Oxford Seminar in Music Theory & Analysis (OSiMTA)

OSiMTA Season 6 (2023–24)

Season 6 (Sound—Timbre—Silence) has now come to an end. Thank you to all our speakers this year, and to all who attended.

The theme and speakers for Season 7 will be announced in early September.

Please note: from October 2024, the seminars will be returning to their original slot on selected Wednesdays at 16.30 UK time in the Committee Room of the Faculty of Music and simultaneously online.


The Oxford Seminar in Music Theory & Analysis (OSiMTA) meets twice a term. Its convenors are Dr Esther Cavett and Professor Jonathan Cross.

Our conception of theory and analysis is critical, plural and interdisciplinary. In shaping the seminars, we aim to reflect the broad range of activity taking place under the heading of theory and analysis today, as well as to challenge boundaries, embracing not only ‘conventional’ practices, histories of theory and repertoires, but also new interdisciplinary approaches that engage with cultural studies, ethnomusicology, aesthetics and philosophy, psychology, politics, performance studies, popular music studies, and so on. Speakers include distinguished local, national and international scholars.

Seminars are open to all, including the general public. Sessions last 90 minutes and lively discussion is encouraged. 

Regular updates will appear on these pages. You can also follow OSiMTA on Twitter/X

Peter H. Smith, University of Notre Dame (17 October 2018)

The “type-2” sonata form in the nineteenth century: a case study from Mendelssohn’s Octet’ 

This lecture explores musical and theoretical issues raised by a particular type of parallel form that has been interpreted in two strikingly contradictory ways – either as a bi-rotational ‘type-2’ sonata form or as a sonata form with a reversed recapitulation. Insights drawn from Hepokoski & Darcy’s sonata theory, Caplin’s theory of formal functions, and Schenkerian concepts of tonal content argue in favour of a type-2 interpretation of nineteenth-century manifestations. A movement distinguished by its supple form/content synergies serves as a case study: the Andante from Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat major, op. 20. Analysis of the Andante demonstrates some of the ways these theories may prove mutually reinforcing, even when they marshal different criteria and model out-of-phase relationships between, say, formal boundaries and Schenkerian tonal pillars. Throughout, the emphasis is on dynamic interactions between a type-2 movement’s generic formal characteristics and its compositional idiosyncrasies.


Leah Broad, Christ Church, Oxford (7 November 2018)

Purely “incidental”? Analysing theatre music’ 

Music and sound have a profound effect on the way that theatre moves and engages its audience, but we have only a partial understanding of how this achieved. Perhaps because ‘dramatic works typically receive the least recognition or respect’ in musicology, as Eric Saylor puts it, incidental music has been the focus of very little analytical attention. But this is a genre with musical, theatrical, and historical significance. As a popular medium, theatre has wielded significant influence over public attitudes towards events and ideas, and incidental scores have reached audiences of thousands, sometimes millions. But without an analytically informed approach to incidental music, we have a limited understanding of how audiences would have understood any given production.

This paper explores some of the analytical problems and possibilities posed by incidental music. I focus on a single collaboration, looking at Ture Rangström’s music for a 1926 production of August Strindberg’s Till Damaskus (III), directed by Per Lindberg. This comprises nearly an hour of music, including Preludes, Entr’actes, melodrama, and underscoring, so demonstrates many of the challenges that incidental music presents.


Richard Widdess, SOAS, London (21 November 2018)

‘Analysis in real time: listeners’ perceptions of Indian music’

How do listeners make sense of unfamiliar music at first hearing, without conscious awareness of its structure or cultural meaning? Further exposure normally leads to increased familiarity and acceptance, but does not depend on gaining explicit knowledge of structure. This capacity to absorb musical languages informally presumably underlies cross-cultural musical exchanges across history, including the international reach of Indian classical music since the 1960s, the rise of other ‘World Music’ genres, and the global spread of Western musical styles.

It appears that listeners are cognitively able to perceive some of the inherent structural features of unfamiliar music, at least implicitly, in real time. Martin Rohrmeier, Tudor Popescu, and myself are investigating processes of implicit learning and segmentation with the help of the sitarist Dharambir Singh. How far are listeners unfamiliar with Indian music able to distinguish the different melodic grammar of two rāgas? Can they detect the hierarchical phrase-structure of the music? In investigating these questions we aimed to avoid the bias towards Western musical genres, and the reliance on artificially generated test materials, conventional in music psychology research.


Julian Horton, University of Durham (13 February 2019)

‘Rethinking sonata failure: structure and process in Mendelssohn’s Overture Die schöne Melusine


Emily Tan, University of Oxford (27 February 2019)

‘Objective autonomy in Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto (TrV 292, 1945)’ 

In ‘The Musicology of the Future’ Lawrence Kramer wrote ‘the emergence of a postmodernist, that is to say, a critical, musicology will depend on our willingness and ability to read as inscribed within the immediacy-effects of music itself the kind of mediating structures usually positioned outside music under the rubric of context’ (Lawrence Kramer, ‘The Musicology of the Future’, repercussions, 1 (1992), 10).

It is now the future, and in this presentation I will suggest that the ‘mediating structure’ of sonata form that is usually positioned ‘inside’ the Allegro moderato of Strauss’s Oboe Concerto might rather be considered under the rubric of context. Existing methods of sonata form analysis applied to the concerto appropriate the immediately appreciable effects of sonata form – its structural ‘punctuation’ – for a discourse predicated on principles of musical unity, coherence, and autonomy. To the contrary, I will show how the presence of sonata ‘punctuation’ in the first section of the Oboe Concerto does not denote a unified, coherent, and autonomous musical form (at least not in the usual sense of these terms).

In order to bring the mediating context of sonata form analysis back into the immediacy of the Oboe Concerto and its structure, I suggest we need a different conception of sonata form. Rather than understanding the concerto’s formal idiosyncrasy from the perspective of sonata deformation, which necessitates a dialogic relationship between the idea of sonata form and the immanent musical form that is the material working-out of this idea, I propose a non-dialogical sonata form in which the material sonata is suppressed under the abstracted idea of the sonata tradition; thus, I will argue that the work espouses an ‘objective’ autonomy.


Dai Griffiths, Oxford Brookes University (2 May 2019)

‘So-called classical virtues in a so-called popular song: does analysing Lorraine Feather’s “The girl with the lazy eye” (Ages, 2010) tell us if it’s any good?’ 

‘The Girl with the Lazy Eye’ is a recording of a song made up of words by Lorraine Feather (also its singer) and music by Russell Ferrante (also its pianist), and issued on Feather’s record Ages, on the independent label Jazzed Media in 2010. In this talk, I attend in turn to Ferrante’s music, Lorraine Feather’s words, and briefly the recording. Elements of so-called classical and so-called popular music co-exist in various respects. My conclusion celebrates wit as a critical category, albeit in an ambiguous context, while I at least claim to bridge taste (I happen to like this song) and value (this song is demonstrably good).

Naomi Waltham-Smith, University of Warwick (23 October 2019)

‘A motley music: the music analyst lends an ear to democracy’ 

British democracy is in crisis. Lord Keen QC has just taken the extraordinary step of having to reassure the Justices that the Prime Minister will take all necessary steps to comply with any declaration the Supreme Court makes. Legal experts, political scientists, and the Twittersphere have been exercising themselves in debating the constitutional stakes of a juncture (and hubris) unprecedented in modern times. More broadly, in recent years scholars across a wide variety of disciplines—historians, political theorists, economists, sociologists, philosophers—have offered various analyses of the resurgence of right-wing populisms, the emergence of leaders brandishing authoritarian personalities, and the collapse in the hegemony of the liberal political-economic consensus. But there is another hypothesis that merits exploration, a diagnosis that music analysts are in a privileged position to test and explain—namely, that the crises of representation we are currently witnessing may be analysed as a generalized crisis of listening.

My admittedly provocative argument has two limbs. First, ever since Plato dismissed the people as a motley rabble in the same breath that he rejected certain rhythmic and melodic modes, music, sound, and listening have repeatedly been present at precisely those moments in the European political philosophical tradition when thinkers have sought to specify the limitations and especially the aporias of democracy. I suggest some explanations for the privileged status of this aural metaphorics and draw a number of conclusions from the historical vicissitudes of the concept of listening for understanding the contemporary situation in which there is paradoxically both a democratic deficit and a panacoustic excess of listening.

Second, the changes in social forms of listening are inseparable from and arguably even symptomatic of transformations in the conditions and practices of musical listening undergone as a result of digital mediations. The consumption of music through streaming services, together with the rise of digital personal assistant, affective listening technologies, and the judicial weaponization of forensic sound analysis, have combined to alter radically our attunement to our environment and to others around us. If our relation to this planet, and to the other human and non-human lives it supports, is a function of listening, who better than music analysts to clarify its intricacies, expose its risks, and advocate for its future possibilities?


Sarah Moynihan, St Anne’s College, Oxford (20 November 2019)

‘Unpicking a static reception: unheard suspensions at the seams of Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela’ 

Sibelius’s early tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela, has a long-established reception as a sound-sheet devoid of harmonic motion. Yet not only has this interpretation tended to ‘flatten’ features that do not conform to its idealized hearing as a static landscape – a swan gliding in the Finnish river –this particular reading also seems to have repelled rigorous analytical approaches. The work’s few dedicated investigations emphasize its ‘formlessness’ or describe it in terms similar to Glenda Dawn Goss, as an ‘exquisite moment of stasis’. What is more, its popularity and standing as an example of quintessential Sibelian symphonicism, have both supported the commonplace and, at times, exoticizing association of Sibelius’s music with proto-minimalist depictions of Finnish landscapes.

This seminar will reappraise what has, itself, become a static and enduring interpretation of The Swan of Tuonela by revealing that this Sibelian variation form is not, in fact, static. Small disruptive ‘tears’ or ‘slashes’ can be heard in the work’s fabric. At these breaks in the cor anglais’s recurring melody and at the ‘seams’ of the form, ‘timbral outsiders’ – to use John Sheinbaum’s term – call out across a conceptual distance. These Suspensions, in the Adornian sense, establish a dialogue with the cor anglais’s musical material that suggests a double-tonic complex between keys from different tonal systems. The paper will also introduce several new analytical tools to Sibelius’s music in a full voice-leading analysis of the piece, including ‘multivalent’ and ‘sonorous voice-leading’, and ‘timbral uncovering’. By examining a particular quirk in the work’s publication history, the textual transformation its programme, and unexamined markings in Sibelius’s copy of The Kalevala, the seminar will arrive at a new programmatic reading of the Swan of Tuonela that recontextualizes it in the heroic Kalevala-narrative of Sibelius’s suite of tone poems, Lemminkäinen,Op. 22.


Martin Stokes, King’s College, London (29 January 2020)

‘Sentimental gesture and the politics of “shape” in the performances of Abd al-Halim Hafiz’ 

Professor Stokes encourages all those attending the seminar to read a draft version of his paper in advance. The performance in question and an (accurate but not very poetic) translation of the text can be found here: https://lyricstranslate.com/en/qariat-el-fingan-coffee-cup-reader-fortune-teller.html (It includes in brackets the Nizar Qabbani, ‘original’ version of the poem, which is useful.)


Elizabeth Eva Leach, University of Oxford (26 February 2020)

‘Imagining the un-encoded: analysing affect in a twelfth-century love song’ 

This paper is a response to an article I published in Music Analysisin Spring 2019, with the title, ‘Do trouvère melodies mean anything?’ There, I examined three songs by the early trouvère Blondel de Nesle in which the melodies and poetic versification are so highly wrought and patently compositionally structured that the answer to the question was a clear ‘yes’. With the examples considered there, the dice are loaded: given that only pitches and poetic text survive from these songs, when those aspects are clearly a compositional focus, diagnosing meaning in pitch or text structure is relatively easy. In the current paper I will instead consider a different kind of case, a song in which the meanings are not fully—perhaps not even mainly—encoded in the structure of pitches, but might arguably have existed in other aspects of performance that are harder to get at given the nature of the surviving notated trace. The analytical procedure here must therefore be to investigate ways in which the performative aspects of this very generically structured song might have contributed to—might indeed have specifically enabled—its meaningfulness in performance. Because I am therefore talking about the performance of trouvère song, a topic about which we have virtually no secure historical information, the analytical method here is essentially speculative, creative, and imaginative, relying on the musicological and musical imagination of a contemporary medieval musicologist, rather than any medieval information, to offer an analysis of Blondel de Nesle’s Mes cuers me fait conmencier(RS1269).


Jack Boss, University of Oregon (29 April 2020)

‘Visions of moonlight and global coherence in “Mondestrunken” from Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire’ 

The sixth chapter of my new book, Schoenberg’s Atonal Music, presents Pierrot lunaire as autobiographical.  The collection of 21 melodramas in three parts portrays Schoenberg being led astray into atonality by the moonlight of modernism, suffering the consequences (alienation from his audience, excoriation by the critics), and attempting to return to his older style but falling short.  These different stages of Pierrot/Schoenberg’s journey are depicted in each of the melodramas by “basic (visual) images” drawn from the first two lines of text that then motivate the pitch and rhythmic organization.  In my lecture, I will explain one of these basic images in detail: in “Mondestrunken,” the image of moonlight streaming down toward the composer in waves gives rise to unending chains of tetrachords linked by common pitch classes, that is, weak and strong Rp relations (Allen Forte’s term).  Though other images interrupt the steady streams of descending moonbeams at times, such as expanding and contracting intervallic “bodies” at the beginning of the second stanza, and the image of the unsteady poet at the beginning of the third, the melodrama returns again and again to the descending moonbeams, and in them it finds its coherence.


Chloë Zadeh, University of Manchester (13 May 2020)

‘Femininities in circulation: gender, emotion and North Indian semi-classical music’ 

In this talk, I explore the relationship between music, emotion and the social construction of gender. I do this by analysing how culture-specific models of femininity circulate in and through the music of the North Indian semi-classical vocal genre ṭhumrī. Musicians and listeners typically describe ṭhumrī as a genre that both expresses and elicits feminine forms of emotion. In a context where ideas about femininity are in flux, my research suggests that ṭhumrī serves as a powerful affective resource for musicians and listeners (especially women) to construct and inhabit gendered identities. Moreover, building on Sara Ahmed’s theorisation of “affective economies”, I show how the gendered emotions of ṭhumrī are mobilised to perform social and political work in the context of twenty-first century India. This work addresses the need for research on music, gender and emotion that considers both text and reception, combining music analysis with ethnographic research. Focussing on one performance, I draw on interviews with musicians and listeners to illuminate ways in which ṭhumrī’s (gendered) affective charge emerges from specific features of the musical sound. In doing so, I consider the extent to which Indian classical performers’ ways of understanding and talking about their own performances are themselves a kind of music analysis and I explore some of the implications of this for the broader project of decolonising music analysis. Through this work, I argue there is much to be gained by considering how musical styles and structures are implicated in wider affective economies and that such work can reveal how musical emotions contribute to the reproduction of large-scale structures of power and inequality.

Philip Ewell, Hunter College, New York (21 October 2020)

‘How We Got Here, Where To Now?’ 

The societal tipping point that is so often cited in the United States these days is intimately linked with our past, a troubled and, at times, violent past that has infused virtually everything that we Americans do. This past is now under great scrutiny in music studies, in how we teach music to our students, how we examine music in analysis, and how we choose the music we professional musicians consider worthy of attention. In this talk I consider our past so that we might chart a path for the future. Only through an exhaustive study of the past can we truly understand why the academic study of music is what it is today, a study that remains exclusionist with respect to musics that are not centred around both whiteness and maleness. In coming to terms with this difficult past we together – white, black, and everyone in between – can create a new academic study of music, rich and inclusive, which will be rewarding and emancipating for all.


Barbara Bleij, Amsterdam Conservatorium (18 November 2020)

‘Current trends in jazz theory and analysis: reading Wayne Shorter’ 

In this paper I will present analyses of two compositions by Wayne Shorter. I will start with an overview of the state of affairs in the field of jazz (theory and) analysis. This field is rather dispersed, while subject matters, methods, and results may, in part at least, be determined by the institutional or geographical context in which an analyst operates. I will discuss three categories: chord-scale theory, academic jazz theory, and conservatory-pedagogical theory. These three categories are by no means mutually exclusive, and may intersect to varying degrees depending on the context. Subsequently, I will summarize the most important findings of my study of Shorter’s ‘E.S.P.’, ‘Infant Eyes’, and ‘Virgo’. This part of the paper serves as an introduction to my views on how to address this kind of repertoire. I will argue that a pluralistic approach is necessary in order to try and capture the many facets of these pieces. The paper will conclude with an analysis of ‘Lester Left Town’ (Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, The Big Beat, 1960) and ‘Harlequin’ (Weather Report, Heavy Weather, 1977). These are two rather different compositions, which invite us to step out of our analytical comfort zone and creatively explore out-of-the-box tools to come closer to these pieces.


J.P.E. Harper-Scott, Royal Holloway, University of London (27 January 2021)

‘Tonality and the capitalist mode of exploitation’ 

Tonal music is a product of human intellectual and artistic labour, dependent on the activity of ideologically interpellated human beings. It therefore imbibes and reflects the relative ideological positioning of the very many human beings who form its laws and customs, as well as its normative and exceptional expressive instances in particular musical works. It might seem trivially true to state that there exists a tight relationship between tonality and the world of late capitalism with which it is coeval. The first part of this paper therefore argues, by considering it alongside a modern analysis of class relations under capitalism, for a more precise articulation of the relation between musical tonality and the historical situation that produced it. Then, in its second part, it demonstrates through a harmonically dualist, Riemannian analysis of a chord in Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, how some music can seem to negate elements of the currently existing ideology.


Catherine A. Bradley, University of Oslo (24 February 2021)

‘Fragments from a medieval motet manuscript in Stockholm: perspectives for theory and analysis’ 

This paper presents and analyses previously unstudied fragments from a medieval motet book, probably produced in France around 1300 and now preserved in the Riksarkivet in Stockholm. The fragments contain traces of eight compositions, five of which are unknown from any other surviving sources. One of these unique motets—Dies ista celebris/Hec est Dies triumphalis/MANERE, which is almost complete—notates portions of its underlying plainchant tenor quotation in red ink. I suggest, not only that this motet may represent the earliest extant instance of red notation, but also that red ink is employed here to indicate octave transposition. This is a usage described in the fourteenth-century Ars vetus et nova treatise of Philippe de Vitry but of which no examples have hitherto been known in practice. The Stockholm fragments raise questions about the analytical challenges and possibilities of evidence that is—quite literally—fragmentary, and they underline a significant cross-fertilization between practices of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century motet composition, practices often studied in isolation.

This paper seeks to show that the Stockholm fragments came from a type of motet collection, whose contents and transmission is not directly comparable with any other known thirteenth- or fourteenth-century source. It makes the case for an apparent gap in evidence for motet composition and circulation at the turn of the thirteenth century into the fourteenth, exploring the possible explanations for and ramifications of a lacuna in surviving sources around 1300 and proffering new insights into what has been lost.


Nicola Dibben, University of Sheffield (5 May 2021)

‘Analysing musical new multimedia: music in mobile apps and extended reality’ 

This paper investigates an emerging new musical multimedia form—interactive musical/sonic art experiences in audio augmented reality. It is common to think of augmented reality as visual, in which imagery is overlaid onto a scene viewed through a screen. However, it can also take aural form—audio augmented reality— in which (spatialised) headphone sound is integrated with (or more commonly) overlays audio from the physical environment surrounding the listener. Previous research has focused on the technical challenges and realisation of sound spatialisation, interactivity, and storytelling in extended reality formats. It has less frequently addressed what audio augmented reality means for musicking (presentational and participatory) and musical aesthetics. In this paper I identify distinct approaches to music in audio augmented reality, and use this to contextualise analyses of specific musical examples, including Moonmoons AR app(Anna Meredith, 2019) and Bloom: Open Space Hololens installation (Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers, 2018). I use these to highlight specific material, aesthetic and phenomenological characteristics of and possibilities for audio augmented reality music, including compositional and listener agency and interactivity, visualisation of sound, the open-work and ludification. In doing so I reflect on what the important music-analytic questions might be about these media and what kinds of theory and analytical methods might be needed to better understand them.


David Bretherton, University of Southampton (19 May 2021)

‘Queering and cripping Schubert’s Atlas’ 

As a gay graduate student in the 2000s, whose thesis was on Franz Schubert’s songs, learning of the furore surrounding Maynard Solomon’s (1989) and Susan McClary’s (1992; 1994) suggestion that the composer may have been homosexual made quite an impression. Their suggestion also appeared to provide a potential interpretative explanation for some of the odd structural features I was discovering in Schubert’s ‘Der Atlas’ at the time. Such a gay reading of the song is consistent with the approach McClary took in ‘Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert’s Music’ (1992; 1994), and also with Sara Ahmed’s notion in Queer Phenomenology (2006) that, put simply, queer people’s orientations and experiences render them sensitive to things that straight people, with their heteronormative orientation and experiences, are not. In truth, though, I was never entirely convinced by my gay reading of ‘Der Atlas’, for reasons I will set out. More recently, as someone with unseen disabilities, I also see the song’s depiction of bodily strain, constraint and despair through the lens of disability. In my OSiMTA seminar I will explore how one might interpret the song, by first offering a technical analysis and straight readings, before queering and cripping these readings, reflecting on my own positionality, and (time permitting) speculating on the relevance or otherwise of this type of work.

Season 4 Theme: Rhythm—Metre—Temporality


Richard Cohn, Yale University (20 October 2022)
‘Slow pulses: do they exist? Are they aesthetically relevant? Can we feel them in the gut?

Music psychologists have found robust evidence that isochronous segments slower than two seconds are processed differently from metric pulses, leading many music theorists to the view that they are aspects of a distinct system associated with phrase structure and form.  However, composers sometimes treat slow isochronous segments as if they were metric, subjecting them to large-scale hemiolas. Moreover, the large-scale ‘hemiola-like things’ often interact, either directly or by association, with small-scale hemiolas that are uncontroversially metric, suggesting that the composes are conceiving of them as if they were part of a single system of relations. I examine two examples, from Franck's Les Djinns, and from the Scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A weak conclusion is that, even if slow and fast isochronies are sequestered into two distinct systems, it is in our interest as listeners, performers and analysts to pretend (imagine) that they are fused into a single system, as these composers evidently did. (This follows from the assumption that artists are licensed to imagine structures that are beyond human capacities – what might it be like to fly like a bird? – and that listeners and analysts are licensed to accompany artists on the journey). More strongly, I offer several different inductive and deductive perspectives that will make analysts, etc., more comfortable with the proposition that slow pulses ‘actually are’ aspects of a metric system, in certain contexts. 

Peter Elsdon, University of Hull (18 November 2021)
‘“Finding one”: conceptualising metre in contemporary jazz’

Recent scholarship on metre by Mariusz Kozak (forthcoming) and Matthew Hudson (2019) has focussed attention on metre as a form of ‘culturally situated bodily inquiry’ (Kozak). Drawing on Kozak’s work on the backbeat in progressive metal, I look at the way that the ‘one’ in contemporary jazz is a means by which musicians and listeners explore the kinaesthetic aspects of metre. This leads me to draw on Butler’s formulation of metre as ‘something that we do’ (2014: 196) in exploring some diverse forms of practice in contemporary jazz.

Danuta Mirka, Northwestern University (26 January 2022)
‘Harmonic schemata and hypermetre’

The concept of hypermetre implies that perception of metre extends upon metrical levels not reflected in notation.  This concept is thus predicated on similarities between metre and hypermetre, yet perception of hypermetre is conditioned by several factors not involved in perception of metre proper. According to Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, metre above the bar level is increasingly supplanted by grouping which, at higher levels, is equivalent to phrase structure. The eminent roles played by phrase structure and harmonic rhythm in perception of hypermetre were dubbed by William Rothstein, respectively, the ‘rule of congruence’ and the ‘rule of harmonic rhythm’. The ‘rule of texture’ was added by Eric McKee and the ‘rule of parallelism’ reformulated by David Temperley. I will posit another preference factor for hypermetre: the hypermetrical profile of harmonic schemata. By contrast to other preference factors, which work ‘bottom-up’ and cue single events as strong, this factor allows for ‘top-down’ processing of hypermetre by mapping the hypermetrical profile of a given schema upon a span of time including several events which can be either strong or weak. I will concentrate on the cadential schema and illustrate its effect upon hypermetre with examples from Haydn’s and Mozart’s string quartets.

Anna Zayaruznaya, Yale University (23 February 2022)
‘Philippe de Vitry’s rhythms’

The fourteenth-century French ars nova has often been described as liberating composers from the final vestiges of modal rhythm by providing them with a notational system capable of expressing a vastly expanded range of durations with relatively little ambiguity. A certain amount of technological determinism is built into this account, insofar as it implies that musicians were being limited by the strictures of the notational system they employed, and that when the system expanded this caused them to be, in turn, more expansive in their creativity. While it cannot be denied that the affordances of notational systems have an impact on the music these systems encode, the implied relationship between a limiting theory and a constrained practice does not adequately account for the situation that can be gleaned from either the theoretical or the practical sources. Attention to the rhythmic usage of Philippe de Vitry across his long compositional career suggests that Vitry was by no means interested in writing every possible rhythm. Instead we observe a surprising level of continuity across the ars vetus/ars nova divide and a slowly expanding palette of rhythms across the decades between c. 1320 and 1360. What might be termed Vitry’s rhythmic conservatism stands in productive tension with his reputation as a pioneering ars nova theorist. This case study serves to nuance our understanding of the dynamic relationship between notation, rhythm and style in this era – and presumably in others.

Isabel Mundry, Zurich University of the Arts/University of Music and Performing Arts Munich (27 April 2022)
‘Issues of temporality in current compositional practice’

The musical thinking that shaped me is based on a linear and processual model of time. However, for some years now I have been increasingly interested in other forms, stimulated above all by my interest in oral cultures. There, time forms are oriented both forwards and backwards. What is remembered is evoked and unfolds in the presence new articulations that can later be remembered again. The music that emerges is as much a trace as a progression. Using examples from my recent works, I will explain how I search for comparable forms and how they give rise to compositional and aesthetic reflections.

Lindelwa Dalamba, University of the Witwatersrand (18 May 2022)

Iintaka Neentonga (birds and sticks) – or, how South African jazz musicians "talk" music theory’

In his introduction to the World of Music’s special issue on South African jazz (2016), Nishlyn Ramanna identifies two main streams of research on the country’s jazz. The first is indebted to social history (this speaker’s intellectual home); the second to ‘close musical analyses of particular styles, compositions and recorded improvisations’ (2016: 7). These streams have rarely met, and their separation is not unrelated to the country’s separatist – apartheid – past. Post-apartheid, South African jazz studies has seen growing scholarly contributions from young black researchers who are primarily performers, and whose interests are close musical analysis and transcription. This is a development that should be met with caution, for at least two reasons. First, uncritical adoption of so-called western musical vocabularies may lead to a degree of conflict between what is heard and what may make sense on paper. Second, it may lead to the erasure of this music’s formative contexts: what languages did these musicians use to make sense of jazz? Revisiting how black South African jazz musicians ‘talked’ music theory reminds us of the polyglot urban spaces they inhabited, despite the white government’s displeasure. It also enables us to consider further the process of American jazz’s adoption in apartheid South Africa. In this paper, I trace the history of this process to the colonial encounter, and discuss briefly how mission-educated black choral composers negotiated these dynamics. I then focus on the archival manuscript (in particular its marginalia and paratexts) of the composer Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong: An African Jazz Opera (1959). This, then, is a story of black South African jazz musicians who described rests as ‘birds’ and staff notation as ‘sticks’ on the page, and for whom free jazz’s improvisational flourishes were the ‘chicken run’. Building on Ramanna, I insist that the streams should meet: the inscription of South African jazz must not be at the cost of its socio-historical complexity. 

Season 5 Theme: Borrowing—Appropriation—Intertextuality


George Haggett, University of Oxford (19 October 2022)

'The endless knot: medievalist motets in Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain (1991)'

In her rehearsal diary from the first production of Harrison Birtwistle and David Harsent’s Gawain, Rhian Samuel describes the composer drawing a line on the back of an envelope. She recounts his insistence that the entire opera was built from ‘one line’ decorated by ‘several simultaneous lines’, in ‘a kind of organum’. (Samuel 2008, 173) The term ‘organum’ encapsulates diverse and centuries-spanning medieval techniques for harmonising chant; Birtwistle found it fascinating, and heterophonic methods analogous to it permeate his output. (Hall 1984, 18-23)

In this paper, I explore how such a compositional medievalism might function in Birtwistle’s operatic adaptation of the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I focus on the tableau at the end of Act One, in which Gawain is ritually armed for his perilous quest. Underscored by sung polyphonic Marian motets, the seasons turn from Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn to Winter again. In the final section, Gawain is presented with a shield bearing the emblem of star-shaped pentacle, or ‘endless knot’. 

The pentangle serves as a complex symbol for Arthurian paradigms of courtly love, blurring secular modes of virtue and desire with Christian and Pagan imagery. In my analysis, I suggest that the ‘endless knot’ can express the ambiguities of narrative time in tandem with the ‘one line’ of Birtwistle’s modernist organum. Traceable as one unbroken path, the pentangle’s five symmetrical points gather the past, present and future into a unified and potently symbolic process.

Hall, Michael, 1984. Harrison Birtwistle (Contemporary Composers). London: Robson Books

Samuel, Rhian, 2008. ‘Birtwistle’s Gawain: an essay and a diary’. Cambridge Opera Journal, 4/2, 163–78


Frankie Perry, Independent Scholar (16 November 2022)

'Analysing arrangement: four versions of Mahler’s early songs'

Mahler’s three volumes of Lieder und Gesänge (1880-1889) comprise the only large collection of songs that the composer did not orchestrate himself: from 1892 onwards, the large majority of his songs were written in at least two performing versions, including for voice-piano and voice-orchestra; and while he returned to orchestrate the earlier Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, only a single sketch fragment evidences any intention to similarly return to the Lieder und Gesänge. Given the considerable popularity of Mahler’s orchestral songs since the mid twentieth century, the ‘metamorphoses’ of certain Lieder und Gesänge within Mahler’s symphonic oeuvre, and the sharp rise of song arrangements on the concert stage in the past several decades, it is unsurprising that several later composers and arrangers have produced orchestral versions of the Lieder und Gesänge. This paper explores the reception and arrangement history of the songs through a comparative analysis of four sets of orchestrations, focusing in particular on potential models used by arrangers for their versions, and their varying interactions with ideas of Mahler’s ‘early’ song-writing style.

I turn first to versions of the songs by Colin Matthews and David Matthews (1964/2016) and by Detlev Glanert (2014-15), which I suggest belong to a phenomenon of ‘historically informed arrangement’ – both seem to aim, in different ways, to realise how Mahler might have orchestrated the songs himself. I then consider these versions alongside those by Luciano Berio (1986-7) and Eberhard Kloke (2011), both of which I suggest also belong under the ‘historically informed’ umbrella but which use their ‘historical information’ as means for subversion and play. I also introduce texture graphs of the orchestrations, designed to comparatively visualise different approaches and detect emerging patterns, and incorporate an evaluation of some of the prospects and limitations of this analytical method.


Joe Bennett, Berklee College of Music, Boston (18 January 2023)

'Forensic musicology in commercial popular music: ontologies and epistemologies'

Forensic musicology is the practice of analysing music to investigate whether a song is copied from a previous song. It is used in music copyright infringement disputes to establish the extent of plagiarism, and in film, radio and TV to ensure that new music is not too derivative of older music. Two main methods are used – musical comparison with prior art research, and audio sample authentication. In this session, Professor Bennett will provide an overview of the field, with live demonstrations of the techniques that Forensic Musicologists use to answer the often difficult and contentious question ‘how similar is too similar?’. The session will include examples from copyright infringement lawsuits in the United States, including the notable ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Stairway To Heaven’ cases of recent years.


Justin Williams, University of Bristol (18 February 2022, cancelled)

'Stylistic adaptation in the music of Stevie Wonder and Return to Forever'

The 1970s was a rich period not only for the music industry, but also for the intertextual compositional practices of several musical cultures. Today’s seminar centres on a concept I have been developing, drawn from Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke’s writings on ‘stylistic adaptation’ (1973). Using examples from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (1976) and Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior (1976), I seek to demonstrate how stylistic adaptation works, and how it differs from other forms of musical borrowing. Such a perspective will shed light on polystylism in 1970s popular and art music worlds, and how jazz fusion or progressive styles also complicated the race-based genre system based in the United States.


Kofi Agawu, Graduate Center, City University of New York (3 May 2023)

'African art music and the challenge of postcolonial composition'

Africa’s art music tradition is not as widely known as it might be. For many people, African music typically indexes ‘traditional’ music of ostensibly ancient origins or varieties of modern ‘popular’ music. And yet, since the middle of the nineteenth century, Black Africans have routinely composed and performed for non-participating audiences such items as art songs, choral anthems, piano pieces, folk operas, and music for large and small ensembles. How might we explain the invisibility of this tradition in the competing discourses of music studies today?        

Drawing from a larger study in progress, I propose in this talk to lay bare some of art music’s enabling conditions, starting with its birth out of the twin forces of missionisation and colonisation. Then, dwelling on a handful of West African examples, I acknowledge the appropriation of European forms, genres and tonal systems but argue that African art music evinces a distinct profile based on historically new patterns of co-presence among a work’s parameters.

In making a case for African art music, I will touch on contemporary debates about hybridity, essentialism and decolonisation, hoping not merely to disturb cosmopolitan views about art music from the South but to point the way towards a critical practice attuned to the specificities of the post-colony.


Jennifer Walshe, University of Oxford, CJ Carr, StabilityAI/Dadbots & Christine McLeavey, OpenAI (17 May 2023)

'AI, neural networks and style appropriation'

Borrowing, appropriation and intertextuality are particularly interesting concepts to explore given the recent acceleration in art and music produced using Machine Learning. Every network which is used to create art or music functions only because it is trained on a dataset of pre-existing work. Some of these datasets may be relatively modest – Dadabots’ Relentless Doppelgänger was trained on the music of technical death metal band Archspire. Others are huge – StabilityAI’s Stable Diffusion was trained on LAION 2B-en dataset, which contains over 2 billion text-image pairs. What does ‘style’ mean in this context? How is it expressed? And who owns it?

Season 6 Theme: Sound—Timbre—Silence


Robert Laidlow, Jesus College, Oxford (24 October 2023)

‘Spectra and structures: navigating compositional latent spaces in chamber and orchestral music’

‘Sound-timbre-silence’ provides an apt jumping off point for talking both about my approach to composition and a broader analytical approach to puzzling out contemporary music. Increasingly, I have deployed these three musical elements not in isolation to one another, but as aspects of a larger, multi-dimensional musical shape. This talk will dive into this approach, building on analysis of new music from the UK and abroad to situate this practice within wider trends in contemporary composition, including algorithmic music, spectralism, (meta)modernism and structuralism. Musical discussion will focus on the recent pieces Gravity, for string quartet, Silicon, for orchestra and electronics, and Warp for piano and orchestra. 


Megan Lavengood, George Mason University (21 November 2023)

Layers of meaning: teaching instrumentation and texture’

Music schools across the English-speaking world are reconsidering the traditional undergraduate music theory curriculum and devising ways to be more broadly inclusive of different types of musics and students. Emphasizing the analysis of timbre, instrumentation and texture is one way of progressing towards this goal: they are inherent properties of all sound and thus can be studied in all music, and they do not rely on the complex systems of pitch that underlie most music-theoretical topics (and privilege students with access to classical training). In this seminar, I discuss the analysis of instrumentational layers in popular music as an accessible topic that gets undergraduate students thinking analytically about texture. I will summarize the concept of functional layers in pop music in a way that is accessible for undergraduate students. While Allan Moore’s (2012) original definitions of functional layers rely on the norms of rock music, my expansions of his theory help open the concept up to a broader swath of popular music not limited to the traditional canon of (usually white male) rock artists. For a practical way to implement this in the classroom, I will demonstrate a web app in development on which I have collaborated – titled Auralayer – that students can use to create layer graphs to illustrate their analyses. Auralayer graphs can be used by instructors to assess a student’s understanding of timbre/instrumentation analysis in a way familiar to music theory classrooms: using a visual that represents the concepts outside time. This makes assessing these analyses akin to assessing analyses of form, for example.


Gurminder Kaur Bhogal, Wellesley College (23 January 2024)

Sikh music theory: struck material sounds, unstruck corporeal timbres and resonating silence’

Sikh music theory holds at its core an oppositional relationship between the struck sounds that are created through playing musical instruments and a variety of unstruck timbres that vibrate effortlessly within the body. These manifestations of sound co-exist through one other and resonate within a larger matrix of a reverberant silence. This seminar explores how listeners attend to these different sonic expressions through their minds, bodies and consciousness within the practice of Sikh devotional music (kirtan). I broaden and engage with Euro-American ideas about the musical work, musical ontology, auditory attention, and corporeal vibration.


Marina Sudo, KU Leuven (20 February 2024)

‘The sound-noise continuum in contemporary music: listening, mapping and interpretation’

In the arena of contemporary music analysis, a disproportionate focus on a composer’s notation may lead to theoretical discussions that have little relationship with a work’s perceived sonic result. As a complementary approach to score-based analysis, in this seminar I will propose a theoretical framework for aural analysis of music post-1950, focusing especially on compositions that feature complex textures and elusive timbres. I will first highlight the relationship between the three states of sound that are most salient to analytical listening: 1) timbre (spectral colour); 2) gesture-structure (Gestalt); and 3) texture (sonic fabric and stratification). I will then demonstrate how this approach can be adopted in different analytical contexts, including in different genres of acoustic instrumental music, electroacoustic/mixed music and electronic music.


Emma Dillon, King’s College London (30 April 2024)

‘Between silence and sound: finding voices for French songs, 1100–1300’

My paper explores a familiar silence in music history: the seeming limit of notated sources of medieval music as records of sound. It takes as case study songs from the early medieval repertory of French chanson (trouvère song) dating c. 1150-1220. As a foil to the sparse information for sound captured in notated songbooks, I explore alternative routes into the soundworlds – or timbres – of the songs. My talk maps an interdisciplinary methodology for re-sounding trouvère songs, embracing diverse materialities, literary environments and soundscapes shaped by and informing the experience of trouvère songs, contexts that ultimately invite more expansive categories of song and sound. In keeping with OSiMTA’s theme, I will reflect on recent deliberation in the field of music theory, analysis and pedagogy, opening discussion on how the approach proposed could inform the study and teaching of medieval songs and poetry within music studies and potentially also in other fields of medieval history and literary studies.


Robert Hasegawa, McGill University (14 May 2024)

‘Timbre and orchestration in two works by Rebecca Saunders for soloist and ensemble’

Rebecca Saunders (b. 1967) is a central figure in contemporary timbre-based composition. Her music incorporates a rich sonic palette of extended techniques and unusual instrumental sounds. While Saunders describes her compositional approach as intuitive, she cautions that this does not imply a lack of rigor: rather, “intuition is based upon thorough research and experience.” This paper seeks to establish new analytical approaches that can address the subtleties and sophistication of Saunders’s timbral and orchestrational techniques. Drawing on a wide range of methodologies—including Dora Hanninen’s distinction between segmentation and association, Judith Lochhead’s call for a more phenomenological approach to analysis, Lasse Thoresen’s aural sonology, Stephen McAdams’s taxonomy of orchestral grouping effects, and Saunders’s own analyses—I examine the composer’s approach to timbre and orchestration in two works for soloist and ensemble: Fury II (2009), a concerto for double bass and mixed quintet, and Skin (2016) for soprano and thirteen instruments.