SMT 2017

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

Peer learning workshop on pitch structure in Indian classical music


Bob Morris led a workshop studying raga and Indian classical music, both Carnatic and Hindustani. This was my first exposure to the serious study of this repertoire. I signed up because I am interested in broadening my knowledge base and hopefully figuring out ways to incorporate this repertoire and other non-Western music into my classroom, either at the core undergraduate level or elsewhere.

Through this study, I became familiar with notions of hierarchy in Indian classical music. While many ragas resemble Western scales and modes, their view toward ornamentation is substantially different in two principal ways:

  1. The ornamentation of a scale degree is not considered separable from the scale degree.
  2. Some ornamentations may, to Western ears, entirely de-emphasize the scale degree it ornaments; however, it’s important to realize that this is imposing Western inculturation on the Indian aesthetic, and is ultimately incorrect.

Pedagogically, I want to continue brainstorming ways to integrate this music into the theory classroom, hopefully even at the core level. With the understanding that there are many practical barriers to this (space in the curriculum foremost among them), I believe a 21st-century curriculum has the necessity to show its students that music theory can apply to all types of music.

Mentorship, diversity, and inclusion


The SMT Committee on Diversity hosted a wonderful session and round-table on mentorship and diversity. The roundtable began with Daphne Tan, Chris Endrinal, Sumanth Gopinath, Nancy Rao, and Harvey Stokes, each speaking on their personal experiences with mentorship as people of color. Several more people presented on “the pipeline” from high school to tenured faculty member.

Many high schoolers taking music theory are POC, yet, we do not see many POC at the faculty level. At some point, people are dropping off. Mentorship can help get POC through each step of this process. POC may not feel they fit in; first generation students may find they fall short of expected knowledge (“college readiness”); people may experience discrimination on the job market. All of these issues and more can be eased if the person has a mentor to help navigate these waters.

Questions on this session largely came from the white audience members, looking for information on how to continue to be better allies to POC.

  • How do we not make POC feel singled-out if we mentor them? Offer mentorship to all students; avoid unnecessarily publicly calling people out for their POC status.
  • How do we ensure POC do not take on disproportionate amounts of work as they educate those around them and provide service to the university? Make an effort to learn on your own as well.
  • How does one avoid tokenism when trying to include POC? Perhaps until there is an appropriate level of diversity in academia, tokenism is unavoidable.
  • Is there a way to frame minority status as a kind of power? Maybe, but maybe it doesn’t always feel that way.

I am passionate about mentoring my own students and increasing diversity in the field. George Mason does not have programs in music theory but I hope that as I continue to work here, I could identify students who might be interested in scholarly work in music theory. Future generations of theorists I hope will be more diverse and thus bring new and exciting perspectives into our still largely homogeneous field.

Popular music theory

elvis-2746147_640Pop music continues to thrive in the Society for Music Theory. Here are the papers I saw, in their order of presentation at the conference.

  • Tom Johnson, “#genre” (btw, is there an award for Most Concise Paper Title?). He discussed the continued relevance of genre even in this era of generic omnivorousness. He also traced problematic notions of reciprocity in genre tagging, which he uncovers through parsing Spotify’s user data. He has posted the entirety of the talk here.
  • Stefanie Acevedo, “A Functional Analysis of Chord Progressions in Popular Music.” She is working on the McGill Billboard corpus, using machine learning to determine chord function in popular music.
  • Eric Smialek, “Becoming the Beast: Musical Expression in the Extreme Metal Voice.” He used spectrographic analysis to categorize and discuss metal vocal techniques. I thought his work would mesh really well with Kate Heidemann’s approach to expression in vocal timbre (an article I peddle to anyone who will listen).
  • The Popular Music Interest Group session showcased under-represented genres. Five scholars discussed Mando-pop, Tom Waits, vaporwave, mashups, and music in anime.


As always, the SMT national meeting invigorated me and renewed my passion to continue to research music theory and bring the newest research to my students in my classroom. The best parts of SMT tend not to be the papers (though the papers are fantastic), but the time spent chatting with your peers and fellow scholars about our shared love for music theory.

I’m already thrilled for next year’s joint meeting with the AMS in San Antonio. By that year, I hope to have taken charge of the SMT’s official Twitter account (a role I volunteered for in my new position on the IT/Networking Committee) so that the Twitterverse can be a bit more active in promoting the conference, as well as non-conference music theory activity. In the meantime, check out to relive some of the conference.

Read my other conference summaries:


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