Featured WiMT: Lea Fink

In Germany, there are as yet no PhD programs in music theory. The study of musicology takes place in universities, but music theory as a major is only taught at conservatories, and far more as a craft than as a humanistic discipline. Graduates usually become teaching assistants in the final semesters or right after graduation, and career paths afterwards can be highly divergent. This was my experience as well: after six wonderful and rich years of studying piano and music theory, I happily accepted the position of educational director with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. My task was to provide the Leipzig audience with a satisfying program of family, school, and kindergarten concerts, workshops, talks etc. Sometimes I wore the hat of an administrator, but just as often I was involved with the orchestra’s repertoire, exploring analytical and interpretative possibilities of the works they were performing: some of my fondest memories are of discussing Beethoven’s 8th with Herbert Blomstedt as well as exploring Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust with Daniel Harding. These experiences sparked my keen interest in the study of musical form.

After nearly two years, I was honored to leave perhaps one of the most traditional orchestras for one of the most extraordinary: the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, which is entirely owned and governed by its musicians. As shareholders, they debate and vote on all financial and artistic decisions. Their philosophy of allowing and cultivating disagreements or dissonances in order to achieve results as a high-performance team enables a unique work attitude, reflected by their Beethoven cycle with Paavo Järvi. The mission of The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is directly linked to their education program. The orchestra is housed in a comprehensive school building in a very diverse neighborhood, and the simple idea of sharing space as “flatmates” has led to remarkably durable relationships among musicians, students, parents and neighbors. My time in Bremen showed me something of the myriad ways in which the interaction of performer and audience can be shaped and intensified.


When I designed educational concerts, I regarded them as a kind of experiment that involved priming my listeners and adapting musical works as a kind of stimulus, even when this took the form of monumental opera performances of up to 600 people with diverse backgrounds and skills. These experiences furnished the starting point for my current research at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, the only one of the Max Planck Society’s over 80 non-profit research institutions with a music department. The MPIEA is unusual for hosting an interdisciplinary community of music scholars, literary scholars and linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists, all of whom share a common interest in the question “Who likes what and why?”

For someone like me, fascinated by the role of musical form, the interdisciplinary ambience of the MPIEA offers an ideal work environment. It allows me to call on a wide range of methodologies and expertise in order to answer some questions that intrigue me: How is form is perceived by composers, performers, and listeners, and how has it been understood in the past? I am particularly interested in the mysterious relationship of Formenlehre to the listening experience. As musicians, we sense that performers possess (and use?) a vast store of implicit, practical knowledge concerning the importance of a global structure when it comes to performance and interpretation. Yet as an hypothesis, this conviction remains largely experimentally unsupported. My research attempts to relate 18th-21st century accounts of form to contemporary empirical studies, asking to what extent do theoretical concepts of form overlap with real-time listening experience or performing? Are there categories of individual strategies towards an understanding of musical form?

As an example, let us consider Pierre Boulez’s strategy for quickly learning his short piano piece 2 from Douze Notations:


Boulez, one notes, adopts a traditional, rather static, spatially-oriented approach in discussing the form of his piece. What I find more interesting is his dynamic concept of form: the metaphor of a bike ride could even be regarded as a simplified version of his own compositional process, which he called prolifération. But these two listening strategies are complementary: each offers an indispensable mode of insight. Indeed, structural or architectonic and dynamic or concatenationist categories may well serve completely different, incommensurable ends. My project studies how certain listeners develop a preference for one or the other means of experiencing musical form. And perhaps, along the way, we may find support for the hypothesis of listener sensitivity to large-scale musical structures.



Lea Fink_JörgSarbach

Lea Fink is researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. She holds graduate degrees in Piano and Music Theory from the University for Music and Drama Rostock, complementing her studies in Boston and Vienna. Before coming to Frankfurt, she was head of education and outreach with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the director of the Future Lab of The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Her research is motivated by her experiences in the “field” and focuses on perception and understanding of musical form in Western music theory and from an empirical point of view.

FEATURED WIMT: Rebecca Perry

I live in the fertile but sparsely populated borderland between music theory and history. Though a music theorist in job title, I have found abundant opportunities for cross-pollination between the two fields. My work on Prokofiev’s early adaptations of sonata form relies heavily on paradigms from musicology, taking inventory of specific ways that his idiosyncrasies of thematic process bear the imprint of his aesthetic and sociocultural milieu in early twentieth-century St. Petersburg.

Oddly enough, I migrated to this disciplinary interspace from the adjacent province of literary criticism. As a child, I loved to memorize exquisite turns of phrase that I encountered in poems and novels; I ran through my school’s hallways announcing to my friends that “[t]o make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee” (Emily Dickinson). Studying major literary works later on in high school, I was intrigued to learn that meaning arose not only from a text’s story or graceful combinations of words, per se, but from the fictional procedure itself—from the author’s deployment of particular formal techniques to construct the story in a certain way.

Like many young readers, I operated under the unconscious assumption that proper understanding of these formal techniques would unlock the door to a text’s ultimate meaning. Not until my sophomore year of college did I understand that a text does not possess one true interpretation, like a rare bird locked in a cage. One afternoon in a literary criticism class taught by Daniel Muhlestein at Brigham Young University, an astute fellow student explained that when he read a novel, he tried to view it through several critical lenses simultaneously, including feminism, Marxism, and so forth. While this approach to reading seemed impossibly esoteric to my nineteen-year-old mind, I was nonetheless fascinated at the idea that a text could become a dense, multi-dimensional menagerie of meanings to the trained and searching eye.

It occurred to me later in my college career that a similar critical approach could be productively applied to music. As a piano performance major, I became particularly interested in the early piano concertos and sonatas of Prokofiev. I was often puzzled, however, at the disconnect between my experience of his compositional unorthodoxies and the ease with which many commentators dismissed his works—particularly his formal process—as uninventive or overly reliant on classical models. His sonata forms in particular were often deemed to be mechanical and perfunctory, following “stereotyped formal pattern[s] straight out of the textbook” (Richard Taruskin) or “adhering to ‘sonata form’ as if it were a train schedule” (James McCalla). It seemed to me that such cursory dismissals bypassed much that was experimental and connotatively rich in the composer’s formal strategies, caricaturing them as one-dimensional rehashings of Viennese classical forms.

As I continued my study of Prokofiev in a doctoral program in Music History at Yale, I undertook a more detailed study of the many formal eccentricities in his sonata forms—including the interpolation of unrelated material in the middle of a traditional theme space, the superimposition of two previously sounded themes, the severe truncation of thematic material after the close of the exposition, and the functional repurposing of thematic material following its initial sounding. Often these thematic idiosyncrasies were pronounced enough to disrupt the larger structures in which they appeared, simultaneously inviting multiple interpretations of the overall form. I vividly remember an afternoon spent in a Panera Bread (of all places) on Chapel Street in New Haven, puzzling over the superimposed primary and secondary themes in the slow middle movement of Prokofiev’s Fourth Piano Sonata (1917).

As I struggled to find a formal label for the movement that could accommodate this stratified return of the opening material, it occurred to me that the richness of the movement was actually wrapped up in—not thwarted by—the structural ramifications of this thematic superimposition. The layering of themes placed the movement in dialogue with Type 2 sonata form, Type 3 sonata form, and ternary form simultaneously. There was no single “correct” reading: it was much too beautifully rich and messy to put in any single theoretical box.

After wading more deeply into my dissertation work, I realized that hasty caricatures of Prokofiev’s sonata forms not only ignored much that was interesting in the music itself but also hindered our ability to properly situate the composer historically. I found that Prokofiev did not take his formal cues from a single Viennese “textbook” but was rather in dialogue with a complex network of multiple sonata traditions, particularly the nineteenth-century Russian symphonic tradition, fin-de-siècle Austro-German sonata practice, and the early twentieth-century Franco-Russian avant-garde. In my continued work on early twentieth-century sonata form, I have repeatedly been struck by the deep interrelationship of music theory and history: the more detailed understanding we have of the internal structure of the musical artifact, the more fully and accurately we can piece together the historical traditions with which it is in dialogue.

In the classroom, I have sought to instill in students a similar appreciation for music’s resistance to facile labels, both in terms of internal structure and historical situatedness. Last spring when a spirited debate arose among my students about whether a Mozart minuet could be called a rounded binary form, I suggested that when you attempt to dress a small child in a piece of clothing (a shirt perhaps), and the shirt does not fit, you learn something about both the girth of the child and the limits of the shirt. Though admittedly ridiculous, this metaphor did lead the group to concede that when a piece of music seems to defy existing labels, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of both the complexity of the music itself and of the limitations of our theoretical and historical categories. While I am aware that many of our Conservatory students will go on to pursue careers in other fields, I believe that these kinds of analytical skills will lead them to be more critically thinking members of their professions and broad-minded contributors to society.



Perry high resBecky Perry is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. She received her Ph.D. in Music History from Yale University in 2017. Her work explores idiosyncrasies of form and thematic process in Prokofiev’s early instrumental music. Her work has appeared in Music Theory & Analysis, and she has presented at annual meetings of the Society for Music Theory, American Musicological Society, European Music Analysis Conference, and Music Theory Midwest.


Featured WIMT: Abigail Shupe

I study death.

A lot of days, I read about funeral customs, end-of-life care, the death industry, and I write about death and music. Contrary to what one might imagine, this reading is interesting, not usually depressing, and generally life affirming.

My interest in this topic came about during my doctoral studies at the University of Western Ontario. One of my answers for my comprehensive exams included a narrative analysis of George Crumb’s River of Life (2003), and I was drawn to the ways the piece commented on death. Despite its title, the songs in this cycle dealt with dying and the afterlife; it suggested a kind of symmetry and balance that conceived of death as part of life, necessary to make life complete. My analysis of the pitch structure supported this interpretation. As is typical of Crumb, the harmonic content features symmetrical set classes, aggregate completion, and a symbolic use of certain interval classes like the tritone. I was also compelled to analyze the music this way because of the seeming personal connections in the piece between the Appalachian folk songs and hymns, and Crumb’s identity as a West Virginian. The cycle conveyed a sense of death as a peaceful return home, and I posited that Crumb, in his early eighties at the time, would have found such a notion comforting.

While this project began as an exam answer, it grew into several conference papers, and I continued to work on it on the side, whenever my advisor was busy reading a dissertation chapter. Compared with my dissertation research on Rameau and the reception of Newton’s theories in the French Enlightenment, Crumb’s music and death provided much needed contrast, along with the chance to do score analysis (completely absent from my dissertation). When it came time to enter the job market, it turned out that having two very different research areas was a plus, and committees seemed to be attracted to this odd combination. In fall of 2014 my work on River of Life was accepted into an edited volume, Singing Death, about all manner of issues of music and mortality.

Unfortunately, I had to pause while editing the final draft of my essay for this volume because my father died in May 2015. The editors graciously granted me extra time away from the project in the worst periods of my grief, saying they understood that I needed a break from thinking about death critically when it had happened so close to me. Although unsure about whether I could continue in this particular research area, I found when I returned to it that the topic was richer and more personally rewarding than ever. My experience with grief revealed to me how poorly American culture equips us to deal with topics like death, grief, and mortality. By reading others’ accounts of how death impacted them, along with sociological accounts of American attitudes toward death, I realized I was not alone in my feelings. These authors dealt with topics that I wanted to talk about, but that mainstream culture seemed to deem off limits. I took comfort in reading about deaths in vastly different circumstances or periods of American history, and gained an appreciation for how honestly addressing my own feelings about death could improve my quality of life.

Being a part of Singing Death also alerted me to an entire subfield of the humanities of which I previously had been unaware: death studies. Once I knew that this field existed, I immediately knew it was the best way for me to situate the same issues in Crumb’s music. Death studies, which encompasses studies of death and mortality from various perspectives, specifies how death in the context of war is different, and how the mass deaths during American wars in the past have changed current cultural practices around death. I have been most attracted to discussions of ghosts or hauntings as part of cultural responses to death. Crumb’s music is full of ghostly content, whether abstractly in his choice of timbre, or explicitly in his titles, texts, and performance indications. With this framework in mind, I turned to two of his pieces about war to examine how these pieces commented on American wars or death during wartime.

Specifically, I have focused on Winds of Destiny (2004) and Black Angels (1970), and their relationships to the Civil War and the Vietnam War, respectively. My analysis of Winds of Destiny centers on how Crumb uses timbre and musical content to haunt listeners. I also draw on scholarship about death from this period about how the Civil War produced more causalities than any war before it (and many since). The mass quantities of dead in the 1860s led to the emergence of the modern funeral industry, and especially, the ubiquity of embalming. Aside from new funeral and business practices, this era also led to the government marshaling a sense of patriotism around the deaths of soldiers, as a way of coping with their deaths and maintaining enthusiasm for the war effort. Winds of Destiny does more than comment on the Civil War, however; it ultimately haunts listeners on an allegorical level, prompting us to consider the morality of more recent American military actions. Crumb’s Black Angels is well known, and though it does not explicitly deal with the Vietnam War, this war was central to the cultural conflicts of the 1960s that the piece comments on. Like the Civil War, the Vietnam War changed the way Americans viewed the deaths of soldiers. However, unlike the patriotism rallied for the Civil War dead, the losses in Vietnam became for many a symbol of the futility of Americans’ presence there. Their deaths were seen in some ways as meaningless and stood for the larger meaninglessness of the war. Black Angels haunts listeners on an allegorical level to consider these issues, while also suggesting deeper, cosmic consequences for the social turmoil of the 1960s.

Taking Judith Lochhead’s suggestion in Reconceiving Structure in Contemporary Music, I analyze Crumb’s music taking into account things like intertextual relationships, references, performance indications, timbre, and things generally considered “outside” the primary text. To be sure, this subject matter at times makes for awkward dinner party conversation. But ultimately the project enriches my life as it urges me to consider what it means to be alive, what kind of death I hope to have, and what it means to lose those we love.


ashupeAbigail Shupe is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Colorado State University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Western Ontario, and holds an M.M. in Music Theory and a B.M. in Music Composition from Indiana University. Her research focuses on issues of death and mortality in George Crumb’s music about war, and materialism and science in Rameau’s Génération harmonique. Her work has appeared in Theoria (Spring 2017) and in Singing Death (Routledge, 2017). She has served as the student representative for SMT’s CSW and currently chairs the Scholars for Social Responsibility Interest Group.

Featured WIMT: Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska

I yet have to meet a colleague who dreamt of being a music theorist as a child. I am no exception: as a young musician, I aspired to win a job playing clarinet in a symphonic orchestra. Analyzing music gave me great satisfaction and I had always been inclined towards the intellectual side of things, but the possibility of pursuing a career in music theory was not even in my radar—largely because in Spain, as in other parts of Europe, it does not have that status of an academic discipline. Just as for other fellow women in music theory featured here, my inner theorist revealed itself during a transformative moment. For me, this happened in Alcalá de Henares, a small historic city close to Madrid and birthplace to Miguel de Cervantes. Although the University of Alcalá did not offer degrees in music, a woman called Avelina López-Chicheri had the vision to fill a gap and satisfy an existing demand by creating a series of workshops in music theory led by prominent scholars. At two of those workshops, “Musical Meaning” by Michael Spitzer and “Interpretation and Analysis” by Robert Hatten, I experienced for the first time the meaning and possibilities of music theory and analysis. From Spitzer, I heard about musical topics and metaphors; from Hatten, I learned how Beethoven could convey with his music concepts such as abnegation or transcendence without using a single word. This all resonated so strongly with my experiences as musician and listener that it triggered a change in my career path, which would eventually lead me to study music theory at the other side of the Atlantic.

The empirical bent of the Music Theory and Cognition program at Northwestern University put an unexpected twist on my interest in musical meaning and expression. Vasili Byros and Robert Gjerdingen introduced me to the study of historical modes of listening and the importance of statistical learning, which I appropriated—perhaps sometimes too liberally—into my “corpus-inspired hermeneutics.” For example, I studied phrase structure and hypermeter in symphonic minuets by Haydn and Mozart, and realized that certain traits appear much more frequently in the symphonies than in minuets written for the ballroom, and that these strategies produce musical imitations of specific elements from the minuet’s choreography. Danceable minuets did not require this type of exact correspondence between music and movement, but I believe that in some symphonies composers aimed to create a sonic representation of the minuet dance—a dance-painting of sorts. In another corpus study (conducted by hand an eye), I examined the use of the I–V-vi chord progression in the late eighteenth century and realized that it appears more frequently in sacred music than in instrumental music, more frequently in opera seria than in opera buffa, and that it commonly accompanies moments depicting priests, gods, heavens, or prayers. Drawing on these correlations, I have offered spiritual interpretations of this harmonic pattern in pieces of music without explicit religious references.

My inclination towards such lofty issues has led me to write my dissertation on the hymn as a musical topic in the age of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. As a musical genre, the hymn is a fuzzy category that includes—but is not restricted to—congregational songs, homophonic passages from Catholic polyphony, operatic prayers, revolutionary hymns, and national anthems. Although these repertoires differ in their musical characteristics, they share a common affective core, something of a heart-felt solemnity. Towards the end of the eighteenth-century, composers increasingly incorporated the style of hymns into other musical genres (using them as “topics”), arguably to infuse their music with spiritual resonances by evoking the sounds of ritual and devotion. As a topic, the hymn style tends to coalesce around distinct sub-categories. Homophonic passages reminiscent of the sober isochrony of the Lutheran chorale provide one well-known example, but others exhibit more rhythmic variety. The hymn-like themes that Beethoven wrote for his Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 incorporate abundant dotted rhythms, resembling French revolutionary hymns as well as the recently established repertoire of Catholic congregational songs in German. Dussek was also fond of this spirited variant of the hymn topic. Haydn turned towards triple meter for his instrumental hymns (as in the slow movements of his Symphonies Nos. 75 and 87), writing a graceful type of hymn topic rooted in the style of operatic scenes featuring cohorts of priestesses and other female, supernatural characters. Hymn topics interact with other musical styles and participate in larger expressive trajectories, often governed by convention, to create musical signification. Some give way to a more operatic singing style, following a solemn-to-lyrical paradigm; others arrive after stormy passages, suggesting a laboriously achieved serenity. Although dances and hymns seem hardly compatible in their expressive content, composers such as Gluck, Beethoven, or Gyrowetz found in the pavane a fair companion for the hymn topic.

The study of musical topics provides great opportunities to explore intersections between music theory, music history, and other domains of culture—a perspective that I value as both a researcher and a teacher. By inviting my students to consider the historic, aesthetic, and expressive dimensions of musical structures, I hope to recreate for them some of the excitement that I experienced in those memorable music theory workshops. Many years after my first encounter with Robert Hatten, we reconnected thanks to the Mentorship Program of the Committee of the Status of Women and I eventually asked him to join my dissertation committee. I could not think of a better way of closing one circle and beginning a new one.


headshot WiMTAs of fall of 2017, Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska is a lecturer at the University of Chicago and PhD candidate at Northwestern University. She holds bachelor’s degrees in Economics (Universidad Complutense) and clarinet performance (Real Conservatorio de Madrid), and Master’s degrees in Music History (Universidad de La Rioja) and Music Theory (Northwestern University). Before moving to the Unites States and embarking on her academic career, Olga was an active performer and music educator in Madrid. Her research gravitates around musical meaning, broadly understood, with a focus on the classical style. She has received awards from the Center for Iberian and Latin Music, the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic, the Music Theory Society of New York State, and the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music.


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.

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