Featured Research – The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, edited by Danuta Mirka (OUP, 2014)


Today’s featured research is The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, a volume recently released as a paperback by OUP. The book received a “Citation of Special Merit” from the Society of Music Theory in 2015. The editor, Professor Danuta Mirka, is Professor of Music Theory and Head of Research in Music at the University of Southhampton, UK.

Summary (by the editor):

Topics are musical signs that rely on associations with different genres, styles, and types of music making. The concept of topics was introduced by Leonard Ratner in the 1980s to account for cross-references between eighteenth-century styles and genres. While music theorists and critics were busy classifying styles and genres, defining their affects and proper contexts for their usage, composers started crossing the boundaries between them and using stylistic conventions as means of communication with the audience. Such topical mixtures received negative evaluations from North-German critics but became the hallmark of South-German music, which engulfed the Viennese classicism. Topic theory allows music scholars to gain access to meaning and expression of this music. The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory consolidates this field of research by clarifying its basic concepts and exploring its historical foundations.

The volume grounds the concept of topics in eighteenth-century music theory, aesthetics, and criticism. Documenting historical reality of individual topics on the basis of eighteenth-century sources, it relates topical analysis to other methods of music analysis conducted from the perspectives of composers, performers, and listeners. With a focus on eighteenth-century musical repertoire, The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory lays the foundation under further investigation of topics in music of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.


“As a collaboration among like-minded scholars, The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory succeeds admirably. Original insights, detailed historical work, and pertinent musical examples abound. . . . It is a major achievement and will doubtless inspire fresh engagement with topic theory in the years to come.” —Music & Letters


Editor Danuta Mirka

“The admirable ambitiousness of [its] aim gives Topic Theory a sense of excitement. Reading it, one repeatedly feels the energy of scholars working together on an intellectual mission. . . . the book . . . presents a marvellous cornucopia of insights and information that will certainly inspire and inform future work on topic theory.” —Journal of the American Musicological Society

“The [Oxford] Handbook [of Topic Theory] has all the hallmarks of a major reference work. . . . [It] aims to legitimize topic theory through a solid anchoring of topical expression in historical foundations and a demonstration of topics’ analytical potential, largely succeeding in both endeavors. Moreover, the collection offers a critical assessment of the field’s tradition and the first comprehensive treatment of the subject, especially praiseworthy for its multifaceted approach. This editorial enterprise signals a laudable pursuit of disciplinary rapprochement in current music scholarship—in this case integrating contextual musicology, structuralist music theory, and historically informed hermeneutics.” —Notes

“OHTT is an insightful and invaluable contribution to the field ofmusical topoi that will be welcomed by topic theorists and scholars of eighteenth-century music alike. . . . In the right hands, OHTT will both restrain and liberate the future of topic theory both in and beyond the eighteenth century.”—Eighteenth-Century Music