Featured WIMT: Sarah Iker

I’ve always loved puzzles—the more complicated, the better. But my obsession didn’t seem to have an obvious relationship to my musical ability for many years. My musical trajectory was typical: I started piano lessons in elementary school and did the usual competitions and associated music theory workbooks, which I thought were pretty boring. Perhaps relatedly, I hated Bach (J.S., of course, I didn’t know there were others) until late high school, when my piano teacher, Caryl Smith, showed me how to analyze motivic relationships in imitative polyphony—a puzzle I enjoyed untangling. I didn’t make the connection between my interest in this sort of analysis and a future career in music theory until much later.

When I began college, I knew I wanted to continue playing piano, so I planned to double-major in music and a STEM discipline. I started with chemistry, but found that my favorite part of any class was deriving equations—so I found my home as a math major. As befitted my puzzle-solving interests, I planned to become a cryptographer. But at the same time, I loved my piano lessons, I enjoyed the puzzles of counterpoint and model composition, and I liked learning about obscure musical genres in music history. Still, I thought music theory wasn’t something that was for me—I was starting to consider changing my career path, but I wanted to pursue piano professionally.

Fortunately, I had a wonderful music theory professor, Youyoung Kang, my first year at Scripps College, a women’s college that takes as its motto the charge to help women become confident, creative, and hopeful. Professor Kang was a role model in a place I didn’t know to look: a fellow woman who had dual interests in music and mathematics, someone who didn’t underplay her love for the “geeky” parts of music. She recognized something in me that I didn’t: my excitement over analysis, over the especially “mathy” portions of our classes together (I loved set theory). Professor Kang inspired me to pursue music theory at the graduate level.

In graduate school, I thought I’d continue integrating math and music theory directly: I intended to study transformation theory or some sort of music psychology. But my musical interests and my graduate training led me elsewhere. In an early graduate seminar with Steven Rings, I was introduced to David Lewin’s writing on multiple hearings and experiences of music as wide-ranging as Schubert and Stockhausen. We read T.J. Clarke’s art history monograph, The Sight of Death, in which he re-analyzes the same painting, finding new details, day after day. I thought that this approach to analysis was freeing and fascinating, and I found myself less and less interested in studying a single analytical methodology. Instead, I found myself drawn to a type of music in which I had multiple, different experiences. The music that captivated me was one of Stravinsky’s early neoclassical works, his Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. I realized I wasn’t alone in my varied experiences of the work—and that this kind of neoclassicism has struck many people in a variety of different ways.

Although I wasn’t conscious of it, my mathematical interests gradually crept into my research: I wanted to catalogue historical experiences of neoclassicism, to understand whether these experiences matched my own, and to use these responses to understand, analytically, how Stravinsky modified expected tonal structures to strategic effect. I was fortunate to receive grants from my department and the university to do archival research that further strengthened my interest in the language the people used to describe these experiences. My preliminary, handwritten attempts to analyze all the adjectives people use to describe this music at different points in time became increasingly mathematical, so Seth Brodsky suggested that I look into text mining and the digital humanities. And, then, it all clicked: the right way to approach the mass of responses I had accumulated was through combining statistical analysis with closer reading of specific responses. I found that my results suggested that relationships between expectation and alteration were quite important to listeners, so I began to look into ways to represent these ideas in music analysis. Ultimately, I found that a combination of recomposition, schemata, and topic theory helped to reflect and reanimate those experiences.

In my teaching, however, I find that many of my students are reticent to explore music theory, in large part because they find its mathematical qualities disinteresting or intimidating. This response seems to come disproportionately from my female students. If we want to encourage more women to pursue music theory, one thing that may help is to consider the possibility that many of our students are afraid, that they have been taught that they are not good at math, that they have been told they have no aptitude for this kind of thinking, and that this predisposes them to dislike music theory and its mathematical trappings. Articles come out frequently about relative lack of confidence in STEM classrooms, indicating that women often underestimate their aptitude and skill in the classroom. Thus, encouraging confidence and creativity in our classrooms ought to be an important focus. Many of my students tell me they simply can’t think this way—and I take this as a challenge to show them that they can.

There are many ways, of course, to encourage students to overcome their anxieties, to enjoy and participate in music theory and analysis, but I want to suggest some that have been especially helpful for me:

  1. I emphasize that at its core, music theory and analysis is a humanistic discipline, not a scientific one. There are multiple ways to interpret a chord, a non-chord tone, or a form, and each interpretation adds richness to our musical understanding. It’s okay, preferred even, to experience the same piece differently on a different day!
  1. I work to demystify the myriad ways that music theorists use numbers to represent musical and music-theoretical ideas (c.f. Megan Lavengood’s “There are too many numbers in music theory”).
  1. I don’t shy away from the psychological and mathematical ties to our discipline. I lean into algorithmic thinking, emphasizing my own excitement at musical puzzles and mathematical ideas, but I also work to help students find ways to interpret these ideas creatively. One common exercise that I find helps with the overwhelming numbers in music fundamentals, for example, is to ask students to draw their understanding of relationships between parallel and relative keys—the results are often surprising and fascinating, and it allows them to encode many numbers in a way that makes more sense to them.
  1. I frequently ask students to bring in musical examples from their lessons, ensembles, or daily listening practices so that we can analyze them together and ground these abstract, sometimes mathematical ideas in music that they find compelling. Sometimes this may mean stretching the boundaries of what might seem acceptable, like analyzing sets in the music of Lana del Rey, but students end up less overwhelmed and more engaged.



Iker_SSarah Iker is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Tampa. She holds a Ph.D. in Music History and Theory from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. in Music and Mathematics from Scripps College. Her research focuses on analyzing historical experiences of neoclassicism, digital humanities, schemata, and musical theater, and has recently presented research at the annual meetings of several regional music theory societies. She is a pianist, handbell player, and swing dancer.


Featured WiMT: Elina Hamilton

As a pianist, it took me a surprisingly long time before I realized I was bound to music notation. Notation informed me what pitch to play, for how long, with specific articulation, dynamics, and with what kind of emotion a phrase should be presented to an audience. At one point I stopped to ponder the power that “The Score” had over me as I spent hours building up a repertoire for my senior recital. Little did I know at the time that my curiosity would lead me into the wonderfully complex world of medieval music treatises.

For my graduate studies, I moved to the UK to study early music at Bangor University (Wales, UK). Unlike institutions in the United States, music departments in the UK do not segregate musicology and theory, and this enabled me to move freely between the two disciplines. My time in the music department coincided with a newly established Center for Early Music studies in 2007 led by distinguished early music scholars such as Thomas Schmidt, Christian Leitmeir, John Harper, Sally Harper, and Hana Vlhova-Wörner. We sang music, organized conferences, studied manuscripts in archives, and reenacted pre-reformation and post-reformation church music together, all in the hopes of understanding a distant musical past. The Center no longer exists and most of us have since moved on to different institutions, making our encounter in Wales a unique confluence.

In graduate school, I learned that theorists from the Carolingian Renaissance had unique ways in which they described sound. The anonymous author of Musica enchiriadis could not explain music without invoking another more commonly studied discipline: grammar. “Just as the elementary and indivisible constituents of speech are letters, from which syllables are put together, and these in turn make up verbs and nouns, and from them is composed the fabric of a complete discourse, so the roots of song are phthongi, which are called soni in Latin.” These soni are comprised of sounds that are specifically designated, selected out of all other sounds. The notation given these soni were only used in the enchiriadis traditions yet were a part of a musician’s pedagogy for centuries. I became fascinated by the way theorists described the soni, and their sometimes clumsy descriptions. I was particularly intrigued by theorist’s depictions of singing improvised organum, and how they eventually argued for and against the smallest levels of dividing rhythm. When Dorit Tanay kindly gifted me her monograph, Noting Music, Marking Culture, I was inspired to write something about the history of theory.

I narrowed my dissertation research to focus on the importance of individual theorists within the long tradition of medieval music theory, and decided to work on texts written in England during the fourteenth century. The fourteenth century was a time when musicians implemented a quick successions of new ideas about notation. Andrew Wathey’s research on the transmission of music from the continent into England allowed me to begin questioning how theorists might have engaged in an intellectual discourse within the country and across the Channel. I began to map out the transmission of ideas among English theorists, only to discover that they seemed to have had an internal network that was well informed by innovations taking place abroad. To date, my most exciting discovery was when archival research led me to discover that Walter Odington, originally believed to have been both a music theorist and an alchemist, was a conflation of two different individuals working in two institutions based on a misreading of the letters v and n. In my dissertation, I argue that the musician hailed from Evesham Abbey, as distinct from Eynsham Abbey near Oxford, where the alchemist conducted his experiments. Who would have known that two small letters could tell us so much about the history of theory!

Walter is most famous today for being one of the first to reason that the interval of a third, though mathematically complex, is audibly pleasant and therefore should be accepted as consonant. Walter’s De speculatione musicae likely dates from the last decades of the thirteenth century, although only one complete copy from the fifteenth century remains today. Only a few sentences can be reconstructed from the original folio but in the introduction, Walter reveals his distress that young musicians do not fully comprehend the study of music in his day. “They begin from the end, skipping the basics,” he writes in one of the fragmented sentences, and later “[…] the great diversity of notation in melodies invented in our time […] all say different things to corrupt that which has been said by the ancients, as though they were plaster.” The treatise that follows addresses the teachings of the ancients, notably Boethius, while offering a concise but careful description of the newest forms of rhythmic notation. Walter was, in many ways, the father of English music theory, and his writings resonated with other English theorists, who mention him as an authority in their treatises.

My current research has turned towards finding direct connections between the music and theory of the fourteenth century. I am particularly interested in finding out how and what theorists may have known about music composed in different geographic regions. My article, “Phillipe de Vitry in England: Musical Quotations in the Quatuor principalia and the Gratissima Tenor”(forthcoming in Studi Musicali), focuses on the use of Philippe de Vitry’s motet tenors as musical examples in the Quatuor principalia. I suggest that certain motet tenors by Vitry were well known among a group of theorists and composers in fourteenth-century France and England, and possibly even circulated independent of the other voices. The immediate dissemination of this “modern music” within treatises as found in the Quatuor principalia reveals an inner circle of music enthusiasts who were continuously engaged in a musical discourse.

Today, I teach a graduate seminar at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee on the history of music theory focusing on medieval and Renaissance theory. Medieval organization of sound is foreign to the modern performer on many fronts, and most of us enter college reading music notation and understanding the organization of sound in one particular way. In my classroom, I look for ways to expand my student’s perspectives through the history of theory rather than shy away from the past. I emphasize that even if the process of organizing sound differs, we share a continuously changing path of comprehension with the musicians who came before us. I like to remind my students that theorists of the past thrived on the same joy of understanding music at a deeper level that we do today.



elinaElina G. Hamilton is Assistant Professor at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in musicology from Bangor University (Wales) and a B.M. in Piano Performance from Portland State University. Hamilton’s graduate research was recognized by The Drapers’ Company with a medal for Outstanding Postgraduate Contribution, only the sixth such medal given in the London guild’s 600-year history. Her work on Walter of Evesham Abbey appears in Musica Disciplina. Hamilton also advocates the need for more research on women in music and her article on Louise Hanson-Dyer appears in Notes.




Featured WiMT: Wing Lau

“We have multiple personae that constitute many sides of ourselves. These personae are distinctive, but they are essentially all ‘you.’ For partners and companions, you want to choose those that bring out your happiest sides,” my friend advised. For me, music theory is one of those partners.

My musical training began as a pianist. When I was young, I did not care about music or about practicing the piano. (But practicing could still be appealing when you practice hands-separately, as a good pianist would, while holding a comic book with the resting hand.) It was my high-school piano teacher who exposed me to the world of thinking about music. When working on the rhythmically intricate opening of Beethoven’s op. 14, no. 2, she would ask, “what do you highlight? The onset of the right-hand motive or the downbeat?” I decided to highlight both (as subtly as a twelve-year-old could) so that the left-hand entries were even more out-of-place. When I got impatient holding a long note in a folk-inspired adagio by Bartók, she would ask me to listen to the note as if it was the sound of the blowing wind in a rural village. Now I realize, she was encouraging her students to interpret with rationale and subjectivity—a performer’s analysis. As an M.M. piano performance major, more interpretive puzzles were presented to me as the complexity of my repertoire grew. What constitutes an artistic performance? Why couldn’t I see eye-to-eye with my duet partner on the emotional quality of the same passage, and why was it difficult for us to articulate our underlying reasons? In order to piece all these together, further study in music theory was inevitable.

My fascination with rhythm and meter since that lesson on Beethoven op. 14, no. 2 continues to drive my research. At Oregon, I was introduced to the vast scholarship on metrical dissonances and the expressive intersection of poetic and musical meters in Stephen Rodgers’ seminar. I was particularly drawn to the metrical dissonances generated by a few measures of notated meter changes in German songs as a response to the poetic rhythm and textual meaning. For example, while both Schubert and Brahms might suggest a recitative style in their songs, they do so differently: Schubert often inserts a common-time signature but obscures the metrical accents by phenomenal and structural accents while Brahms alternates between different time signatures and underlines the metrical accents. I also found that metrical projection in songs by Schumann and Brahms are usually clear until the meter changes. Therefore, the effect of the new meter depends on the strength and the duration of the perceived antimetrical events and its magnitude depends on the time listener takes to reinterpret the prevailing meter retrospectively. For example, if the retrospective reinterpretation happens instantaneously, the listener could sense a sudden change of tempo which often highlights textual changes or repetition; if the reinterpretation takes a slightly longer time, one could sense a rhetorical lengthening which invites close listeners to dwell in a musical moment just passed. Although some of these meter changes could have gone undetected without the score, I believe that such notational strategies are for the listeners as much as the performers.

Tempo is often a pointer to emotional attributes, and David Epstein has suggested that surface rhythm is a part of the complex gestalt that projects tempo. Recently, I have been comparing the degree of contrasts between different kinds of meter changes (whether it is changing from one duple meter to another or changing between a duple and a triple meter) by comparing the resultant surface rhythms. I find that some kinds of meter changes are more drastic than the others, and Brahms has explored them to highlight different degrees of textual changes.

As a pianist, I was often told that an artistic performance does not emphasize every note and harmony. Naturally, voice-leading graphs became my other obsession as a music theory student. I was delighted that Jack Boss let me write a history of music theory term paper on performance after a few lectures on Schenker. What piqued my interest was Nicholas Cook’s discussion of “rhetorical” (or “romantic”) and “structuralist” (or “modernist”) performance styles as products of historical contingency. Incidentally, the pianist Artur Schnabel, who was active around the turn of the twentieth century, represents both styles: his occasional faltering and mobile tempo are the hallmarks of the rhetorical style, but his obsession with phrase length and his pseudo-Schenkerian way of streamlining melodic lines shows a structuralist tendency. This stylistic mixture marks him an early modernist pianist, as critics have also observed. (His opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s op. 90 is an example of this):

I have my reservations about Schnabel’s teaching and recordings, but his interpretations offer a way to slip analytical thinking into performance (albeit sometimes forced), whether it is a priori prescription or a posteriori evaluation. (I have been trying out Schnabel’s way of faltering and streamlining in my playing when technical demands are not an issue—they usually are! Feedback is positive—so far. I am increasingly certain that analytical thinking can play a role in an expressive performance.)

Despite Schnabel’s reputation as a performer who serves the composer, I am skeptical about whether his interpretation reflects the composer’s intent, especially when his reasoning appears presumptuous or inconsistent. As Nicholas Epley suggests, people tend to reason egocentrically about other’s thoughts using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. I hypothesize that some of Schnabel’ claims about the composer’s hidden intention are his own conscious and unconscious subjectivities. Perhaps his effort to make his findings heard is a deliberate strategy to differentiate himself from his idiosyncratic contemporaries.

As a theory instructor, I strive to invite my students into the exciting world of rhythm and meter and to relate theory with performance. I am grateful to people who helped me discover my passion and provided support along the way: my encouraging mentors at the University of Oregon, my caring colleagues here at the University of Arkansas, and all my piano teachers who inspired me not to just play the notes on the page.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWing Lau is an instructor of music theory at the University of Arkansas. She holds a Ph.D. in music theory from the University of Oregon and a M.M. in piano performance from Indiana University. Her research focuses on rhythm and meter, and the relationship between performance and analysis. She has published in Music Theory Online and has presented at different international and national music theory and performance conferences.


FEATURED WIMT: Megan Kaes Long

When young girls read music they become altos. I’ve been singing all my life, in churches and schools and community choirs, and as far back as I can remember I was assigned the alto part because of my ability to read music and, I now realize, because I understood how the parts related to one another. In middle school, to my choir director’s amazement, I started singing the alto lines out of sheer boredom. She assumed that I had perfect pitch (I didn’t), but admonished me to go back to the melody so as not to distract the other students. As I sought out more challenging performance environments—my church’s adult choir, high school chamber choir, vocal jazz, college glee club—I routinely volunteered to sing the alto part because I was good at it. By the time I graduated from college I was hooked, and years of lazy singing and a lack of patience for the practice room had left me with mediocre vocal technique that excluded me from singing soprano in the sorts of choirs I strove to join.

But I am a great alto. I love orienting myself to the parts around me, tuning chords until they sparkle, singing Bach’s weirdest and juiciest lines (this is my favorite), and exploiting the rare heroic “alto moment” after thirty-five minutes of supporting work. This passion has led to some unforgettable opportunities—world travel, lifelong friendships, life-changing collaborations, and thousands of hours of rehearsal (once without electricity). And it has also shaped every aspect of my music theoretical work, from the repertoire I study to the questions I ask to the ways in which I answer them.

As an undergraduate I fell in love with Renaissance music. I craved the independence of line; it afforded my alto self opportunities to shine. I strove to show the audience when my rich melodic passage was more important than the parts around me, and to fade away when another voice took over. I loved the thrill of singing in parallel thirds or sixths with another voice for a few measures and the intricate interplay of cadential suspensions and evasive maneuvers, a technique I now know Zarlino calls fuggir la cadenza. As a graduate student I joined Yale’s Schola Cantorum, a semi-professional group that performed almost exclusively Renaissance and Baroque music, and my toolbox as a performer grew. From Simon Carrington I learned to find special moments in a seemingly undifferentiated contrapuntal surface and make them shine, from Andrew Megill I learned about the massive range of colors available to a choir (he once asked us to make a passage in Monteverdi’s Vespers sound like burnished gold), from Masaaki Suzuki I learned the endless expressive capacity of subtle variations in timing. And as I dove deeper into my academic work, I came to cherish our five weekly hours of rehearsal, which rooted me in my body and reminded me that music was a thing that we do, not just a thing that we think and write about.

What I have learned from studying, singing, and writing about Renaissance music is that most of this music is made for singers and players, not for listeners. What’s more, the experience of performing Renaissance music was mediated not by a cpdl.org score with questionable editorial ficta, but rather, through partbooks. For the past few years I have been working on a monograph on homophonic vernacular partsong composed in Western Europe in the decades surrounding the year 1600—it’s called Hearing Homophony: Tonal Expectation at the Turn of the Seventeenth Century. This project would have been impossible a decade ago. Many of the sources I work with are unedited or appear only in old, mostly unusable editions that are sorely in need of updating. Now, thanks to digitization projects from hundreds of libraries around the world, many of the sources I work with are available online (some of my favorites are Gastoldi’s Balletti a cinque voci and Hassler’s Lustgarten). But of course, nothing beats seeing the real thing; I have been fortunate enough to receive funding from The National Endowment for the Humanities and Oberlin College to travel to European libraries and work with dozens of sets of partbooks in person. Partbooks present some interesting challenges. For instance, how do you get to know an unedited collection? (You lay out all five partbooks side-by-side and do your best to piece a partsong together in your head, all while trying not to make too much noise in a silent but echoey reading room.) What do you do when a set of partbooks is bound together? (You ask for digital copies to take home and write in your notes that this particular set was never used for performance—someone purchased it to look impressive on a shelf.) How do you work with a collection where one or more of the partbooks is missing? (You extrapolate from incomplete information, compose your own inner parts when necessary, and even stumble upon the occasional hand-written part!)

I have learned as much from handling sixteenth-century partbooks as I have from my experience singing Renaissance music. I’ve learned to think about how these books were used, and how that changes our understanding of what the music sounded like. For instance, the earliest frottolas were published in fastidious, compact choirbooks. Unlike the partbooks I normally work with, the choirbooks place all four parts together on a pair of facing pages. But what you can’t tell from the (gorgeous) digital images is how tiny these books are! When I saw one in person at the Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève I realized that it would have been impossible for a group of four singers to perform from this little book. (I made quite a scene in the reading room, too, holding the book at different angles and distances and walking around and squinting, trying to get a sense of how close I would need to be to make sense of the miniscule text underlay.) Whether these pieces were performed by voices or with solo singers and instruments remains an open question, but some of our best evidence comes from the physical objects of the books, not from the contrapuntal details. In her landmark study Composers at Work, Jessie Ann Owens hypothesized that Renaissance composers and musicians must have cultivated a kind of musical memory much different from our own, since there is little evidence that they ever worked with music in score-like formats. In my own experiences in the archives and in my office I have found this to be the case. Over time, it’s becoming easier for me to store lengthy passages in my working memory and play contrapuntal lines off of one another in my head as I move back and forth between two or three partbooks. And the more I sing from partbooks (and ask my students to do the same), the more I learn how much information is encoded in them that I had never noticed before, since my habits of reading are based on the technology of the score. But you can tell a lot from a single part—how the mensural grid aligns with the music, whether a pitch is consonant or dissonant, whether the texture is imitative or freely contrapuntal or homophonic, where the cadences are.

The more time I spend with Renaissance-era sources, the more captivated I am by their mysteries. We have a disciplinary habit of taking scores at their word, but as Ruth DeFord recently reminded us, we simply can’t take musical notation for granted in medieval and Renaissance repertoires. The tantalizing gaps between early sources and the performances they encode is a rich area for new research—we saw several models of this kind of work at SMT this year in a special session sponsored by the Early Music Analysis Interest Group. As I continue to triangulate between analysis, performance, and source study, I feel grateful for the constant reminder that music is a thing that we think and write about, a thing that we do, and a thing that other people not so different from ourselves once did. It is at the intersection of these axes that we do our best work.

megan-head.jpgMegan Kaes Long is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. She holds a Ph.D. in music theory from Yale University and a B.A. in music from Pomona College. Her work appears in the Journal of Music Theory and Music Theory Spectrum. Her forthcoming monograph, Hearing Homophony: Tonal Expectation at the Turn of the Seventeenth Century, explores how composers of homophonic vernacular partsongs exploited tonal trajectories, and how these repertoires and the cultural and intellectual movements that surrounded them contributed to the emergence of a tonal style in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She is also a mezzo-soprano and performs with several early music ensembles in the Cleveland and Detroit areas.

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: Orit Hilewicz

Arriving at the University of Washington as an undergraduate student majoring in piano, my knowledge of music theory was limited to core harmony and counterpoint. I loved harmony and counterpoint—I used to sing Bach chorales with my friends and indulge in the colorful harmonic progressions. However, I had no idea that there is more to music theory than the teaching of composition. As I progressed in my studies, I was struck by the breadth of the field and the diverse paths it opens for gaining musical knowledge. My first moment of wonder occurred when studying phenomenological approaches to music with John Rahn at the University of Washington, when we examined theories of music through the lens of early phenomenologist theories. I realized that ways of conceptualizing music express underlying philosophical paradigms; how we think about music is how we think about the world, and innovative ways of making music are products of novel modes of thinking. What could be more exciting than that? I had to continue to a PhD program.

What drew me to the field more than anything, and continues to guide my work, was the different ways theories of music reflect musical experience (performing, composing, and listening), and more importantly—ways in which theory and analysis can shape, and even expand musical experience. I was excited that music analytical writings affected my playing and listening, whether by changing my understanding of a piece or by echoing my own hearing of it. The prospect of hearing music through someone else’s ears, or sharing my own way of listening, seems to me as powerful an artistic mode of expression as composing or performing a piece. I have been lucky to meet fascinating musicians and musical thinkers as teachers, peers, and students, who piqued my interest in theory as a way of communicating “hearings” that shape music making and understanding.

It is a common experience that one’s understanding of a musical work changes in the course of analysis, and I have always been fascinated by ways discourse about music and musical experience interact and shape one another. My recent research has focused on intertextual relationships between music and other artworks, as I have been aiming towards analytical approaches that include components of musical experience that are sometimes called “extra musical,” following the work of scholars such as Jonathan Bernard, Marion Guck, David Lewin, Judith Lochhead, and others. While music is never conceived and performed in a vacuum, some works demand that we consider them (listen, perform, analyze) in connection with other texts. I have been focusing on compositions that take other artworks as their subject matter. It is a special case, called “musical ekphrasis,” in which composers direct performers and listeners to engage in such a relationship by adding a text to the score, which points to a connection between the composition and another artwork. Focusing on twentieth century pieces composed after paintings, architectural spaces, and other musical works, my dissertation project offers an analytical approach that expresses the diverse connections such musical works can create with their subject artworks. I have noticed that, when listening to a piece composed after another artwork side by side with its subject, a special relationship emerges—the artwork influences my understanding of the music, while at the same time the music affects my interpretation of the artwork. Drawing from theories of music in multimedia and music cognition, I define two general categories of intertextual representation whose unique interplay gives rise to the mutual relationship between the musical piece and its subject artwork, offering a conceptual framework that allows an analyst to focus on the particular relations formed when actively listening to ekphrastic compositions.

In The Open Work, Umberto Eco quotes the following from Henri Pousseur about listening to post-serial compositions: “…it is up to the listener to place himself deliberately in the midst of an inexhaustible network of relationships and to choose for himself […] his own modes of approach, his reference points and his scale, and to endeavor to use as many dimensions as he possibly can at the same time and thus dynamize, multiply, and extend to the utmost degree his perceptual faculties.” I believe this statement is true for any act of listening, and particularly for intertextual listening such as entailed by musical ekphrasis. For example, in Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, the chorus is instructed by Feldman to sing “n” throughout, resulting in a muted tone (try it and hear the tone you produce compared to singing a vowel!). I interpreted the sound of the chorus very differently before learning that Mark Rothko designed the chapel with scarce light, intending for his paintings to be experienced in a dark room. Therefore, one of the connections I made when listening to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel as musical ekphrasis was the notion of obstruction—the composition pointed me to the darkness of the chapel space and vice versa, the chapel space inspired me to understand the chorus tone as obstructed.

As an instructor, I found intertextual considerations of music and other artworks helpful in providing interpretive paths that would motivate students to explore analytical questions. For example, when teaching a seminar on music in multimedia works as part of Columbia University’s Teaching Scholars program, I started the semester by experimenting with different approaches to analyzing Lieder. The students were excited to discover that harmonies and motives become imbued with significance when taking the poem into account, an approach they later applied when studying music in dance and in film.

While at the graduate music theory program at Columbia, I was fortunate to be in an incredibly encouraging department that not only supported my research, but also provided me with numerous opportunities to share my interests with students in both core music theory courses and in advanced courses that I designed. I am immensely thankful to my dissertation sponsor Joseph Dubiel, to my mentor Ellie Hisama, and to the numerous people who supported my research and teaching endeavors throughout the years in myriad ways.



oritOrit Hilewicz is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the Eastman School of Music. She completed her Ph.D. in Music Theory at Columbia University in 2017. Orit has a BA (majoring in piano) from the University of Washington, where she later completed her MA in music theory. Her research interests include music and visual arts, set theory, analysis of post-tonal music, and analytical approaches to musical temporality. Her dissertation, titled “Listening to Ekphrastic Musical Compositions,” studies pieces that take other artworks as their subject matter. Analyzing music composed after paintings, architectural spaces, and other musical works, her research examines the intertextual relationships between music and images. In April 2016 her article, “Tracing Space in Time: Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, was published in Time and Trace, a volume produced by the International Society for the Study of Time.


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.