Music Theory


Music Theory Department Colloquium Series (2010–11)
Wednesdays, 3:30PM, M267

This page lists colloquium series events for the year 2010–11. See current colloquium series events here.
Fall 2011

7  December:  Nicole DiPaolo, Jason Jedlicka, and Diego Cubero.  "From Seminar Paper to Conference Paper".  The papers have been posted to an Oncourse site entitled “Theory Colloquium,” to which all of the theory faculty and majors have been added as participants. If you would like to read any or all of the papers in advance, you can download them there.

11 November at 2:30 (please note time):  Prof. Mark Yeary, "Hearing Messiaen's special chords"

9 November at 4:00pm in Ford Hall (please note time and place):  Ray Jackendoff Guest Lecture, Parallels and Non-Parallels between Language and Music

19 October:  SMT Preview,  Prof. Kyle Adams and Prof. Blair Johnston,

Prof. Adams:  “Victoria the Progressive: The Cadential Formula as Historical Nexus.”

This paper will use Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Officium Defunctorum (1605) to illustrate some connections between prima pratica and seconda pratica styles. While the seconda pratica is characterized by its free treatment of dissonance, Victoria’s music is considered conservative, exemplifying the polyphonic style codified by Zarlino. This paper will not contradict these claims, but will show how Victoria’s cadential elaborations position his music as a link between the two styles. I will demonstrate that Victoria’s cadential formulae are typically more elaborate than those used by seventeenth-century Italian composers, and that the cadence serves as a meeting point between the more progressive side of the prima pratica and the more traditional side of the seconda pratica. This paper will explore elaborations of the “consonant fourth” cadential formula, with an aim towards a stylistic generalization: Victoria’s work, with its generally more homogeneous texture, elaborates the figure in order that its heightened expressivity might more clearly mark its cadences. Conversely, early Baroque composers use the same figure to better mark their own cadences by their lack of expressivity. Thus, the paper will define the early seventeenth-century cadence as a historical nexus, a meeting point between the most progressive features of the sixteenth century and the most conservative aspects of the seventeenth, between high Renaissance counterpoint and early Baroque harmonic tonality.

Prof. Johnston:  Semiotics Society of America Preview: Blair Johnston, "The Grotesque Climax of Richard Strauss's Salome."

5 October:  Panel Discussion, "Music Theory:  The State of the Discipline," with Prof. Samarotto, Prof. Horlacher, and Prof. Wennerstrom

21 September: Garrett Michaelsen, How "Free" is Free Jazz? Musical Interaction in Ornette Coleman's "Peace"

Abstract: Although containing many similarities with the preceding jazz style of hard bop, Ornette Coleman’s music of the late 1950s dispensed with a repeating harmonic framework, known as the “chord changes,” during improvised solos. Despite this significant change, the ensemble improvised using a largely tonal musical language containing numerous hard-bop conventions such as chromatic linear motions and descending-fifths progressions. The lack of predetermined chord changes and formal outline increased the interactional demands on the musicians as well. In this paper, I will analyze Coleman’s performance of his composition “Peace,” from the record The Shape of Jazz to Come, in light of a new theory of musical interaction in jazz improvisation. In this theory, interaction refers to the influence the improvisers have on each other’s projected futures. Beyond this moment-based interpersonal level, musicians also interact with three larger-scale temporal domains: interaction with a pre-composed tune, interaction with archetypal ensemble roles, and interaction with the musical style of a performance. The analysis will show how Coleman and his ensemble converge with and diverge from each other during their improvisations, revealing the extent to which the musicians were truly “free” from prior stylistic conventions in this early recording of “free jazz.”

7 September:  Prof. Julian Hook,  Indiana University, "Spelled Heptachords"

This paper develops a theory of spelled pitch classes (spcs) and spelled pitch-class sets (spc sets), incorporating pitch spelling into the tech­niques of pitch-class set theory. The symmetries of spc space are transposition and inversion along the line of fifths. Because of the inextricable link between pitch spelling and diatonic scales, spelled heptachords—seven-note spc sets that include each letter name exactly once—occupy a privileged position in this theory. Spelled heptachords may be regarded as inflected diatonic scales, and possess a number of structural characteristics not shared by other spc sets. The 66 equivalence classes of spelled heptachords without enharmonic doublings or voice crossings are enumerated. A diatonic musical structure together with a spelled heptachord determine an spc structure in which the notes of the diatonic structure are inflected by the corresponding accidentals from the heptachord; spc structures arising in this way show promise as powerful tools in analysis of chromatic harmony.

Spring 2011

27 April Walter Everett, University of Michigan, "The Representation of Meaning in Post-Millennial Rock”

20 April Professional Development Session:  Job Interviews

13 April, Mark Chilla, "B. B. King's Guitar Licks: A Schema-Theoretic Approach to Blues Guitar Melodies".


The lack of close analytical study of melodic invention in guitar-based blues music may be explained in part by music theory’s preference for essentialist theories of harmony and form, which can distort or reduce otherwise complex phenomena. Blues harmonies are easily reduced to a progression of three chords and its melodies to a blues or pentatonic scale. However, much of the interest in guitar-based blues melodies lies not in the harmonic material or the scalar collections, but rather in the creative employment of stock motives.

Many blues melodies are constructed from certain characteristic motives, or “licks,” and this is particularly true for the guitar solos of B.B. King.  King remains a central figure in late-20th century blues music, thus unlocking the intricacies of King's style may be the key to understanding blues guitar melodies more generally. This present study more thoroughly defines King’s characteristic guitar licks as schemas, using the work of Robert Gjerdingen and his galant schemata as a model. Through a corpus study, I have identified four schemas as indicative of King’s classic 1950s and 1960s style. The manner in which King’s schemas manifest themselves on the guitar fretboard is an essential feature of the theory. These licks are instantiations of the same physical schemata on the guitar—physical schemata that King discusses in his own guitar method book. Their currency might be then attributed to their related physical gesture involved in playing the licks. A fuller analysis of the opening solo from his song “Worry, Worry” from the 1965 album Live at the Regal will be discussed in depth, showing how King uses many of these schemas as the foundation for his melodic invention.

30 March  Roundtable discussion: Audibility in Music Theory: Does a music theory need to have direct implications for listening or performance?

Gretchen Horlacher, Robert Hatten, Alan Theisen

23 March Paul Sherrill and Matthew Boyle:  “Galant Recitative Schemas.”

Robert Gjerdingen’s Music in the Galant Style argues that much
instrumental music of the 18th century was constructed by chaining
together conventional voice-leading formulas, or phrase schemas. This
paper studies Italian-language operas from the same century to
demonstrate that recitative too was composed using a distinctive
repertory of schemas.  Approximately twenty such recitative schemas
account for the vast majority of the recitative written by composers
ranging from Leonardo Vinci through Mozart, suggesting that the musical
Galant was defined in part by a common practice of recitative.

A recitative schema’s melodic pattern is its primary defining trait. 
Subsidiary features include a harmonic context (usually no more than
two harmonies) and a set of rhythmic and metric features.  Most schemas
include one or more pitches that may be repeated rapidly and freely to
set numerous syllables of text.  Other pitches are generally not
repeated but serve as metric anchors, falling only on relatively strong
beats.  Recitative schemas also have specific formal functions (e.g. as
phrase initiations, continuations, interruptions, cadences, and so on),
and some schemas strongly imply continuation by specific other schemas.

This schema-theoretic approach to recitative suggests new lines of
questioning regarding the style.  For example, one might study the
relative prevalence of the schemas to characterize composers’ stylistic
differences.  The presence or absence of schemas also allows one to
distinguish subtle gradations between recitative and more songlike
styles, such as arioso.  Knowledge of the schemas’ conventional formal
implications can highlight instances of wit or compositional play. 
Finally, recitative schemas might also be studied for extra-musical
meanings, by investigating whether schemas are consistently paired with
the contents of the words they set.

9 March Sarah Wangberg:  "Bodily Cues and the Shaping of an Analysis: Brahms’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108, II".

As theorists, we tend to study scores and use a mental sound-image of an ideal performance when analyzing music. For performers, however, music is not just relationships between notes on the page or the sounds they represent; the music includes the physical experience of producing it. Authors such as Susanne Cusick, Hallgjerd Aksnes, George Fisher and Judith Lochhead have shown how embodied thinking can add another layer of meaning to an analysis, and that the observant listener can, to some degree, empathetically feel the performing experience. Building on their contributions, I will show how paying close attention to the physical aspects of producing the music can do more than just add to a theoretical-knowledge-based analysis; it can drive an analysis. Using Brahms’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 (II) as a case study, I will focus on the violinist’s bodily cues—what the body needs to do to produce the music, perception of changes in instrument tension, and possible emotional reactions to the music’s execution requirements—to show how this physical feedback can produce a structural framework with a nuanced narrative.

2 March Juan Mesa: “Hearing Emotion in J. S. Bach’s ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß’ BWV 622”
Katrina Roush:  “Strong Emotions, Agency, and the Role of ‘Music Alone:’ Two Arias from Puccini’s Turandot
Chelsey L. Hamm:  “Towards Emotional Meaning in Ives’s Orchestral Set No. 2, III”

23 February,Michael McClimon: “Expressing the Inexpressible: Thelonious Monk's 'Crepuscule with Nellie,' “


While few doubt the expressive potential of jazz music, this topic has not been well explored by music theorists. While many jazz musicians and authors talk about “creating a story” with their improvisations the question of expression in original jazz composition is simply overlooked. Building on Robert Hatten’s theories of markedness and musical agency along with Garrett Michaelsen’s topical approach to jazz “grooves,” I use Thelonious Monk’s “Crepuscule with Nellie” as a case study for the examination of musical meaning in jazz composition.

 “Crepuscule with Nellie” provides an ideal sample for this type of inquiry. Monk wrote the piece in May of 1957 while his wife, Nellie, was in the hospital having her thyroid removed. It is a unique piece in Monk’s output (and unusual for jazz in general) in that it was never played with any improvisation; the piece was simply the “head” of the tune, with no solos. Monk felt that the composition should stand alone, as a kind of concerto written for his wife. My paper asks the obvious question: What is it about this work that makes it somehow too intimate to be commented on, by Monk or anyone else? A thorough analysis of this work helps to illuminate how a consideration of expressive meaning can enhance our understanding of both Monk’s unique style and, more generally, the art of jazz expression.

12 January, Conference previews of three 20-min. papers:

 -- Nicole DiPaolo: “Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum:  Metrical Irregularity in Rachmaninoff’s “March” Etude-Tableau in D, op. 39 no. 9”

-- Ruthie Umthun: “Changing Emotions:  An Analysis of the “Emotional” Use of Adagio for Strings in Film and TV”

-- Steve Grazzini: “ ‘Where Shall I Find You on Earth?’: The Six-four as a Symbol of Longing”

Fall 2010

8 December, Roundtable Discussion: “On Historical Modes of Listening.” Kyle Adams, Roman Ivanovitch, Blair Johnston, Frank Samarotto

17 November,  Alan Theisen, “Intersections of Theory, Analysis, and Performance with Elliott Carter's Scrivo in Vento”

A group discussion led by Alan Theisen:
     "Assignment"  "Score"   "Dissertation"  "Audio File"

The goal of the colloquium on November 17 will be to briefly analyze a piece of contemporary music (Elliott Carter's solo flute work Scrivo in Vento), share our ideas, then interact with a musician who has played the selected composition in an effort to explore the possible impact analysis might have on performance/interpretation.

3 November, William Caplin, James McGill Professor of Music Theory, McGill University, "The 'Continuous Exposition' and the Concept of Subordinate Theme"

27 October, Professional Development Workshop:  Writing Good Conference Proposals"

13 October, 4 pm in Sweeney Hall (note the special time and place).

Jeanne Bamberger, MIT Professor Emerita, Visiting Professor UC-Berkeley: "A View of Creativity as Learning: How the Boundaries of Distinctions Become Porous".

This talk is supported by Institute of Advanced Studies, School of Education, Music Education Department, & Music Theory Department. 


How can we disentangle the mythic quality of creativity from other acts of enlightenment, learning, discovery, development, invention, progress—a tangled thicket of natural acts?  We make distinctions as a way of organizing and making clear, holding steady, the multiplicity of "possibles" in our experience.  But once distinctions are made and their objects accepted as common practice, deep learning and new knowledge occur at moments when the limits of these distinctions become porous, allowing multiple meanings to collide and stumble over one another.

 I will show moments when boundaries are becoming porous in the working processes of young children and college students.  I will argue that in this process (if we are noticing), creativity indeed, is not mythic but rather the outcome of deep learning. 

 Why, then, play in the distinction-heavy world of the computer?

Oct. 6: Christy Keele, “Topics and Expressive Meaning in the Music of Chopin.”


Topics and Expressive Meaning in the Music of Chopin 

            The study of topoi as a semiotic approach to music began with the Classical style in the late eighteenth century. These topics and their connotations continued into the nineteenth century even as the music and its references further developed. This paper explores Chopin’s (1810-1849) use of these musical topoi.

            I will address how topics appear and evolve in Chopin’s music by presenting a series of musical examples from his piano pieces. Musical topics include chorale/hymn, learned style, and others. Some appear in varied form, and these modifications can reflect the character of a particular genre; therefore I will also briefly consider Polish nationalism and Chopin’s Polish dance types.

            Chopin’s Ballade in F Major is an example of topical interaction and its role in larger issues of expressive meaning. I interpret the piece as an unusual, dysphoric version of the pastoral expressive genre as conceived by Robert Hatten. I conclude with some reflections on future directions for a semiotic approach to Chopin, including the potential of troping and other means of topical interaction. 

Sept. 29: Severine Neff, Eugene Falk Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Cadence after Thirty-Three Years of Revolution: Tonal Form in Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony, Op. 38.”

When, in 1939, Arnold Schoenberg resumed work on his Second Chamber Symphony, begun thirty-three years earlier, this quintessential modernist was confronted head-on with a prototypical issue of contemporary postmodernism: what is the meaning of tonal composition after the atonal and twelve-tone revolutions that Schoenberg himself initiated and brought to such glorious fulfillment? Can the Second Chamber Symphony, far from being the retrogressive exercise in nostalgia suggested by many scholars and modernist composers, be in fact for Schoenberg the next step forward? If so, we might expect to find his twelve-tone and atonal explorations decisively changing Schoenberg’s compositional presentation in the Chamber Symphony. My thesis is that this is indeed so, and that this change is most directly revealed in the cadences to both movements—cadences that Schoenberg conceived with his experience of tonality in 1939.

Schoenberg had abandoned work on the Symphony in 1906 about the time his music was turning toward atonality. He returned to the piece at other turning points in his own life—at the time of Mahler’s death and the composition of Herzgewächse (1911) and during his military service in World War I  (1916), He then added an accompanying program literally called Wendepunkt (Turning Point), resembling the later libretti of Die Jakobsleiter and Moses und Aron. Schoenberg resumed work on the piece shortly before the beginning of the Second World War and finished it in late 1939. By considering aspects of the Symphony’s composition across thirty-three years, my essay engages issues related to all periods of Schoenberg’s music—tonal, atonal, twelve-tone, and late tonal. Thus the Symphony’s genesis can elucidate notions of Schoenberg’s creative life as a whole.

Sept. 22: Alan Theisen, “From Piano to Orchestra (and Back) with Boulez’s Notations pour Orchestre.”

Shortly after studying with René Leibowitz in the autumn of 1945, the young Pierre Boulez composed Douze Notations pour piano: twelve short pieces, each twelve measures long and constructed with (generally) the same twelve-tone row. Over thirty years later, Boulez revisited the musical material found in the piano miniatures by issuing a set of orchestral versions (Notations I-IV) remarkably unlike their January 1946 predecessors. Rather than being simple orchestrations, the newer manifestations appear to exemplify Luciano Berio’s concept of “transcription” – a self-aware and critical intellectual play. The orchestral Notations are transformations, re-imaginings of worthy source material from Boulez’s younger days. The constant development and proliferation of a small text into an internally dynamic field recalls Umberto Eco’s theory of the Opera aperta ("Open Work"). If the recent orchestral adaptations are not straightforward orchestrations or sets of variations, how did Boulez arrive at the new work from the old one? Is it possible to detect his analytical process? Building on essays by Gerald Bennett and Susan Bradshaw, I will explore the mystery of transformation, looking first at the source content of Notation No. 3 for piano then at how the original text is elaborated in Notation III for orchestra. In the process, I will draw conclusions about what additional information Boulez may be transmitting in the newer composition, as the piece itself becomes an analysis (or, remembering Le marteau sans maître, a “commentary”) of the prior work.


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