Saturday morning, November 14, 11–11:50 CST

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Scripts, Schemas, and Prototypes

Lawrence Zbikowski (University of Chicago), Chair

On Prototypes and the Prototypical: An Investigation of Music-Theoretic Concepts

Richard Ashley (Northwestern University)

Richard Ashley is a faculty member in Northwestern’s Program in Music Theory and Cognition.  He is a founding member of SMT and also one of founders of its Music Cognition Group;  he has served SMT in various capacities, including Chair of SMT’s Publication Awards Committee.  His research area is music cognition, focusing on the relationship between musical structure, memory, and expressive performance;  he is a former President of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition.  His publications deal with a range of topics, from expressive performance over many repertoires--Handel, Brahms, jazz, and funk--to the perceptual and neurophysiological processing of consonance and harmony.  His edited volume The Routledge Companion to Music Cognition  was awarded SMT’s Citation of Special Merit in 2019. 


This paper investigates music-theoretic uses of the terms prototype and prototypical, broadly and with specific application to form in popular music. In an examination of almost 200 music-theoretical articles and monographs, three usages emerge: (a) an underlying structure for a musical event, more basic or skeletal than the event itself; (b) a prior model for a musical event, in the same work or in an earlier work; (c) a particularly central or noteworthy exemplar of a musical category. The first meaning’s emphasis is synchronic and intrasegmental, focusing “downward” from the surface to more “basic” musical formations. The second sense of “prototype,” that of a prior model, concrete or abstract, is diachronic and intersegmental or interopus in its application, with an emphasis on discovering and explaining relationships between time-ordered events, within a work developmentally or between works historically. The third sense involves “centrality” or “noteworthiness,” and invokes aesthetic or hermeneutic perspectives and goals; in analytic application it typically combines aspects of synchronic and diachronic viewpoints. These music-theoretic notions are situated within cognitive science’s understandings of prototoypes and memory—episodic and semantic—and then applied to analysis of popular songs. Two studies are described on prototypicality in song forms: a corpus study of some 600 songs (Billboard Top 10 1958–2018) explicating formal commonality and diversity in these songs’ forms, and an experimental study, revealing how listeners use structural (formal) and non-structural (aesthetic, social) factors in understanding song prototypes.

Begging Cadences, or The Rossinian Art of Pandering

Matthew Boyle (University of Alabama)

Matthew Boyle is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Alabama. He completed his graduate studies at Indiana University in 2018. His research explores the uses of musical conventions in Italian opera and has been published in the Journal of Music Theory and Music Theory Online.


Following the 1812 premiere of Rossini’s Tancredi, a Rossini fever swept Europe. This fever was subversive, emotionally rousing the masses in a time of anti-revolutionary political sentiment. Rossini’s alluring music ensnared audiences, perhaps even endangering their health. Musical passages cited in accounts of this reception phenomenon frequently contain similar devices: irritating chromaticism, modal shifts from minor to major, bombastic orchestration, and repetitive stereotyped cadences.

These four elements, along with their audience-rousing effects, are defining features of a musical schema I call the felicità cadence. The felicità, which ends most bel canto numbers, contains three repeated cadential phrases of increasingly shorter length. The initial, longer phrase, although the most flexible, routinely presents omnibus-like chromaticism and modal mixture before concluding with a rapturous “salvation” six-four close. Such musical contagions primed audiences for boisterous, joyous, and even infectious applause. Reception documents confirm that this schema excited audiences, namely by cueing applause, lending it to mockery by German-language critics who called it the Bettelcadenz (begging cadence). I explore the form and reception of this schema in examples by Bellini, Donizetti, Haydn, and Rossini.

The felicità cadence further suggests that musical schemata encompass aspects of music making beyond the perception of contrapuntal and formal patterns. In addition to purely musical elements, the felicità encoded social behaviors (applause) and affect (delirious excitement). Its rich social content demands that schemata be understood as more than mere voice-leading formulas. Instead, schemata like the felicità cadence serve an integral role in the fully social act of musicking.

The “Se cerca” Script: Dialogic Networks in an Eighteenth-Century Aria Tradition

Nathaniel Mitchell (Princeton University)


“Se cerca, se dice,” the climactic aria from Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade (1733), was a centerpiece of galant culture. For nearly sixty years, this text inspired over seventy compositions by dozens of the century’s most celebrated composers. Moreover, the aria’s many settings share a striking number of features, as though each sketched a common subject from a unique perspective. These conventions affected compositional decisions on multiple levels of structure including global features like an E-flat major tonal color and a distinctive multi-tempo form as well as a roster of aria-specific schemas on the foreground. “Se cerca” was thus the catalyst for a rich musical tradition structured by its own dialogic network and generic constraints. In contrast to the style-wide, intergeneric conventions addressed by modern-day Formenlehre and schema theory, the “Se cerca” tradition provides an unprecedented look at the largely overlooked situation-specific pressures that animate the galant style.

This paper examines the kind of knowledge required to compose a “Se cerca, se dice,” drawing on a corpus study of fifty core settings of the text. Building on recent research into the cognition of musical form (Byros 2015), I model the aria’s many replicated features as a “script” (Schank & Abelson 1977)—essentially a cognitive schema capturing “how a ‘Se cerca’ goes.” A focused analysis of the opening stanza highlights shared features such as a “Sol-Fa-Mi” opening plan, specialized punctuation schemas, and orchestral interjection prolonging the cadential progression. The broad shape of the second stanza unfolds as a brief transitional space followed by an antiphonal second theme built around the Fenaroli schema and concluding with a modally collapsed cadential zone. Finally, the fast-tempo third stanza emphasizes vocal pedal points on G5 accompanied by energetic schemas such as the Pulcinella Cadence, as well as text recall from the preceding recitative, among other effects. The “Se cerca” tradition thus offers a window into the manifold intertexts that shape compositional acts in the eighteenth-century, encouraging future research that supplements our existing repertoire of style-wide formal types (sonata, period, sentence, etc.) with the characteristic scripts of specific genres.