Before I discovered my passion for music theory, I studied violin performance. I was constantly enthralled by the beautiful, soaring melodies that violinists get to play, and that drove me to study music. As an aspiring violinist, my days were spent practicing, always with careful consideration of phrasing and melodic construction. I cultivated a passion for melody that made me want to dig deeper, to really figure out how melody works. However, I would often find myself sitting in my core music theory classes, learning about so many different chords and chord progressions, and thinking to myself, “But what about melody? Why can’t we talk about that?” I did well in my theory classes, and my professors noticed my interest. One day, my professor suggested to me that if I was interested in music theory, I should look at some recent music theory journals, and read the first thing that seemed interesting to me. Later that day, I found myself with a few hours to kill, so I took his advice. I went to the library and picked up the first one that caught my eye: the new (and shiny) blue copy of Music Theory Spectrum. I happened across an article entitled “Melodic Contour and Nonretrogradable Structure in the Birdsong of Olivier Messiaen” by Rob Schultz, and it utterly fascinated me; I immediately became hooked. I must have read it five times, at least. Here was someone talking about melodic shape in ways that made a lot of sense to me. By the end, I just knew I had to become a theorist––that I had to study contour. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that something as simple as this one journal article could have such a profound impact on the course of my life as a musician, as a scholar.
The first sentence in my dissertation reads: “All melodies have shape: a pattern of rises, falls, and plateaus that occur as music moves through time.” On its surface, this sentence seems incredibly obvious, yet its assumptions implicitly inform so many of the analytical models we use in our scholarship, and in our classrooms. I believe that by studying contour in a more rigorous way, we can arrive at a more nuanced understanding of both the music we study, and the ways in which we study it. I want to reintegrate contour into the dialogs we have about music and music analysis, following in the footsteps of Robert Morris, Michael Friedman, Elizabeth West Marvin, Ian Quinn, Rob Schultz, and others.
To that end, my dissertation research focuses on families of related contours. I investigate these families by developing a new transformational model that examines contour relationships using a fuzzy lens, based on shared transformational pathways. This approach has allowed me to comment on contour’s role in melodic coherence or development across a wide variety of musical genres. I examine relationships between regional variants of medieval plainchant, explain how melodic shape contributes to motivic development in the works of Johannes Brahms, and show how repetitive patterns in minimalist music support variable perceptions of melodic shape.
In many ways, this seems like a niche topic, but as I explore the model’s applications, I am struck by how many different angles it can touch upon. For example, in my analysis of Brahms’s Regenlied Op. 59, No. 3 and the related violin sonata Op. 78, not only was the model able to illuminate how Brahms developed and related his motive families, but it also shed light on a narrative of nostalgia for youth centering around Brahms’s feelings for his godson, Felix Schumann. In another study, I use the model to explore the element of surprise and subsequent recovery that listeners experience in the minimalist work of Philip Glass. These studies have shown me just how valuable it can be to examine those aspects of music that often are overlooked. Every day I sit down to do my research, and I am consistently surprised at how many areas of music theory, and how many different genres of music this has the potential to inform. Indeed, it is this diversity that has captivated me throughout this project, and I imagine it will have the power to inspire my curiosity for many years to come.
Since picking up that new shiny blue Music Theory Spectrum, my journey has led me to amazing places, and given me the opportunity to meet and work with so many incredible people. I have received tremendous support from my colleagues and professors in ways that have shaped my perspective on music theory, as well as my own talents as a scholar. During my master’s degree, I had the great privilege to work closely on contour with Rob Schultz, who advised my master’s thesis. His constant support and his faith in my abilities as a theorist is truly a gift that I will never forget. The faculty at the University of Western Ontario have also provided tremendous support as I write my dissertation under the supervision of Catherine Nolan. I am continually motivated by the enthusiastic responses I receive from the music theory community, and I am honored to be chosen as the recipient of the first annual SMT-40 dissertation fellowship. I am thankful to the Society for Music Theory, to the CSW for their incredibly useful resources and mentoring programs, and to everyone else (too numerous to mention) who has had a hand in this journey. These many sources of support are a testament to what music theory can be—a vibrant, constantly evolving discipline that values new dialogs and new ways of thinking about music.
Kristen Wallentinsen is a PhD candidate at Western University. She has earned Master’s degrees in music theory and violin performance from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on mathematical representations of melodic contour in music, and she is currently working to apply her contour methodology toward the study of familial relationships within a wide variety of repertoires. She is the inaugural recipient of the Society for Music Theory’s SMT-40 Dissertation Fellowship for her dissertation entitled “Fuzzy Family Ties: Measuring Familial Similarity between Contours of Different Cardinalities.” Her other research interests include the music of Brahms, music cognition, minimalism, music theory pedagogy, transformational theory, and the analysis of early music.