Art & Culture

  • Listening to World Music

Listening to World Music

  • worldmusicthumb
Next Story Previous Story

Listening to World Music

By Lauren Shapiro

Unfortunately, I knew few Penn students would attend ethnomusicology professor Carol Muller’s presentation about her online Coursera class, “Listening to World Music.” The event at World Cafe Live, five blocks and half a bridge away from the center of campus, occurred on a Tuesday evening in early August, when most students were visiting home or napping after long hours in intern-land. I arrived at World Cafe fifteen minutes early and watched the crowd shuffle in, only to find my prediction proved accurate; the audience was a mix of academics, Professor Muller’s colleagues, prospective music students and accompanying parents. I expected to see future Penn families, and assumed that art-embracing parents would find this online music class, in which thousands of people from 68+ countries discover and discuss connections between the music of particular cultures, intriguing, innovative, and important. The parents did express interest in the course’s content, but to my chagrin they delivered a cacophony of criticism for its free online platform, Coursera. How could you possibly teach students without seeing them face-to-face?  Isn’t teaching world music from behind a computer screen counterproductive? Why would someone take this class if they don’t receive a grade or credit?

After listening to Professor Muller’s presentation, I disagree with many of the parents’ critical assessments. Worldwide education online is still a nascent enterprise, but I believe that Coursera and similar programs are inherently suited for art, music, and multi-culture. 

As Cady Heron in Mean Girls will tell you, Math is the same in every language. You can call a derivative an “afgeleide” (Afrikaans) or a “kata jadian” (Indonesian), but in the end those words refer to the same concept. From Johannesburg to Jakarta, the derivative is used to find tangential lines. If 37,000 people of various ages and nationalities (the demographics of “Listening to World Music”) studied calculus together, sure, students would employ different methods of problem solving, but they would ultimately end (or hope to end) with the same solutions.  

Music is different. For thousands of cultures and communities on Earth, there are at least as many reasons and ways to create sound. There is no universally correct answer why, or how, music is made. The many insights we derive from studying different musical styles are cooperative, connecting the music of familiar cultures to that of peoples on the other side of the planet. Through Coursera, Professor Muller has constructed a class that emphasizes this on numerous levels.

Spanning seven-weeks, “Listening to World Music” introduces students to six unique musical cultures and illuminates the places where these styles are used in popular Western music. The course reflects on its title well, as study and discussion stem from listening (the key component) to sound clips of musical performances. After listening to the clips, the students participate in peer-graded assessments and contribute to a class discussion forum. Yet Professor Muller, despite her expertise in world music (particularly South African jazz), does not bang the chat-room gavel. Rather, students vote on the most insightful points, and the highest rated comments rise to the top of the list. She gave them the music, some academic vocabulary, and a little history and politics, and then Professor Muller stepped back. Coursera is not where she (or any Coursera instructor) patrols the work of each individual; she created a place for discovery, and now lets it breathe. So how does she “teach” through the web? “Well, this isn’t a long-form lecture class,” Professor Muller patiently answered one parent’s question. “Instead, I’d like to think of it as a talking book.”

The music studied ranges from the Congolese Mbuti song “Hindewhu” and Madonna’s use of it (the ethics of this are also discussed) to the Russian Tuvan Throat Singers. The students hail from Japan to Ireland to Brazil. A globe of ears and brains in the Internet Age, which Coursera encourages, makes the study of world music immediate, hassle-free, and authentically diverse. And while Professor Muller chooses music that will be most foreign to the most people, at some point, students recognize that their discovery of musical interculturalism does not stop after they log out of Coursera.


Lauren Shapiro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in Political Science and English with a concentration in Creative Writing. Aside from writing for Penn Art & Culture, Lauren co-directs Penn’s poetry workshop and performance collective, The Body Electric. She also serves on the executive board of SREHUP (Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia), an inter-college organization that supports and volunteers for homeless shelters citywide. In her free time, Lauren enjoys writing, playing piano, traveling, and eating sugary foods.