Modular music theory

Disclaimer: this blog post might be riddled with errors and weird punctuation. I’m trying for the first time to use dictation to write this post instead of the keyboard. I have bad injury in my wrists, currently diagnosed as tendinitis, and I’m trying to avoid typing as much as possible.

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.

Continue reading “Modular music theory”


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

Continue reading “SMT 2017”

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


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.

Continue reading “IASPM 2017”

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. I’ll provide:

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

Continue reading “The Tenure-Track Job Search in Music Theory”

Beat of a Different Drummer?

In my dissertation research I’m turning toward drum machines. It’s a natural extension of my ’80s sound inquiries: if the Yamaha DX7 was so important to the ’80s sound, drum machines like the LinnDrum and the Roland TR-808 were at least equally important.

Analyzing the timbre of drum machines using my existing apparatus has revealed how biased toward pitched phenomena theories of timbre really are. For example, so many theories of timbre are completely preoccupied with overtones/partials and their relative loudness. (For more info on spectrogram analysis, check out the first half of this blog post.)

This spectrogram is of a harmonica synth playing a melody. Time is on the x-axis in seconds. Pitch is on the y-axis in Hertz (higher Hz = higher pitch). The bottom line of this spectrogram, at around 500 Hz, is the fundamental pitch. Colloquially we just call this “the pitch.” The parallel lines running above the fundamental are the partials of this sound. You don’t hear them as separate notes, but instead you hear a change in timbre.

But for many percussion instruments, drums and cymbals and such, you won’t see any partials like that at all. Even drums that are pitched don’t really have partials running in multiple parallel lines above it.

all sounds mono.png
These are samples from a Roland TR-808: bass drum, low tom, mid tom, high tom, snare, closed hi-hat, open hi-hat, clave, and handclaps. Notice how these are all just thick bars of sound, not at all like the parallel strands in the above example.

So it does us no good at all to talk about partials, how those partials compare to the ideal natural harmonic series, whether there’s vibrato, etc. Yet, that’s the majority of the focus of spectrogram analyses.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to start finessing how we can talk about timbre in non-pitched percussion instruments. For now, back to the grind…

A theory of attacks?

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.

Continue reading “A theory of attacks?”

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!

Continue reading “MTSNYS 2016 reflections”