Modular music theory

We are dedicating an entire course to pop and jazz music, thoroughly integrating theory and performance, and de-sequencing the curriculum.

I just won a grant for grant from my university to re-develop the music theory curriculum. In our grant proposal, we emphasized two major developments: a more thorough integration between theory and performance, and a modular design that gives students flexibility and choice.

SMT 2017

Featuring summaries of talks on Indian classical music, mentorship and diversity, and popular music.

The Society for Music Theory’s 40th annual meeting is now behind us (program available here). I was pleased that the conference was held in Arlington, VA, a 30-minute drive away from my apartment in Northern Virginia.

At the risk of revealing just how many papers I did not see, (*cough*) below summarizes most of what I did at SMT. I’ve divided my experience into three categories:

  1. Indian classical music
  2. Mentorship and diversity
  3. Popular music

IASPM 2017

IASPM 2017, Kassel, Germany. A brief summary of papers I attended.

I presented at my first International Association for the Study of Popular Music conference, the biennial international one, which was held this year in Kassel, Germany at the Kulturbahnhof—the former Hauptbahnhof (main train station) of Kassel, which is now converted into an arts center—a super cool venue. (Full conference program and abstracts available here.)

Suedfluegel_27-09-09_14
Photo from http://www.kulturbahnhof-kassel.de

 

The program for this conference was huge, with something like six parallel sessions running at once. I tended to favor panels that were music-theory-ish, dealt with music technology, or dealt with gender.

The Tenure-Track Job Search in Music Theory

Where are the jobs? What is the timeline for applying? How can you prepare? What do you pack?

I was on the job market this past year for the first time. No one will be surprised to hear that it was quite arduous. I’m very pleased to say that I did win a job as an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at George Mason University, located in Fairfax, Virginia (in the Washington, D.C. metro area).

Now that it’s all over, but while it’s still fresh in my mind, I compiled statistics from my search and personal advice, which I hope will help other aspiring theorists in their own searches. I’ll provide:

  • statistics on the season
  • what goes into the application process
  • how long it takes to get results
  • recommendations for surviving/thriving.

A theory of attacks?

The critique of binaries as being over-generalizing is leveled at me a lot. But McAdams 1999 shows that perhaps this isn’t actually a damaging oversimplification.

Studies have shown that the attack (onset) of a sound plays an important role in a listener’s ability to accurately determine the sound’s source. In Saldanha and Corso 1964, listeners were able to identify the source of a tone with 50% greater accuracy if the attack of the sound was included in the sample, as opposed to a sample that cuts out the attack and plays only the sustain of the sound.

Therefore the attack of a sound must greatly influence our perception of timbre. In order to summarize the most important aspects of a timbre, my methodology must have an adequate way of accounting for the attack of the sound. How to do this? At the moment, my methodology is based on a system of oppositions. My first thought, of course, was an opposition between sounds with a fast attack and a slow attack. But isn’t this oversimplifying? There are probably degrees of variance between “fast” and “slow.” (Now you have a little insight into what I think about when I walk between my apartment and the cafe.)

The critique of binaries as being over-generalizing is leveled at me a lot. But McAdams 1999 shows that perhaps this isn’t actually a damaging oversimplification.

MTSNYS 2016 reflections

Another energizing and inspiring conference is past: Music Theory Society of New York State’s annual meeting. This year it was held at Mannes’s new campus–beautiful space. And a lot of really wonderful papers! I actually found the conference short, I think because I only saw two full sessions, and the other was a “lightning round” of short papers.

Yesterday I presented my paper, “Following Schenker’s Lead in Analysis of Stravinsky” (handout here). It was actually one of two papers in the conference about understanding Stravinsky’s neoclassicism using tools for tonal analysis–the other presenter, Sarah Iker, approached it from schema theory! I had great discussion with her afterward.

As I expected the discussion after my paper was quite lively–maybe that’s why my paper was at the end of the conference!

WHAT is the DEAL with TIMBRE?

After reading roughly 10,000 articles and books about the analysis of timbre, I can say with confidence this is how all of them start out. So here’s my own explanation of timbre’s DEAL. Timbre is more colloquially known as “tone color.” Imagine two different instruments, e.g., a violin and a trumpet, playing the same exact note at the same exact pitch, the same exact volume, and the same exact duration. You can still tell them apart, because the instruments have different timbres. You don’t need to have special training to tell that they are different; timbre is something that we intuitively understand.

In terms of how timbre relates to music, or specifically to popular music, it’s what gives each band their “sound.” It’s often said by music theorists that timbre is one of the most important aspects of popular music (e.g., Tagg 1982), while in classical music it’s maybe not so important. Even though this is generally agreed upon, music theorists still focus on things they focused on when dealing with classical music: pitch, rhythm, harmony, form.

In other words: even though timbre is highly intuitive, and so central to our experience of music, music theorists still don’t really talk about it! It’s my assertion that this is just because there is not a clear methodology that’s been established for the analysis of pitch, at least not one which is as accessible as theories of pitch/rhythm/form. I want to try and fill this gap with my own work.