My research specializations are in timbre and popular music. I have developed a new approach to the analysis of timbre that blends spectrogram analysis with cultural studies and ethnographies. I focused there on 1980s popular music and the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. I have expanded this project to study video game soundtracks from games released for the Sega Genesis and the Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer.
I am currently working on a collaboration with a percussionist theorizing and analyzing orchestral percussion excerpts.
The Common Cold: Using Computational Musicology to Define the Winter Topic in Video Game Music
Co-authored with Evan Williams.
In Music Theory Online 29/1, 2023.
This paper models a new approach to theorizing topics via music informatics. Our case study for topic is winter as it appears in video game music. Like opera or oratorio, video game music leaves little ambiguity as to what the music ought to signify. Video games commonly have an icy or snowy area, complete with cold-weather creatures and landscapes as well as new game mechanics and music for the player to encounter. Our dataset has over 160 examples of such music, representing games on all mainstream platforms (Nintendo, PlayStation, computer, etc.) and spanning the years 1987–2020. Each example is tagged with its musical features. We define five core characteristics of the winter topic: heavy reverb, arpeggiated textures, metallic percussion instruments, plucked string instruments, and omission of membranophones. We also situate winter as a topic related to Christmas, ’80s music, and the waltz. Finally, we explore Nintendo’s idiosyncratic approach to winter music. Our study finds that instrumentation—particularly percussion—and audio technology are key considerations in establishing the winter topic in video game music. More broadly, we demonstrate the potential of computational musicology to augment and complement traditional approaches to topic theory, whether in relation to video game music or any other repertoire.
“Oops! …I Did It Again”: The Complement Chorus in Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC
In Music Theory Online 26/3, 2020.
Choruses are the sections of pop songs that tend to worm their way into your ears. Take “Oops!… I Did It Again” by Britney Spears as an example: even if you don’t already know the song, after hearing the chorus once, you could sing along by the second repeat of the chorus. Like most standard-issue pop songs, the chorus of “Oops!” comes back for a third time after the bridge, but what is not at all standard is the surprise withheld until this climactic moment: the third chorus brandishes a new melodic line with a distinct rhythmic profile. The signature lyric, “Oops!”, is pushed back into a syncopated rhythm, imbuing the now-familiar melody with new vigor.
This special chorus section, which I call the complement chorus, was a distinctive feature of turn-of-the-millennium singles performed by the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and Britney Spears. The complement chorus lets the songwriter repeat the carefully-crafted chorus while simultaneously mixing up the musical material; in other words, the complement chorus technique makes the third chorus a high-energy climax rather than a tedious restatement. Complement choruses seem to have been a trick used exclusively by Max Martin and his associates during the years 1998–2000, making them a distinctly Y2K phenomenon.
The Cultural Significance of Timbre Analysis: A Case Study in 1980s Pop Music, Texture, and Narrative
In Music Theory Online 26/3, 2020.
This article is in three interrelated parts. In Part 1, I present a methodology for analyzing timbre that combines spectrogram analysis and cultural analysis. I define a number of acoustic timbral attributes to which one may attune when analyzing timbre, organized as oppositional pairs of marked and unmarked terms, in order to both aid in spectrogram analysis and account for some of this cultural and perceptual work.
In Part 2, building from Allan Moore’s definition of four functional layers in pop texture, I argue for the adoption of a fifth layer, which I term the novelty layer. I study its construction in hit 1980s singles via the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. The novelty layer is imbued with several layers of semiotic significance: it functions oppositionally to the melodic layer, comprises instruments whose timbral characteristics are more resistant to blending with the rest of the ensemble, and often uses “world instruments” in 1980s popular music. This latter point is a reflection of the problematic treatment of world music by 1980s music culture. I use my approach to timbre analysis to define the timbral norms for the novelty layer as opposed to Moore’s other layers.
In Part 3, I create a dialogic narrative analysis of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid (1984) that demonstrates what it might mean to transgress these norms. This analysis, in acknowledging the problematic cultural associations of the song, illustrates the rich discourse that can be produced when timbre is made central to the analytical process.
Bespoke Music Theory: A Modular Core Curriculum Designed for Audio Engineers, Classical Violinists, and Everyone in Between
In Engaging Students 7, 2019.
Traditional music theory curricula are increasingly scrutinized. Students regularly misunderstand the scope of epistemology and scope of theory, find theory intimidating and difficult, and fail to see its relevance to their career goals. In this essay, I outline a modular music theory curriculum, which works to address these negative perceptions through a combination of redesigned coursework and empowerment of students. After taking a 100-level course covering fundamentals and species counterpoint, students may take our three style-based 200-level courses in any order (18th-c music, 20th-/21st-c. music, and Pop/Jazz). We also offer a 300-level course in Baroque and Classical Forms. The content of these courses could and should be altered to fit the expertise of a given school’s faculty and the needs of its students. This is especially beneficial to students who do not need four semesters of theory for their degree, such as music technology BAs, who can now take Intro and Pop/Jazz instead of learning strict chorale voice leading. This curriculum relates more clearly and obviously to each student’s particular goals, clarifies the scope and context of each course, and reduces the gatekeeping aspects of the theory sequence to improve recruitment and retention.
“What makes it sound ’80s?”: The Yamaha DX7 Electric Piano Sound
In Journal of Popular Music Studies 31/1, 2019.
Popular music of the 1980s is remembered today as having a “sound” that is somehow unified and generalizable. The ’80s sound is tied to the electric piano preset of the Yamaha DX7 synthe-sizer. Not only was this preset (E. PIANO 1) astonishingly prevalent—heard in up to 61% of #1 hits on the pop, country, and R&B Billboard charts in 1986—but the timbre of E. PIANO 1 also en-capsulates two crucial aspects of a distinctly ’80s sound in microcosm: one, technological asso-ciations with digital FM synthesis and the Yamaha DX7 as a groundbreaking ’80s synthesizer; and two, cultural positioning in a greater lineage of popular music history. This article analyzes the timbre of E. PIANO 1 by combining ethnographic study of musician language with visual anal-ysis of spectrograms, a novel combination of techniques that links acoustic specificity with social context. The web of connections created by the use and re-use of DX7 presets like E. PIANO 1, among hundreds or maybe thousands of different tracks and across genres, is something that allows modern listeners to abstract a unified notion of the ‘’80s sound’ from a diverse and eclec-tic repertoire of songs produced in the 1980s.
/r/musictheory: Making Music Theory on Reddit
Co-authored with Nathaniel Mitchell.
In The Oxford Handbook of Public Music Theory, ed. J. Daniel Jenkins. 2022.
Perhaps the largest internet community explicitly dedicated to discussing music theory is /r/musictheory, a forum (“subreddit”) within Reddit.com. /r/musictheory is a space of collaborative music theory, in which users collectively and democratically explore music theory, discover its value, and define its boundaries. This chapter explores the causes and effects of this community’s rhizomatic structure, demonstrating both the opportunities and dangers of engaging music theory in this kind of environment. Where /r/musictheory succeeds is in providing a safe and pressure-free space to learn, empowering users of varying backgrounds to expose gaps in their knowledge and fostering pedagogical scenarios that are often difficult to achieve within the constraints of a traditional classroom. But /r/musictheory is also hindered by these same bottom-up and user-powered structures, which finds comfort in consensus and routinely balks at significant critique or challenge. We see pitch-centric approaches, exoticist impulses, and a tendency toward aversive racism as the primary manifestations of harmful bias in the subreddit. Our essay begins by detailing how the idea of democracy is baked into Reddit’s platform structure and manifests in user culture, while also exploring how the particular niche occupied by /r/musictheory, as a discussion-based educational community, concretizes this ideal into particular rules and acceptable modes of user behaviors. Thereafter, we offer a series of case studies designed to highlight both the strengths and drawbacks of the /r/musictheory community.
Timbre, Rhythm, and Texture within Music Theory’s White Racial Frame
In The Oxford Handbook of Electronic Dance Music, ed. Luis-Manuel Garcia and Robin James. 2021.
This chapter discusses music theory’s neglect of EDM as it relates to the dominant methodologies of the field and Philip Ewell’s concept of the white racial frame, arguing that EDM is overlooked due to implicit biases against racial Otherness and against technological mediation, biases that runs deep enough in U.S. culture to have impacted the trajectory of music theory as an academic field. The chapter examines unpitched percussion through analysis of performance, timbre, and texture in a Roland TR-909 drum machine “workout” performed by Jeff Mills. This analysis models one way that music theory might learn to take EDM seriously. By broadening the methodological toolbox, music theory can begin to course-correct and become more inclusive of music that challenges certain principles of Western music.
Timbre, Genre, and Polystylism in Sonic the Hedgehog 3
In Music and Its Unruly Entanglements, ed. Nick Braae and Kai Arne Hansen. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
In the soundtrack for the Sega Genesis game Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994), the genres represented include calypso, funk, carnival, new wave, prog rock, and more. Soundtracks for video games frequently shift genres this way, to create aesthetic themes for different levels or characters. Turning toward an account of the game’s soundtrack as a unified and continuous work, I posit that the music of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 might be understood as analogous to a series of “samples” within a polystylistic whole, following Leydon 2010. Leydon notes that instrumentation “bears the bulk of the semiotic burden” in communicating genre, but stops short of detailing how different instrumental timbres themselves might signify these genres. In my close analysis of two specific levels from Sonic the Hedgehog 3—Ice Cap Zone and Marble Garden Zone—I detail how timbre, as a musical parameter separate from instrumentation, can evoke specific intertextual and “extra”-musical associations from a listener, based on implied genres in the soundtrack. In doing this, I will show how timbre, a musical parameter that remains overlooked in a great deal of music analysis, might inform and enhance dialogue in music analyses of genre within video game music and more broadly.
Begging to Be Seen: Beyoncé’s Partition
Co-authored book chapter. Under review at Routledge. In Song Interpretation in 21st-century Popular Music, Vol. II, ed. Ralf von Appen, André Doehring, Dietrich Helms, and Allan F. Moore. Co-authors: Chris Kattenbeck, Sean Peterson, Holger Schwetter, and Júlia Silveira.
A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre
Using Open Educational Resources for Inclusive, Flexible, and Innovative Music Theory Pedagogy
With Mark Gotham, Kyle Gullings, Chelsey Hamm, Bryn Hughes, Brian Jarvis, and John Peterson. Alternative-format special session presented at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Society for Music Theory, 2020.
Tracing Music Theory’s (un)Shifting Frames: A Natural Language Processing Approach
Diversifying the Theory Curriculum: How to Open Multiple Pathways through the Theory Core
With Andrew Gades and Crystal Peebles. Joint panel presented at The 2nd Pedagogy Into Practice Conference, 2019.
The standard undergraduate theory sequence (i.e., four or five courses taken during the first two years of study) leaves little room to add diverse content without either sacrificing important traditional topics or demanding too many credit hours. This panel explores three solutions to this problem by implementing a modular approach to music theory. Not only does a modular approach open the music theory core to diverse repertoires and topics, it sidesteps concerns of adding credit hours to already packed degrees. Representing music programs from a state university, a liberal arts college, and a music conservatory, our panel explores the motivations behind these modular approaches and the challenges in implementing these changes.
A common theme in each of these curricula is the diversification of the student experience in order to meet the needs of a 21st-century musician. Not only does each model engage repertoires beyond the traditional canon (pop, jazz, film music), but students also express thinking in music through diverse modes of discourse, such as exploring intersections with other disciplines, and assessment in these curricula, such as performance quizzes in a music fundamentals course. By allowing students multiple pathways through the theory core, the curriculum becomes student-centered, where students can select music courses that best meet their musical and professional needs.
Topics of discussion in this panel include: how a modular approach allows greater flexibility for faculty, students, and the institution; the paucity of teaching resources for non-standard curricula; learning outcomes and assessment; and examples of syllabi and curricular frameworks. In sharing our experiences, we hope to encourage other institutions to reconceive the curriculum as a process of opening up different pathways, rather than cramming in more topics, through the undergraduate core.
From Cheesy to Chill: The Shift in Popular Opinions of Digital Synthesis and the 1980s
In 2008, musician and critic Carrie Brownstein wrote about music of the 1980s, and described the public as having “a tacit agreement that the musical production values were cheesy – a veritable act of sonic sterilization.” Only ten years later, present-day representations of the sound of the 1980s in music, film, and TV seem to have taken a turn away from this prior agreement, toward a decidedly more fond remembrance of the ’80s sound. Somewhere within the past ten years, public opinion of ’80s music shifted and became noticeably more nostalgic. This paper begins to track this change by studing the interconnections between the digital ’80s musical aesthetic and modern reiterations, readings, and representations of that aesthetic, with the aim of exploring how the ’80s sound went from “cheesy” to “chill.” An examination of online forum discussion, popular music magazines, and similar critical media alongside scholarly discourse about the ’80s and the digital/analog divide (e.g., Pinch and Trocco 2009, Lavengood 2017) will detail where and how the ’80s-as-cheesy opinion flourished. Similar ethnographic study, complemented by musicological analysis of new media, will document the recent turn toward affection for the 1980s. Case studies will include “’80s covers” of recent pop hits found on Youtube, and the soundtracks of TV examples such as The Americans, Stranger Things, and Glow.
A New Approach to Analysis of Timbre: A Study in Timbre Narratives and Instrumentation in 1980s Pop
Presented at the 41st Annual Meeting of the Society for Music Theory; Timbre is a Many-Splendored Thing; 2018
Presented at 26th Annual Meeting of Music Theory Southeast, 2017
Winner, Best Student Paper Award
I articulate a new methodology for timbre analysis, which situates spectrogram analysis within a broad cultural context by taking direct account of listener experience, i.e., “perceptualization” (Fales 2002), through the notions of markedness (Hatten 1994). To this end, I propose timbral norms for instrumentational categories and suggest narratives that result from the transgression of these norms. I categorize sounds used in a given track into three groups, or instrumentational categories: a) core sounds, which articulate structural aspects of pitch and rhythm of the song, b) melody sounds, which are the voice and any instrument replacing the voice, or c) novelty sounds, used primarily for coloristic effects. This paper focuses on 1980s popular music; my categorization therefore was determined by analysis of many 1980s singles. A correlation arises between the timbral characteristics of these instruments and their instrumentational category: the coreand melodysounds share unmarked timbral properties, weaving into the groove’s fabric, rather than demanding attention. Noveltysounds are intrinsically difficult to generalize, but tend to feature marked timbral characteristics. Instances of subversion of timbral norms enables the analyst to locate musical meaning created through the manipulation of timbres. By showing a methodology to account for the vital role of timbre in this music’s narrative, my study demonstrates the utility of timbre analysis in music analysis at large.
Analyzing Sound, Analyzing Timbre
Presented at the 19th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, 2017
Everything’s Synth!”: The Problem, or the Charm, of the ’80s Sound
Following Schenker’s Lead in the Analysis of Stravinsky
Presented at the Music Theory Society of New York State 45th Annual Meeting, 2016; 5th Biennial Student Conference of the Music Theory & Musicology Society of University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, 2014
Prolongation in post-tonal music is a notorious issue in music theory. Many have attempted to adapt Schenkerian theory to post-tonal music, but ultimately the trend has failed to catch on. This is due primarily to theoretical roadblocks most famously articulated in Straus 1987. Ironically, Schenker himself may have been the most successful in overcoming this issue when he analyzed a section of Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto in Meisterwerk Vol. II. Schenker first composed a reduction that adjusted dissonant harmonies and made them tonally normative. Thus Schenker could rely on pre-established tonal prolongations, instead of inventing new post-tonal prolongations.
Conceivably, when writing in his neoclassical style, Stravinsky could have produced his post-tonal music by distorting a prior tonal prototype. Though determining such a tonal prototype is necessarily speculative work, I argue that for this circumscribed repertoire, it’s not unreasonable for analysts to engage in this activity, and following Schenker’s lead by analyzing a tonal “prototype” is the most effective way of identifying prolongations in post-tonal music.
I analyze excerpts from the second movement of Symphony in Three Movements, an exemplar of Stravinsky’s neoclassical style, by analyzing (strictly adhering to Schenkerian techniques) a hypothetical tonal prototype of the excerpt; then, I import the resulting analysis onto the surface of the piece. Thus I create a trulyprolongational analysis, where sonorities are composed-out via clearly defined traditional Schenkerian methods. This modified approach preserves the attention to detail, insight, and coherence that make traditional Schenkerian analysis such an appealing and engaging process for the analyst.
Rhythmic and Timbral Associations in Sufjan Stevens’s “Come On, Feel the Illinoise!”
Presented at the Society for Music Theory 36th Annual Meeting; Music Theory Society of New York State 42nd Annual Meeting; Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic 11th Annual Meeting; Music Theory Forum at Florida State University 29th Annual Meeting; 2013.
The music of indie pop artist Sufjan Stevens is quickly recognizable through his use of lush textures created by using both electric instruments and acoustic orchestral instruments in Reichian counterpoint with one another, as well as his preference for asymmetrical meters. “Come On, Feel the Illinoise!”, from the album by the same name, is a representative example of Stevens’s output. The song is rather static harmonically, relying on the repetition of either a single chord or a four-chord pattern. Thus, more traditional harmony-based analytical techniques are not of interest when examining this music. Instead, Dora Hanninen’s associative sets and landscapes are a tool that elegantly relates the more salient elements of timbre and rhythm that lend this song its complexity.
Prominent associative sets are defined primarily based on rhythmic associations, and relationships are drawn between them regarding their timbre, i.e., the instrument being played. After this process, the resultant sets are arranged into an associative landscape, which shows the organization of the sets in the temporal dimension. This demonstrates several things: firstly, the music is clearly divided into two largely unrelated sections; secondly, the first section conforms to verse-chorus design, while the second section is formally elusive; thirdly, the deployment of segments within a single subset varies depending on timbre, since the voice has different segments presented horizontally (through time), while the instrumental parts present segments vertically (between instruments). These facets are elucidated through the use of associative sets in a way that other methodologies may not capture.