Featured WiMT: Kristen Wallentinsen

By Kristen Wallentinsen

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-wallentinsen150x200.jpgKristen 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.

Battling Unconscious Biases

Most of us know that we harbour implicit or unconscious biases, but are at a loss about how to address them. Many orchestras have long acknowledged these biases and have responded by having job candidates audition behind a screen to ensure anonymity, resulting in an increased number of women in these orchestras. Similarly, the Society for Music Theory has worked at removing the impact of these biases by engaging in double-blind review of articles for the Society’s journals; double-blind review has been successful: the acceptance rate of articles by women in Music Theory Spectrum and Music Theory Online is on par with men.

Most scholars, whether male or female, believe that they are not prejudiced against women, or members of the LGBTQ communities, or people with disabilities, or people of colour, but scientific studies show us clearly that unconscious biases shape all of our interactions. As bell hooks says, we are all capable of being both oppressed and oppressor (Hooks, 2000, 16). We unwittingly act on these biases in a number of ways, but I will focus here on letters of recommendation, on our citation habits, and on our invitations to conferences and academic panels. It is only by recognizing and actively countering these biases that we can dismantle systemic barriers and create true diversity in our institutions and in this Society. Here are some concrete suggestions for how to do that.

Letters of reference for male students, whether or not the letter-writer is male or female, are “4x more likely to mention publications” and emphasize research, praising achievement, while letters for women are 50% more likely to use adjectives that praise effort (Commission on the Status of Women, University of Arizona). When we write letters for women, we need to make a deliberate effort to highlight their achievements.

In academic publications in general, we cite more male authors than female, which has a negative impact on the careers of women. You can address this problem by checking your bibliography and resources when writing your next article or course syllabus, and deliberately seeking out work by women.

Finally: avoid the all-male panel; seeing panel after panel of only men presenting reinforces implicit bias. If you can’t think of a female theorist who is working on the topic of your special session or event, review recent issues of music theory journals, and check out the SMT Committee on the Status of Women’s most recent resource, a directory of women in music theory, developed by student member, Stefanie Acevedo.

Jennifer Bain

List of citations:

bell hooks. Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press, 1984; 2nd edition, 2000.

Avoiding gender bias in reference writing.” Commission on the Status of Women, University of Arizona.

October Featured Links from Facebook Discussions

Disclaimer: Not all links are re-posted – please don’t take it personally if things you posted are not re-linked. Links are selected based on number of views/likes/comments and relevancy.


Avoiding Gender Bias in Recommendation Letters
1200 Years of Women Composers (Playlists of Music by Women) 

Music by Women Festival
Job Listing: Post-Doc Resident Scholar at Indiana University
Opera Grants for Female Composers (Opera America)
Arts and Humanities Research Council/BBC Workshop
From AMS List: Call for Compositions from Women & Music Journal


Students See Male Professors as Brilliant Geniuses, Female Professors as Bossy and Annoying 


New Blog Features!

The CSW is always working hard to develop programs that will fulfill our mission to diversify the field and promote gender inclusion.

We have developed three new ideas, and are launching them just in time for this year’s SMT/AMS meeting!

You will now find three exciting features on our blog:

A) Directory of Women in Music Theory – this new public directory welcomes entries from all women in music theory. We hope this will serve as a resource for those seeking to diversify their conferences, editorial boards, etc. as well as to give a powerful overview of the multitude of research being done by women in our field.

B) Featured Research – New blog series that will feature an article, book, or other project written by or about women. Please send in your suggestions using our online form!

C) Featured Woman in Music Theory (WiMT) – New blog series that will feature a woman in music theory! Please send in your suggestions using our online form!

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

Featured Woman in Music Theory – Brenda Ravenscroft

brenda-ravenscroftToday, we feature past CSW-chair Brenda Ravenscroft, who has recently published her co-edited book with Laurel Parsons, Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers, Vol. 1. You can find more about her recent work at her book website.

Dr. Ravenscroft has also recently been appointed as Dean of the McGill Schulich School of Music. Please join us in congratulating her!

She writes:

“I’m currently an Associate Dean in the Faculty of Arts and Science at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, a position I’ve held for the past ten years. When I started at Queen’s in 1993 I taught music theory and analysis in the Dan School of Drama and Music (which falls within the Faculty of Arts and Science), but I now work full-time as an administrator in the Dean’s office.

As of July 2017 I am going to bring my music and administrative careers together when I take over as Dean of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University.

Three interests animate my research in music theory: my fascination with time, my love of poetry, and my passion for equity for women in music. I investigate these interests through analyzing post-tonal music to answer the question, how does it work? Through rhythmic analysis I discover how composers shape time in music that lacks the regular metric framework of tonal music, and how musical time interacts with the temporal unfolding of a poetic text. In addition to quantifying compositional structures and systems, I am interested in the perceptual and cognitive aspects of time. Much of my work focuses on the vocal music of Elliott Carter (1908–2012), the preeminent musical interpreter of modern American poetry, who employed a contrapuntal approach to texture and complex rhythmic organization to express his layered interpretation of the texts he set.

One of my most exciting recent projects is a four-volume series of analytical essays on music by women composers, which I’m working on collaboratively with my colleague Laurel Parsons. Laurel and I were graduate students together at the University of British Columbia in the late 1980s and, thirty years later, are now co-editors and contributors to the series. Female composers have been marginalized and overlooked throughout history, and, while women have made significant social and political advances since the early twentieth century, this has not been reflected in the musical world. Women composers are underrepresented in performances, in the classroom, and in scholarly research, particularly in music theory. Our book project aims to address this by making available detailed, technical analyses of compositions by women composers in order to stimulate new research into this overlooked repertoire, to enable music by women to enter the classroom, and to facilitate its inclusion in concert programs. The first volume, Concert Music 1960–2000, was published in March 2016 and will be followed by three volumes covering different time periods and genres.

I think that people often place limitations on what they believe can be achieved if one is a woman. I’ve never believed I am limited by being a woman, and a combination of hard work, courage, support, and good luck have led to wonderful opportunities in my professional life. I’d encourage everyone, regardless of their past experiences or their gender, to be attentive to the social and systemic barriers that limit women, and to be purposeful in questioning and dismantling them. If we no longer limit each other—or limit ourselves—we can all realize our potential.”



September Featured Links from Facebook Discussions

Disclaimer: Not all links are re-posted – please don’t take it personally if things you posted are not re-linked. Links are selected based on number of views/likes/comments and relevancy.


Women in Cognitive Science
Women in Machine Learning Facebook Group
Crescendo Forte International

Celebrating Women Composers – Elektra Women’s Choir
Music by Women Festival
Job Listing: Post-Doc Resident Scholar at Indiana University

Blog Posts/Opinions:

(The Lovely) and Talented: A guest post by composer Emily Doolitle on terminology used to describe women
On Being productive and Reproductive at the Same Time


The Gender Factor in Conference Presentations
Students See Male Professors as Brilliant Geniuses, Female Professors as Bossy and Annoying
Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000
Bias Against Female Instructors 

For “Fun”:

Hillary Clinton Will Not be Manterrupted