Saturday moorning, November 14, 10–10:50 CST

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Joni Mitchell

Lloyd Whitesell (McGill University), Chair

Enactive Soundscapes: Physio-musical and Formal Process in the Music of Joni Mitchell

Peter Kaminsky (University of Connecticut–Storrs)

Peter Kaminsky is Professor of Music and Associate Department Head at the University of Connecticut – Storrs. He edited and contributed two chapters to the essay collection Unmasking Ravel: New Perspectives on the Music, in the Eastman Studies in Music series.  He has published on the music of Ravel, Debussy, Schumann, Mozart, Paul Simon and Sting in journals including Music Theory SpectrumMusic AnalysisMusic Theory OnlineCollege Music Symposium, and Theory and Practice. In Fall 2013 he was visiting guest professor at Harvard University. In 2019 he was co-recipient of the University of Connecticut Career Excellence in Teaching Award. Current research includes the musical language of Joni Mitchell incorporating corpus study, text-music relations, and her use of non-standard guitar tunings. He is an avid cyclist and enthusiastic cook.

Megan Lyons (University of Connecticut–Storrs)

Megan Lyons is a PhD candidate and instructor of record in music theory and history at the University of Connecticut. Her current research areas include music theory pedagogy, music encoding, the music of Joni Mitchell, and corpus studies of Amy Beach’s vocal works. She has published in Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, a forthcoming chapter in Teaching and Learning Difficult Topics in the Music Classroom, and is a co-director of various music conferences. In her free time, she enjoys long-distance running and completing escape rooms.


With a career spanning five decades, Joni Mitchell is one of the most prolific and influential singer-songwriters of our time. Mitchell attributes her unique style and sound in large measure to the use of alternate guitar tunings (AGTs)—over 50 AGTs are found in her 107 guitar-based songs. While recent scholarship by Rockwell (2009), Koozin (2011) and De Souza (2018) has made strides in deploying Neo-Riemannian and Lewinian transformational theory in the “enactive landscape” (De Souza, 2018) of the physical fretboard, a similarly thorough application of such constructs regarding AGTs has yet to be undertaken. Mitchell’s music provides a rich canvas to analyze performer-instrument interactions which highlight the degree of physical affordances of the “fret-hand” on the fretboard and the direct musical relationships such affordances provide: the concordance of guitar tunings, physical fret/string-space, musical space, and their synthesis into an enactive physio-musical soundscape. Of equal significance is how Mitchell articulates formal sections of songs through slight adjustments of left-hand position, creating a smooth system of affordances and emergent chord-shape families that readily demarcate formal boundaries.

Building on work of the above scholars, our tripartite approach to Mitchell’s physio-musical soundscape entails (1) a corpus analysis examining relationships between like tunings and chord shapes, (2) musical analysis engaging both physical fret/string-space and musical space, and (3) the incorporation of these findings into structural and hermeneutic analyses.

Metric Freedom and Confessional Performance Practice in Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”

Nancy Murphy (University of Houston)


Joni Mitchell’s album Blue (1971) is lauded as the zenith of confessional songwriting, with lyrics acting as intimate personal documents and songs as vehicles for self-expression. The album’s titular track illustrates several techniques of lyrical expression in performance. Lloyd Whitesell explores the role of harmony in reflecting the song’s unresolved central relationship, which is “poised between anchored commitment and undone moorings” (2008, 137). But the flexible timing of Mitchell’s studio recording—afforded by her self-accompanied performance practice—is also critical to understanding the song’s expressive impact. My paper explores this central relationship of “Blue” as expressed through Mitchell’s various levels of engagement with metric hierarchy, which vacillate between “anchored” regular meter and moments of lost salience, when hierarchic structures come “undone.” For this analysis, I employ a flexible theory of meter (Murphy 2015, forthcoming) that analyzes metric regularity with grid-based theories (particularly Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1983), accounts for reinterpretation with modifications to metric grids (Horlacher 1995), and illustrates loss of meter using projective theory (Hasty 1997). Analyzing flexible meter in “Blue” illustrates the timing freedoms afforded by Mitchell’s solo performance practice and how the varying level of metric salience interacts with themes of freedom in her revelatory lyrics. The close connection between metric structure and semantic content in “Blue” suggests that the metric freedoms afforded by Mitchell’s performance practice are powerful methods of self-expression in her solo confessional songs.