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Central questions in the study of music

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What does music mean? What does it do? These are the queries at the heart of this module. You'll explore how music conveys meanings and has an impact within its social contexts before moving into investigations of audiences, performances, and film music. The module incorporates a focus on the transmission of music, examining how it is edited, notated, and recorded. The final part looks at music in relation to specific social and historical contexts, incorporating case studies of works of western art music from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

What you will study

In this module, you'll study music in a wide range of historical and contemporary contexts.

Block 1 introduces the central questions of the module – ‘What does music mean?’ and ‘What does music do?’ –  exploring how they relate to an array of musical repertories. The block also discusses musical performances and audiences and investigates how music functions in film. You'll look at the way music establishes genre, setting and characterisation in films and do a case study of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Block 2 focuses on how music has been transmitted, including through written and printed notation, critical editions of music, and audio and visual recording. Here, too, you'll look at a range of repertories and transmission styles. You'll explore how the music notation used by composers such as Bach, Handel and Dowland can be translated into contemporary notation. You'll also explore some of the creative ways music from inside and outside the western art tradition has been represented visually. You'll look at how recording technologies and practices have shaped our encounters with jazz, pop, and western classical music, among other traditions.

Block 3 continues the investigation of what music means and does, with particular attention to western art music from the seventeenth to twenty-first centuries. You'll look at several important composers and genres and undertake case studies of works, including Handel’s oratorio Saul, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet, op. 44, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The block also includes units on nineteenth-century Italian opera and contemporary Scottish music.

By studying this module, you'll:

  • learn how music communicates meanings and how it shapes and reflects its social contexts.
  • develop a critical awareness of some of the most important ways of transmitting music.
  • become familiar with an array of musical works, practices, performances and ideas from several historical eras and cultural contexts.
  • gain familiarity with scholarly approaches to film music, recording, performances, audiences, and the notation and editing of music. 

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably at the OU.

Understanding music (A234) is highly recommended as preparation as it develops a number of skills that you should possess before attempting this module, including in reading, writing and understanding music notation and in analysing music.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

Books of scores and teaching units, audio CDs, a DVD, and you’ll have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content (replicating the content of the CDs and DVD)
  • assessment guide
  • online tutorial and forum access.

You will need

Good quality (but not necessarily expensive) headphones so that you can distinguish important details in performances, interpretations and recording techniques.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Schumann, R.: Alberti, M. (ed) Piano Quintet E flat major op.44 - piano, 2 violins, viola and cello - study score (no. ETP 78). ISMN: 9790200200980 Ernst Eulenburg Ltd £12.99 - ISBN 9783795763565 This study score is available from specialist music shops and can be ordered directly from the publisher. Please use the correct ISMN and ETP no. when ordering.

Other materials

  • Beethoven, L. van: Del Mar, J. (ed) Symphony no.6 in F major, op.68 "Pastoral" - study score (urtext edition no. TP 906). ISMN: 9790006204298 Barenreiter £12.50 This study score is available from specialist music shops and can be ordered directly from the publisher. Please use the correct ISMN and edition no. when ordering.
  • Steven Spielberg (Director) Close Encounters of The Third Kind (DVD) 2011. EAN: 5051159650115 Sony Pictures Home Entertainment £5.99 This DVD is available from high street or internet retailers, or by searching on www.find-dvd.co.uk. Please ensure you purchase the DVD released in 2011, since other releases and media formats may contain significantly different versions of the film.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You’ll have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. Tuition will take place across a range of media, including online tutorials.

There will be two day schools during the module, led by our expert team of tutors and focusing on key concepts. Each day school is mirrored by online sessions covering the same topics. You are strongly encouraged to attend these sessions either face-to-face or online to maximise your chances of success on this module. Where the day schools are held will depend on the numbers and distribution of students, where tutors are based, and what online alternatives are provided. We cannot guarantee that they will be hosted in specific locations, or locations that have been used previously. While you’re not obliged to attend any of these tutorial events, you are strongly encouraged to take part.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A342 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Central questions in the study of music starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2026.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)