Music Theory Methodology: Seeing Music Through a Different Lens

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Music Theory Research

While research in music theory at Pioneer is unique, its methodological approach is not unlike other research areas in the humanities, such as architecture. Those wishing to gain more insight into music theory methodology may also benefit from reading this article about research methodology in the humanities. Just as Pioneer scholars in the humanities often take a theory and apply it to their object of analysis–be it a painting, a building, or a literary text—Pioneer scholars in music theory receive a theoretical background in their research concentrations and then use it to analyze a particular composer or song. 

Some Pioneer scholars in music theory analyze a specific element or compositional technique in a song or the work of a composer. Ryan (United States, music theory, 2020), came to be interested in music theory because of his own experience as a jazz musician. He was placed in a concentration on counterpoint and fugue, compositional techniques most commonly found in classical music.

While his concentration focused on classical music, Ryan knew from the start that he wanted to find a way to incorporate his passion for jazz into his research. “I had to think of a way to combine my interest in jazz with what I was learning with my professor. I ended up finding a composer who had used the classical structure of fugue, but the sounds and melodies of jazz,” Ryan says.

Ryan was thrilled when he finally came across Nikolai Kapustin, a Ukrainian composer and pianist who combined jazz and classical forms. “My research question was ‘How are classical and jazz elements fused together in the form of a fugue?’ My methodology was just analyzing the composer’s music to answer that question.”

Other work in music theory is focused more on reception and perception of music. Irene (United States, music theory, 2020), analyzed the rhythmic perception of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music in her Pioneer research paper. Clapping Music is a minimalist composition written in 1972 and consists of two performers clapping.

Irene’s paper, titled “Complexity Within Minimalism,” analyzes the different ways rhythm can be perceived in this piece depending on the location of the listener. “In my paper, I go in-depth about possible meters, ones that are traditionally more common and also some that are mixed. I map out multiple pathways of how the piece can be felt overall, flowing from meter to meter from each measure,” she explains. “I conclude with an investigation of meter from both the audience and performer’s perspectives. For example, for someone in the audience hearing the rhythm from the first performer in the forefront of the displaced rhythm, or the opposite effect where the static line may act as an accompaniment to the phasing line, are just two of the many drastically different experiences that come from listening to exactly the same performance.” Irene was drawn to Clapping Music because she is a percussionist and was already familiar with the piece. 

Still other Pioneer scholars look to the basic building blocks of music to answer essential questions about what music is. Zirui (China, music theory, 2020), did a tonal analysis of Beethoven’s last piano sonata.

As a pianist, he was curious about how music can be both so similar and so different; how is it that we can recognize music as being music when it is so diverse? “The general idea of music theory, and specifically tonal theory, is that music is built on a tonal system. That tonal system is the same, while music is different because of different compositional techniques that we use, or even differences in our cultural backgrounds or values,” Zirui explains.

Although most Pioneer scholars conducting research in this area are musicians or at least have a deep appreciation for music, diving into music theory allows them to engage with the material on a new level. Pioneer scholars ask profound questions about the nature of music and find answers by honing in on particular elements in particular songs, providing a deep analysis based on theories they have been exposed to in their concentrations. As with other research areas, the result is an authentic, original contribution to scholarship.

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