Saturday midday, November 14, 12–12:50 CST

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Popular and Video Game Music Poster Session

Elizabeth Medina-Gray (Ithaca College), Chair

Poster sessions begin with a short presentation from each of the poster presenters. A link to this Zoom webinar is just above. Fifteen minutes after the beginning of the session, every poster presenter will enter their own breakout room and entertain comments and questions.

Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards: The Semiotics of Vocal Timbre in the Music of Tom Waits

Joshua Albrecht (Kent State University)


Probably the most remarkable aspect of Tom Waits’s music is his vocal quality, both its recognizability and variety. His music is also distinctly theatrical, most clearly reflected in three albums of stage music. His songs are full of fictional personas who speak in distinct voices, figuratively and literally.

In this presentation, I argue that the semiotics of Waits’s vocal techniques, especially his carefully crafted vocal timbres, offer interpretive insights that can cut through otherwise opaque lyrics. Specifically, I argue that there are a relatively small number of character archetypes in Waits’s music, marked by a common vocal timbre. To support my theory, I offer analyses of individual songs and a novel empirical approach that classifies Waits’s vocal timbres into categories.

Regarding the empirical study, 133 participants each categorized by vocal timbre 40 out of 147 randomly-selected 5-second Waits excerpts. Participants sorted songs into as many as eight categories, provided descriptive labels of timbres, then hierarchically combined groups until there was only one remaining. Acoustic features were also extracted for timbral cues using the MIR toolbox, and texts for each song were analyzed for emotional and topic categories using LIWC2015.

The resulting similarity matrix for all songs was subjected to cluster analysis, which suggested seven timbral categories or character archetypes. These categories demonstrate different timbral profiles, consistent with distinct vocal characters in Waits’ music. These empirically-derived timbral connections between disparate songs provides an analytical framework to examine intertextual interpretations through the semiotics of vocal timbre.

Key and Affect in the Million-Song Dataset

Bronwen Garand-Sheridan (Yale University)


Beyond distinctions between major and minor modes, the notion of key affect is largely absent in contemporary music theory, music theory pedagogy, and the modeling of pitch space. This despite a longstanding practice of describing key affect according to relative positions in pitch space, such that keys flatter than others in pitch space were considered to be calmer and keys that were relatively sharper were considered more energetic. In contrast to prior studies on key affect and key characteristics, which have often associated specific topics to keys, this analysis uses computational modeling to map pieces in an affective space, and then measures the relative distribution of keys within this affective space.

To build our affect space, we tagged 750,305 tracks from the Million Song Dataset (a collection of one million contemporary popular music tracks) with values for tonal center, mode, and seven affective qualities, all queried through the Spotify API. We then applied multidimensional scaling to build a three-dimensional affective space that retains 67% of the affect variance in the original dataset. When mapped onto this affect space, keys appear systematically organized according to their relative position on the line of fifths: sharper keys tend to have fast, angular gestures and distorted timbre, while flat keys tend to have slower gestures and rounder, clearer timbre. By bridging a gap between the syntax and semantics of pitch-space, this analysis thus invites discourse on how to integrate relative key affect in music theory pedagogy and the modeling of pitch space.

Analyzing Subversion in Undertale Through Soundscape

Stephanie Lind (Queen’s University, Canada)


The video game Undertale (2015) achieved massive popularity due to its mix of humor, non-violent gameplay, and a retro aesthetic. However, many of the game’s elements, including music, satirize and subvert the expectations established by this aesthetic.

One of Undertale’s most interesting features is the way in which retro music interacts with and against elements of its game mechanics and story. How might we analyze this? Many such analyses use transcriptions as a starting-point; however, the most interesting features of this repertoire cannot be represented through pitch and rhythm. We therefore require a re-think: might we be able to use new modes of representation to analyze juxtapositions, interactions, and subversions between its components?

Soundscape analysis is one possible solution, with precedence in both film and game music. Film music scholar David Neumeyer suggestively describes the mise-en-bande as “a kind of musical composition, and aural analysis can then be brought to bear on the sound track as a whole, its relation to the image, and its contribution to narrative” (Neumeyer 2015, ix–x). Game music scholar Karen Collins also sees the full soundscape as vital to our understanding (Collins 2013, 4), and soundscape artist Barry Truax, in advocating for auditory scene analyses, uses language that suggests its “detection of coherent patterns” constitutes musical analysis (Truax 2017, 257).

This poster will examine several moments of disruption and subversion within Undertale, some of which additionally exploit a shift into and out of the retro aesthetic in order to magnify moments of shifting player expectation.

An Idiom of Melodic-Harmonic Divorce: Sub-Circle Motion in Popular Music and the Deceptive ♭VIIadd9

S. Alexander Reed (Ithaca College)


Moore (1995), Biamonte (2010), and De Clercq and Temperley (2011) explore subtonic harmony in rock, but do not acknowledge ♭VII as a goal in deceptive cadences. I catalogue a dozen familiar examples and situate the cadence within a new class of motion (“sub-circle”).

First, in this cadence, the melodic stratum achieves tonic closure while accompanimental strata move to ♭VII, marking an arrival that functions deceptively. Collectively it resembles ♭VIIadd9, though it is better understood as two processes than a single “chord.”

Second, I generalize the cadence within a class of stratified motion common to recent popular music. Specifically, this class comprises progressions wherein the melody is consonant with (and suggests) circle-of-fifths root motion (+P4) from one accompanying major triad to the next, but the harmonic layer’s root moves up instead by a minor third (+m3). Because the new chord has a local subtonic relationship to the expected root, I call this behavior sub-circle motion. This necessarily creates a stratification between the melodic layer and harmonic and bass layers. From well-known songs, I cite examples of every sub-circle paradigm. This previously untheorized move is shown as grammatical in popular music. It is an idiom of the melodic-harmonic divorce via Temperley (2007)—and specifically of syntax divorce, per Nobile (2015).

Some Elements of Form in American Popular Music, 1958–1991

Christopher Wm. White (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Chris White is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, having received degrees from Yale, Queens College–CUNY, and Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. His articles have appeared in many venues including Music Perception, Music Theory Online, Music Theory Spectrum, and Slate. His research investigates algorithmic and linguistic theories of music by presenting computational models of musical style, function, meter, and communication. Chris' work has also focused on geometrically modeling early 20th-century musics, especially the music of Alexander Scriabin.


This poster outlines some general formal practices within 20th-century American popular music. My project triangulates two trends in the study of musical form: (1) that notions of form should be grounded in the norms of some corpus, and (2) that texture, timbre, and repetition play fundamental roles in popular music’s construction. To this end, I analyze the McGill-Billboard corpus (a dataset of chord/formal annotations of American popular music, 1958–1991) supplemented with new annotations that identify textural/lyrical/instrumental changes within these songs.

My analysis relies on timbre/textural changes, formal zones, and time, and uses these event types to study the interaction of these parameters. For instance, I show that when a song introduces a new formal zone, it frequently does so with a textural change, and that the last moments of a song introduce relatively more new and novel events.

I combine these observations to create two formal archetypes. First, I identify the most-frequent formal zones (verses, choruses, and their pairings) as core modules, and describe ways that these modules can be expanded by additional zones and textural/timbral variations. Second, I theorize the concept of the novelty hook: after songs introduce their initial musical materials (creating an opening peak in novelty) they sink into increased repetition (creating a novelty dip) before deploying a final surge of novelty in the last moments of the track. Using evidence from music cognition, I argue that this paradigm evidences both a standard compositional practice and also an accompanying listening strategy.