IASPM 2017

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.)

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.



I doubt I would have applied had I not been asked to form a lovely panel by a colleague, Nick Braae, whom I met at the Osnabrück popular music summer school that I attended in September 2015.  Here is the full information of the panel:

Shaping Sounds and Sounds as Shapes in Popular Songs—Contemporary Analytical Approaches

Alex Harden (UK): “Oneiric Narrativity and Recorded Popular Song”

Harden analyzed how recording techniques may interact with the lyrics to create an oneiric sound space, focusing on Kate Bush’s “Waking the Witch.”

Megan Lavengood (USA): “Analyzing Sound, Analyzing Timbre”

I presented a trimmed-down version of Chapter 5 of my dissertation, ultimately arguing for more analysis of timbre in popular music studies.

Bláithín Duggan (Ireland): “The Shape of the Voice: Analysing Vocal Gestures in Popular Song”

Duggan took a holistic approach to analysis that takes motives beyond pitch and rhythmic content and attends to more subtle details of dynamics, timing, and pitch, using early Beatles songs as a corpus.

Nick Braae (New Zealand): “Analysing Musical Time in Popular Songs”

Braae discussed cyclic versus directional time created through interactions between song forms, harmonies, and melodies.

We were teamed up with another panel as well, organized by Kai Arne Hansen:

So What? Contemporary Approaches to the Interpretation and Analysis of Disparate Popular Musics

Kai Arne Hansen (Norway): “Darkness on the Edge of Pop: Constructing Masculinity and The Weeknd’s ‘The Hills'”

Hansen gave a preliminary exposition on themes of violence, misogyny and darkness in The Weeknd’s music and music videos.

Steven Gamble (UK): “Empowerment and Embodiment in Rap Music”

Gamble analyzed elements of rhythm in “Backseat Freestyle” by Kendrick Lamar, identifying musical elements which contribute to a sense of empowerment through embodiment.

Claire Rebecca Bannister (UK): “Psychopharmacology and the Analysis of Goth Music”

Bannister discussed goth music as a psychedelic genre, and defines psychedelia through the idea of set and setting, terms from psychopharmacology, in determination of what constitutes a psychedelic genre.

Andrei Sora (UK): “To Prepare a Face to Meet the Faces that You Meet: The Persona in Instrumental Music”

Sora used analysis of a persona in the unusual genre of instrumental popular music. While persona analysis is frequently applied to instrumental art music, it is rare to see this approach in instrumental popular music, where the notion of an analytical persona interacts with a perhaps more robust public persona.

The goal of both panels together was essentially to showcase new work by young scholars in the field of popular music analysis, and to show what we can do that is sort of “outside the box,” although maybe there is no such “box” anymore!


Recording technology and the music industry

Steffan Lepa (Germany): “The Diffusion of Music Streaming Services in Germany”

Lepa reported on data collected with his project, Survey Musik und Medien, from a 2012 survey and a follow-up 2015 survey of German music listeners. The data was used to develop hypotheses on the change in audio media that people use to listen to their music. Lepa said the data is different than many other sources, because it is derived from a survey of listeners, whereas most data comes from sales figures. They divided up listeners into classes based on the ways their listening habits changed between the two surveys: versatile audiophiles, digital mobilists, selective traditionalists, selective adopters, versatile traditionalists, and radio traditionalists. The last category was made because a large portion of people only listened to music on the radio—the fact I found the most surprising about this presentation. I would love to compare this to a similar study in the US—is radio equally prevalent here?

Chris Anderson (USA): “Contemporary Strategies for Making, Distributing, and Gifting Music”

Anderson featured two case studies of musicians giving away their music for free, relating this to Attali’s utoptian vision of creation for self-satisfaction instead of monetary gain. I am hopeful that in future studies the author might begin to consider the implications of class, and also of devaluing art. One of his subjects was only a hobbyist musician. It would be interesting to see who releases music for free because of “self-satisfaction instead of monetary gain,” versus who releases it for free due to economic pressure to do so to compete.

Franco Fabbri (Italy): “Binaurality, Stereophony, and Popular Music in the 60s and 70s”

Fabbri articulated an important distinction between stereophony and binaurality: if a typical stereo setup is meant to imitate having the best seat in the house, then headphones position the listener actually in the center of the stage. For symphonies, this might be like sitting next to the conductor. Fabbri also highlighted that while classical recording practices typically valorize “realism” in the mixes, in the case of concertos, the mixing typically creates an unreal sound space, as the performer is mixed in both channels.

Pat O’Grady (Australia): “The Politics of Digitizing Analog Technologies”

O’Grady reported on the variety of virtual and digital technologies that are meant to imitate analog recording software. Most fascinating to me and my research were the words that O’Grady reported as being used to describe these plugins. Plugins are typically described as having “warmth”. “Smooth”, “glue”, and “musical” are other words used to describe their plugins. I would love to learn more about these plugins and compare the language used to describe them with the language used to describe the Fender Rhodes and other technologies that are often contrasted with the Yamaha DX7.

Steve Waksman (USA): “Remaking aliveness in American Music, 1900–1930”

Waksman gave an account of the use of the word “live” as an adjective to describe technologies. Advertisements for sheet music would use the word “live”: “live songs for live singers by live authors.” We nowadays think of sheet music as kind of a dead object, maybe, but at this time it was being sold as more “live” than the “canned music” of recordings. The American Federation of Musicians launched a campaign that praised the virtues of live music as movies with sound killed off jobs for musicians as silent movie accompanists and vaudeville musicians.


Gender in popular music

Robin James (USA): “Queered Voices in the Era of Post-Feminist Pop”

James featured two queer artists who do not conform to the post-feminist feminine ideal of resilience and overcoming. In one case, the artist Bottoms talks about emotional damage, and does not overcome this damage, but rather enjoys the damage. The artist-collective Decon/Recon writes music in a deeply collaborative way in order to resist ownership and thus the post-feminist ideal of feminine empowerment. I would love to see more of this kind of scholarship in pop music analysis, which in my view often relies on tropes of empowerment in its narratives. James also gave a keynote at the opening of the IASPM conference, which I unfortunately had to miss.

Sarah Dougher and Diane Pecknold (USA): “Girls Rock! Reverberations and Limitations”

Like Robin James, Dougher and Pecknold draw attention to the post-feminist assumption that femininity is equated to overcoming. They point out that this then places additional burden on girls, in a sense: all girls are feminized, but good girls overcome this. Dougher and Pecknold trace representations of the “Girls rock” theme from Jem through Black Girls Rock!.


Concluding thoughts

The experience of meeting these international voices was incredible.

There were a lot of papers, so they were sometimes hit-or-miss, but I saw many very high-quality papers. And having such a huge program meant that I was almost always seeing something that related to my research in some sense.

IASPM provided lunch and several coffee breaks every day, as well as an opening reception, which made it easy to socialize with conference-goers.

Slots were 30 minutes for the paper and questions, but the organizers did not insist on a 20-minute paper with 10 minutes of questions; rather, they left it up to the presenter how to divide the time. I love 30 minute sessions—45 is way too long (ahem, SMT)—but I think question time ought to be mandated. Questions are usually the best part!

For some reason there was a lot of drama in the three-hour-long general meeting (which then went over time!), but I’m gonna go on the record and say that IASPM 2017 was a great conference for me. I’m grateful to all involved in its organization and success.


Setting goals for the summer

Summer is like New Year’s for academics: a time of reflection and goal-setting, both in work and in personal life.

2016–2017 was rewarding—I finished my dissertation and landed a tenure-track job—but intensely difficult. Neither of the New Year’s resolutions I made really worked out long-term.

I lost sight of writing 5 days a week while I was in the depths of interviewing and landing a job, although I got better about it when it came time to pushing to the finish line.

I meditated pretty consistently for a month or two, until interviewing and getting a job became extremely difficult and intense for me. This is when you need to meditate the most, or so the wisdom goes, but the last thing I wanted to do was sit around with my thoughts. Meditation is harder than it sounds.

Forgiveness being crucial, I want to try again, and set out some new Big Changes for myself before I get lost in the hubbub of the 2017–2018 schoolyear. Really committing to all of these would be impossible, so this is more of a brainstorming session. I will feel accomplished if I manage just one or two of these big changes.

  • Journaling with a pen and paper. I have a terrible and deceptive memory. I want to record the ideas I get as I get them. I want to keep track of the things I achieve daily, for revisiting when I have those days where I feel like I haven’t been useful in ages.
  • Designing thoughtful syllabi for my courses next semester. I’m teaching Theory III, Graduate Theory Review, and Graduate Analytical Techniques at my new job. I have a lot of planning to do!
  • Recommitting to exercise. Yoga has been difficult for me to do since I almost broke my toe a few months back, but I can still do select poses at home… I just have to get up and do it. Also, I’m considering lifting? I don’t know.
  • Writing a couple of blog posts. My blog is another thing that was left by the wayside while I lost my mind getting a job. But I have a few ideas for new posts: making a poster for SMT, reviewing the IASPM conference that I’m attending later this month, and just trying some casual analysis of something just because.
  • Reading an academic book or two over the summer. I have successfully started reading for fun again. But academically, I don’t have to read stuff that’s related to my diss anymore! I can read anything I want! I’m thinking of William Cheng’s Just Vibrations or Robert Fink’s Repeating Ourselves. I got a Kindle for my birthday so maybe I can even find Kindle versions of these things to make reading a bit easier.

I recently read a tweet that said that summer is an especially hard time for academics, because our work is already isolating, and summer takes away all our structure. It’s doubtful I’ll get to all of these things, but I hope this will motivate me on those summer days where I have trouble remembering what to do with myself.

The Tenure-Track Job Search in Music Theory

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.

Some Statistics on the 2016–2017 Season

How many jobs were there?

I applied to 25 total tenure-track (TT) jobs, a number consistent with Kris Shaffer’s estimate that there are about 26 TT jobs per year in music theory.

Where were the jobs?

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 5.07.27 PM.png

All the jobs were in the United States, except two jobs in the Toronto, Ontario area. The jobs are clustered where you would expect: along the East Coast, and in highly-populated states like Florida and Texas. Jobs in the West, Southwest, and Midwest are noticeably scarce. One of the fixtures of the life of an academic is non-academic friends and family asking “Why don’t you get a job in [hometown]/[current city]/[where I live]?” You can show them this map of 25 jobs and demonstrate that you don’t get a ton of choice.

When were applications due?

The TT job market is quite seasonal.

deadlines bars numbers
out of 24 total deadlines

Search committees want to have things settled with their new faculty member before summer break. Thus the application deadlines cluster together around late November to mid December. This gives plenty of time for the search to conclude even before spring break. A handful of people get out ahead of the game by requesting earlier deadlines; some schools for whatever reason take a little longer to get their search posted and thus have a later deadline.

What went into an application for a TT job?

Every application requires a curriculum vitae, a cover letter, and 3 letters of recommendation.

64% of job applications require additional materials on top of this.  These materials will help the committee evaluate you further, often aligning with the priorities of the school/job. Teaching statements, diversity statements, sample syllabi, and teaching videos are all common from teaching-focused schools; research statements and writing samples are common from research-focused schools; but, of course, many schools want you to excel in both.

Below are the percentages, of applications that require different types of materials, out of 25 total applications. Many applications requested more than one of these.

How long did it take to get results?

Unlike jobs in the outside world, academic job searches are ssslloooowwww.

elapsed app final

Some of the jobs, as of today (May 2), still have not sent out results, nor has anyone posted them on the jobs wiki, so you’ll notice I only have 20 results here total. On average, you can expect to wait 3–4 months after the application deadline to hear officially that you did not get the job (because if you did, you probably would know by now).

Some Recommendations

I prepared a lot for all of my interviews and materials, and I got good results. This preparation took many forms: reading books, personal mentoring, and my own foresight and planning.


For books, I most highly recommend The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky. Karen also has a website which can be useful for the comments sections, but all the good stuff has been exported to her book. She has a very no-nonsense and bare bones writing style that steers you through the minefield of the job search. There is a lot of advice that is specifically tailored to women, also. The Academic Job Search Handbook is more dry and thorough, with lots of sample materials. I did not read this cover-to-cover, but I did reference it from time to time.


The significance of personal mentoring can’t be overstated. I ran almost everything by at least two advisors at first. As I got more confident, I was more selective, but still pretty much always checking in with these advisors. This took several forms:

  • one-on-one meetings and feedback on materials with my mentors
  • workshopping my letters and statements with my school’s Professional Development office
  • Test calling friends on Skype to check for lighting, dress, background, connection speed, etc. before doing Skype interviews
  • runthroughs of my job talks with my peers and mentors for critique
  • runthroughs of my lessons with pedagogy experts for critique and tips
  • mock job interviews in front of a “committee” of advisors and peers

I asked for a lot of help throughout this process, and people were very willing to give it. Don’t be shy and don’t try to do this on your own.

On letters of recommendation

Dossier services seem to be the norm for our field. Interfolio is well-known, but you have to pay to send your letters places—something I find a bit backwards. I used a free alternative, Chronicle Vitae, to no apparent ill effects. Some jobs do require that you use Interfolio, but in these cases, you do not pay to apply. Besides this, once, I did have to pay to use Interfolio instead, to snail-mail my dossier as part of an application that required that a hard copy be mailed to them. I could have gathered the letters and mailed them myself, but it didn’t seem worth the savings to me… but anyway, this is not typical.

Dossier services are nice, because you get to control the distribution of letters, and you know that the letters have been sent. Unfortunately, many schools use application portals that auto-generates an email sent to your letter-writer, requesting that they upload their letter to the school’s system. This is harder to manage effectively, and I recommend planning to complete your applications two weeks in advance of the deadline to deal with this. I talk about this more below.

Stay organized

I am a highly organized person, which is part of what helped me survive this. I suggest two spreadsheets and a packing list:

  • A “jobs summary” spreadsheet with the following categories of data: school names, locations, application deadlines, “unusual materials” (see above, not really that “unusual” per se, but beyond the standard), a link to the job announcement, how letters of recommendation are requested (see below), and date I submitted the application. Create this at the beginning of your search. As time went on, I added new columns for each stage that I progressed through. When I had submitted an application, I made the text gray. When I got a nibble, I made the text green. When I got a rejection, I struck through the text. It was very helpful to see this all in one place.
  • A spreadsheet to help deal with recommendation letters, which lists all the schools that ask letter-writers to upload/email the letter of recommendation themselves along with deadlines. You will need the spreadsheet for two reasons: one, so that you can be timely and considerate about what you are asking of your letter-writers, and two, so that you can personally email your letter writers and check in on the status of your letters. Even before you’re ready to apply, see if you can request the letters from your letter-writers without submitting the application—often, you can. Request the letters ASAP. If you must submit the application before the portal will request letters, then you need to submit your application one to two weeks early. This gives you plenty of time to warn your letter-writer about the application and to check in on them. I also liked to do this in batches, then send an email saying something like “Today, I applied to 3 schools that require you to upload a letter: X, Y, and Z. Please look for these emails in your inbox and upload the letters ASAP. The deadlines are A, B, and C.”
  • A packing list, like the one I’ve made here. I really did print this off and check off the boxes. This is maybe the most helpful thing in this blog post, because my brain was never in the right headspace to plan to pack things like clothes and snacks. I’ve generalized the list to be applicable to everyone (I think), accessible here. (Let me know if you think something should be added!)

Further reading

Here are some helpful websites for your music theory job search:

  • Music Theory Online’s job postings. Almost all jobs will be posted here.
  • The Music Theory and Composition Jobs Wiki. The wiki is a(n infamous) crowd-sourced gathering of information on all the jobs out there, TT and non-TT. You can go here to find out about jobs that might not have made it to MTO. More realistically, you can go here to find out whether or not you should give up hope on your dream job (seriously—I find knowing better than not knowing, but your mileage may vary).
  • Kris Shaffer, “So You Want to Be a Music Theory Professor.” Kris does some wonderful statistical analysis based on data from the jobs wiki to talk about how many jobs there are, who gets the jobs (institution and year of PhD), and how many applications there tend to be.

As a disclaimer, I have never been on the other side of this, i.e., on a TT faculty search committee, but my memory is quite fresh with all these experiences from the past months. My opinion is that we would all benefit from speaking more freely about our experiences so that everyone knows what to expect on the job market.

What happens in the writing center

Instead of teaching college classes, for the fifth year of my fellowship, my assignment is to work in a college writing center. I have long told my students to take their papers to the writing center for help, without having actually gone myself. Now, I help students with their class essays in any subject, or sometimes I help them with graduate school application materials.

Working at the writing center gives me a new window into students’ perspectives on writing. Students tend to vent or otherwise open up to writing tutors—they feel safe with us. Every day, I listen to students who are trying their very hardest to succeed in school, but they are stretched incredibly thin and pulled in many different directions. The students I tutor are, almost always, not just going to school; they are working, they have children, they are immigrants who travel back to their home countries regularly. Students are also often facing immense barriers to their success: they are suffering from illnesses; they are broke; they are being evicted. Their teacher wants them to write a paper, though, so they are at the writing center asking for help.

So when I am scrolling through Twitter to take a break between tutoring students, and I come across a tweet like this…

…it’s hard not to get immediately incensed, on a personal level.

I, personally, did not have to face much hardship as an undergraduate student. My family supported my education, emotionally and financially. I had scholarships to help lessen their burden. I had to work to help pay my cost of living, but the jobs were good jobs—accompanying fellow music students and church choirs, and a brief stint as a student assistant in the fundraising office. As an undergraduate, my focus was almost entirely on school, and on musicianship.

Students like me tend to be the kind of students that continue their education by going to grad school, and the kind of grad students that stay in academia to become professors. School is more fun when you have the privilege of focusing on your studies. The more you can focus on writing, the better your writing becomes—if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from the dissertation, it’s that writing is a job, and like a job, you need to dedicate a good amount of time to it to succeed.

What about students who have to write papers, but do not have that good amount of time? People like me, who have been full-time students all along, can easily forget that not all students were as fortunate as we were to have uncomplicated lives. I’ve met students who commute for hours every day and get to class hours early because that’s when the cheaper train is. I’ve met students who have families (who says that potty training twins is the exclusive domain of professors?). I’ve met students with learning disabilities who are deliberately declining to use the accommodations to which they are because they’ve been told that the “real world” won’t accommodate them. I’ve met students who are trying to write their paper before they get their tumor removed the following week.

Why don’t these students I meet in the writing center speak up to their professors, so they can work together to a solution amenable to both parties?

Because they believe their professors will roll their eyes at them, tell them to suck it up, or not even believe them in the first place (“show me a doctor’s note”; “bring me the funeral program”; “get a babysitter”). This is why students vent to their tutors instead of talking with their professors. They’re not stupid. Even if the professor would never say such things to a student’s face, students can certainly sense the condescension in communication with a professor that thinks this way.

And at this point, who has not been exposed to the kind of snark in the tweets above, either through Twitter, Facebook, or edgy op-eds? Jesse Stommel, a notable voice in the world of critical pedagogy, wrote an article, “Dear Student,” in response to a series by the same name  published in Chronicle Vitae. He gives alarming statistics about how commonplace this attitude is among faculty.

Some stats from a few recent studies of bullying in higher education:

  • 62% of professionals stated they had been bullied or witnessed bullying in higher education vs. 37% in the general population. Women, African Americans, and members of the LGBT community are disproportionately bullied.
  • 51% of students claimed to have seen another student being bullied by a professor/instructor at least once and 18% claimed to have been bullied themselves by a professor/instructor at least once.

These statistics are definitely in sync with my anecdotal experience. I have heard stories or seen students mistreated by faculty (and faculty mistreated by faculty) at every institution where I’ve worked. If you haven’t seen this bullying running rampant, you may be the bully. And it may be unintentional, because the problem is systemic.

Joshua Eyler’s Inside Higher Education writeup, “Against Student Shaming,” though apparently not written in response to these Anonymous Professor tweets, speaks to the larger issue of why even anonymous venting about “lazy” students is harmful (emphasis added):

Even anonymized, these stories are embarrassing and give the impression that faculty constantly see themselves in opposition to students. Such narratives about students are often little more than straw men used for rhetorical effect, but they convey a powerful message to readers, especially any student readers: despite the stated desires of faculty members to help students, here is what we really think.

One of my greatest journeys thus far as a pedagogue has been learning the value of being on the student’s side, not against them. I used to have strict attendance policies, no late work, etc., and students in violation of my policies were somehow punished. I found that as a result, students would lie to me about this or that kind of emergency preventing them from turning in even the smallest homework assignments—and it was immensely frustrating.

It would be easier for my ego to conclude from this experience that my students were being dishonest and lazy.

The truth is harder to accept: that I had set up the environment where deceitful behavior was rewarded, because trust was not there between my students and me.

Having such a policy sends a signal: I am judging you; I don’t trust you; you have to prove your struggle is worth my time.

This environment is not conducive to learning. Another quote from Eyler:

It’s actually a difficult thing for a student to say, either in concrete or in less obvious ways, “I don’t know something. Please help me to learn it.” Students trust us, and it seems to me that we violate that trust when we write essays that call them on the carpet simply for struggling through the difficult process of education.

I am not trying to be the “cool aunt” professor by eliminating my attendance policy and being more lenient with makeup work. I am making my classroom function better. Having a default policy of “prove it” is putting yourself in opposition to students, and students will not feel comfortable approaching you when they need help. 

Now, of course, some students will lie to you. Some students are lazy. Yes; this is a fact of life. But whether or not some students are lazy is not the point. The point is that I don’t know what my students are going through. In light of this, the proper starting point as a pedagogue when dealing with absences, lateness, or subpar work is to assume that the student is trying their best, and to ask the student what they need help with to succeed. When I approach students from this angle, I usually learn that the student is going through something very difficult indeed.

If you are at a school where your students are generally not going through difficult things, there are two possibilities, that I think are actually not mutually exclusive in any way.

One, you are teaching at a very privileged school with very privileged students. Maybe you teach at a residential private small liberal arts college (SLAC) that does not have a vibrant sports or Greek life culture that detracts from studies. Maybe the concept of students who are “homeless, cannot afford books, starving, and don’t sleep” seems preposterous to you teaching at such an institution. In which case, maybe keep in mind that those of us that teach at places where such situations are a little more commonplace are going to find your perspective out of touch and a bit offensive.

Two, more likely, you are wrong in your evaluation. It’s easier to see, at a New York City public school like the ones I’ve been involved in the past five years, that students can go through unbelievable troubles during their careers. But students going to fancy schools also have troubles, but maybe they’re not as obvious, for a number of reasons. Because even a residential private SLAC has students who may be homeless, etc. Many kinds of hardship that students go through knows no class or color: sexual assault, depression, death of a loved one, to name just a few to get us started.

I remember, as a first year master’s student, telling a PhD student all about how stressed out I was. Then I quickly remembered my place and deferred by saying, “Of course, it’s nothing like your stress level, I’m sure.” This person, who was on the job market and about to defend his dissertation, responded, “It is like my stress level. If you’re stressed, you’re stressed. Maybe my tolerance for stress is higher than yours, but we are equally stressed.” These words of compassion have rung in my ears each time I interact with a “stressed” student. Even if my life really is “more complicated” than a student’s, at the end of the day, who am I to tell a student that their suffering is not real? Each person experiences their complications in their own way, and their stress is real. It’s not a competition, and nothing is gained by putting someone down that way.

Taking the time to listen to your students and empathize with their situations can be difficult and emotionally draining. But I have benefitted immensely from reflecting on my practices, realizing how I might be contributing to my own problems in the classroom, and considering how to create the best learning environment for my students while still maintaining rigorous standards. The lesson is ultimately that professors have no idea how complicated their students’ lives are, and simply giving them the benefit of the doubt can do loads of good.

New Years Resolutions for 2017

I’ll echo what everyone else is saying, that 2016 was a trying year for many reasons, including personal ones. Tied up with all that difficulty though is a lot of personal growth. Even though a lot of bad stuff happened in the past year, I have learned from every part of it.

Amsterdam, October 3, 2016

I’m going to continue this lemons-into-lemonade kind of approach into 2017. To that end I’ve come up with a few resolutions for myself.

Really important and big resolutions:

  • Maintain a daily meditation and/or yoga practice. In May of the past year I got an injury in yoga class, where I pulled my left hip adductor (basically, groin). I was ordered to quit going to yoga until it was fully healed. This really bummed me out, because I felt I had benefitted a lot from the mindfulness practice that my yoga teacher incorporates into her classes. Luckily I realized that I could practice mindfulness without yoga, and I got my toes wet with meditation. I’ve been meditating more and more since then, and it’s helped me quite a lot with taking a breather from my work and with sleeping better. In 2017 I want to do this basically every day. You can meditate for as little as 5 minutes, so there is no excuse for not meditating besides “It’s not important to me.”
  • Get back into writing 5 days a week. I’m on the job market this year and it’s very time consuming. Luckily, I think the most time-consuming parts are behind me. I’ve gotten much faster at writing my cover letters, and all my materials have been created at this point. With that, I am re-committing myself to writing 5 days a week, if not my dissertation, then some kind of blog post. I have previously noted on this blog that writing 5 days a week is essential to being a prolific scholar.

Even though these are big goals, they can be broken down into tiny ones, since they’re both every-day activities. Each day, I just have to do a little bit—at least 5 minutes of meditation, and at least 250 words. Come on, I can do that! My Facebook password is changed to something I don’t know now, so that I can’t log on and waste time there. I’m hoping this leads to more productive activity, even if that productive activity is a game or knitting, two things that are relaxing but not as pointless as browsing Facebook.

I also want to briefly reflect on things I’ve achieved in 2016, because I personally struggle with giving myself enough credit for what I’ve done.

  • I started this blog in March 2016, and I’ve written 24 posts—not a great number, but nothing to sneeze at either!
  • I submitted my first manuscript to a journal, after spending a lot of time doing archival research (another first).
  • I started singing professionally, including securing my job singing High Mass in Latin at a Catholic church, and taking voice lessons.
  • I designed and taught a course on Analysis of Popular Music that I think was a big success.
  • I went on a short vacation with my cousin, who is my oldest friend, and reconnected with her.
  • As a co-chair, I put on a successful graduate student conference, and wrote up a thorough manual on the process for future chairs.
  • I started doing the household budget and really sticking to it! I hate numbers so this is a big achievement for me.
  • I applied for 25 tenure-track jobs in music theory, and even had my first on-campus interview.
  • I spent two weeks in Europe.
  • I started meditating.
  • I started a new job at the Writing Center at Medgar Evers College and have learned a lot about effective feedback on written work.
  • I started volunteering with CUNY Citizenship Now! and joined a group of politically active women.
  • I made a resolution to read 6 books, and almost did it. Maybe next year.
  • I knitted a fluffy cowl, a little doll of Smudge, some gauntlets, and a large portion of a sweater.

I forgot about a lot of these things until I went back through my calendar and looked at my appointments. I see a lot of firsts and a lot of change in there.

So, here’s to keeping up this level of achievement and self-improvement in 2017!

What Makes It Sound Like Christmas?

Every year, music theory enthusiasts begin to ask the same question: “what makes it sound like Christmas?”

As you can see, this discussion recurs every year in /r/musictheory.

Vox.com has incurred the wrath of Twitter’s musicologists after posting a video focusing on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” that suggested that iiø7 chords are what make it sound Christmassy. The video begins by stating the research question, “What makes Mariah Carey’s song sound so incredibly Christmassy? Aside from the sleigh bells, of course.” They then proceed to discuss the harmonic content of the song and how the harmonies signify Christmassy-ness.

Vox’s declaration that iiø7 chords sound Christmassy irritated musicologists for many reasons, perhaps best summarized thusly:

In the Vox video and in all those reddit posts, and indeed in much of beginner music theory, there is an obsession with finding explanations in the harmonies, specifically, of a song. This is a reflection of the overall bias in music theory: we focus on teaching harmony most of the time. Curiosity about how harmony elicits emotions is natural in this context. It only becomes problematic when this discussion really leads to the exclusion of other music-analytical domains that are more relevant to the track’s signification—namely, timbre!

“What makes Mariah Carey’s song sound so incredibly Christmassy? Aside from the sleigh bells, of course.” This last line in the Vox video is done as a throwaway joke—”haha, gotta have sleigh bells in Christmas songs, obviously!” Well, yes! You do! That is actually what makes it sound Christmassy. I would argue the only thing contributing more to its Christmas sound is the lyrical content and all its allusions to Christmas imagery (stockings, Christmas trees, fireplace, snow). Why focus so much on harmony—which is not different in Christmas music than in comparable pop styles—when we could focus on what really distinguishes this music from other genres?

Do We Know It’s Christmas?


“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a charity single by the supergroup Band Aid that was released in December of 1984. It was meant to raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia. This song is also among the worst Christmas songs of all time, not only due to the musical content but for spreading some harmful reductionist representations of Ethiopia. But it’s a Christmas song nonetheless. So what makes it sound so Christmassy?

Harmony-wise, this track is completely unremarkable. The chords of the verse are F–G–C (IV–V–I in C major), in the prechorus, you have Dm–G–C–F (ii–V–I–IV), and in the chorus we’re back to F–G–C (IV–V–I).

I’d contend that, like a lot of Christmas songs (including Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”), these harmonies don’t sound particularly Christmassy. Instead, Christmas themes are communicated through the lyrics—that is, by repeating the words “Christmas” and “Christmastime” over and over—and also through the heavy use of synthesized tubular bells. 

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” features that grand old synthesizer, the Yamaha DX7. I reached out to Midge Ure, one of the song’s writers of Ultravox fame, on Twitter and he confirmed that the DX7 preset called TUB BELLS is the source of this infamous bells sound.

TUB BELLS analysis

Here is the TUB BELLS sound isolated, playing an octave C3–C4, the same sound that you hear at the very beginning of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”.

Today I don’t have time to get into all the details of this timbre, but if you’ve never heard what’s so special about bell timbres before, well, now you can. In general, bell timbres are special because the overtones that resonate when you strike a metal bar are totally different than the regular harmonic series that you get from a vibrating string or column of air. Bell timbres do not follow the harmonic series—they are inharmonic instruments.

Here’s another spectrogram image, this time for just a single note, C3. (For info on how to read a spectrogram, click here.)

tub bells 2.png

Since most of you probably don’t immediately know how to translate Hertz into pitch names, I’ve made a transcription in traditional notation of what these partials are.


If you’re familiar with the harmonic series, you can see that that series of notes is quite different. If you’re not familiar with the harmonic series, well, here it is:


The harmonic series has intervals that progressively narrow in a predictable fashion. Each frequency is a multiple of the lowest (fundamental) frequency. But in the harmonic series for TUB BELLS, well, it’s not quite so predictable. Not every partial is a multiple of the fundamental, and the intervals are not progressively narrowing.

But what does it mean?

The Yamaha DX7 was released in 1983, and so the technology was still shiny and new by December of 1984. The synthesizing capabilities of the DX7 were especially renowned for being able to faithfully replicate percussive sounds such as tubular bells, glockenspiel, and the like, much better than other contemporary synthesizers.

So the TUB BELLS sound in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is actually carrying a lot of semiotic weight! DX7’s TUB BELLS immediately inform the listener that 1) this is a Christmas song and 2) this is an ’80s Christmas song.

In so many cases, when we’re wondering “what makes it sound ____?” where ____ is Christmas, or metal, or Irish, or whatever, the answer lies not so much in the harmonies, but the timbres. Timbre is probably the most immediate aspect of our musical experience. Why shortchange it in our analyses?

Volunteering with CUNY Citizenship Now!

While you will be enjoying the holiday season with your family, DACA young people will be living in fear that you will take away their right to work, their right to travel abroad and their right to be safe from deportation.

–Allan Wernick
Open letter to Donald Trump, November 24, 2016

Personal background

After the election, many of my friends have felt a motivation to begin taking actions and working toward social change. After I posted my own election reaction post, one friend of mine recommended a particular organization as a good place to volunteer: CUNY Citizenship Now, which is the City University of New York’s immigrant legal service program. Now more than ever, immigrants need support, even here in New York City, a place truly built on welcoming immigrants.

I went to my first meeting this past Saturday, December 3, which was held in the Bronx in Tracey Towers. The event was from 10AM to 4PM but volunteers were welcome to come for however much time they could afford (and they do feed you!). Because I hadn’t gone through training yet, all I was able to do was help people in the waiting area to fill out their applications before seeing an attorney. Though this was a small task, being in the room was eye-opening. There were so many families, elderly folks, and couples who needed to get citizenship to stay united as a family.

About CUNY Citizenship Now!

This is the mission statement, posted on their website.

CUNY Citizenship Now! provides free, high quality, and confidential immigration law services to help individuals and families on their path to U.S. citizenship. Our attorneys and paralegals offer one-on-one consultations to assess participants’ eligibility for legal benefits and assist them in applying when qualified. We also coordinate community, educational, and volunteer initiatives to help expand opportunities for New York City’s immigrant population.

Take action

I hope you can volunteer for this great cause. After you sign up to be a volunteer, CUNY Citizenship Now will email you before their next event. You click the link in the email to register, and that’s it! You’re ready to volunteer.

They really need 1) legal professionals and 2) people who speak Spanish. I personally am not either, so you should still volunteer even if you don’t do these things. But if you do, please help!

Location of events varies throughout all the boroughs (except not really Staten Island, I was told).

The next event will be January 7, 2016. More details forthcoming.

They also periodically hold training events so that you can do more jobs at the events. The next one is full, but I will be at the one after that!

If you’re unable to volunteer at this time, please consider donatingI am committed to donating a small amount of money to some cause every month. I encourage you to make this your cause this month! Donations go toward funding these drop-in events that help immigrants receive free legal counseling.