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Salons 1 & 2 • Saturday morning, 10:30–12:00

Theorizing Musicality

Leigh VanHandel (Michigan State University), Chair

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis (University of Arkansas)

Theory, Analysis, and Characterizations of the Musical

Nancy Rogers, Jane Piper Clendinning, Sara Hart, and Colleen Ganley (Florida State University)

Specific Correlations Between Abilities in Mathematics and Music Theory

Abstracts

Theory, Analysis, and Characterizations of the Musical

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis (University of Arkansas)

The description “highly musical” can be applied to entities as various as people, analyses, compositions, and performances. But what exactly does it mean for one performance or analysis to be more musical than another? By systematically interrogating the use of this term in various contexts, this paper seeks to reveal covert cultural attitudes and intuitions about music.

First, the paper examines cases where a theorist characterizes an analysis as especially “musical.” In analytic contexts, the descriptive “musical” is often set in opposition to the descriptive “theoretical,” reflecting an awareness of the way music’s most compelling aspects can elude capture by prevailing analytic systems, and a continuing effort to listen beyond these systems and develop new tools that are responsive to the unique aspects of individual works.

Second, the paper examines cases where performances are described as particularly musical. In both characterizations of analysis and in characterizations of performance, the term musical is asked to carry the residue after existing modes of understanding are exhausted.

Third, the paper examines a number of studies where people rated the musicality of sound sequences, ranging from collections of pitches to utterances normally thought of as speech.

The final section of the paper asks whether the relationship between theory and the musical is necessarily one of pursuit and elusiveness, or whether other models might exist. For example, is it possible to develop theories and analyses that more directly target the musical without pushing our notion of the musical further away?

Specific Correlations Between Abilities in Mathematics and Music Theory

Nancy Rogers, Jane Piper Clendinning, Sara Hart, and Colleen Ganley (Florida State University)

Music theory teachers often observe that students who report great difficulty learning mathematics also find music theory especially challenging. This is not surprising: positive correlations between mathematical and musical abilities have been widely documented, and such connections have been asserted at least since the time of the Ancient Greeks. However, most research compares musicians with non-musicians, and musical performance (not music theory) is typically emphasized. Our pair of studies includes only trained musicians and specifically examines their success in music theory courses.

We begin with an examination of correlations between student performance in music theory, mathematics, and English. This statistical study demonstrates a particularly strong relationship between math and music theory, and it distinguishes this correlation from general intelligence or academic aptitude. Our follow-up study investigates the precise nature of this math/music link, which previous research suggests is likely not causal but instead stems from etiological factors that contribute to success in both fields. Rather than relying solely on broad measures such as standardized exams, we assessed potential shared cognitive processing factors (e.g., spatial reasoning) and affective factors (e.g., anxiety), including basic numeracy, spatial skills, pattern recognition, and anxiety and confidence. We observed numerous positive correlations between mathematical/spatial skills and music theory performance. There were also significant positive correlations between confidence in both fields and performance in music theory classes, and corresponding negative correlations between anxiety in both fields and performance in music theory classes. We believe our results clarify some components of the oft-cited connection between mathematics and music.