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.




Music Theory Online (MTO) – Call for Submissions on Feminist Music Theory

Call for submissions: Music Theory Online seeks new research for a special half-issue or issue on feminist music theory. Authors are invited to submit articles of approximately 8,000-12,000 words on the topics listed below by March 15, 2016. Submissions will undergo the journal’s standard blind-review process.

Potential topics are:
(1) feminist critiques of music theory, its methodologies, and/or terminology (either contemporary or historical)
(2) new feminist methodologies for analysis, or expansions or alterations of previous ones
(3) feminist analyses or reinterpretations of works using existing paradigms

Some examples of the kind of scholarship we seek are (this is not a comprehensive list):
– Suzanne Cusick, “Feminist Theory, Music Theory, and the Mind/Body Problem,” Perspectives of New Music 32/1 (1994)
– Marion Guck, “A Woman’s (Theoretical) Work,” Perspectives of New Music 32/1 (1994)
– Marianne Kielian-Gilbert, “Of Poetics and Poiesis, Pleasure and Politics-Music Theory and Modes of the Feminine,” Perspectives of New Music 32/1 (1994)
– Fred Maus, “Masculine Discourse in Music Theory,” Perspectives of New Music 31/2 (1993)

More generally, we publish work that makes a new contribution to scholarship on music theory and/or analysis, situates its contribution within the current published research on the topic, and is well organized and clearly written. We encourage authors to take advantage of our multimedia capabilities to include audio, color graphics, animation, video, and hyperlinks.

Articles may be submitted via email to mto-editor[at] consult our submission guidelines at Music Theory Online is the refereed open-access electronic journal of the Society for Music Theory.

Nicole Biamonte
Editor, Music Theory Online

LP’s Last Post: Reflections on the CSW 2012-15

One day in July 2012, I received an invitation from Harald Krebs, then-SMT president, to take over from Patrica Hall as chair of the CSW. The timing could not have been worse: three days earlier, I’d hit a low point in my career and believed (mistakenly, as it turned out) that my days as an employed music theorist were over. So I told Harald that I didn’t think it made sense for the Society to give me a leadership role. His response was a model of simple Krebsian grace and kindness: “I don’t see why that should be a problem.” And so began three years of working with a host of wonderful people both on the CSW itself, across the entire Society, and beyond.

This period of the CSW has been something of a roller coaster, from the lows of the smt-talk debacle sparked by sexist music theory terminology in April/May 2013 to highs like our leadership of the opening plenary session at this summer’s SMA conference, an international panel entitled “Mind the Gap: Women in the Field of Music Analysis.” But roller coasters always end back down where they began, and this is definitely not the case for the CSW in 2015. For example, I note from one of my first e-mails to Harald that the CSW Facebook group had 115 members but was virtually silent; if someone posted a question or a link to spark conversation, often there were no replies. Today, it has more than doubled in size to 264 and is an active site for discussion, announcements, and sometimes wicked wit!

But our online presence expanded even more with the launch of this blog, thanks to the excellent work of CSW grad student representative Stefanie Acevedo. The home to many resources including our mentoring programs and “Share Your Stories” page, it’s now had over 4,000 views not only from the US and Canada, but the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia, Finland, Austria, India, Italy, Singapore, Brazil, Hong Kong, Sweden, Spain, Japan, Belgium, Colombia, Turkey, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Micronesia, South Africa, Switzerland, Norway, Pakistan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Romania, Russia, Nigeria, Belize, Poland, and the Netherlands. Phew!

Our mentoring programs have tripled since 2012, when we only offered the proposal mentoring program that had been launched in the early 2000s. Now under the energetic leadership of Inessa Bazayev and most recently Rachel Lumsden, we also offer an Article Mentoring Program to boost women’s chances of publication success. And last year we added our Situational Mentoring Program, allowing all SMT members regardless of gender the opportunity to contact directly with the mentor of their choice to chat about gender-related career issues, anonymously if they wish.

“Share Your Stories” also allows all SMT members to anonymously share experiences related to women in the field of music theory. As more people contribute, we hope this will provide members or other interested individuals with a sense of the day-to-day issues still facing women in the field, as well as the rewards of a career in a vibrant field that is increasingly open to fresh perspectives. (Send in your story today!)

Finally, in response to continued reports of inappropriate questions to our members—male and female—during music theory position interviews, we’ve revived the process of sending out reminders to search committees. But in keeping with the intersectionality of these questions, we invited the Accessibility, Diversity, and Professional Development Committees as well as the Queer Resource Group to collaborate on a revision of this letter and to co-sponsor it from now on.

Throughout these past three years, the guiding words of the CSW throughout even the worst of times have been “constructive” and “solutions-focused.” In part through our efforts but also those of many others in the Society, women now represent 32% of the SMT membership, the highest annual result in its history, and while we still tend to under-submit research articles to our journals relative to that percentage, last year the numbers of submissions from women to MTO and MTS nearly doubled. Women also now represent 50% of SMT’s Executive Board and official committees, ensuring that we have a strong voice in its future directions.

Much remains to be done; just read a few of the shared stories on our blog if you need more convincing. But our meetings this past week at SMT St. Louis, led in part by incoming chair Jennifer Bain, generated some exciting new project ideas and I know the CSW will continue to play a positive, dynamic, and inspiring role in the Society.

In closing, thanks to all of my past committee members—Stefanie Acevedo, Sara Bakker, Inessa Bazayev, Jane Piper Clendinning, Eileen Hayes, Ted Latham, Wendy Lee, Charity Lofthouse, Rachel Lumsden, Brad Osborn, and Abby Shupe—for all your contributions. What a dynamic group of people I’ve been privileged to work with! Presidents Harald Krebs and Poundie Burstein, Vice-President Michael Buchler, Publications Committee chair Matthew Shaftel, and many, many others have also helped make this past three years terrifically rewarding. Finally, thanks to all of you for your insights, participation, and friendship.

That’s it for me—bye all. Now, over to Jennifer!


Laurel Parsons

All-Male Panels at SMT 2015

Share Your Stories” (“SYS”) is a place where readers can submit stories of their own experiences with the assurance that readers won’t be able to comment on those experiences. That’s the rule, and it’s not going to change. However, the other day a male theorist wrote in asking for advice on how to respond to an invitation to chair an all-male panel at the upcoming SMT conference. His question prompted my last entry about how to post a question, because I realized looking over the blog that we hadn’t yet set up an obvious way for people to do that if they’re asking something relatively simple that might be of interest to a lot of readers, and they actually want to get an answer or start a conversation about it. Now that I’ve set up a contact page where you can send in your questions or blog post ideas, I want to address the question he’s raised. From now on, please send questions of this kind via our “Contact Us” page rather than SYS.

(Please go here to see the original Shared Story post.) So let’s get to the question of all-male panels. If a male theorist wants to support the increased presence of women on SMT sessions, what’s the best way of responding to a request for him to chair an all-male panel? (If you’re new to this issue, see the link at the bottom of the page to a good article in the Guardian a couple of years ago.) Personally, here’s my take on it, considering only the upcoming SMT conference in St. Louis — not conferences in general.

I would say that it depends on who’s organizing the session: has the Program Committee put it together from all the year’s accepted proposals, or is it an invited or volunteer panel set up independently by one of the interest groups? If it’s the Program Committee (“PC”), logistically it may be difficult if not impossible to ensure there is a woman presenting a paper at each and every regular session. This year, I’m told women submitted only about 25% of proposals to SMT (we’re still waiting for data on the acceptance rate, but in recent years it’s tended to match the submission rate). Moreover, there may have been no women at all submitting papers on a particular topic (or no men on another).

The PC — which itself has a much greater representation of women at 50% than the SMT as a whole — has more control over gender balance among session chairs. This year’s PC Chair, Joti Rockwell, has told me that so far women represent about 40% of St. Louis chairs (they won’t have final numbers until all invitations have been issued and responded to), well over their rate of membership in the Society. (He also noted that invitations to male chairs may well have been proposed by women in the first place, given the gender balance within the PC.)

Given all these constraints, and how close we are now to the conference, declining the invitation to a session organized by the PC because there are no women on that particular panel would almost certainly make no difference in the gender balance among the speakers. I would recommend asking why there are no women on the panel, and depending on how you feel about their answer, either accepting it having at least raised the issue, or declining it while also assisting the PC by recommending one or two women whom they might invite instead.

But what if the session is organized by one of the Society’s interest groups, where sessions may be organized more casually, either by invitation or by people volunteering to speak rather than blind review of proposals in answer to a CFP? I think wherever it’s possible in the remaining time between now and the conference, challenging the organizers to improve the gender balance on their panel is the way to go, whether that means suggesting additional women speakers, or declining to chair and recommending one or two women whom they could invite. Others may have different suggestions on how to approach this, and please note that these are my personal opinions and not necessarily those of the CSW — I’ll let individual members offer their own thoughts if they wish. Thanks to our reader for bringing this important issue up for discussion! Laurel Parsons, CSW Chair