Conference Report


On November 8th and 9th, the SMT  History of Theory Interest Group / AMS Study Group co-sponsored a conference on “Instruments of Music Theory,” at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY co-organized by Prof. Andrew Hicks (Cornell University), Prof. Nathan Martin (University of Michigan), Dr. Caleb Mutch (Indiana University), Dr. Carmel Raz (Columbia University), and Prof. Anna Zayaruznaya (Yale University).  The event, which attracted nearly eighty registrants, featured three keynote speakers, eleven papers by scholars in all career stages (from graduate students to full professors), and a hammered clavisimbalum concert with music from the Faenza Codex and other recently discovered manuscript fragments.

The conference sought both to build upon and to reinforce the increasingly eclectic and interdisciplinary set of questions now being asked within music studies and the humanities more broadly, to which the history of theory, as an inherently interdisciplinary field of study, has already begun to make significant contributions. Its theme, “Instruments of Music Theory,” explored Prof. Alexander Rehding’s recent call to “reconsider the relationship between music-theoretical instruments and the music theory they occasion” (MTO 22.6 [2016]), while also foregrounding the broader global context in which theories and instruments of music are situated.

The first day began with a session examining the use of “instruments in theory” as well as the uses of “theories as instruments,” chaired by Prof. Stefano Mengozzi (University of Michigan). The first speaker, Etha Williams (Harvard University), discussed the gendered meanings of sensibility in Denis Diderot and Anton Bemetzrieder’s Leçons de clavecin (1771), an instructional treatise detailing the keyboard lessons given to Diderot’s daughter, Marie-Angélique. The next paper, given by Lester Hu (University of Chicago), attempted to reconstruct the engagement between the Jesuit writer on Chinese music, Jean-Joseph Marie Amiot, and the contemporaneous Qing treatise that proposed a fourteen-tone temperament. The third speaker, Prof. Karl Braunschweig (Wayne State University), examined the changing role of music-theoretical reductions between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, focusing on the ways they provided material forms for elusive language conditions in music. Dr. Scott Gleason (Oxford University Press), the final speaker on the panel, used the writings of contemporary music theorist David Lewin to investigate how historical music theories can be leveraged as instruments for music-theoretical exploration.

After lunch, the conference reconvened for the first keynote address by Dr. David Catalunya, an accomplished medieval musicologist and early music performer currently based in Würzburg, Germany. Dr. Catalunya’s presentation featured organological demonstrations about the sensorial perception of music-theoretical precepts, focusing on the organ but also including Pythagorean bells, which he had reconstructed in collaboration with bell makers, as well as his own newly reconstructed hammered clavisimbalum, a medieval precursor to the fortepiano and built following the description of Henri Arnaut de Zwolle in a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript. Although de Zwolle does not describe the hammer action in detail, Dr. Catalunya and his collaborators were able to reconstruct it using the plans for the hammer of a clock also detailed in the manuscript.


Dr. David Catalunya’s Keynote Address

The afternoon session featured three papers that engaged with “theories of instruments.” Chaired by Prof. Alice Clark (Loyola University New Orleans), the panel began with Dr. Leon Chisholm (Deutsches Museum), who discussed the embodied ecology of music-making that underpins the shift from a voice-centered to keyboard-centered paradigm of musical thought in the sixteenth century. The next speaker, Prof. Rebecca Cypess (Rutgers University), considered the dependence of seventeenth-century basso continuo practice on the embodied knowledge of skilled instrumentalists, as well as on compositional ingenuity, uncovering traces of an experimental process among harpsichordists in Luzzaschi’s Madrigali (1601) and Frescobaldi’s Toccate (1615). The last paper on the panel, jointly delivered by Prof. Bryan Parkhurst (Oberlin College) and Prof. Stephan Hammel (University of California-Irvine), considered how the study of musical instruments within the broader anthropological and sociological study of human practices and institutions might open the door for a Marxist telling of the history of music.

The conference then reconvened for the second keynote address by Prof. Rehding (Harvard University) entitled “Global Thoughts on Music-Theoretical Instruments.” Occasioned by the coincidental calculation of equal temperament in both Western Europe and Ming Dynasty China in the late sixteenth century, Prof. Rehding asked us to consider the divergences that underlie such apparent similarities. He then ventured an alternative methodology for a transcultural history of music theory, drawing from Shigehisa Kuriyama’s analysis of cultural comparisons from the realm of medical history.



Prof. Alexander Rehding’s Keynote Address

Following the dinner reception, co-sponsored by the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University and the Journal of Music Theory, the evening concluded with a spellbinding concert performed by Dr. Catalunya on his hammered clavisimbalum featuring music from the fifteenth-century Faenza Codex and other recently discovered manuscript fragments.

The second day of the conference began with a panel on “instruments of theory” chaired by Prof. Thomas Christensen (University of Chicago). The first speaker, Elizabeth Lyon (Cornell University), examined Jean Gerson’s Tractatus de Canticis (fifteenth century) as an illustration of the ways in which allegorical uses of music theory contribute to knowledge of extra-musical domains and may also feed back into the aesthetics of sounding music. The second speaker, Prof. Joon Park (University of Arkansas), considered ways in which the terms “murky” and “transparent,” commonly used in Chinese and Korean calligraphy and music, both do and do not map onto ideas about high and low pitches in Western music theory. The third speaker, Prof. Abby Shupe (Colorado State University), surveyed the way in which the eighteenth-century French music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau used both real and imaginary experiments with household implements in order to ground his claims in the empirical science of his day. The last speaker on the panel, Prof. David Cohen (Columbia University), analyzed discrepancies in accounts of the Pythagoras myth and argued that the role played by quantified string tensions in the Nicomachus of Gerasa’s version demonstrates a Neopythagorean desire to appropriate the Aristoxenian conceptualization of pitch as “tension” (tasis).

Thursday’s activities ended with a final keynote by Prof. Gabriela Currie (University of Minnesota) on “Instrumental Globalities: Object, Thought, Practice in Pre-modern Eurasia.”


Prof. Gabriela Currie’s Keynote Address

Prof. Currie’s lecture outlined the linguistic, archeological, and iconographic   evidence for the early dissemination of musical instruments in the intellectual and artistic exchanges along Eurasian trade routes. It was along these routes that the early outlines of global modernity first emerged, as people from diverse cultures facilitated a Eurasian transcultural commerce. The music-iconographical legacies of these complex Eurasian networks allow us to map a new model of instrumental and music-theoretical “globalities.”

The last session of the conference took place on Friday evening during the AMS Study Group’s dedicated session, chaired by Prof. Andrew Hicks (Cornell University). The first speaker on the panel, Lars Christensen (University of Minnesota), discussed cosmological diagrams produced during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), showing how similar kinds of discrepancies had to be silently normalized in calculating a calendar of twelve months and deriving a gamut of twelve pitches. The next speaker on the panel, Steffi Probst (Harvard University), was unfortunately unable to attend in person but contributed nonetheless a lively paper on musical visualization strategies in the “AudioGraphic” player piano rolls created by Percy A. Scholes between 1925 and 1930. Prof. Jennifer Iverson (University of Chicago) followed with a paper describing Oskar Sala’s Mixtur-Trautonium, an early synthesizer that reflected contemporary vowel experiments of Carl Stumpf, as a boundary object that drew various several unexpected cultural and scientific strands together. The fourth speaker on the panel, Siavash Sabetrohani (University of Chicago), discussed the role of the oud in the reception of Greek music theory during the Islamic Caliphate in ninth-century Baghdad. The panel concluded with a paper by Prof. Alexander Bonus (Bard College) on the influence of the metronome on various aspects of modern musical and scientific engagements with the notion of time.


Historians of Music Theory Admiring the Clavisimbalum

Additional photos and videos can be found on the conference website

With thanks to:

The Central New York Humanities Corridor (from an award by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), The Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, The Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University, The Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University, The Journal of Music Theory, The Eastman School of Music, Cornell University, and the Society for Music Theory


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