Theme and Variations in Music and Biology

Fall 2018
Winter 2019
Freshman - Senior
Class Size: 50
16 Credits per quarter
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How do we define a theme? What counts as a variation? How does the creation of a piece of music parallel the evolution of a new biological form?

We will begin our study of music by considering components of sound, elements of music, and the ways that they are manipulated in the creation and performance of specific musical works. During fall quarter we will work to develop fluency with technical language, notation of music, and approaches to listening. As the program progresses we will move into an examination of formal structures, their variations, and impact on receivers and producers of sound. As music is ultimately an experiential art form, students will be expected to participate in singing, moving, and creation of music throughout the program.

Complementing our study of music, we take a biological approach to understanding how we perceive and respond to music. In fall, we focus on auditory perception and interpretation, beginning with brain anatomy, proceeding onto the logic of auditory processing, and concluding with an examination of the specialized neurons and molecules involved in transducing sound waves to electrical signals. In winter we play with the idea of mutation or variation, exploring how genetics can be used to dissect complex processes and provide an entry point for understanding how the symbols and notation of genetic language can encode components of the nervous system.

Throughout the program we turn to literature as a third strand, not only to study how music and biology are depicted in fiction, but also to examine how different works of literature offer imaginative variations on themes of nature or on other works of art. Authors that we read may include Richard Powers, Shirley Hazzard, Thomas Mann, Goethe, James Joyce, Michael Cunningham, E.M. Forster, Zadie Smith, and Haruki Murakami.

Program activities will include lectures, workshops, labs, field trips, and guest speakers. Student learning will be assessed by a program portfolio, writing assignments, performances, exams, and a lab notebook. Credits equivalencies may be awarded in music fundamentals, introductory biology, and writing and literature.


Enrollment Conditions

New students accepted in winter with signature. Requirements include one quarter of college-level biology with laboratory, one quarter of college-level music theory, and completion of selected readings from fall quarter. Students may contact faculty at the Academic Fair (November 28, 2018) or by email.

Fall 2018 Registration

Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16): 10123
So - Sr (16): 10126
Winter 2019 Registration

Signature Required

Students must have one quarter of college-level biology with laboratory and one quarter of college-level music theory and complete selected readings from fall quarter. Students may contact faculty at the Academic Fair (November 28, 2018) or by email.

Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16): 20081
So - Sr (16): 20082

Academic details

Fields of Study
Preparatory For

biology, music, and performance

Maximum Enrollment
Class Standing

$30 per quarter for concert entrance fees.


In Person or Remote
In Person (F)
In Person (W)
Time Offered
Schedule Evergreen link
see Schedule Evergreen for detailed schedule

First Meeting

SEM 2 C1107 - Workshop