Music Theory

Here I have information about my research as well as music theory handouts that I use in my classes at the University of Houston. 

My Research

Semiotics and the Trombone

My research focuses on developing a theory of musical gesture that incorporates brass instruments. Musical gesture is a field that deals not only with the physical motions that plays make when performing on their instrument, but what sort of physical and spatial actions that music implies. The low, oscillating chords of Chopin's famous funeral march might indicate the footsteps heard in a funeral procession, while the physical motions that the player must perform to accomplish these sounds actively weigh the performer down. The performer embodies the feelings of the music and projects this to the audience.

Diversifying the Canon

I spent my undergraduate and graduate careers studying music written for the piano, the voice, or stringed instruments. While this certainly works for communicating concepts and teaching students how to understand music, I never felt that I was able to engage with the repertoire as much as the piano, voice, or string majors were able to. I want to diversify the repertoire that we look at in the theory classroom so we can better engage with the music. In this way, our education can be more holistic. We can study the lives and music of the great composers as well as the same composers that we perform. 

How can we analyze the process of playing our instrument rather than the product?

The chart below summarizes my theory of musical gesture. Many facets can make up a musical gesture. This conceptual model shows not only how technique and physical facets of playing the trombone can fit into musical expression, but how the embodied feelings that we feel when playing a brass instrument fit into this larger framework. I discuss three embodied feelings here, following Larson's theory of Musical Forces.

Musical Direction or Inertia is the feeling of a note to want to keep going. In the theory class room we might understand this as the tonic-predominant-dominant-tonic model, or as the momentum a melody has heading towards a cadence. As brass players, we also feel the physical qualities of keeping the momentum of our airflow constant, the way our body responds to an increase in tempo, or the electricity felt between members of an ensemble when arriving at a cadence. This is musical inertia. We understand and change this inertia through the direction and relentlessness of our airflow, through the resistance of the instrument, through the physical motion of our instrument, and through how we engage with the music's style and articulation.

Musical gravity is the desire for a pitch to fall. Melodies often first rise and then fall due to this musical gravity. For brass players, we all know the feeling of playing in the high register and wanting to return to the middle register. The pressure we feel in our chest or head when we play high, the abdominal tension, or the dwindling air supply when we play low. This embodied feeling is related to range, dynamic, and space.

Synchronization and resonance describe the connection that our body has with the instrument. We need to buzz the right pitch so that we properly resonate with the horn. We engage in a feedback loop where we are constantly adjusting the length of the instrument and calibrating our embouchure to the instrument. I call this feeling of syncing up with the instrument Synchronization or resonance. How we selectively synchronize and desynchronize with the instrument informs our technical choices: do we want to play an arpeggio perfectly in tune in the inner positions, or focus on the gesture and place our slide in sixth position and "let the horn do the work for us."