My SMT 2018 Activities

SMT is just around the corner! I hope to see many friends in San Antonio. I’m having a particularly busy SMT this season with four different activities.

A study in timbre narratives and instrumentation in 1980s pop

I’m giving a presentation drawn from my dissertation on using timbre to construct musical narratives. In this paper, 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, specifically, on the use of the factory presets of the Yamaha DX7, the most widely-used synthesizer of the 1980s; my categorization therefore was determined by analysis of many 1980s singles. The results of this process suggest that within mainstream 1980s pop, certain Yamaha DX7 presets were consistently paired with a specific instrumentational category. Furthermore, a correlation arises between the timbral characteristics of these presets and their instrumentational category.

xmas bells annotated.png
Spectrogram of TUB BELLS, a DX7 preset.

My paper focuses on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid (1984) as its main analytical case study—something I wrote a post about here once a while ago. Essentially I argue that this song demonstrates a subversion of timbral norms, which in turn generates musical meaning, when the novelty sound TUBULAR BELLS becomes a melody sound. Though TUB BELLS is typically too noisy to function as a melody sound, this chorus’s communal mantra works especially well with a synthesis of two opposed textural functions.

The Dynamics of the Job Interview

My post reviewing my experience interviewing for a tenure-track position as a music theory professor is by far the most-trafficked post on my blog. While it might seem weird to take job-seeking advice from someone as new as I am to the “other side” of the PhD, I think there’s value in the fact that I just did this.

So I’m presenting from this perspective in a special session put together by the SMT’s Professional Development committee. I’m going to be focusing on the teaching demonstration, giving tips for how to succeed well. I’m going to focus on the following points:

  • reaching out to friends and colleagues for help
  • embracing the awkwardness
  • making music
  • varying activities
  • reflecting your teaching statement
  • using writing

Pop Music Interest Group meeting: small-group breakout sessions

I’m chair of the Pop Music Interest Group now! One of the most demanding duties that gives me is having to read a lot of articles and books, in order to determine who will be the winners of our two publication prizes. I read 13 new articles and (parts of) 2 new books as part of this. While it was a very demanding task, it felt great to read that much again, and to be exposed to the newest research in our corner of the field.

I’m also setting aside a large chunk of our time to break down into small groups by research interest. Tentatively, the groups I’ve chosen are lyrics, timbre, cognition, performance, tonality/modality, topic theory, corpus study, and rhythm/meter; but, these may change depending on how the groups end up looking at the meeting. I like this idea because I think it will be nice to spend unstructured time together (although I will be projecting discussion prompts so nothing gets too awkward). Many people have commented on PMIG’s occasional cliquishness; I think the small group activities will break up some of the cliques and get more different kinds of people talking with each other.

Webmasterly duties

Somehow, I’ve tripped backwards from a humble role as the operator of the SMT Twitter account into the position of Assistant Webmaster for the society. I haven’t done much yet to earn this title, but as time goes on my duties are going to increase until I fully take over as webmaster in 2020 or so. So, it looks like my time spent making Geocities and Angelfire websites, customizing my Xangas and Livejournals, and building this whole website were not all complete wastes of time!

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Goals for Summer 2018

So this is the second installment of my 3-day blogathon thing (with a past/present/future theme). Today’s focus is summer goals. I have a lot of professional and personal goals to achieve this summer, some of which I’ve already knocked out—so I’m getting started on the right foot, at least. (The philosophy of goals is to have both achievable goals as well as stretch goals, after all!)

Writing goals

In a teaching-heavy position like mine, it’s very difficult to make substantial progress on writing during the semester, and nigh impossible to do so in the first year of a new job. So the summer is the time for me to reconnect with my researcher side and take care of all those creative tasks that require ample space for thinking.

  1. Today: I just today finished a complete draft of a book chapter for an edited collection, titled “Timbre, Genre, and Polystylism in Sonic the Hedgehog 3” and sent it off to the editor. I’m sure there’s more revising to be done, but it feels good to complete a draft.
  2. Sometime in June: I am collaborating with other authors on an article on another chapter in another edited collection, which analyzes “Partition” by Beyoncé—this is the followup project from a “summer school” I attended in Summer of 2015 (gosh, three years ago!). I promised my group members I’d respond to critique from editors in June, so I’d better keep my promise.
  3. By Early July: I’m presenting my dissertation research at a timbre conference in Montreal, hosted by McGill. It’s a poster presentation, so I need to design a pretty poster.
  4. July/August: I just heard back from a journal yesterday that I’ve gotten a revise (substantially) and resubmit on an article I’ve been kicking around for quite a while now. While I’m slightly bummed at the extent of the revisions that they want, the review I got was very thorough and had a lot for me to work with. Nevertheless, I’m gonna kick that can down the road a bit while I come to terms with all that.

Teaching goals

  1. By June 1: I am going to submit an application for a grant on behalf of a committee of people who are wanting to revise the theory curriculum. I am trying to do a modular (i.e., non-sequenced) theory curriculum that incorporates an entire semester focused on jazz and pop music, among other things. We are also working to bring performance experience into the classroom in more tangible ways, like including a playing component to the typical battery of timed quizzes in the Theory I class.
  2. By June 4: Redesign the DMA comprehensive exams.
  3. By mid-July: I will have completed a course through my university that teaches professors how to design an online course through Blackboard. I teach a graduate course required for all masters’ students, and because of differing scheduling needs (educators need night classes; performers need day classes), offering the course online is an ideal presentation for this course. But, I don’t currently know how I’m going to make it as discussion-based and interactive as my in-person class. Hopefully completing the course will inform me a bit better. I’m applying for funding for this activity too.
  4. By the start of next semester: Provided we’re awarded the grant, I will work with other members of the curriculum re-design team to develop new materials for the theory courses, particularly the jazz/pop course. We won’t implement anything til Fall 2019 probably but it’s still good to get this work done early.

Personal goals

(Not-so-)fun fact! I, like a lot of professors, don’t get paid over the summer. This is part of the motivation for trying to acquire some of this money for redesigns. So I’m going to really try to limit the work I try to do over the summer to these projects listed above (granted, that’s probably way too much unpaid work still). Here’s my plans for summer relaxation:

  • Several camping trips. I used to go camping when I lived in Florida, but (shocker) I sold all my camping goodies when I moved to New York City. Now that I’m back in the #suburblife, and I own a Subaru Forester, camping is a lot more attainable than it had been. I just went camping last weekend at a park 15 minutes from my apartment. It sounds like a silly thing to do, but it was actually amazing. I’m hoping to do this spontaneously any nice weekend that I can. I have two more camping trips already planned this summer, to Assateague and Chincoteague islands, where the wild horses roam on the beach.
  • Other non-camping trips. I’m going to New York City again and so thrilled to hang out with old friends and eat some decent food and get a decent haircut at my old place. I still miss Brooklyn terribly. I’m also going on a family vacation with my dad, both my brothers, and my brothers’ partners to West Virginia. It’s a lot to handle but should be good quality time.
  • Video gaaaames. I’m still obsessed with Crusader Kings 2, which I have been for, I’m guessing, 5 years at least. It’s still fun. I’ve also been playing a lot on the Nintendo Switch, like Mario Kart. Hopefully Smash Bros will come out soon too.
  • Singing! My church job recently decided to employ a quartet over the summer to sing some more polyphony in the summer Latin masses. While my church choir job has been stressing me out a bit lately, I’m definitely down for one-to-a-part singing, anytime, anywhere.

It’s a… erm… ambitious program I’ve laid out for myself here—it’ll be interesting to check in at the end of the summer and see how much of this I was able to follow through on.

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

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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.)

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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.

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Lerdahl’s Timbral Hierarchies

The real reason, I would argue, why timbre has been regarded as a secondary musical dimension is that, unlike pitch and rhythm, it has lacked any substantial hierarchical organization.

–Fred Lerdahl, 1987

Yesterday I read “Timbral Hierarchies” by Fred Lerdahl, originally published in 1987 in Contemporary Music Review Vol. 2. This article is post-GTTM (A Generative Theory of Tonal Music) and represents an attempt to explain how timbre prolongations, or at the very least timbral hierarchies, might be possible, in much the same vein as L&J-type metrical or tonal hierarchies.

This article is another curious entry in the outpouring of timbre music theory research that occurred in the mid-1980s (see also Cogan 1984, Slawson 1985). Since I wasn’t researching in the 1980s, I’ve wondered myself what the music theory community was like at this time, and what in the culture propelled this sudden interest in timbre. I presumed that this was due to a wider access to 1) spectrograms, a useful visualization tool for timbre, and 2) digital synthesizers, which allow for the level of precise control necessary in many perception studies. Lerdahl identifies out another possible impetus for a sudden rush to theorize timbre: “The issue has sharpened with the recent rise of computer music. There is now such an infinity of timbral possibilities that the need for some kind of selection and organization has become acute” (136).

I’ve found it funny in the past that I study 1980s popular music, and that so many of the existing articles and books on timbre research also date from the 1980s. But this quote in particular helped me realize that the unifying factor in all of this is rapid technological advancement.

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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.)

harmonica
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…

’80s-inspired music

Last Wednesday I was a featured contributor to the podcast Pop Unmuted on an episode about ’80s music—listen here.

We are currently living in a kind of ’80s revival. Google “How do I make my song sound 80s?” and you can see hundreds of posts on online forums from amateur producers looking for an ’80s sound.

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The funny thing about this is that of course the ’80s was an entire decade of music, and there were tons of different genres and styles that were going on at this time. Obviously it would be difficult to name even a single characteristic that was represented in every ’80s style. And yet there’s something that persists in the collective memory of people today that can be called an ’80s sound.

How do we make something sound ’80s?

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