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