Music Theory


T658 Visualizing Music

Prof. Eric Isaacson

TR 4:00-5:15 p.m., Simon 242

Visual representations of music exist in multiple forms and serve multiple functions. Like the script for a play, a musical score guides the recreation of a musical work. A spectrogram depicts the shape of the sonic product of such a performance. Piano-roll notation, an analog of the spectrogram, depicts the texture of a work and the contours of its lines. Techniques exist for the visual depiction of various musical spaces. And music theorists are especially prolific in creating visual analyses of musical structure. Designed well, such images both reflect and shape our understanding of musical phenomena in ways that words alone often cannot. Well-designed visual support is an important component of most music-theoretic presentations.

In this seminar, we will explore this topic from several perspectives. We will begin by considering principles of effective visual communication, based on the work of Edward Tufte and others in the fields of information visualization and scientific visualization. Next, we will critically survey visualization techniques for a variety of musical parameters from across the history of Western music. Finally, we will consider ways of improving existing modes of music visualization and creating new ways of visualizing musical information, including the use of animation, color, and 3D imagery. Along the way, students will learn to use tools for creating static and animated visual representations.

The course will be of interest to those using visual explanations in their research, including music theorists, musicologists, and music educators. The course is also open to graduate non-music majors with permission.

Prerequisites: MUS-T 551 or equivalent; T 555 or T 556 recommended; or permission of instructor.

Requirements: Extensive library research, regular readings and brief presentations, daily discussion, one or two short papers, a seminar paper, and final presentation.


Edward Tufte, Envisioning Information, 2nd Ed. (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 1990)
Edward Tufte, Beautiful Evidence (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press. 2006)