What makes something beautiful?

Each year one of the paper assignments I give to my undergraduate students is as follows:
     1. List 10 songs that you think are beautiful and 10 songs that you think are ugly.
     2. For each song, write two-three sentences about why you think it’s beautiful or ugly.

After the students have handed in these papers, we devote a class session to a discussion of the issues raised by the assignment. Students from Nova High School join us, having also completed this assignment (which was originally created by a Nova High School teacher, Terrance McKittrick).

This year we had about 25 undergraduates and 15 high school students together for the “beautiful/ugly songs” session. We started in small groups, each composed of a couple of high school students and 2 or 3 undergraduates. The students talked about their choices and what made the songs they chose beautiful or ugly to them. We then came together for a larger discussion, which included students sharing some of their music. As we listened to the songs chosen, we talked about the relationships between emotion and music, beauty and ugliness, and memory and emotion, and about the difference between liking a piece of music and thinking it beautiful. Is beauty an objective aesthetic quality of certain music? Or is it purely a subjective reaction, based on the listener and his or her experiences?

Engaging in this exercise every year always reminds me how intimate our musical choices are. When students share their songs and talk about why they chose them, the discussion often illuminates aspects of the students that are very personal. Students often mention how meaningful this assignment is for them, and also how hard it is to do. They note that it forces them to wrestle with what exactly is a beautiful (or ugly) song for them, and what makes it so. I think that this simple activity works so well because, for many of us, the music we listen to really matters to us, and thinking about why this is so engages students deeply in an analysis of the nature of beauty and art.

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