Saturday morning, November 7, 11–11:50 CST

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Fraught Intersections between Music Theory and its 'Others'

Philip Ewell (Hunter College CUNY), Chair

Becoming a Major Country: Modal Binaries in Imperial Japan

Liam Hynes-Tawa (Yale University)


“China is a major-mode country—it has no minor-mode sounds. Japan is a minor-mode country, and it has no major-mode sounds.”

The above is a free translation of an extract from Yoshida Kenkō’s fourteenth-century Tsurezuregusa. He did not, of course, actually write about the major and minor modes as the West would come to know them, but Japanese musicians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have interpreted his pronouncement along such lines, because of the way they mapped Japanese modes onto Western tonality after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The way Japanese musicians adapted the Western minor mode in the service of harmonizing their own modes has been discussed before, but this paper brings more attention to the identification of the minor mode itself with Japan, and on the comparative foreignness of the major.

In its effort to become a formidable competitor on the stage of Western-style imperialism, Japanese musicians faced a dilemma: they had to assimilate the Western major mode, while at the same time re-theorizing and legitimizing their own modes, which coded to Western ears as minor. This paper tracks the meanings held by the major-minor binary in Japan’s imperial period between 1868 and 1945, teasing out the various ways in which the major mode’s alignment with Western powers and the minor’s alignment with Japan’s own background was leveraged towards a nation-building project with consequences that produced curious musical results and a legacy of violent trauma that remains painful today for a great many peoples.

“What Are We Trying to Preserve?” Vernacular Music Theory in the Barbershop Harmony Society

Clifton Boyd (Yale University)

Clifton Boyd is a Ph.D. candidate in music theory at Yale University. His dissertation, “The Role of Vernacular Music Theory in the American Barbershop Community,” examines how American vernacular music institutions utilize music theory to influence and affirm social and political values within their communities, especially as it pertains to racial and gender discrimination. His research has been supported by the Margery Morgan Lowens Dissertation Research Fellowship (2020) from the Society for American Music and the Howard Mayer Brown Fellowship (2020) from the American Musicological Society. He is also the founder of Project Spectrum, a graduate student-led coalition committed to increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in music academia. On behalf of Project Spectrum, he is twice a recipient of the Sphinx Organization’s MPower Artist Grant (2018, 2020). His writing on diversity in academia has been featured in Inside Higher Ed.


The Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) has long concerned itself with the preservation of the barbershop style—in fact, the BHS was founded in 1938 as the “Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America.” While this may seem like a harmless detail, the BHS’s characteristic aversion to change is also reflected in its history of racial and gender discrimination. The Society recently launched a new diversity initiative, “Everyone in Harmony” (2017–), but the question remains: how is the changing social culture of the BHS reflected in the musical aesthetics it values?

In this paper I treat the BHS as a case study for how communities leverage musical style in processes of institution building. I discuss several style treatises published by the BHS—these texts are prime examples of what I term “vernacular music theory,” i.e. music theory that is produced by practitioners, for practitioners. I argue that while the Society has relaxed its harmonic requirements over time, their impulse to preserve the style has limited the forms of barbershop allowed in competition and other settings, which has directly impacted the demographics of those who choose to engage with the style. Furthermore, I reflect on the BHS’s contemporary moment as they learn to accommodate women’s and mixed-gender ensembles through the “Everyone in Harmony” initiative. I conclude by arguing that the BHS’s pursuit of balance between preservation and modernization provides insight into academic practices of music theory, most notably our field’s recent efforts to “reframe music theory.”

Fugitive Music Theory: Outlining a Diverse Network of Practices and Practitioners

Marc Edward Hannaford (University of Michigan)

Marc Hannaford is a music theorist whose interests lie at the intersection of jazz and improvisation, identity (especially race, gender, and disability), and performance. He is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, and completed his PhD at Columbia University with a dissertation on Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist, composer, and cofounder of the Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians (AACM). His publications appear in Music Theory Online, Women & Music, and Sound American. He is also an improvising pianist, composer, and electronic musician who has performed and/or recorded with Tim Berne, Ingrid Laubrock, Tom Rainey, Tony Malaby, and William Parker.


Amid renewed calls for professional academic organizations to foster more inclusive communities, research, and pedagogy, we must present a more diverse history of music theory to our peers and students. Educator and lawyer Kiera O’Shea Vargas (2019) argues for the importance of “seeing yourself”: diverse representation fosters multiple perspectives and a sense of belonging for those alienated by traditional, Eurocentric canons. Broadening our understanding of who and what counts in music theory can thus help welcome new people and ideas into our communities.

My paper addresses this call by outlining a broad network of what I call fugitive music theory, which comprises music theoretical practices by black experimentalists and jazz musicians. Fugitive music theory comprises three categories: first, original texts; second, engagements with pre-existing music theoretical texts; and last, musicians’ metaphorical, conceptual, and metaphysical descriptions of their work, which serve as points of departure for analysis. I discuss examples from each of these groups and extract potent theoretical reverberations.

My project resonates with work by Thomas Christensen (2011, 2015) and Steven Rings (2013) among others, who highlight discursive realms beyond those within conventional histories of music theory. I contribute to this conversation by foregrounding the racialized nature of disciplinary inclusion and exclusion: I suggest that broadening our understanding of who and what counts as part of our discipline benefits both our community and the intellectual work that it produces and embraces.