Research

My research specializations are in timbre and popular music. My dissertation establishes a new approach to the analysis of timbre, which blends spectrogram analysis and cultural studies and ethnographies. I focused there on 1980s popular music and the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. I am currently expanding this project to study video game soundtracks from games released for the Sega Genesis.

For future projects, I may look at other important 1980s instruments, such as the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, or other synthesizers available in Mason’s music technology department’s vintage synthesizer collection (!). I also hope to explore the latest ’80s revival genres, such as vaporwave, and their interactions with music from the 1980s.

I am interested in the interactions between timbre, aesthetics, and “bad music.” Some old music is “classic,” while other old music is “dated.” What makes these distinctions? I believe the distinctions are based on timbre. I am investigating this in 1980s popular music, and also early 2000s popular music, such as the music composed by producer Max Martin (who wrote for *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears).

I am also passionate about Schenkerian analysis. I am interested in stretching the boundaries of what music is “Schenkable,” because no other theory imposes such deep communion between the analyst and the tones of the piece.

Dissertation

“A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre.” 2017.

Presentations and Talks

A New Approach to Analysis of Timbre: A Study in Timbre Narratives and Instrumentation in 1980s Pop

Will be 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

Abstract   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.

Timbre, Genre, and Polystylism in Sonic the Hedgehog 3

Presented at Beyond the Notes (George Mason University lecture series), 2018

Abstract   In the soundtrack for the Sega Genesis game Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1992), 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. 

Analyzing Sound, Analyzing Timbre

Presented at the 19th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, 2017

Abstract    Synth-pop of the 1980s is easy to recognize—its “sound” is somehow generalizable, across tracks from the US, UK, and elsewhere. How can music analysis define this sound? Sound lies at the intersection of timbre, technology, and popular reception. My methodology for sound analysis begins with an analysis of timbre, through spectrograms. I break down the monolith of timbre into many discrete components. These components are then discussed as oppositions, e.g., bright vs. dark, sparse vs. rich (Cogan 1984). Timbres can be compared and contrasted using these oppositions as a consistent frame of reference. I augment this analysis through ethnographic research of magazines, podcasts, and other media. I create a sonic historiography (Holm-Hudson 2001) of the 1980s, focusing on ubiquitous technologies of 1980s music: the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, the LinnDrum, and the Roland TR-808. I contextualize this approach with example analyses of iconic ’80s tracks: “Take on Me,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”, and “Danger Zone”, each of which uses one or more of the technologies listed above. I proceed from a technical analysis of timbre, but above all, I argue the “’80s sound” is shaped not just by these timbres, but also by popular reception.

 

Everything’s Synth!”: The Problem, or the Charm, of the ’80s Sound

Presented at ›Klang‹: Wundertüte oder Stiefkind der Musiktheorie (16th Annual Meeting of the Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie), 2016

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

Abstract   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.

“Oops!… I Did It Again”: Max Martin’s Complement Chorus

Presented at the Society for Music Theory 38th Annual Meeting, 2015

Abstract   Max Martin, a pop producer prolific in the late 90s and early 2000s, implemented an idiosyncratic formal unit in his turn-of-the-millennium singles performed by the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Britney Spears. This unit, which I call the complement chorus, is recognizable based on distinct features of the chorus itself and its placement within the overall form of the song. The complement chorus is clearly marked as a chorus variant, using the same orchestration, harmony, and lyrics as the chorus, but introduces a new melodic line with a different rhythmic profile than the original chorus. A track using the complement chorus will have a chorus that is rhythmically gapped; the complement chorus in turn uses an opposing rhythmic profile that fills in these gaps.  The complement chorus is always first presented after the bridge. In subsequent repetitions of the chorus, the complement chorus is layered over the regular chorus, creating a cumulative chorus. The result of layering these two melodies in the cumulative chorus is quasi-contrapuntal, with a hocket-like rhythmic profile between the two lines. This formal unit is part of Martin’s idiolect around the turn of the millennium and can perhaps be considered a kind of schema for his singles.

Begging to Be Seen: Beyoncé’s “Partition”

Presented at the Methods of Popular Music Analysis Summer School, Osnabrück, Lower Saxony, Germany, September 18, 2015.
Co-authored with Chris Kattenbeck, Sean Peterson, Holger Schwetter, and Júlia Silveira

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.

Abstract   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.

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