Founded in 1998, the Popular Music Interest Group is dedicated to promoting the scholarly study of popular music through methods including musical analysis and theory. Our goals include:
• Ensuring academic recognition for popular music research
• Encouraging more scholars of music theory to engage popular repertoires
• Encouraging scholars of popular music to make effective use of musical analysis and theory

On our Humanities Commons site, we rely on our members to help edit this resource — this cooperation will help continually improve the presence of popular music in our classrooms and scholarship. Many thanks!

notes from small group discussion, SMT 2018



Performance: In the performance group, we discussed our widely varying repertoires and gave brief summaries of our general approaches. We also discussed the role of technology (and technological change) in performance, the challenges of studying performances of popular music compared to how performance has usually been studied within the field of music theory (and how we might present this research in a theory class), Also discussed were  connections with the larger field of performance studies and collaborations with faculty outside music.


Corpus Study: We talked about what constitutes an official corpus study as opposed to simply a large project, best practices and software for collecting and tallying data, and strategies for publication such as submitting the enumeration of the analytical method separately to a journal like Empirical Musicology Review so that the more music-focused results can be submitted to a more traditional journal in the field with a quicker payoff for the reader. Corpus studies require a decent amount of knowledge and technique in statistics. You could certainly teach yourself how to do these things, or, you could pair up with a music education graduate student (or colleague) in your department to co-author a paper. Getting a study published in a journal that just concerns your statistical research allows you to write other, more humanities-centered articles that quickly cite that paper, rather than having to re-explain your statistics in a paper otherwise devoted to a song, genre, or artist. If, instead, you choose to adopt a pre-existing corpus (say, for example, the McGill Billboard corpus), you would do well to know the analytical methodologies and assumptions that went into creating that data, rather than approaching it as an objective source.


Timbre: Hearing timbre is different in live performance vs on the radio or on an iPhone. In live performance you can really “feel” timbre in your body. Timbre can be used for just effects/ornamentation or for more structural purposes. Timbre is often so different depending on genre distinctions, so we need really big genre studies for timbre that are not just focused on one analytical example or artist. Timbre is the first thing people often attune to and recognize when listening to music, it’s very important! (Especially for people that are not trained musicians), and it also influences other parameters (like rhythm, articulation, dissonances). There are cultural implications of changing the timbre on a cover version of something, it can be humorous but also disrespectful or even violent.


Topics: Broadly speaking, we discussed how topics fit in with the larger discussion of style and genre. What is the scale and usage of the topic, and is there a need for formalism to explain this? We also discussed how the use of topic (or analytical implementation) could be tied to form (form function or formal syntax), as well as how topics can be tied to instrumentation (and production techniques could be considered an instrument!). A large discussion of how topics can create irony, for example in 1970’s fusion of jazz and rock, or possibly within the context of a melodic harmonic divorce.


Rhythm/Meter: After introductions, our rhythm and meter subgroup quickly pivoted to discussing the merits and methods of folding popular music into the undergraduate core. Regarding the former, we agreed that repertoire selection and theoretical topics should fit student needs—so, not every school may be best served by incorporating contemporary concepts and pieces. For institutions that do or should teach popular genres, we talked about the benefits and consequences of a few different techniques: inserting pop examples into the existing curriculum; reorganizing the sequence around musical features as long, separate modules (such as rhythm and meter, melody, counterpoint, harmony, form) where popular music has a place in each unit; and moving chronologically through music history, which would place popular music at the end of the sequence. We also talked about how rhythm and meter, specifically, is an area where popular-music examples work particularly well alongside common-practice era excerpts—as compared to topics such as counterpoint, where there are more syntax differences.


Tonality/Modality: We began our discussion with a summary of Trevor de Clerq’s paper on the bass-harmonic divorce. This led to a discussion of tonality in different genres and whether or not our center-identifying habits and expectations change when we are listening to rock vs hip-hop, vs soul, vs metal, etc. We then speculated on riff based music and how scale theory can inform or confuse our perception of tonic in various metal genres and progressive rock. We concluded our talk by considering modulations and their function in popular music.

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