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Michael Cherlin on music theory

Music Theory Spectrum, the official publication of the Society for Music Theory, was first published in the spring of 1979 — the same year that the Society was founded. We’re thrilled that 35 years later, the journal has joined Oxford University Press. (Spectrum’s first issue with OUP will publish in the spring of 2014, but in the meantime you can read past issues of the journal for free online until 3 March 2014.) To learn more about the journal and its fascinating subject, we sat down with the Editor, Michael Cherlin. The University of Minnesota professor discusses his experience in publishing, the field of music theory, and what to expect in future.

Can you tell us about the history of the field?

Music theory can trace its root to the pre-Socratic Greeks, Pythagoras and Heraclitus both having an impact on the ways we think about music. In the nineteenth century, music theory was integrated into the emerging discipline of musicology. The split from musicology, in the late 1970s, resulted principally from the highly technical aspects of set theory and Schenkerian analysis both of which require a background not necessarily common to musicologists with their wider range of historical interests. Today, the rift has partially healed, and many theorists, myself included, publish in musicology journals as well as those devoted more exclusively to music theory.

How has the journal changed with the field over the years?

In the early years two subdisciplines within music theory dominated the discourse: set theory for post-tonal music and Schenkerian theory for tonal music. These two approaches, along with articles on the history of music theory would comprise the likely contents of early issues. The musical literature was generally restricted to the Western tradition of what for lack of a better term we might call “classical music.” As the years have passed the journal has become more open to widely varied methodologies and musical traditions. Any recent issue is likely to have studies of popular music, world music, as well as music from the Western “classical” tradition.

wrapped sheet musicHow would you describe the current state of music theory?

Contemporary music theorists can be quite diverse. The field includes historians of theory, theorists who work with mathematically-based modeling of musical processes, cognitive scientists who work with music perception, scholars of musical meaning including semiotics and narrative studies, specialists in various areas to include the diverse world of contemporary music, as well as analysts working in more traditional areas of harmony, counterpoint, and musical form.

When did you join the journal?

I was appointed incoming Editor of Music Theory Spectrum during the summer of 2011 when I began to read all new submissions. Mark Spicer joined me a few months later, to become the first Associate Editor for Spectrum.

How has your work with the journal changed your view of the field?

Because of the incredible diversity of submission to Spectrum, being Editor has required that I reach out to colleagues whose areas of specialization complement my own. We have an excellent editorial board, but I often have to go outside of the board, because of both the volume and diversity of submissions. The human contact with authors and readers has changed my view of the field by augmenting my perspectives on the wider community of scholars.

Describe what the journal will look like in twenty years and what type of articles it will publish.

Get back to me in twenty years on that one! Scholars who predict the future are almost always wrong. In the arts in particular, the only thing that’s predictable is that what will come will be unpredictable!

Tell us about your work outside the journal.

I am a Professor of Music Theory at the University of Minnesota where I’ve taught since the fall of 1988. I specialize in the music of Arnold Schoenberg, but my teaching and scholarship cover the period from Mozart to our contemporaries. I have a number of scholarly interests outside of music, with the study of poetry at the top of the list.

A leading journal in the field and an official publication of the Society for Music Theory, Music Theory Spectrum features articles on a wide range of topics in music theory and analysis, including aesthetics, critical theory and hermeneutics, history of theory, post-tonal theory, linear analysis, rhythm, music cognition, and the analysis of popular musics. The journal welcomes interdisciplinary articles revealing intersections with topics in other fields such as ethnomusicology, mathematics, musicology, philosophy, psychology, and performance.

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Image credit: Light bulb wrapped in a sheet of music notation. © zmurciuk_k via iStockphoto.

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