos (e.g. we can “read” musical sounds as evidence of what the ethos of a particular time/place/culture was), and
- Music can inspire or lead the change in an ethos (e.g., by changing the way people think or communicate).
Every time period we’ll cover in this class has its own unique ethos, or the trends, features, and cultural values that make it different and distinct from all other points in time. An overarching goal of the course is to explore the notion of musical meaning—what it is, where it comes from, how it can be known, and how it can change—for both ourselves as individuals and for other listeners in different times and places. And to do that with any real justice, we have to know all those times and places.
Start at home
Some of the time periods and places whose music we’ll be studying this semester will feel very far away from us in 2019. However, having a firm grasp of the “ethos of 2019” can help us understand the ethos of, say, the Baroque period, the Classical period, or the Romantic period.
In the beginning of this post, we defined ethos as “the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.” So, how can we know an ethos? What kinds of objects, artifacts, behaviors, or cultural products can we use to figure out what a group of people’s beliefs and aspirations are?
Final thoughts and getting the conversation going
That’s the task for you this week in our discussion: share descriptions or links to anything other than music (do NOT share examples of music) that defines 2019 and distinguishes this moment in time from all others. You may want to imagine a future historian 10, 100, or 1,000 years from now and what they would look to in order to understand how people think and feel and behave today. What challenges or difficulties do we face as we try to define an ethos, either in our own time or in a historical one? You may disagree with something that another student uses to define 2019: that’s an opportunity for an interesting conversation!
If all of this still seems like a vague concept to you, you can either wait until other students offer examples in this discussion, or you can check out this Medieval historian’s work on defining the ethos of the 15th century, which they argue is the most interesting moment in time, ever.
In the process of sharing and debating or discussing your “2019 ethos nuggets,” we will end up creating a list of things that we can look for in all the historical periods we cover in class to get a sense of the world in which that music was made. And that’s the ethos of this course.